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Monday, 27 October 2008


From one sea to another: A Cypriot visits Cuba by Nathalie Kyrou

The first thing I notice is the heat. Stepping off the plane, I feel like a cigar being placed in a humidor. Although I have just stepped across the world onto Cuban soil, the airport, signs, chaos at passport control, as well as the locals welcoming us tourists, are all strangely reminiscent of my own country - also an island - Cyprus.

From one island and sea (and literally ‘C’) to another, I notice the similarities between Cyprus and Cuba end once you exit the airport. Back home there may be old Mercedes taxis still functioning, but here a variety of antique cars dating all the way back to the 1950s are parked on roadsides, their vibrant colours reflecting the brilliant sun. Around us, the plentiful vegetation is also a little more dense and abundant than I had expected. Coconut palm trees - very different in appearance to the other species one is used to seeing back home - fill the landscape. This island, like my own native land, is at first impression very hot, but unlike the yellow dryness of the Cypriot summer, Cuba is extremely green, reminding me that I am indeed in the tropics.

If you are heading off to the most popular beach resort in the country, you will most probably be making your way to Varadero, and to do this you must enter the province of Havana. The drive along the peninsula to my hotel is remarkable: traditional Cuban homes, crumbling in poverty, are postcard material; screaming with character, they border the roads, adorned with colourful washed clothes hanging on the line, blowing in the breeze. There is a sweet rich smell lingering in the air, but I cannot pin down what it is exactly. Cubans, sitting along the dusty roadside or crouched on dilapidated rooftops, seemed undisturbed by the sound of our tour bus whizzing past – they are obviously used to this tourist invasion. Exotic plants line the thick red soil of the surrounding farmlands, and everywhere I turn there is water. Not only is the peninsula of Varadero merely 700 metres wide, as well as being surrounded by water on both sides it is also filled with water in its centre, in a form comparable to a large dam.

It may sound cliché, but I cannot wait to see the beach, which is after all the reason I booked this vacation in the first place! Having grown up in the sea-side town of Lemesos, be it across the world, I have the salty taste of the sea in my veins. But to my disappointment, after waiting my entire life to see the Caribbean Sea up close, this aquamarine water framed by fine white sand is not as calm as advertising photographs have promised it to be. In my dreams of this place, the waves are not as fierce, nor is the wind. Being used to the tranquillity of the Mediterranean waters my entire life, I am not accustomed to the ferocity of this vast surf before me, so I feel both excited and a little fearful as I step into this tropical sea for the first time. In fact, I only actually experience one morning of crystal clear, still water during my entire week-long stay in Cuba. It is true that no matter what time of year you decide to visit, it really is down to luck whether you will be wrestling for your life as you dodge the violent waves or enjoying yourself as you float calmly whilst snorkelling on the reef.

The next morning promises tamer weather. The smell of sweet coconut and banana oils wafts through the air. Seeking the soothing shade as well as protection from the sharp breeze, I settle under the cover of my straw thatched parasol. In my section of the beach, the sun beds are set back at least fifty metres from the shore. Nestled near the plants and trees, they leave a large stretch of pristine, powdery white, untouched sand between the people and the ocean. As much as I love my own country, Ayia Napa this is not. There is no-one to bother you out here, no messy, dirty sun-beds, no children screaming. For most of the relaxed bodies, either asleep, or sipping on cocktails, the relentless wind and scorching sand make reaching the water too tiresome a challenge, even to those who are attracted by the idea of exploring the warm sea. As a result, the scenery remains fairly empty and thus, picture perfect. As I settle down onto my űber-comfortable sun-bed, I am intoxicated by the peaceful mood around me, only slightly distracted by the occasional Latino vibes filtering through the atmosphere from a salsa class being held somewhere in the distance.

