Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tales from TheGlamtrak: Jodi James, Cuba

I’m soooo excited to bring to you this guest blog post from my good good friend – Jodi James! Jodi is one of the funniest, quirkiest people I’ve ever met and I’m sooo happy that Ramona gifted her to me hahaha. Jodi and her beau Ryan (who we are all mad sick in LOVE with) took what I consider to be an envious trip to Cuba last year *rolls eyes*. Not only is Cuba rich in history, but it is near and dear to my heart for the single fact that my grandmother is from Camaguey, Cuba!

Unfortunately, due to some pretty old LAME laws, I can’t LEGALLY travel to Cuba. Although, I think, given the opportunity Prezi Obama will soon work that out for us Americanos. Sooooo when I heard Jodi was going and that she wasn’t willing to smuggle me in her suitcase I settled for a guest blog….which arrived about a year later. Jodi is in med school, so we’ll just let her tardiness slide… this time ;-)

More than one year later…

Cuba. Haha. What a funny place. Perhaps some of the funny parts were related to my company, but funny nonetheless.

I just want to start out by saying that doing research to plan a trip to Cuba is difficult. Not everything is online, and we had no clue how things really work over there and trying to get in touch with people in Cuba via email/on the phone proved to be really difficult, so we just did everything through a travel agent. We did look at some things online...but that part of the story comes later. Just take note that we definitely looked at our hotel online, prior to our arrival at said hotel.

I just want to make a point - why is Cuba 90 miles from Jamaica, but we still had to stop in Grand Cayman? I'm just saying...moving on.

So I think the first part that got me was the applause that burst forth from the passengers upon landing. Now, it's not that I'm not used to it, I am Jamaican and Jamaicans clap when the flight lands most of the time, but there were probably only 6 Jamaicans on that flight, but the majority of passengers were clapping. I was dying, I mean, we obviously were at home here in Cuba. Jokes for days. (I am easily amused) Came off the plane, no jet way, passengers had 8000 pieces of hand luggage including TVs; you cyaan tell me I wasn't in Jamaica except I couldn't understand most of what these people were saying. Immigration hall looks pretty normal, arrivals, the usual jazz...UNTIL. So first off, we're travelling together so going to the immigration officer together didn't seem like a problem to either of us. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! You WILL see the officer separately, the other person WILL stand behind the line. You WILL whip out all your documents in your little cubicle that reminded me of a cow trap with a .gate' through which I could not see to the other side. There is a mirror kind of behind you placed up high so that the officer can see if you are doing any hanky panky behind your back with the 4 inches of space that you have. It's like private time with you and immigration officer. There WILL be no distractions let me tell you. The gate that lets you out of the cow trap is a door that leads to only God knows what on the other side as you wouldn't know since the glass is gangsta tinted and the only way that that door is opening is after you've satisfied the officer that you're only here to do good and he/she buzzes you through. Now listen, as a Jamaican, I thought immigration in the US made me sweaty under the armpits, but listen, when I dared to look back at Ryan (my partner in crime), I kept wondering how this was all going to pan out...Anyway, no problems there. I went through to the other side. Door shuts. Pray for Ryan.

The Far Side. Lordy. It was so much louder on this side and there were people like dirt and now I'm in another line, and WTF, why do I have to put my hand luggage through an x-ray scanner upon arrival??!?!? We already played this game to get on the plane! So new line, about to scan my hand luggage and where is Ryan? Phew, he's through and all is well. Pass the scanning station and now I'm bombarded with questions about my illness. What illness? I'm not sick! Something something about some health form...I'm really not sure what happened with that, but I turned mine into a health officer' I assume. Alright, get the bags easily and let's go! I've left out a piece of the story, but you'll have to talk to me about that in person.

Ok, so stepping outside felt like arriving in Kingston about 15 years ago. The heat hits you, NUFF people all trying to cross the barriers, stuff on the ground, felt like a whirlwind. A lady with a sign is saying, and it's also written on the sign eh, “Cheng x 2”. Jokes for days. Cheng. Not Chen. Cheng. NB, we were Cheng for the rest of the week. NB our names are Jodi James and Ryan Chen. This lady takes us to our taxi which is fairly modern, but trust me, all the other cars are NOT. Hmmm. Anyway, she gets in the taxi with us, tells us she's not staying with us, this guy will take us to Varadero, it's far, we'll stop for food,  all that jazz. Excellent. We stop somewhere and let her off. On our way! Adventures!!! Varadero, here we come!

