Campañerang Cuba Redux

Dear Elly G,

Ay’g pag expeck. If Cubans could speak Bisaya, that is essentially what they would tell you over and over. Ay’g pag expeck. I suppose they’ve become so inured to the foreigners whining about why everything is the way it is – the food, the schedule, the people, the lack of bus stops, they’re moved to say this ahead of time to prevent disappointment.

Which leads me to the food. (What doesn’t? Everything leads me to the food.) I had a rather late supper last night at the buffet restaurant, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what these people are complaining about. Bland, my Asian ass. No sauces? Each table had salt and pepper shakers and there was a prominent display of all the bottled condiments one would wish. Tartar sauce. Steak sauce. Hot sauce. Sauce maryosep. I went in fully expecting to be disappointed and I was, except it wasn’t the food I ended up being disappointed in. It was in people who write reviews despite having no tastebuds worth mentioning whatsoever. Not that I closed my eyes and was transported to heaven, but the seafood was all I could’ve wished it to be. I had grilled salmon and breaded fish (I have no idea what kind of fish it was) and a lovely bunch of shrimp, heads still on, everything as tasty as if it were pulled fresh from the sea, which it probably was. I wonder if some are so used to drowning everything in spice rubs and butter, they can’t appreciate fresh seafood. I’ve decided to be annoyed at the way people review Cuban food online. Everything is prefaced with “keep in mind, it’s Cuba,” as if it’s going to be deficient and less than, by virtue of not being… I don’t know, Europe? Canada? The U.S. of Hey? It seems to come from an extremely limited experience.

Not that I’m so much more experienced than they are. I just feel that maybe when travelling, a tourist needs to be less condescending and be more open to different things, especially cuisine-wise. Why expect things to be more or less the same as it is at home? What’s the point of traveling then? At breakfast, one lady caught my eye. All she had on her plate was toast. That’s it. Five slices of the most boring white bread, browned and buttered. Even her companion pointed it out with a raised eyebrow, and the lady just shrugged, and made a sort of pout. This is probably the kind of person petty enough to go on Google and give this place a one-star just because she couldn’t find anything to eat. The spread was pretty varied, an impressive selection of cold cuts, breads, fruit, omelette bar, cereal bar, dessert bar, what have you. I’ve been to enough hotels to be able to tell when something is sparse, and believe you me, this was not sparse at all. If anything, it was the opposite.

You know what’s surprisingly bland? The fruit. Maybe you and I have been spoiled for it, having been brought up in a tropical country, but their pineapple is surprisingly bland and so is their watermelon. I don’t know if this is true throughout Cuba, though. It could just be this resort, and this island with all the tourists who come here for fun in the sun like it’s an adult theme park and we’re all just here to be fed and watered. Kind of like a plague of locusts. We come in, feed until the land is bare, then move on. Maybe the pineapples just can’t keep up with the rest of us.

Sleep deprived,
Nikka

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 2.0

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I may have lived in Canada a bit too long. I’ve gotten used to the sterility, all the bylaws that treat smokers like social pariahs, relegating them to the fringes, forced to smoke nine feet away from all entrances, skulking somewhere their second hand smoke won’t cause cancer for everyone. This must be literal paradise, because they’re treating this resort like a cigarette fuelled free-for-all. Smoking in the lobby. Smoking at the bar. Smoking at the beach. Smoking at the pool. Smoking in the elevators. Smoking everywhere. (Thankfully, no smoking was done by any of the other folks on the same floor as I was.) They did say Cuba is a throwback to another age, but this is not exactly the the throwback I was looking for.

Then again – and I’ve heard it at least twice now – Varadero is not the real Cuba. So it serves me right, I guess. For choosing what is in real life, Disneyland for adults, where the booze is flowing and the smokers are lit up quite happily and walking around barely clothed, abusing both my eyes and their internal organs. It’s an experience. I’m not unhappy about it. This solo trip has me walking around bemused, almost like I was given a license to watch people in an unnatural habitat and no one cares that I’m gawking because they’re way too busy having the kind of fun none of us get to have elsewhere. A people safari, is what this is. Back home, like everyone else, I tend to mind my own business. I’m usually lost in whatever movie or book I’ve downloaded for consumption whenever I have to commute, so people watching isn’t something that I get to indulge in. It isn’t polite to stare at people in the big city. It isn’t safe either, but in Varadero the rules have gone straight out the window. For all I know, they’re staring right back at me for being an odd duck on my own in a place where it most certainly should be a group thing, but I guess I don’t care either because kevs ever. Maybe that’s the spirit of Varadero. Kevs ever!

