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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas in Cuba!

Well, technically not quite, as we were there December 10th-17th, but still, last week, my Mom, Dad, sister Danielle, cousin Sherry, and my “Nannie” (grandmother) spent a week in Cuba and it was amazing!

We stayed at the Breezes resort in Jibacoa, halfway between Matanzas and Havana, a 4-star resort which felt like 5..
For those of you who want the short version, here it is: we stayed in a 4-star resort, Breezes Jibacoa, in Cuba, for a week, enjoying beautiful beaches, all you can eat/drink, amazing vistas, wonderful culture, took a trip through Havana, had our shares of ups and downs, I obtained open-water scuba certification, my Mom, Dad, and I dove at The Bay of Pigs, and we all had a fabulous time!

The longer version involves adding some of the finer details concerning the trip, obviously.
**By the way, I have video but due to the data constraint of my internet connection at home, I am foregoing adding it here. However, should friends or family wish to see any, let me know, and we'll see what we can do.**

The trip down there was pretty good, with the usual amount of stress involved. We were flying out of Toronto, so I had an easier time of things since I was already in the city looking for an apartment. My family had to start the day by making the 3-4 hour trip into Toronto so they were a little grouchier than I was, but with good reason.
We were able to fly through security, as it were, mostly thanks to my Nannie. She’s 83 and while she’s as tough as nails, walking is a little difficult and her pace is a little slow at the best of times. So, we arranged for a wheelchair not knowing that an agent with the airport would walk her all the way from baggage check to our gate, moving us all to front of every line. It was pretty fantastic and the rest of my family joked that we may have to convince Nannie to come with us more often as the wheelchair makes the whole process that much easier and faster.

We flew out on a Boeing 737, booking our trip through Sunwing, and it was all very well coordinated. The flight was super smooth, with a great take-off and landing, including wine, a hot meal, and champagne on our 3.5 hour flight. My sister and I did not take part in the alcohol, but it was a nice and classy touch.

Arriving at the airport, we had to take an hour long bus ride to the resort, but my parents started the vacation off quickly by buying some more alcohol for the trip. Listening to Spanish covers of Beatles tunes, and seeing what we could at night out of the bus windows, we laughed and made our way to the resort, Breezes Jibacoa.

Early the next day, it was pretty obvious that my cousin Sherry was sick. She did not want to leave her bed and was throwing up quite a lot. I thought it was alcohol related, and it turns out I was both right and wrong. Turns out, she might have had a bad reaction to the champagne on the flight, but it wasn’t really due to an over-consumption, as I had thought. The medical staff at the resort did the best that they could, but they soon recommended she go to a hospital.

Trouble is, she had never been in Cuba before, had little Spanish, and the medical staff wanted to send her to a hospital in Havana, by cab, which is about an hour's drive away. My mother called her friend Orestes Sanchez, our friend and divemaster in Cuba, to see what he might be able to do/suggest.

Well, Orestes and his family really came through. We were supposed to meet with him that night anyway to discuss our scuba diving plans and my plans to finish my certification, but when he heard about the situation, he picked up his wife, a pediatrician, and they took my cousin to a hospital in Matanzas, which was closer. My sister went with them, and together, they made the best out of a bad situation. Orestes and his wife Enit took them to the hospital, walked through everything, covered hospital expenses since the credit card machine was broken and my cousin hadn’t a chance to convert her money yet, and stayed with them to make sure everything would be okay. They came back the next day, tired, but otherwise fine. As I said, the doctors thought it was a bad reaction to the champagne and my cousin firmly avoided alcohol for the rest of the trip, but thankfully was still able to enjoy her time there.

And how could you not!? The resort was absolutely fabulous and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an adventure in Cuba. This was my first adventure outside of Canada except for a couple of quick jaunts through the United States, so I had little idea what to expect.
A view of the main walkway and main resort building
A fountain breaks up the walkway halfway between the lobby and the beach
Hotel rooms line the walkway, complete with beautiful trees and flowers
So cool to see trees like this all over the resort!
The pool area, with pool bar in the background and, what's that!? Giant chess in the foreground!?
The stage where Spanish and dance lessons took place during the day, live shows during the night.
On the way to the beach, where the beach bar is located, with a full lunch menu and of course, full bar
Every time the cleaning staff visited our room, they left fresh towels in the shapes of swans, hearts, and this little guy

I think he's pretty cute.
While the resort had a lot more to offer in terms of on and off site activities, we didn't partake in too many besides the food, beach, and the evening shows. Although, my sister and I quickly spotted the large chess set, as seen in the previous picture and had a couple of games.