WTF?!?!?! Why did we end up in Tivoli Gardens? Liberty City? College Park? Look, I don't know where you're from, but you know the ghetto part of town that you have no desire to visit for no reason? We were there. Buildings crumbling, potholes, clothes hanging out of every window (which we found out was the norm…). Definitely government housing and it wasn't awesome and now we're stopping at a building and waiting. WHAT?? Well I had already decided that I wasn't going to die in Cuba, so I calmed down. But my partner in crime...on edge. We eventually ask why we're here and in broken English we decipher that the driver is tired...and the drive is he's taking along another taxi driver to help with the driving. NB -they don't speak English and we don't speak Spanish. Ok, fine, everyone speaks VERY little of the other language. On our way! Yes!

So from the plane, all the roads in Cuba looked great. On the roads, the roads were less great. =) Still feels like home. Potholes, crazy driving, people standing up on the highway begging a lift, jokes. And now I'm feeling tired so...sleepy time. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I wake up about 2 hours later, (yep this is a long drive) and we're turning onto this coastal road and all seems well. I'm feeling good, happy, look over to Ryan - EYES BUGGING OUT OF HIS HEAD. Of course I'm laughing hysterically and he can't seem to find the humour in the situation of how I could have fallen asleep and if I wasn't worried that there weren't taking us to the right place because we just drove through ghetto after ghetto and roads were terrible and how could I in my right mind have fallen asleep especially since we were supposed to have been driving on the coast the whole time and the scenery was supposed to be awesome? (if you know me, you know I'm NOT in my right mind) Well, because I trust that you will keep everything in order. This is how much I trust you. I can fall asleep knowing you're next to me. Eyes have not yet retracted to normal. Coastal road looks beautiful to me, world is beautiful, I had nothing to complain about. Turns out that these guys took a shortcut. I don't know how short it was, but I've slept and happy as a lark. Oh Ryan, you're my favourite.

So to get into Varadero you apparently need a good reason and go through a toll booth and all kinds of madness. But it really is unspoilt land for the most part. Very pretty I thought and only hotels down there. We get to almost the end of this strip of land and these guys don't even know where our hotel is because it's pretty new and pretty far. By the time we get there, we hadn't even had a chance to change any money, didn't know how the tipping went, didn't know what to do with this .voucher' that we had gotten. Totally confused, but we said goodbye, the drivers looked under the hood of the car, bellboy, in perfect English welcomed us and took our bags and we were on the way inside! Place looked great; nice big open lobby, checking in was easy, great.

So Varadero is a tourist town. Everything seems .perfect'. You're in an enclosed environment, there's always food, sun, water and the ambiance just niiice man. Ibero Star was good value for money. There was always food available, it wasn't the BEST food we had ever eaten, but it could gwaan still. Never saw as much pork as everyone had told us beforehand. Lovely pools, beach, gym, spa, cigars, rum, coffee (I should have mentioned those first - rum, coffee and cigars). 3 or 4 days was enough for us. Relaxation is moderate doses, before you get bored.

With whom?

Varadero. Downtown is cute and quaint. Lots of beautiful old American cars(like all over Cuba), honey mojitos, arts and craft. Honestly, I can't even remember if we ate there...but somehow I think we didn't. By the way, I love trying to figure out public transport when you don't really speak the language. Jokes. Definitely enjoyed Varadero. Ready for Habana now. Varadero, the tourist bubble…

Now that's when the real jokes began. So first off, the drive was definitely different from the one there. We were on a bus, scenery was different, more people, made a stop and had pina coladas. Bus ride man. Enter Habana...Ryan's first question - was Havana bombed? Listen, is true, Havana waan some paint. Nah lie. Where is Berger/Sherwin Williams when you need them? It's pretty amazing how dem lacking in paint. Everyone gets dropped off at their various hotels and they seem to go from
5 start hotels to 1 star hotels in that order. We got dropped off almost last. Hmmm. This is NOT what the hotel looked like on the website. We had definitely looked at our hotel on the website and even chose this hotel based on what we saw. Let me tell you that looks can be deceiving and then looks can be exactly what they seem...WOW. The fountain at the front had no water in it, the place hadn't been painted for years, the driveway, the lobby, NOTHING looked like it did on the website. About the empty pool…

And as for the room…! When we got into the room, Ryan's look of disgust said it all. I wish that you had been there to see it. I wish I could have captured it. I wish that I could express it in words, but I can't. His look was classic. The room was 1 star. There was a bed and furniture. I'll leave it at that. The bathroom was decent...maybe we could sleep in there.

