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Vacation Tales #2: More Nostril Flaring Fun!

The most amazing Pina Coladas you have ever tried.


Part Two of Vacation Tales:

Oh yes, my darling senior dog had indeed marked my bag. He did the same thing one year ago, just prior to our departure, and managed to sneak it by me until I was at the airport and noticed something funky-smelling… anyways, I digress. We caught it early enough that it was cleanable, and off we go.

It’s a short drive to the airport; about an hour or so. We left the house at 2:30 am, and arrived at the location where we park our car for the week. We had a lovely surprise that our coupon from booking with Sunwing afforded us a low rate of parking for the week (only $60, win!) and they shuttled us to the airport in a prompt manner.

We checked in, and all was well. In due course, we were on the plane, and headed to paradise.

So we thought.

Let’s take a quick tally of the flight:
*Plane running a few minutes behind? Check.
*Full flight? Check.
*Baby on board who cries for take off? Check.
*Belligerent man sitting behind us who was louder than a demanding child? Check.
*Very, very large man seated next to us in the aisle seat? Check. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not judging. With the seating spaces decreasing in most planes, and having a passenger who takes up more than his share, it can be a struggle.)

Food: while food has come a long way on airplanes over the years, it’s still re-microwaved/reheated food. We tried the “egg muffin mc-airplane style” and the “apple crisp” breakfasts. The sandwich was not a bad option once we added ketchup, but the apple crisp is a far cry from the beautiful picture in the magazine. I don’t recommend either one based on price, however if you need to eat something (for medical / health purposes, say), I would recommend the egg sandwich.

We had to stop in Santa Clara before heading to Cayo Coco (thanks for the change in plans, Sunwing), and upon arrival, the airline staff advised us to sit tight until all the passengers for Santa Clara had exited the plane. The flight staff had hoped that we would have clearance to take off thereafter, but the Cuban government had other ideas. We were directed to exit the plan, and head to the waiting area of the airport. We received a laminated card from the staff, which was our “boarding pass”, and then we were brought into the airport for scanning of our carry-on baggage. The staff had advised us that they planned to be up and in the air in 30 minutes, but that was wishful thinking. We sat in the airport, used facilities, looked at the shops that were still closed, and waited. And waited.

About 45 minutes later, we were heading back to the plane. The government of Cuba demanded to have the plane cleaned, sterilized, and searched prior to our re-boarding. We had passed the security check, so it was time to board again!  Off we were to the beautiful lands of Cayo Coco!

Some may have heard about Hurricane Irma and the destruction the hurricane caused. What we didn’t know was how badly Cuba was hit. Even though Cayo Coco was just a little spec on the map, it’s a main tourist destination for Cuba. The airport at Cayo Coco had been completely refurbished after the storm, and truth be told, it looked pretty good. You could see that some of the windows, if not nearly all, were replaced, floors fixed, walls repainted, roofs rebuilt. I was hopeful after seeing this, that my destination of choice was after all a good choice.

When you arrive in Cuba, they have individual rooms set up in a row for visitors to go through. They ask you where you are going, why you are there – the same type of questions you would expect at a customs/border stop. You are asked to remove eyewear, hats, etc., so they can take a picture with their own equipment. Once they are satisfied, they stamp your passport and your visa, and you are permitted to exit through the locked back door of the room. It is then that you are reunited with your luggage and can continue to your vacation.

We boarded the bus to the resort, and so far, it was uneventful. Beer sneaks out from the “secret stash” by the tour guide, and we start the drive. It’s a short drive – about 15 to 20 minutes at most from the airport to the hotels. As we are driving, we can see the true cost of the hurricane as the undeveloped land is covered in trees, shrubbery and marsh-like areas that have grown wild for many years. About every three minutes or so, you would see a palm tree that was uprooted by the wind, and now lays on its side. The shallow root ball is exposed and is massive. Other greenery is damaged, but nothing stands out as much as the overturned palm trees.