Speaking of kevs ever, the man boobs, oy. I’ve seen enough man boobs to last me into the next decade, I think. All the in-resort restaurants have signs reminding guests to keep their shirts on and cover up when coming in, but people don’t read instructions when they’re on vacation, honey. So it’s an overflowing buffet of flesh and ass and yes there are girl boobs too, but that’s boring to me. It’s all the manly jiggles and hairy buttcracks and the sunburns so severe they look like a level six alarm on legs. Sometimes people don’t tan, they burn. The tan ones look like preserved leather, the red ones look like they need a lifetime supply of aloe vera. It’s painful. One woman was walking around with her skin peeling, red patches blooming on her shoulders, revealing … pink patches. Sunburn on a sunburn. Kind of makes me feel glad to be a tropical girl, because I turn golden brown, like a luscious rotisserie chicken. Gloat. As always, I’m staying out of the sun because I’m a vampire with a screwed up body clock here on a people safari.

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 1.0

Arroz a la Cubana: Resortworld 1.0

The tour guide on the hotel shuttle said something that stuck with me. He said “Varadero isn’t the real Cuba.”

Varadero is a peninsula that juts out from the Cuban mainland into the combined waters of the Florida Straits and the Bay of Cardeñas. It is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the entire Caribbean, with around sixty resorts occupying the entire stretch of beach, an absolute cash cow for the country and a source of employment and income for its residents. For all intents and purposes, Varadero is Resortworld. It’s not about the grim and the gritty. It’s about suntans, booze and fun. I wasn’t there for the real Cuba. Not right then.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to choose an all-inclusive resort. Not for me on a solo trip anyway… not in a place where alcohol flows like water, and the waiter actually looks disappointed when I ask for some agua, por favor, like I’m letting him down by bucking societal norms and not ordering a glass of red and white, gracias. Unlike my tablemates, who were all in, ride or die, down, insert-whatever-other-phrase-means-completely-invested-in-something. They had paid for all-inclusive, knowing in this part of the world all-inclusive means drink all you can, and by God that was what they were there for and what they were going to do.

I’m exaggerating. Those were the Dutch boys two tables across, who’d been out in the sun so long they were beginning to look like leather. I say Dutch because one of them had a t-shirt emblazoned Sint Maarten and they did seem European. Then again, they could be any random breed of foreigner on an extended tour of paradise. Almost everyone here has a shirt on from some other Caribbean isle like Aruba or Dominicana, as if to emphasize that the Caribbean is their playground of choice. Hell if you can afford an endless summer, why not? It beats holing up waiting for Toronto to resemble a city again, not barren tundra.

Yes, I may have been projecting. Just a teeny tiny bit. My tablemates were a very sweet fiftyish Korean couple over from L.A., here on a group tour (Me: so you went from sunny to… sunny?) assuring me that L.A. is “still very cold.” They did ask for the rioja and the blanco, though.

I like being sober around the completely shitfaced. It’s interesting to observe how one can go from quiet and reserved to uproarious, red-faced, DGAF drunk, unconcerned about how one might come across leering at nubile Cuban dancers in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp. To be fair, try being around a young girl whose tits haven’t yet succumbed to the pull of gravity, shimmying up beside you in a skimpy pink bikini and tailfeathers, an island showgirl romping through your buffet. If you’re three sheets to the wind, you’d leer openly too. It’s dinner and a show, what’s not to like?

