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14 September 2002

Today September 14th 2002, I just returned from a week in Cuba. It was, what is known in the travel industry as, a "Fam trip" short for familiarisation trip. Sponsored by wholesalers and hotel owners, to allow travel agents to visit different resorts to better be able to sell them later. This was my first Fam trip. I had never been to Cuba and since it is one of the favorite sun destinations for Quebecers, it made sense that I should go have a look at the place. Luckily this particular trip also included some city tours. We changed locations three times so we covered quite a lot of ground and got to see quite a bit of the countryside.

I knew I would be traveling with approximately 20 other agents and (in some cases) their companion. This, by the way is the exception rather than the norm,  many agents object to having husbands or wives tag along. I also knew I would be sharing a room with another female, but I had no clue WHO was in that group. At the airport I could not tell by looking at them who might be a travel agent. On the plane I was seated next to a couple who were obviously "new" as they could not keep their hands off each other... she told me she had been to Cuba many times but it was HIS first time even though he had traveled extensively on business. So they were a mine of useful information, among which, she assured me that they grow lots of cigars in Cuba! Yes! Yes!

During the flight I was  given the name of my room mate. When we landed in Cayo Coco, ( yes yes it is the name of a town or region, as well as an airport) I easily spotted her, she was a sweet 22 year old girl who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Montréal 11 years ago. She said she attended French school, but she did not  seem to understand French nor English very much. BUT she loved taking pictures! Right off the bat she asked me to photograph her at the airport, then in front of the bus, then inside the bus, then in the hotel lobby, then in our room, on her bed, on my bed, in the chair (luckily there was only one), on the balcony, in the bathroom, in front of the door, on the beach looking left, then looking right, they straight .... this went on for then entire trip, and when she felt I might be getting tired she would hold the camera at arm's length turn the camera  and shoot herself, sitting on the bus... or wherever she happened to be without a willing photographer. She also filmed everything with a video camera... .My only reprieve was midweek when the batteries on her camera went dead (no wonder)... she agonized for 12 hours until she found disposable cameras in a hotel shop. And then she was back at it with a vengeance. It made little difference, as, during her forced abstinence, she would ask me to photograph her with my own camera and made me promise to send her copies later. Otherwise she was a charming roomie.

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Our only disagreement was over the air-conditioning unit. She insisted that the higher the number we set it at the cooler it was... so she kept lowering it.... until there was frost on the patio door.... I would turn it off the minute she left the room. She was concerned about expenses and would want to do any and every activity that was free. As the hotels we visited are all inclusive it means that food and drink are free. So she ate and drank in surprising quantities for such a small girl. Fam trips are an ideal way to sample local drinks as every hotel we visited, welcomed us with music and drinks... no wonder we are so tired by the end of the day. The first one we stayed at served drinks in real coconuts. I must admit a weakness for anything involving coconuts. Every hotel had a different cocktail but they all contained Rum... One night they even had Rum and Coke in a huge bowl by the dining room door and you just ladled it in your glass as you walked by....

Allow me to tell you about the country. First a little geography:

The country is very surprising... it is very large, larger than Florida. It is also very green. I expected flat and dry and I found hilly and luxuriant. They have endless varieties of trees and flowers, they have many many royal palm trees.

I saw lots of sugar cane plantations and banana trees.  Citrus fruits are grown around colleges (or colleges are built among the orchards ) and the students have to spend two hours a day  to working on them. I did not see tobacco growing (nor cigars) but was told they grow at the base of the mountains in a region we did not visit. Granted this is the rainy season so it was extremely humid... but you can tell this never dries up (thanks probably to underground water supplies).

Flamingos are numerous in Cuba. There is even one area we drove by where you see a pink line on the horizon just above the ocean, and this is in fact a flock of flamingoes living in shallow waters.