I beat her each time, even going so far as letting her promote her pawn to a Queen (by letting it reach the far end of the board) before checkmating her. She got her revenge though:

The resort was wonderfully staffed. Everyone was friendly, professional, good at their job, and willing to go over and above to make things run smoothly. As I mentioned, my grandmother is old, and walking can be a bit difficult, and after the first night, the waitresses knew our family and did everything they could to make our meals easy and enjoyable.

The food was exquisite, and the theme of dinner changed every night. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that me and seafood are acquaintances at best. I will try anything, but if I’m hungry, I don’t usually pick seafood. In fact, a friend of mine, a smart friend, used to stop asking me what I wanted for dinner, but would ask how hungry I was. If I was hungry, I would only really want continental food, beef, pork, chicken, etc., but if I wasn’t too hungry, she knew I was willing to experiment, try new things. Long story short, I have never been a fan of lobster or shrimp. I know, I know, it’s amazing, but I just didn’t care for it. My dad’s the same way with lobster but he urged me to try it, and I was impressed with the results. I can’t even describe the taste except to say it was better than I’ve ever had before and actually made me go back for seconds. Like I said, the theme of dinner changed every night, and it was amazing to try new things, taste some well-prepared classics, and have dessert every night, all you can eat.

All you can eat. I love that phrase. Being able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and not having to worry about paying anything was simply amazing. If I drank alcohol, I’m sure I would love it more, as drinks can be expensive, but it was still nice sipping lemonade or strawberry slushies on the beach.

Speaking of which, the beaches were so beautiful! The weather there was a constant 28°C and the humidity was low enough to never be a problem. It was perfect summer weather, and I even wore shorts most of the time, which is another oddity for me, as some of you may know. The beach had trees here and there, and in the trees, were geckos! It was so cool to see these little guys running around, or just chilling out on the beach with us.
The dark patches in the water indicate the presence of coral
My feet and part of my legs in Cuba!
My Nannie, usually very fiscal, saw someone selling hats and asked for one. I really like this picture of her and my sister.
It wasn't until the last day that I realized my camera could take panorama shots, if set correctly.
That being said, these last two photos should be panoramas, let me know if they don't display properly, please.
More geckos!
Really friendly geckos!
The water was, of course, very nice. Warm, refreshing, with splotches of coral right off shore. My parents brought some snorkeling gear and we made the most of it. Sadly, my dad was just coming off of being sick the week before, so he didn’t partake, but my mom, sister, and I took the chance as often as we could. We saw so many cool fish including Yellow Goatfish, Stingrays, Black Durgons, Blue Hamlets, and some Bluehead Wrasses! The amazing part was that you didn’t have to even really search for anything. The coral started 5 feet off shore, and if you wanted to, you could just sit in the sand, stick your face underwater and see beautiful and multi-coloured coral and tropical fish.

I was really excited for the scuba diving portion of the trip. At my parents’ insistence, I decided to work toward open-water certification and thanks to Orestes and his friend Pepe, who runs Adventure Divers in Peterborough, Ontario, I was able to do the written tests online and complete my water lessons/certification in Cuba! It was a really easy experience, and I commended Orestes for making the whole process easy and comfortable.

In just two days time, I went from only knowing the basics of the equipment and scuba diving to becoming an open-water diver, capable and competent in the operation and maintenance of the equipment and its usage at depths around 60ft or 18 metres. The first day was a little nerve-wracking, and I really felt like a “fish out of water”, trying not to look like a fool whilst putting on fins, keeping my mask in place and trying not to let the waves knock me over before I even began. Buoyancy control was tough at first; I would either rise way too quickly or sink like a stone, but I got the hang of it. Orestez was a great teacher and once I was comfortable, I was able to enjoy the sights.

Diving off Coral Beach, or playa del Coral, we saw Lionfish, many of the ones I mentioned before, Stingrays, and of course, coral. The coral itself was so beautiful and I felt like I was in a collage of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lewis Caroll’s Wonderland, and some adventure in sci-fi as I looked at anemones, purple leaves, bright green straw-like tubes, rocks with labyrinthine designs on them made by the waves, and so much more. It was all so incredible and I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty, and strangeness, of the scenery. At some points, the coral formed little tunnels which we went through. I know this would scare a lot of you, and it was a little odd at first, but by the time we tried them, I was much better at controlling my depth and motion, and it came easy. In fact, the waves were a little rough on the second day which made getting into the water a little tough, but made diving much more exciting as the waves would throw us forward. All I had to do was aim and let the current shoot me through the tunnels, and at one point I felt like I was rock-climbing as we would hold onto the coral, wait for the wave to surge back in our direction and then ride the wave to the next grab-point. Beautiful, surreal, exciting, diving was better than I thought it would be, and something I am really looking forward to continuing and improving upon.
The bottom right of this image is where we would start our dives, walking and swimming from shore.