Well, it seemed like a good time to eat if you asked me, so we went to find some food. NB neither of us speaks Spanish very bien. Well, somehow, we get the door man to hail us a taxi to take us to a restaurant where the food is supposedly good. Well, once in the taxi, Ryan asks me to ask the driver to stop at some other hotels so that we can check if there are any available rooms at their hotels REGARDLESS OF THE COST. Short story, no hotels had any rooms for us. So we went to eat anyway. Well, by now it was dark and we were in a foreign land and the dark and dirty building with the dark and dirty stairway did NOT make us feel comfortable about what the food was about to be like, but we followed the taxi driver up the stairs while he assured us how good the food was. #help. Well, mek I tell you how surprised I was when we got to the top of the stairs and found glass doors, a friendly hostess, a good looking, newly renovated restaurant, live music and attractive waitresses. #totalshock. Really, I was beside myself. My mouth was really open. Well, the driver said he'd wait for us, we had already worked out decent price for the trip, we sat down to a not very tasty meal, but some food definitely helped us to deal with this hotel problem.
So...we went back to our hotel and decided to ask for another room. I couldn't imagine that they had anything that was better, but I was willing to try...Well, this is where we got another beautiful outburst from Ryan Chen.
So we're speaking to the receptionist and telling her that the room is nothing like what we expected, and we'd really like another room or we'd like to go to another hotel and I'm nodding and expressing my feelings, supporting and then I hear, “And, and, there isn't even a FITTED SHEET ON THE BED!!!!” I had to stop nodding immediately and figure out where this outburst came from. Our friend Ryan.

Remember, I say and do all kinds of things as well, but I'm the one writing this and I'm not making fun of my love, I'm just pointing out some parts of our trip that had me absolutely popping up.

Right. No fitted sheet. Nod emphatically, of course. I'm with him because I don't like the room either, so whatever we need to do or say, I'm with him. Later, I will laugh. Now hear this joke - somehow they find a room for us on the 20th (executive) floor and it was 40 times better than the first room. Not PERFECT, but wow, what a difference and we were definitely ok with this room.

So we took this room and it was time for bed. I had to bring it up though… I couldn't sleep without asking about...THE FITTED SHEET! My favourite was most distressed about the lack of the fitted sheet and we still didn't get a fitted sheet in this new room!!! With his hospitality experience, you just don't make people sleep in a bed without a fitted sheet. 2 flat sheets WILL NOT DO! But trust me, it did and we slept. Note to self, never make a bed for Ryan without a fitted sheet. My mother pointed out to me that fitted sheets weren't really the trend till the 50s and Cuba is a bit behind.#fittedsheetsareimportant

The rest- great fun! New Havana (aka Habana)is not very pretty.

Old Havana, Habana vieja, is soooo pretty. I would suggest a bus tour - we really enjoyed that. There's this wall where all the lovers hang out at night by the sea, I thought it was super cute. The lovers weren't there during the day...

23rd St was pretty fun! At least, I think it was 23. Calle 23. Jazz clubs and bars and lots of people. We had a great time at the jazz bar where the bartender taught us to make mojitos. The  show at the Hotel Nacional was purdy fun, but it was a bit long for me.

El Bodequita del Medio, famous for its mojitos was fabulous - you must go there.

El Floridita - famous for its daiquiris was also great fun.

Don't bother go with the gentlemen who offers to sell you cigars for cheap unless you want jokes/to be annoyed. You will end up in di people dem house and they will retrieve cigars from God knows where and try to sell them to you for cheap. Some of them will be green I'm sure. It's not that they are not made in Cuba by Cubans, but basically, these are the reject cigars. The cigar factories will not sell them with their name on them because they are NOT up to scratch. Buyers beware. I'm pretty sure they are illegal. I would just leave them alone. These men are very persistent though. Be warned.

Go on a cigar tour! Nuff fun!

Check out the National Museum.

Take a ride in an old time American car taxi. And GO OLD HAVANA! Habana vieja is beautiful. It has been renovated and the architecture is beautiful, it has been PAINTED, there are all kinds of restaurants and cute stores and lots of people and it really was probably the highlight of our trip. We kept going back there.

The Cuban triad - coffee, rum and cigars. These 3 things transform you. I am Jamaican and I will talk up Blue Mountain coffee till I die, but me nah lie, mi enjoy di Cuban coffee. And is not that sh*t you get in Miami with a ton of sugar. I think the one I really liked was “una cortada” or something like that. Cuban coffee did mek it. And the rum, I mean, it wasn't Jamaican rum either, but after your coffee, with a cigar, yow, mek it. I mean, I'm not a smoker, but a one puff here or there just to .taste' the flavour did mek it. I mostly stuck to coffee and rum, but there is something about a Cuban Cuba. Romantic was just RIGHT. You have to go to believe me. But listen, nuh bodder guh with your attitude that is one bag of stainless steel appliances and granite counter top lifestyle. Ahm, no. But Cuba was a definite #win.

Jodi James, Kay lover for life and guest blogger.

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