A day out in the sun will definitely stir up the appetite, and if you are staying in a beach resort complex comprised of more than one hotel, it is typical that you’ll have access to all of its hotel restaurants for meals, leaving you with an impressive choice of places to dine. The strangest meal I devour on this trip is at the seaside wooden hut tavern: a dish of rice topped with a fried egg, framed by a cooked sweet plantain banana, served with fresh tomato sauce and a side order of black beans (a very odd combination indeed, but a local delicacy nevertheless). Once I have scrambled it altogether - as instructed by my waiter - I admit it is, to my surprise, delicious. And as if that is not enough, I have fresh Cuban fish to follow, and for dessert, decadent homemade coconut ice-cream. No matter how good the food is, however, based on my experience as a traveller it may prove a good idea to cut meat out of your diet during such a voyage for a variety of reasons, the benefit being that because of this you will be forced to try vegetarian options such as fish and seafood instead (even though most Cuban dishes contain pork or chicken – unlike beef which is rare here and thus too expensive). The fresh grilled snapper, calamari and shrimp are succulent and delectable, and with no doubt the best choice anyway, and the paella, served fresh off the grill by the poolside, is truly the best I have ever tasted. It also is worth your while to consume as much tropical fruit as possible while out here, because not only is it local, abundant and fresh, it does not cost you a thing (unlike drinks – including bottled water – which you may be charged for even if you are on an inclusive package).

On my second evening, I venture out of the resort with some hotel guests, (did I mention that everybody out here is either German, Russian, French or Canadian), accompanied by one of the hotel entertainers. We go to a Cuban 1950s style club which features a live Latin band called Mambo. The moment we walk into the night spot we are faced with a humorous sight: at least fifty people on the dance floor doing a form of synchronised dancing which reminds me of the Macarena or perhaps a Cuban version of line dancing. I realise I need a drink! A ten dollars entrance fee to the club gives me access to an open bar all night, allowing me to sample a variety of local beverages. I try two rum cocktails: Rum Punch and the famous Mohito (made with real sugar cane) which is refreshing and highly addictive. Turning back to the dance floor, I am now ready to join the others and lose myself in the vibe (and gosh, can these Cubans dance!) My favourite music is by the famous Cuban band ‘Las Orishas’ – a mixture of French and Spanish rap over Latino style melodies. Club Rhumba is another option if you are looking for a busier spot with a somewhat more international scene. The nightlife here is the same as on any party island: young people having fun into the early hours of the morning.

Not surprisingly, I find it very hard waking up at the crack of dawn for my excursion to Cuba’s capital, Havana. With swollen ankles and a sore sunburn (I should have remembered that the closer you get to the equator, the stronger the sun is), I board the bus and sleep for the most of the two hour drive out to the capital, unfortunately missing out on all the scenery along the way. I awaken to crumbling eighteenth century buildings in faded colours, to a cultural and historic city which is overpopulated and drenched in an extremely pungent smell, and also to poverty. We drive around Havana, trying to pay attention to our uninformative and sadly rather boring tour guide, stopping to have lunch in a restaurant set in an old pink house. We then visit the downtown area, the oldest part of the capital, which is definitely also the poorest. It had been said that smell may be the strongest trigger of memory, but unlike the warm, salty, humid air of Cyprus, or the crisp, cold, damp smell of London, the stench in downtown Havana is not one you would care to remember. The stray dogs, overstuffed horse-driven carts and buses only add to the sickening and unbearable stink of human and animal pollution. Intolerable and suffocating, it is spread around by the warm breeze, leaking into even the smallest cracks and corners.

On a brighter note, upon our tour of this city, which is rich in culture and immersed in history, we come across numerous noteworthy sites: a park named after and dedicated to John Lennon by all his fans (I had not realised what an impact he had made on Cubans before this), the hotel where Earnest Hemmingway lived for four years while he wrote “For whom the Bell Tolls” (in fact he lived in Cuba for 18 whole years), and a beautiful old Spanish church (having been mesmerized by its beauty, I cannot for some reason remember why it is famous). More interesting yet is the fact that Christopher Columbus first embarked here, on this very island, when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean on his famous voyage.

The market place of downtown Havana is also worthy of a visit, brimming with life and immensely colourful, but it is fair to say that practically every stall sells mostly the same items. People will always haggle with prices too, even offering to barter their goods with the contents of one’s handbag: candy, jewellery, used cosmetics. (Several people even walk up to me in the streets and beg me for ‘savon’, which I only later realise means that those poor citizens were in need of soap! In the museum we visit, the women staff plead with us to give them candy or medication for their children. I wish I was more prepared and had brought along supplies with me). Nonetheless, despite all the desperation, only a few elderly people sitting on the steps of the church actually beg for money. In fact, Havana is not the poorest city I have ever been to, but it still lacks certain things which we in the developed world take for granted, making it deprived in its own way. I also think this is the first place I have ever been to where nowhere is to be found any Coca-Cola sign. Most of us may have become accustomed to the fact that American products are omnipresent throughout the world, but in Cuba, where the opposite is the case, you really notices their absence.