Diving at the Bay of Pigs was quite wonderful. By this time, I felt a lot more comfortable, and once again, the sights were amazing. Orestes’s son, Orestes Jr., came along, and so did my parents.

The three best parts about the dive? The first was “the wall”, a wall of coral which dropped off into near darkness which was quite stunning to behold. Swimming along the surface of the coral, it suddenly dropped off and it was like coming over a hilltop to find a beautiful valley, only underwater. Once again, the coral and fish were spectacular.

The second cool thing was the wreck we got to see! It was a small boat, but still, it was really fun to swim around it, see the fish dart in and out of it, and see the wildlife making it their home. Wreck diving, while dangerous, is something I might look toward becoming certified in.

The last cool thing was the meal provided afterward. Swimming really does a wonder for one’s appetite and by the end of the day, I was ready to eat a whale. I “settled” for the lobster and Lionfish which were absolutely amazing and caught just that morning!

An addendum to the cool parts of the day: it was nice to be comfortable enough with the sport of scuba diving to be able to fool around a little, and my spins, barrel rolls, and silly poses underwater threatened to make my mom laugh and mess up her breathing. Not that it mattered as she used less oxygen than my dad and I which I still don’t quite understand.

Later in the week, we took a trip to Havana, Cuba’s capital city, and it was quite something to behold. The architecture of the buildings is all quite elaborate and impressive and even though a lot has been abandoned or not kept in good standing lately, it is all still stunning.

Our first stop was the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, a castle overlooking the city. It had tunnels full of murder holes, and cannons! I know it had more but a) I'm not an expert on the matter and b) we didn't go in as that would cost more money and time and wouldn't have been as accessible for my Nannie to enjoy. But, it was still cool, as you will see below!

I included this for those of you, like me, who like to read all the signs

Thought this looked cool, the nerd in my kept thinking of Star Wars and the trench on the Death Star.

Orestes, his wife Enit, daughter Gabriella, and son Orestes Jr.
After this, we drove into the city and saw many interesting buildings. Like, the José Marti Memorial building, which I had a hard time not thinking of as Orthanc (the tower in Isengard in The Lord of the Rings), the National Capitol Building and the Great Theatre of Havana (the last one not added because my photo was too blurry).
José Marti Memorial building
El Capitolio Nacional, National Capitol Building
We then stopped at a brewery and watched some of the process involved with the bottling of rum. It was like a live version of How It's Made, and it was pretty cool to watch each part of the process. Making our way upstairs, there was a gift-shop and coffee bar. The coffee bar was pretty cool, involving a process in which many different liquors or liqueurs were mixed together and heated, and then the lights were turned out and this is what we saw: video.

After driving around, we took a walk through some of the downtown squares. The first thing I saw really interested me and I thought my archaeologically-inclined friends might agree. Basically, it was some examples of the work being done to explore, discover, and preserve the history of the region.

Because I'm getting tired of narrating, here are some other captioned highlights:
Enit, Gabriella, Orestes, my mom, my dad, my cousin Sherry, my sister walking in Old Havana

San Cristobal Cathedral
Once again.

La Bodeguito del Modio, a famous tourist attraction, claiming to be the birthplace of the Mojito, and another spot where Hemingway, and several other famous people, stayed.
Thought it was cool to see a Scotia Bank in Cuba

A view of the bank's entrance
I just liked the name of the building, snapped a photo
A lot of Hemingway tourist attractions, like this hotel, where he stayed for some time.

I have to add a little bit here. This church is the site of the oldest Christian mass in Cuba and every New Year's Eve, the people of Cuba make a pilgrimage here not only for mass but also to make thier sacrifice to the Banyan tree.
This Banyan tree was actually planted by slaves brought over from Africa. They brought the seeds of this tree and planted here and in several other places in Cuba. In the ceremony, people walk around the tree, perhaps speaking some chants, and prayers, make a wish, and place/make a sacrifice to the spirits of the tree. My parents had witnessed and took part in the ceremony, but not at this site. I thought it all quite fascinating, which I have a hard time saying now without thinking of Hermoine from the Harry Potter books.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza
In front of the Castillo, there were cool plaques about different UNESCO locations and interesting things found while diving in the local area, including a lot of shipwrecks!

