Author: Andrea MacEachern
Date of Trip: April 2012
Last spring when I was researching potential places to take my yearly holiday, a number of destinations were put on the table. Costa Rica, Barbados, Cuba and various places in the United States such as Texas, Illinois, Montana and California all made the final cut but in the end, it was Cuba that won the call to my travel agent and my heart after it was all said and done.
Before I even set foot on the island of Cuba, my reasons for going were very clear; Beautiful beaches, unique culture, low crime rate and, of course, the city of Havana. I also wanted to experience a place that was seemingly untouched by the outside world and wasn’t “Americanized” like a lot of the other Caribbean islands. Although I wanted to travel independently, I erred on the side of caution since I was traveling alone and did what I normally wouldn’t do; I booked an all-inclusive beach resort vacation package. This seemed like the best way to approach my first visit to a new country alone and this type of set up allowed me to be safe and in the company of fellow travelers while having the option to leave the resort whenever I wanted to…which I did and I have no regrets in doing so even though my family and friends back home thought I was crazy for stupidly “putting my safety and my life in danger”.
I arrived in Varadero very late on a Friday night and had the sad experience of seeing first hand what it is most Canadians do while vacationing on an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. Loud screaming, cursing, arguing and drinking the likes I have not even seen during my younger days of traipsing around on George St. in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the biggest party streets in North America. It got so bad near the pool area that I just stayed away from it for the rest of my time there. And it continued like this the entire week, with new revelers arriving by the bus load every day. I tried to join in on the partying my second night there but quickly realized that spending my valuable vacation time in a state of paralyzed drunkenness and nursing hangovers, dehydration and broken ankles (like one poor young man who spent the rest of his vacation in bed, unable to walk) was not the way I wanted to spend my time in the country. I wanted to see and experience the real Cuba and I wanted to remember and savor every moment!
My first morning in Varadero was supposed to be spent at a meeting with some sort of tour coordinator or something like that. I didn’t debate for even a minute in my head about whether I should go to this meeting or not. The decision was simple; a waste of valuable time because I had no interest in following some made-up, pre-thought out itinerary that took place entirely on the resort. I have to hand it to them though because the resort employees did a very good job at ensuring there were enough organized and pre-planned activities so that visitors wouldn’t want or need to leave the resort. I was even told by several tour organizers who tried to sell me organized (and expensive) excursions that it was simply too dangerous to venture off the resort on my own. Brainwashing and fear-mongering are two things that do not and never will work on me; not only did I leave the resort on my own every day, I also mingled with and made friends with many of the locals and there were no attempts to pickpocket me, murder me, rob me or maim me in any way. In fact, the Cuban people were among the nicest people I have ever met. When I travel to another country, I want to meet the people who live there and learn more about how they live and do things. I can meet fellow Canadians at home. While the other guests at my resort were mingling with one another and only seeking out others from home, I was getting to know the groundskeepers, coffee servers, housekeepers and bartenders. I learned a lot about the Cuban way of life just from chatting with these people during my morning coffee or evening nightcap in the common area.
Some things I noticed about the Cuban people include their lack of material possessions, their devotion to family and their knack for being very social. And by social, I am not talking about chatting it up with someone they will never meet face to face on an online dating site or chat-line. You see, the average Cuban does not own a computer and rarely has access to the internet and this reflects largely on their way of life. When I drive or walk around my neighborhood here in Canada, I rarely see people sitting outside on their steps. Even beaches and parks are empty on beautiful sunny days and the only time I see children is when they are walking to and from school. While walking around the streets of Havana and Matanzas City, there were people everywhere. Adults sitting on stoops talking to their neighbors (I barely even know my neighbors), vendors chatting it up on the sidewalk to anyone who will lend an ear and children playing games in the street and well, being children. It was like I went back in time to the 1960’s when family and friends and living life to the fullest was at a forefront.
So what did I learn on my trip to Cuba? I learned that the country is not as dangerous as the resort operators told me it was. Yes, pick-pocketers and muggers may target the odd tourist but this is far more rampant here at home. If people continue to believe that Cuba is dangerous and the only way to experience the country is to stay on the resort and get drunk or embark on expensive guided tours, many travelers will continue to miss out on the real, genuine Cuban way of life. The Cuban people are generous, laid-back, friendly people who embrace foreigners who want to see and learn more about their beautiful country. The cafeteria-style meals and loud stereo systems pumping American music at the resort disco do not do justice to what the real Cuba is all about. People complain that the food is bland but these same people have never accepted an invitation to have a real, home-cooked meal in a Cuban family’s home.