Arriving at the resort was like any other – a welcome drink was served to us, and the staff was very efficient at getting us checked in. We had booked an upgraded room, a ground floor with terrace facing the pool, and my partner was eager to get settled as we had not slept much, if any, by that point. We received our room assignment – 2414 – and headed off, luggage in tow.

The resort was set up with apartment style buildings, and each building had a cluster of rooms on the bottom (about ten) and the same number on a second floor. Each building had a number on the side or front so that you knew which building was which.

Our trek took us to the farthest building, closest to the ocean. The resort was built into a corner of the island. On one side was the beach, and on the other, were mangroves. We realized that 2414 is upstairs, which was a surprise, as we had asked for ground level. I was going to try to make it work, as I don’t like to complain if I can avoid it. We got upstairs with all our luggage, and open the door. Gorgeous room, king sized bed (not two twins or doubles pushed together – actual king!), beautiful artwork, great view… and 120 degrees. The air conditioner was not pumping out anything. I had asked the maid in the hallway to show us how to make the air conditioner work. She told us that she had already turned it on, and it would just take time.

So we waited.

Yup, patience is not always a strong point for me, but I gave it some time. Waited to see a movement of air, a swish of the curtains, a slight breeze. The hallway was cooler than the room, and the room was still warmer than the outdoors. I couldn’t take it any longer, and walked back to the desk, and told them how sorry I was to be a pain, but I had booked a ground floor room, plus our air conditioner was not working. The lobby staff didn’t seem surprised, in fact she offered us another room right away and asked if we would go check it out. Of course! Closer building, ground floor, a little musty, but I can handle that. We went back to our original room, gathered our stuff and beach towels, and headed to the new room.

This one was like a refrigerator in comparison. It was wonderful. Similar set up to the last, but with air. Ahh…..

We were finally set up, and ready to enjoy our week.

I will not bore you with the ins and outs of our activities, but here are some highlights for you:

*For those of you who were familiar with the Marketplace / Mercado, it is still there. There was significant damage to the building, but the damage has been repaired and the stores are open. It cost $25 CUCs to take a taxi to the market, have the driver wait for us to shop, then take us back to the resort. Our driver, Alian Guevara, was superb, and talked to us about his job and family, and his beautiful wife. He drives for Agencia de Taxis Jardines del Rey. We also met Andres Pita, one of the vendors on the main floor. He works at the market for a friend, hustling leather wares and other tchotchkes for tourists.

*The typical rum/sugar/cigar tour through Moron has been postponed due to damage to the buildings and surrounding areas. We took the Moron tour, mainly because it was different (I’d taken that tour before), and it is focused on seeing the city, mainly. The tour includes driving through the main street, going on a horse and buggy ride, seeing the sights, stopping at the city centre for shopping, stopping at the national park to engage in an art festival, having lunch at a ranch, and ending it in the most wonderful way – a stop at the start of the causeway (CC side) for the best pina coladas we had ever had. They are served in a pineapple, and the pineapple is cored right in front of you. The fruit was sweet, the drink was extra sweet and the rum that flowed… well, it was amazing.
 
You will see some damage from the storm in Moron, and they make mention of some of the buildings being affected, but the true damage in the city seems to be lack of repair and maintenance. It breaks my heart to see this city in this state. Garbage lies on the side of roads, some culverts full. Old buildings are breaking down, and trees grow from the rubble. I feel like the city looked better ten years ago, and it blows my mind that ten years of tourism in that part of the country has done nothing for the care of the city. There are now apartment buildings in the outskirts of Moron for rent by the employees of the resorts (if anyone knows how much these are to rent, I’d be interested to know).