Campañerang Cuba

Campañerang Cuba

Dear Elly G,

I wanted to type this out to you using the portable, made in Japan circa 1969, piece of classic machinery I insisted on bringing with me, but my pretentious wannabe little self is doing this at five in the morning. Even though the good Lord saw fit to take away my hearing bit by bit, my neighbours may not be as fortunate. I know, I know, I should’ve factored in my weird circadian rhythms, but oh well. The day is young. I might just re-type this and mail it to you because we’ve already established that I can be pretentious as all get out.

If I really end up sending you snail mail, I wonder what the outcome might be. Will the Cuban government see fit to censor a letter? Will you get this with portions blacked out and redacted like it’s a top secret CIA case file? Not that there’s anything in here that may even be remotely close to threatening state secrets, but you know how my imagination works. Nabag-ohan! Because I’m in Communist Cuba and viva la revolución!

Jorge, our tour guide on the airport shuttle bus, asked “Who here is Canadian?” and was met with a loud chorus of yeah, and yays and what’s uuuuuppps. “Who here is American?” Complete radio silence. “Not a single one, eh?” he said, to a smattering of giggles. And then, “Thank God,” to outright laughter.

Sure, it was probably canned and he likely does this bit a dozen times over to a different audience flying in from Toronto day after day. That  doesn’t make it any less funny to me. Speaking of cans, the shuttle bus came with a built-in cooler filled with the local canned beer, which Jorge was enthusiastically slinging. “It’s 3 for $10, but 7 for $20! Who wants some? Oh, 14? Great!” bagging up cans and enthusiastically passing them along to the crazy ones in the back. Methinks it’s non-stop drinking for everyone here but me, but what else is new? Some folks on the plane were drinking while waiting to board (me: wala pa gani!), they drank on the plane, and they drank on the shuttle bus to the resort, where I assume they drank some more.  I lucked into a  seat on the plane that was right next to the exit, so I got to disembark and get through customs quite speedily. I was the first one on the shuttle which was making scheduled stops at selected resorts (they have an impressive system in place, but more on that later), so I got to watch as the rest of the ones headed to my area of Varadero straggled in. Some came onboard holding cans of  beer, but I lost it after at least three grandmas clutching green bottles of cerveza passed me by and started giggling like a lunatic. I think the couple a row behind me saw my reaction and started laughing as well.

One thing is for sure though. This is not going to see the light of day electronically until I get back to the mainland. Yes, “the mainland” means Toronto. I just liked the way “the mainland” sounds, because again, pretentious. They were right about the wifi; even the cell service here is a bit spotty. I read somewhere that Cuba (Cubacel) licenses its signal or whatever from the Italians. It’s so exotic and I love it. Anyway, being unplugged is taking a little getting used to. I had this idea that to be unplugged I wouldn’t use anything electronic, but again that’s hard to do at five in the morning with everyone sleeping off what is probably a massive intake of alcohol.

 

Pour one out for abused kidneys everywhere,
Nikka

Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

Arroz a la Cubana: Touchdown

I had nightmares of getting mugged at the airport. The bestie had relayed a cautionary tale about a friend of a friend who’d set her bag down one minute, and found it gone the next. So there I was, in Varadero’s Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport, looking around furtively every so often like I was deep in the heart of Colon Street with a target on my back. I sometimes forget that if you’ve ever emerged intact from the bowels of old Cebu City, you can survive anything.

Still, it never hurts to be cautious.

Then again, I don’t remember the airport he had specified. Had it been Havana International? If it was, I was being overly cautious for nothing. Nothing happened. Everything ran like clockwork. The Cubans have the tourist machinery down to a fine art. Unlike Manila, there is no chaotic mess, no street hawkers, no shady characters lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you the moment you exit baggage claims. If there were, I didn’t see them. The whole process, from de-planing, to customs, to baggage claim to arrivals, is smooth, easy and fancy-free.

If you’re flying out of Canada, more often than not the price of the plane ticket includes the cost of the required tourist visa. The airline provides you with a tourist card (which is the visa itself) to fill out on the plane before landing. Be sure to read the instructions before writing anything down because erasures are not allowed. The lady beside me wrote the departure date instead of her birthdate and had to pony up $50 CAD for a fresh slip, something that upset her very much, because she spent a good twenty minutes berating herself while her husband tried to calm her down. Not a good way to start a vacation, that’s for sure.

