L and I opted to go to Havana and take in a walking tour of the oldest part of the city followed by the show at the Tropicana
. If the Tropicana is good enough for Sky Masterson and Sister Sarah Brown
, then it's good enough for me.
We left early, though not as early as planned (this was fine with me as I had a wee case of lower intestinal distress, brought on by the local water or possibly misbegotten libations
, requiring occasional but rapid use of the toilet). Our bus was late arriving, and then we went to ten other resorts picking people up, finally waiting at the last one for ten minutes due to one couple getting on the wrong bus earlier.
When they say it takes 2.5 hours to get from Varadero to Havana, they mean 1.5 hours actual driving and 1 hour of farting around.
First stop was across the highway from the Havana Gold factory (where they make the rum) where I had my first real Pîna Colada - i.e. one made with fresh natural ingredients as opposed to a mixer. It was the most delicious Pîna Colada I've ever tasted.
As an aside, they made these drinks virgin. If you wanted rum in yours a bottle was provided on the counter, like a free condiment. You could rum yourself up as much as you wanted or not at all, no charge. This leads me to believe that rum in Cuba is a little like snow in Canada - just part of the environment and certainly not worth charging for. The guy ahead of me in line served himself up a triple. Me, I left it virgin since I didn't feel like drinking at ten in the morning.
Then we drove into Cuba. Roberto, our guide told us some history of Cuba as well as some of the current culture. He also gave us dire warnings about Jineteros
(hustlers) trying to sell us banana leaf cigars or similar tricks.
Some hustlers are more subtle and better placed. Roberto, for example, used his spiel to convince us to get our touristy goods from the gift shop at a local Cuban fort turned tourist attraction. He handled the goods, made his speeches about each one, then went behind the counter to help bag the goods as we bought them (I myself bought an assload of rum - so much so that I have to get garething
to use some of their duty free allowance to help) - if he's not getting kickbacks from the operator I'd be surprised.
We were also told to go to the gift-shop prior to checking out the fort, which seems to support my conclusions about Roberto.
He was very passionate about Cuba though, and other then his strange fascination with the Fort's gift-shop, really towed the party line. He really pushed the huge gains in the country's standard of living under Castro (Universal education, health care, etc.) and also really hammered on the injustice of the American embargo. Given his rather biased position I plan on looking these things up when I get home.
As an aside I think that Cuba has done well under communist rule. They certainly seem to have a healthier, better educated, population then any of the other Caribbean islands. Of course, could it have been better if they became socialist like Norway or Finland instead of communist like Russia? I think so. I certainly think they're better off now then they would have been under puppet rule by the US government and it's corporations (and organized crime).
But I digress. Continuing on the tour, we went to "new" Havana, taking in the Soviet-like splendor of Revolutionary Square. It was impressive in a way, not for it's architecture but for it's iconization of various revolutionary figures, chief among them Che Guevara. If you want to be idolized, die young. The reality of life under Castro guarantees that his face, recognizable as it is, will not be gracing a million t-shirts.
After this we took a drive-by (camera) shooting of the local cemetery. I'd have preferred to have been there on foot, but I have a sneaking suspicion that our lateness forced a tour change.
Next was our walking tour of "old" Havana, where the well dressed tourist traps and old cigar-smoking ladies hang out. These ladies have ninja-like reflexes despite being between eighty and a thousand years old. If you don't pay them a convertible peso, all you'll get is a fan covering their face and verbal abuse.
We saw Hemingway's hotel, the old Bacardi mansion, the old presidential residence, and some truly brilliant examples of 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture.
We had some free time so we checked out the goofiest museum ever, the tour guides worked for tips (we didn't realize this at first) and you could pretty much bribe any of them to let you touch the exhibits. Want to blow your nose on the American flag that the Cubans got in a 1902 naval battle? Knock yourself out. I wouldn't do it myself of course, because desecrating anyone's flag is wrong, but I did feel the flag. It had the rough texture you'd expect from thick silk left in a humid environment for over 100 years.
One of the guides tried to aggressively "help" us. This would have been better (and tip producing) if we'd shared a common language.
We next went to a flea market selling tons of cheap touristy stuff and art (some of which was very good, and I damn near bought). That's when the rain storm hit. We we're under a long canopy made up of about a hundred tarps. Most of this canopy was leaky and it was a soak-to-the-skin deluge if you got caught in it. Luckily it ended a few minutes before we had to get back to the bus - which was also second in line in the line of fifty buses.
The bus took the drowned rats to a hotel that was letting us use the rooms to freshen up before that night's cabaret. The hotel, given it's room, lobby, buffet, etc, was pretty half-assed. Too bad really because it was just a wee bit short of being a truly good hotel - the staff just needed to make an effort. Our server was very good though.
During supper we were regaled by the ubiquitous Cuban band. They ended one number with "shave and a haircut - two bits" which amused me. Later, I caught one of the band members going through our recently abandoned table looking for the tips we left our waiter. Not cool. Luckily we tipped the waiter directly.
All through the buffet it was pouring rain outside. To understand why this is an issue you have to know that the Tropicana club is an outdoor
venue. Heavy rain can force the show into a much smaller venue inside, which necessitates turning patrons away. We crossed our fingers and it stopped raining as we finished eating.
It started puring again when we got there and took out seats five minutes prior to curtain. The last deluge of the night lasted about half an hour. After this the staff scurried around trying to decide if that was all the rain or not. Eventually the management decided to risk it. We took our seats again and the show started - about an hour late.
Everything that went wrong that day - the perpetual lateness of everything, the scam artists, the half-assed hotel and rubber-chicken lunch - it was all made right again by the Tropicana Cabaret.
It was simply the best cabaret show I've ever seen. I can't even imagine what could make the show better. Sloppy make-outs with the performers I suppose, but then it's not really a cabaret anymore.
This show is what Cats
wants to be when it grows up. It's like every burlesque show I've ever been too distilled into something that was then performed by world class dancers, gymnasts, acrobats and singers.
They call the Tropicana show the best of its kind in the world. I see no reason to disagree. If you have reason to go to Cuba and can only do one thing - this is it.
I'll post a link to some pictures when I have them (L took numerous, awesome, photos).
After the show I gained another bottle of rum (a bottle of rum is provided to every table along with cola for every patron, all included in the price of admission) and added it to my collection. I now have enough rum to last me about ten years unless I start drinking more.
We all snoozed on the long trip home. We pulled into the resort at about 3:30 am and passed out soon after heads hit pillows. Happy and exhausted.