Memories Caribe – let’s talk about the resort. Guys and gals, this place went through hell. After the storm, there was four feet of water on the resort. Windows and doors needed to be replaced. Rooms needed to be refinished, hydro was defunct, air conditioners were dead, on and on. After we had been at the resort for a few days, we found out that the hotel had accepted their first guests on November 10th. There was one block of rooms available (Apartment Building #24). They had finished fixing up the lobby, the buffet, and a couple of the restaurants. The pool was ready. Makeshift palapas and umbrellas were in place. And then the people started to arrive.

Being the curious person I am, I peeked into the buildings that were not open. They were a wreck! Wires hung out from any junction, mold growing on walls, windows needing cleaning or replaced… it looked like it had been abandoned for decades, not just two months of restoration. I mean this in the most respectful way – the workers put in hours and hours of time to get things ready, and the other rooms were simply not ready yet.  It makes me upset that no one knew the full extent of the damage, and what these people went through to get it ready for us.

One of the staff members had a very honest chat with us before I left. I don’t want to get her into trouble, so we will call her Maria. Maria told us that it’s the low season right now, because of the hurricane. When it’s the low season, she might only be scheduled for one or two days that week. She still comes into work every day, regardless if she gets paid or not. She said, if she’s needed and not there, they could call in someone else and then she could lose her job.

Background on currency: 25 “Cuban resident” pesos is approximately one CUC. Originally, CUCs were only for tourists, but its becoming more common. A CUC is close to the price of the US dollar. As Cuba is “not allowed” by the US to use American currency, this is where their CUCs come into play. Locals are required to change pesos to CUCs to buy certain items.

Last month she made 150 pesos. This is equal to 6 CUCs. Or, $6 US. If the season picks up, she could make up to 300 pesos. $12. From this, they pay for food (above the rations they are given), personal items, clothing, medicines, etc. She doesn’t have to pay rent because her parents received land.

She makes $6-12/month, and a bar of soap costs $0.45. She also attended university for 5 years, and speaks English, French and Spanish.

If a house was damaged in the hurricane, the country told the residents: if you can work, you will receive 50% of the materials for free, and you must repay the cost of the other 50%. If you cannot work, you will receive it for free.

Inasmuch as Cubans seem to have nothing in comparison to North American standards, they are happy, and there’s a feeling of community. Whether this is wise or just foolish naivety, I tend to think as a tourist, we are safer on the streets of Cuba than other countries we have visited.

If you are heading to Cayo Coco, please give them a few moments of your appreciation for what the workers and staffers go through to make the resort better for all of us. I asked Maria, why are you not resentful? We feed the local animals here (there are resort cats, a pond of fish and turtles, and birds that all beg for food) with food that is rare to you, but we waste it, and eat it in large amounts, and show no respect for it. How does that not make you angry when it’s your country and you do not receive the same respects? She paused, and said that it’s because that’s how it is. That’s how her country is. The country does things that way to bring the tourists here, and the tourism benefits everyone. She’s not bitter, she’s not resentful, it’s just how it is. If there was anything I could learn from her, it would be to learn that we do not need to keep up with the Jones’ family, and we do not need to compare ourselves to feel better or worse.

I wish, however, that her country would share the wealth, and that she could enjoy the fruits of her own labours. We left her all our toiletries and certain items that we could do without, and I hope that she gets joy in some of the goodies we left behind.

While I want to wrap this up, and I will share more anecdotes from the trip at a later date, nothing ends a vacation as sweetly as hearing someone shout on a plane, during the safety video,

“HURRY UP, I NEED A SMOKE.”

Wait, what?

Yes. Remember Mr. Belligerent? He’s back.

Add sun and alcohol. Put in plane. Stir, do not shake. Presto idiot.

“HURRY UP, I NEED A &*%$ING SMOKE!”

Well, folks, this man found his lucky charm, because he was a hair’s width from being tossed back to the Cuban authorities… the stewardess asked the pilot if we could kick off this loser, but the pilot gave him a chance to redeem himself…

While my heart belongs in the land of the palm trees, ocean and sand, my feet were happy to touch Canadian ground that night.


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