At customs, the immigration officer checks your documentation – as always, it’s best to be sure your passport is valid for at least six months. Cuba does require proof of insurance. While proof of your provincial insurance (like your OHIP card) is acceptable, I took the extra step of purchasing extra insurance from the airline (Air Transat, $22 CAD) just in case. He didn’t ask to see the extra insurance, just took my picture and wished me on my way.  You can speak Spanish if you like, but English is not a problem at admissions. Just in case, I’d recommend downloading Google’s Translate app. It’s only polite to try and speak the language, rather than expect everyone to know English wherever you go. 

Anyway, after customers comes baggage claim and arrivals. Unlike Cebu or Manila, there are no aggressive hawkers waiting outside to get you to take a taxi or a dubiously priced rent-a-car. I had booked my vacation as a package – airline and hotel in one – which came with roundtrip airport transfers. (Highly recommended, if you don’t want to stress about how to get to your accommodations.) Upon exiting arrivals, you’ll find airline representatives – Air Transat, Sunwing, RedTag, etc. – waiting outside. They’ll direct you to the shuttle you’re assigned to, which turned out to be a big, air-conditioned bus that stops at pre-arranged resorts along the Autopista Sur, the main highway that stretches into Varadero. 

I had wanted to get my currency exchanged at the airport, but there was no booth in the arrivals hall so I ended up doing it at the resort instead. Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is for tourists with a roughly 1:1 exchange rate, and the Cuban Peso, which is what the locals use. While it means visitors don’t get to pay the same rate the locals will for a specific item, I like how savvy it is when it comes to making sure they don’t get taken advantage of.

Blow by Blow

Blow by Blow

I got my first rejection email recently.

I was, absurdly, thrilled.

This may mean nothing to the ones who are brave, who always put themselves out there, who really and truly don’t give a single damn what people think. You know who I mean. The ones able to post anything and everything on social media. The ones who lay themselves open for all of us to see. The ones who share fresh selfies, unfiltered by anything but strident fluorescent light. The ones who post every excruciating detail of their personal relationships as it crumbles around their feet, oblivious to or uncaring of the reception from the rest of us. They hide nothing. Not their pain. Not their joy. Not their confusion. Their feed is a raw jumble of exposed nerve endings, every gnarled moment on show.  To the very brave – and, incidentally, the very stupid – everything is fair game, and they are unfazed by having the world at large as their audience. To them, putting themselves out there is as easy as breathing.

I’m not brave like that. I have always lived by the tenets of nganong ni enter, a maxim that means never willingly putting oneself in a situation which is bound to have an unfavourable outcome. I have never  found myself capable of  rolling  over to expose my belly for inspection, of being that vulnerable in public. It’s a big reason I fail in the world of social media, because so much of it requires selling myself and my capabilities, something I am way more comfortable having other people do than actually doing myself. It’s just not how I am, and I realize I am eventually going to have to get over myself someday, but for now, it is what it is. My  feed is a hundred percent self-deprecation, almost an apology for sharing, like excuse me for showing up on your wall, but yes, I would like to share this today. It sounds sad, and maybe it is, but that is the way I operate. I deflect with humour and sarcasm. I am outwardly blasé because the truth is I care very deeply about things. Risking being seen as anything less than strong and capable is very hard for me, as I am not brave enough to be who I really and truly am unless I trust someone implicitly. It’s difficult for me to readily trust society. I think people as a whole are terrible (except me, I’m amazing), and the internet hasn’t done anything to change that point of view. If anything, it’s magnified that side of the human race a thousandfold.

(Yes, the irony of putting this out for anyone out there to read doesn’t escape me – but a blog is different from social media!)

Anyway, I was thrilled.

Not because being rejected puts writers in the “company of greats”, as so many aspiring dreamers like to say, assuaging the pain with thoughts of Stephen King and the nail in his wall, impaled with so many rejection slips, he had to drive another one in beside it to accommodate more. There is a cold sort of comfort in the story of J.K. Rowling and her incredible journey to superstardom, her path strewn with numerous rejection letters from publishing houses and agents who failed to see the potential of a boy wizard with a lightning shaped scar.