As we stopped here, waiting for Orestes's friend to bring the car around, my Nannie was serenaded. All along the waterfront, people were fishing, and some were selling things, and many people were playing Cuban music. As I was taking pictures and looking out over the water, the music became louder, and I turned around to see 3 musicians playing music and offering my Nannie a maraca. She looked at us, smiled, took the maraca and they began continued singing and playing music with her. They then asked how old she was and when we told them, they sang Happy Birthday for her. She loved it. It was a really nice moment which captured the feelings of happiness and embracing culture we experienced and I'm really glad we got it on video.
A view of the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro from the square
As per usual, the last day was one of the busiest. Sherry, Danielle, and I started the day out early by joining others on a morning hike along the hills surrounding the resort. Here are a number of the things we saw:
They call this "The Tourist Tree" as it's red, and many tourists get sun-burned during their stay in Cuba, haha.
A view of the resort from the top of the hill
The swimming pool has an accurate compass rose in the middle of it, the top of the photo points roughly north-northwest, toward Florida.

Sherry and my sister, Danielle, as we made our way to the top

Coconuts, which reminded me of this scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender
Contrary to her sour expression, my sister and I liked the coconut milk which was freely offered.
After this, we all got together and took a trip up to the bridge at Bacunayagua, the tallest in Cuba! It was really impressive, seeing the surrounding countryside, and the workers under the bridge fastened by no more than a simple harness. The bridge is a popular tourist spot and of course they were serving piña coladas, purported by my parents as "the best in Cuba". I had tried the drink "sin alcool" (without alcohol) at a few other places in Cuba, and I had to admit that the ones served at the bridge were the best. They were really sweet and really fresh. Here are some pictures of our time there:
A panoramic shot of the vista, that red streak near the right is my cousin Sherry's hair, haha.

"And on your left, you'll see the tallest bridge in Cuba!" - I like this picture

My Nannie really loved the trip, and her happiness was enough to make it worthwhile. She has spent the better part of her life being a housekeeper and has never been one to like going out. In the past few years, it has been difficult to get her out of her room to have dinner, let alone to enjoy company or a night out. But, she flourished in Cuba. Since it was so warm, she felt comfortable and never complained, and she was one of the first to want to get out of the room and hit the beach or go see what was on for lunch today. It was so nice to see her smiling and actively posing for cameras. She’s normally very camera shy and suffice it to say, before this trip, I had a lot of photos of her holding a coffee cup in front of her face, haha. The only downside of the trip for her was that we forgot to bring anything to help with her legs. She doesn’t get a lot of exercise, which is what happens when you’re stubborn and don’t like to go anywhere usually, so all the walking caught up with her. She was a trooper though, never complaining, only asking us to slow down a little so she could catch her breath. We all felt extremely blessed to have her along, and it was wonderful to see her having a great time and admitting that she would come back next year.
A friend of mine inquired about the state of the people, knowing the difference in economy between Canada and Cuba, and while it is true that I knew I had more things and more money than a lot of the people I saw, I also didn't see too many unhappy people. Perhaps it's because I'm used to seeing people live off the land, being descended from farmers as I am, but everyone seemed happy. Sure, they could use more money, and sure the strong militarial-political history is a point of controversy, but honestly, the people looked healthy, and well-off, in an old-fashioned sort of way. Not a lot of people had cars, but everyone was open to hitchhiking, or riding horses. I never had the sense that I was taking advantage of anyone there. I didn't pay anyone to take me around in a rickshaw, instead we paid a driver to take us places, and paid him well for his time and expenses. We brought an extra suitcase full of hard to acquire items and toys and things and spread the wealth and tipped when we could. 

My only complaint was that my passport was not stamped. Instead, we filled out a little piece of paper with all of the same information as on our passports and this was stamped. I found that odd, and it was a little disappointing not seeing the stamp in the passport itself, oh well, haha.

All in all, the trip was quite fantastic! As I've shown and mentioned, the country is quite beautiful and full of old-fashioned culture and wonder. There is so much to see, so much to do, and the people are very friendly and helpful. If you want a place which has relaxation and comfort, or excitement and activity, Cuba is a pretty choice. Now that I've seen it, I'm open to going back and visiting elsewhere.
The whole family together.
Until then, I look forward to my next adventure!

1 comment:

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