Here is a little history: Columbus first landed on Cuba in 1492. During the 1830s, Spanish rule became increasingly repressive. In 1895, mounting discontent culminated in a resumption of the Cuban revolution, under the leadership of the writer and patriot José Martí and General Máximo Gómez y Báez. In 1902 the Cuban republic was formally instituted. In March 1952 former president Batista, supported by the army, seized power. Castro's forces, using guerrilla tactics, opposed the Batista government and won considerable popular support. The week after the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, Castro announced the 'socialist nature' of the revolutionary government, something he'd always denied. The Soviet Union, sent much-needed food, technical support and, of course, nuclear weapons. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is said to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear conflict. The United States retaliated with a naval blockade of the island. With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Soviet-bloc aid and trade subsidies to Cuba were ended, and Soviet military forces were gradually withdrawn. Each year, hundreds of Cubans attempt to cross the waters separating Cuba from the USA, hoping to make a landfall that guarantees US citizenship.

Havana Is the capital. It is a modern city, which is also trying to refurbish some of it's old colonial buildings.

It is a country of contrasts. I have visited poor countries before, so it is not the poverty itself that surprised me. It is the traces of past glory and riches that remain standing that is surprising... This was a rich country for a long time.

The Spanish built many beautiful colonial homes there... some are falling apart but some are being restored. Santiago and Havana both have beautiful architecture.
There were also some impressive buildings put up by rich Americans... mafiosi as well as legal rich... But next to all that you have dwellings that are so distressed looking that the only way to be sure they are inhabited is to check for clothes drying outside...
In Havana there are some beautiful parks with statues and fountains but driving all around are American cars from the 40s and 50s...alongside Russian trucks.
Although the most commonly used vehicle is the bicycle, followed by open trucks that serve as buses for the local people... you also have people on horseback outside city centers.....

You get a feeling of cleanliness... the people seem proud and are dressed with care.... everywhere laundry is flapping in the wind... even in extreme heat I never smelled perspiration on anyone... Granted these are very superficial observations as I did not get to go inside anyone's home.... It is painfully obvious that the main problem is getting supplies. They used to rely on Russia, which was never a treasure cove, but now even that source has dried up. Since their main source of income is tourism, you know that the Cubans know what is available outside the country... those who work in tourism get to see the luxury in the hotels, and anyone can observe the tourists as they roam the country. Even if one does not equate happiness with belongings... this situation is almost impossible to maintain for much longer I am afraid.

We had been told of racism inside the country and we witnessed something that is a strange case of it as it was not even directed at colored people but at a Cuban man. As we traveled all over the island we had a bus driver and a guide accompanying up throughout the week. They were both Cubans. They got to stay in the same hotels as we did except in the last one we stayed at (which is directed by a man from Venezuela) where our driver was refused access. The guide refused to stay there out of loyalty... so they both disappeared without a trace... One of the hotels we stayed at was "totally" Cuban, as opposed to the others which were all mixed venture capitals, and, in the all Cuban, the driver and guide were much more at ease and visible, joining us by the pool for music and dancing after supper... I am not very knowledgeable on politics, but it seems to me that a socialist country should at least make sure it's citizens get the same treatment as the visitors (although I fully understand how this is not possible within touristy hotels as it would cause a revolution)....

My only other slightly negative comment would have to do with the food. Again this is directly related to the supply situation... they do not have the good quality fresh raw materials, and they do not have a culinary tradition (besides rice and black beans) so it is hard to produce gourmet food... Also since most of the hotels are all inclusive their restaurants are buffet style... which does not make a good stage for fancy sauces and subtle seasonings... BUT you can still find plenty to eat... and drink! the Rum is exquisite and plentiful... served with everything from coke for a Cuba Libre to mint leaves and lemon juice for a Mochito, to coconut for a Pina Colada, to pineapple for a Daiquiri....

I cannot talk of Cuba without mentioning the music. Music is everywhere, Cubans love to dance and they are very elegant when they do so. They have a unique posture, keeping the upper body rather close to their partner, the hips and legs are father apart and very mobile.
But most of all it is the beaches and the water that make Cuba a paradise... the sand is like flour and the water is warm and clear and the most beautiful shade of turquoise....