That’s not why I was thrilled.

I was thrilled, because it felt freeing. I had opened myself up to the very real possibility of receiving a blow, finally received the blow, and realized it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. It’s like taking that first step into thin air, with the very real fear of falling to my death, and realizing it’s not the end of the world.  I think I would like to see how far this little side project of mine will go (and no, I’m not giving any further details about it for now!), because I want another blow like that, as masochistic as that sounds. And another. And another. And still another. I will take my blows, and – hopefully – come out on the right side of it, battered, but with a dream come true.

Random YouTube K-hole: Boys to Men

Random YouTube K-hole: Boys to Men

If your feed was filled with before/after photos of people you know this week, congratulations, you’ve just witnessed –  maybe even participated in – the How Hard Did Aging Hit You? challenge. Some said it was a ruse to train facial recognition algorithms (if it was, the joke’s on them because my Facebook profile pic is an illustration), but most took it as a chance to brag about how aging kissed them gently on the lips instead of beating them up with a two by four.

Anyway, it seems two of my favourite 90’s boybands heard the call, because they’re having a moment again, and thank baby jeebus for the treat.

I don’t think Westlife ever hit it big in the US, but luckily for me, I grew up in the Philippines. MTV Asia made no distinction whether the boyband was from the US or the UK – if they were cute and their songs were catchy, they’d get airtime because they knew young girls fall easily for handsome troubadours, and the more of them, the merrier.

If I Let You Go – Westlife

Something about the innocent imagery of If I Let You Go speaks to me the same way it did when it first came out twenty years ago. Look at the handsome Irish boys wading in the surf, singing about their fear of rejection! Swoon. (Hi Kian!) Bonus points for all that long-haired virility galloping in slo-mo along the sand astride horses. It was like the cover of a novel come to life.

Flying Without Wings – Westlife

I intended to share just one video from Westlife, but screw it, I’m including Flying Without Wings.  Because I’m a secret sap who responds to love songs that turn into choral anthems. Because I think a part of me will always be susceptible to ripped sleeves, floppy hair, toned biceps and piercing blue eyes. (Hi Kian!). And of course, because I can. Why haven’t I been to Ireland yet?

Hello My Love – Westlife

Westlife is back, all grown up and singing about gratefulness and age-appropriate choices, sending us all on a balloon-filled adventure over what looks like a discarded set from the original Star Trek TV show. I’m just happy to see them back together, having aged like fine wine. (Hi Kian!)

It takes more than good looks to make a boyband last – excellent song choices are very much a part of its success, with lyrics that can stand the test of time. Pop music gets a bad rap for being faddish and/or shallow, but the best pop songs are the ones that strike a common chord anywhere and across cultures. Westlife’s longevity is in a large part due to this attribute.

The Backstreet Boys are no slouches either. They’re as good at it now, as they were then.

Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) – Backstreet Boys

It actually took these guys a while to make any sort of dent on me. I’d enjoyed We’ve Got it Going On, and nothing brings a smile to my face quite like hearing the first few bars of Get Down (You’re the One for Me), but any doubts I may have had about throwing money away on a cassette (!) tape were over the moment Howie Durough bared his abs in the pouring rain. The boys brought it, and brought it hard in the third video off of their debut album, and it worked like gangbusters. I hared off to Lee Super Plaza first chance I got. Music videos: effectively marketing music to impressionable young girls since time immemorial.

All I Have to Give – Backstreet Boys

I’ve always needed a little more prodding than most, so when the boys came out with their sophomore album, I didn’t think I was going to get it. And then this video came out in all its bright-coloured, fedora-wearing, abs-baring glory, with Howie Durough promising to give me all he had to give. No more questions, your honour. Hello again, Lee Super Plaza.

No Place – Backstreet Boys

Oh, the blessing of boybands that stay strong and true.Even if it’s jarring to see them with wives and children, something which would’ve sent their fanbase into conniptions a couple of decades ago. They famously sang “Backstreet’s back, alright” – but the truth is the Backstreet Boys never really went anywhere… and thank goodness for that, because everyone always needs a little pop in their lives.