We finally visit the Romeo and Juliet cigar factory - whether you are a cigar aficionado or not, this is certainly not to be missed - picking up a box of cigars to take home on our way out. Although glad to have experienced Havana, I am more than ready to return to my hotel. Once again within the confines of this heavenly prison, I discover the best way to get a feel for the authentic Cuban vibe is to smoke one of those cigars, or preferably one rolled freshly by the lady at the cigar stall in your hotel lobby. There, as you sit in the breeze of the hotel terrace, cigar in mouth, you can truly relax while you mentally prepare yourself for the morning antics. I say this because mornings are war time in the hotel, as one gets up earlier than can be considered desirable, simply in order to secure sun-beds. After a few unsuccessful tries, on my the fourth day, I awaken extra early, before the attendants are even up and about, and actually manage to acquire a suitable lounging spot on the beach, but much to my dismay, not only does it rain all morning, but it remains cloudy and windy all day long! Cold but stubborn as a mule, I stay on the beach, listening to music and trying to read, while all around me the beds are for once empty, as more people more sensible than myself seek more appropriate pastimes for such weather.

Finally, a sandstorm on the beach diverts me to the swimming pool and recreation area. It is only after I walk around the grounds a little, that I discover the secret swimming pool by the hotel bungalows. There I find a true oasis, with cosy corners surrounded by palms swaying in the breeze, framed by wooden bridges. The pool’s inviting and calm turquoise waters lure me in, and I finally get the swim I deserve. Afterwards, I decide to continue my stroll through the fascinating tropical grounds and gardens of the hotel. Lush in greenery and elaborate in design, the hotel grounds are spectacular, the only disappointing fact being that they are not well lit at night; the high arches and numerous plants in the fancy gardens lay asleep in the enveloping darkness which forbids the wandering guest from exploring. The gardens, in general though, far outshine the hotel rooms, which are bathed in intense pink paint, and lined with marble floors which augment and echo any kind of noise (my advice is if you are looking for peace and quiet, sleep on the beach). On the other hand, all this is made up for by the wonderful sounds that also surround me, sounds that remind me of my childhood: the soft rustling of the palm leaves against each other, the wind howling, whistling then whispering, the lapping then smashing of waves on the beach, a loud cricket’s song and a bird’s soothing lullaby (all of which of course I notice only when the rest of the noise has died down).

On my last day in Cuba, I am thrilled that the morning greets me with promising clear skies, as the rest of my holiday has been plagued with the kind of cool weather known as the ‘coldfront’ which, I have been told, the tide has brought in. Luckily today unfolds into a warm and bright afternoon, although the ocean continues to attack the shore and my attempts to swim are futile. Needless to say I get crushed by a wave and my shoulder ends up scraped on the sand, leaving me aching and bruised, but strangely victorious and happy at my brave attempt.

As I board the plane to leave windy Cuba, with its beauty and culture, behind me, what I take with me are not souvenirs that one can physically hold (well, apart from the cigars - you have to take home Cuban smokes!) My greatest souvenirs are my memories of unforgettable and striking natural images, like the large albatross type birds swooping over water, dunking into it beak first, then floating on the surface like large ducks; the quiet strolls through the peaceful grounds of my hotel; that shade of aquamarine water that is unsurpassed in richness and beauty; or the feel of the soft powdery sand between my toes. But most of all I remember the trees: numerous varieties of cactuses growing everywhere, the sweet smell of huge carobs and mangroves which emerge out of nowhere framing the shore. Last, but certainly not least, those palm trees, with their short, thin, fat, or lumpy barks; like plastic models dotting the beach, coconuts dangling perilously overhead, they sway gently in the wind, silhouetted against the sun as it sets on the horizon. In the distance the sea is endless and wild.

Nathalie Kyrou © 2008. All rights reserved to the author.

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