Day 1: Santa Clara

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 1: A jet plane, a Lada and food! Glorious food!

December 15, 2015, SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The flight lasted only three and a half hours, delivering two Canadians from an un-naturally warm late autumn to sub-tropical heat. It seems also to have landed us in a world that Time has almost forgotten.

A blurry cellphone photo of the Aeropuerto Abel Santamaria, just after we deplaned.

The Aeropuerto Abel Santamaria in Santa Clara is small and it is old. The terminal reminds me the one in Casablanca: a single long, low building towards which airplanes approach but never touch. There are no jet bridges, only stair-cases on wheeles, trundled up to the airplaines. (This old-fashioned approach has one notable benefit: we debark from both front and rear of the airplane, instead of only from the front.)

We walk from the tarmac to the terminal, then take our place in a slow-moving line to get through Immigration. The procedure turns out to be perfunctory. I was first asked whether I had recently been to Africa, then a few questions about the purpose and length of my stay. Then I was waved through with another stamp (my second! Big time traveller!) on my passport. Raven emerged from another booth moments later.

Most of the women working here sport mini-skirts and lace hose with platform shoes, as if the costume designer from the original Star Trek had become a fashion guru in 21st century Cuba. In another fashion surprise, none of the guards seem to be armed, either with guns or with attitude.

From Immigration, we passed through a quick and dirty security screening (pockets emptied, bags passed through an x-ray machine, but nothing removed from them) to the baggage claim area. Where our suitcase, as we had feared, was not to be found.

We spent a good 15 minutes waiting to fill out a lost bag form, then finally made our way out into the wider world, where our pre-arranged driver was still (thank God!) waiting for us. He spotted our sign (for reasons obscure to me, drivers at the Santa Clara airport are no longer allowed to hold signs bearing the names of their intended passengers; but the passengers themselves are free to identify themselves or, as we did, to hold up a sign bearing the name of their driver).

A small man in his early or mid-60s, Gorge speaks no English, but I managed through gestures and my inadequate references to our Spanish phrase-book, to make it clear we need to buy some local currency (CUCs) before proceeding. A little more time and Raven's passport and we were on our way at last.

Gorge's taxi was an exercise in nostalgia and terror.

Image: a blue Lada photographed on the streets of Santa Clara, Cuba.

Nostalgia, because the car was a Lada, a vehicle my mother bought in the late 1970s, on which I learned to drive a standard shift. Terror, because Gorge's car was built before the one my mum bought in 1978 or '79. And also, there wasn't a seat-belt in sight. Also unlike my mother's, this vehicle's shocks were basically non-existent; the result was bumpy ride that made it feel we were moving faster than we actually were, a bit like we were in a go-cart.

The road from the airport to our casa particular (basically, a private hotel or, in this case, bed-and-breakfast) wasn't bad, but it was dark; street lights seem in short supply here. It was also narrow and it was busy, with everything from pedestrians and cyclists (usually running without lights), to horse-drawn carts (some of those built from the remains of pick-up trucks), to motorcycles, to cars and trucks.

Gorge didn't drive fast, but he would get really close before he passed another vehicle, and to make that manoeuvre extremely tightly. He made frequent use of his high and low beams, engaging in complicated exchanges with both oncoming vehicles and those he intended to pass. If I were going to drive here, I would need to learn that 'language' for sure.

Hostal Oasis

Image: Detail of the Hostal Oasis seen from the street.

Our casa particular is located more or less in downtown Santa Clara, on a very narrow, tree-less, cobble-stone street with ultra-narrow sidewalks. Urban as hell — for a 19th century value of urban.

The two-storey stone building (at least, I think it's stone; but maybe adobe?) is old and worn, and built with what to a Canadian is a shocking indifference to drafts. Oh yeah: and there's at least one lizard in residence, currently making itself at home high up the wall of the front room.

Image: A composite photo showing the front room and bedroom of our suite at Hostal Oasis in Santa Clara.

Our hosts, Carlos and Damari, are very welcoming. Their English is limited, but enough for us to communicate. Our suite (yes, suite!) includes a sitting room which opens on a bedroom, with a bathroom beyond that. Its furnishings have seen better days and the beds, a single and a double, have that soft and sagging quality one might find in the spare room of an aging relative's cottage. Things seem clean, though, but there is no soap in the bathroom. (Which reminds us that our missing luggage is going to become a real drag if it doesn't show up soon. At the moment, only Raven's emergency supply of liquid facial cleanser — a whopping 50 milliliters! — packed in her carry-on bag, stands between us and terminal grime.)

And then came dinner. A revelation!

Image: The author contemplates a brilliant meal at Hostal Oasis.

We had been warned that Cuban food is bland, that we should bring our own salt. I now think those warnings came from people who spent their time exclusive at resorts because, unless our first meal at Hostal Oasis was an anomaly, Cuban food is delicious!

We were each provided a massive portion of rice and beans, delicately flavoured and low-key enough to properly serve as hand-maiden to a superb dish of spiced pork and a side of yucca (cassava), boiled twice, then served with a mixture of warm lemon juice, garlic and onions. Just one taste, and we decided that yucca, a flavourful, chewy root — like a potato with texture — is going to enter heavy rotation on our own table when we get home.

As we ate, the sounds of the street echoed from the open window high above the front door: voices calling in the dark, occasional motor-vehicles rumbling by and the regular clip-clop, clip-clop of passing horses.

Carlos and Damari mostly left us to our meal, but checked in regularly to make sure everything was okay. As we were winding down Carlos asked if we enjoyed music, then sat down at a battered piano I had presumed was more a furnishing than an active instrument. The piece he played was lovely and might have come from a film-score. But he said it was his own composition.

Another world indeed.

All things considered, I'm sure as hell not in Canada anymore! And so far, I am very happy about our decision to 'rough it' outside of the resorts.

And tomorrow: We'll explore the streets of Santa Clara!

Next up: Day 2 – The Streets of Santa Clara

Previous: Problog – Security Theatre of the absurd

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