I’ve unpacked my bag long enough to launder my favourite tees and jeans, only to put them back in the same bag versus drawers.
Last week: Edmonton, Alberta and the fever pitch of the folk festival. This week? Viva Cuba. Scroll back just a month ago to an email from Joshua Johnson, Dean of Education at Matador U. Josh suggested I apply for an upcoming travel scholarship with the Adventure Centre. My writerly pal Keph Senett had taken the Olympic travel writing gold the previous year and landed a travel writing gig with them in Turkey.
Unaware of where I might be flung if I was a lucky recipient, I sacrificed sleep to post “The Genesis of a Traveler” while prepping for a camping get-away the very next day in the dunes of Lake Huron.
We eventually returned from the wi-fi free woods (with resistance), campfire smoke still permeating from our clothes, desensitized to stress and far-removed from any type of routine other than basic human instincts of eating and sleeping. My inbox was percolating. Life had continued on and moved forward as we toasted marshmallows and communed with fireflies.
After deleting 50+ tripadvisor, expedia and Flight Centre HOT DEALS adverts, I was about to have my Sally Field moment of “I can’t deny the fact you like me right now. You like me!” I had been shortlisted for the scholarship! (Insert internal jumping up and down here). Josh wondered how I felt about jetting off to Central or South America for two weeks, and getting to write and blog all about it for Matador. He asked me to pick from a slew of dates in July and August as my mind raced all over the map from the Bolivian salt flats to Antofagasta, Chile. Maybe Big Corn Island, Nicaragua?
It was the best lottery I had ever played. The odds were tremendously good. I chose the latest dates in August, only because I had already jumped on the Edmonton folk fest press trip at the beginning of the month and thought I should work a few days in between trips to fluff the feathers of my holiday-generous boss (thank you Sara DeRuiter!).
Disclaimer: I do have a day job which finances my writing habit that I am exceedingly grateful for. And now, having acknowledged this on a social media platform, I probably owe my boss tequila shots or something to that effect for yet another work sabbatical granted. But, I digress.
I returned from the woods just as Josh left to go on his own camping trip in upstate NY. We were playing offline tag. When he returned he said, “How do you feel about Cuba?” And, more importantly, if I felt like he thought I was gonna feel about a writing gig + trip somewhere fab, he suggested I “get those shifts covered.”
I will leave for Havana on Monday still scratching Edmonton mosquito bites on my ankles. Between massages at my day job at Body Blitz I am doing a Cuba crash-course. Of course, I don’t imagine I’ll pull up much Spanish from the dark recesses of my 1994 brain. Prior to my volunteer work with Youth Challenge International (94-95)) in Costa Rica, I enrolled in a three month Spanish course at the local college. All was lost when my placement was in Alto Cuen, a village where the locals spoke Cabecar, not Spanish. However, I still remember these all important phrases:
“El gato es negro.” (The cat is black)
“Nunca comer más de lo que puede levantar.” (“Never eat more than you can lift.” ~Miss Piggy)
My meagre Spanish barely revived when Kim and I went to Holguin, Cuba in 2002. In my spirograph life of circles, it only makes sense that I return. Our time in Holguin was largely awash in rum (aka: The Original Rum Diaries made more famous by Johnny Depp). Our goal then? Tanning to a respectable shade of mahogany. We did nothing but lie prone and have a ball. A rum ball. Cuba libres, mojitos, daiquiris. It was your typical all-inclusive, culturally-exclusive resort. But it was February and we were from warmth-starved Canada. We had a homing instinct for the beach, and found exactly that. The ocean was as clear as Perrier and I swear you could see all the way to Florida underwater. We gave top marks to the sun and a boo to the menu. We renamed the hotel buffet the “barfet” and survived on nothing more than poolside pizza and pieces of gum. We were like boa constrictors, feeding ourselves once a day, basking and then shedding.
It’s time for a re-visit.
Pressed for time, I will have to cheat on my info uploading by renting Che from Queen Video (about Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara). Probably putting sleep on hold until my flight Monday morning, I’ll try and watch The Motorcycle Diaries again too, with hunky Gael Garcia Bernal portraying the young Che on his 1952 South American expedition/transformation.
I think I’ve got rum research down pat from our time in Belize earlier this year. And, I have a Hemingway novel under my belt (The Green Hills of Africa), which will lend to my appreciation of the Museo Hemingway. In 1939, Ernest Hemingway rented a villa at San Francisco de Paula, 15km southeast of Havana. He bought the house a year later and lived there until 1960. Lonely Planet urges a stroll through his garden to see his sentimental dog cemetery, his old fishing boat El Pilar and the pool where Ava Gardner swam naked.
On the bird front: the world’s smallest bird, the zunzun, lives here (Gran Parque Natural Montemar). The bee hummingbird is only 6.5cm long (think toothpick). Ivory-billed woodpeckers were last spotted in the early 80s in Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. Reading more about the flora and fauna I have learned that there is a “friendly” edible rodent (4kg)—the jutia. And, one of only two clear-winged butterflies in the world lives in Cuba (the mariposa de cristal). Oooh, and whale sharks frequent the Maria la Gorda area on the eastern tip from August to November.
Other miscellaneous Cuban highlights:
1. Responsible diving means minimizing your disturbance of marine animals. Lonely Planet says, “Never ride on the backs of turtles.”
2.”Most Cubans drink their rum straight up and, on more informal occasions, straight from the bottle.” ~Lonely Planet
3. Ron a granel (rum from the barrel) is also known as “drop her drawers” and “train sparks”
4. “Local chickens are born fried” and SPAM is alive and well.
5. There are over 200 cinemas in Havana.
6. Gyms in Havana and Holguin welcome foreigners for ‘friendly’ boxing training.
I’ve packed my pre-requisite Clif Bars and trail mix in lieu of SPAM and I think I’ll take the one-two punch of a Papa Hemingway Special (daiquiri made with grapefruit juice) at El Floridita versus a sinewy Cuban in satin shorts. Although, legend has it that Ernest pounded back 13 doubles in one sitting. Maybe a round in the ring is a better idea.
Stay tuned for updates August 20—September 1st as I hop on the Geckos Viva Cuba trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba to Camaguey to Trinidad to Santa Clara to Havana!