As the snow flies once again here in Edmonton, I find myself thinking of the scorching hot days I spent in Cuba only a few weeks ago. I would love to share one of my most memorable days in my life with you all.
Whenever I travel, I make a concerted effort to speak the local language. When in Quebec, French is attempted. In India, I dabbled in a little Hindi. So when in Mexico or Cuba I do everything possible to speak Spanish. One of the servers at the buffet of our hotel (Barceló Solymar for those who might be thinking of a Cuba vacation) was kind enough to help me with my pronunciation and word choice. His name is Francisco, but goes by Pancho. He explained that most people named Francisco are called Pancho (and José’s are called Pepe for some reason). He is a kind, older man with a friendly smile. I appreciated his tutoring very much.
A few days into the trip, he asked me if I would like to get a tour of the community where he lives. My skeptical mind knew there was a catch but I was prepared to spend a few Pesos to get the opportunity to see and photograph the “real” Cuba.
I met up with him at the end of his shift and we started our trek towards town. Shortly after we started walking a taxi driver started honking at us and stopped to say hello. It was a friend of Pancho’s. We got in and sped into town. After our 10 minute ride we got out and I asked Pancho how much I owed. He just waived me along. It was free.
He went to another friend’s house to get the keys to the car he was borrowing for our adventure (I was adding a few more Pesos to the cost I thought I was originally going to be paying).
After stopping for $5 of gas (which I had to force him to take my money for) we were on our way to his little community that is on the outskirts of Varadero. Santa Marta is the official name. It was awesome! We stopped at his house first so he could give me a quick tour of his home. It was nicer than I thought it would be for some reason. It was like a smaller apartment but had everything his family needed.
We then headed to see his mechanic friends. He is getting his car rebuilt after his step-son pretty much totalled it in an accident a while back. The mechanics first looked at me like “Who the hell is Pancho bringing by here???” but quickly welcomed me when they realized I was a friend. We had a quick rum break and then we headed out again.
He showed me various little hangouts in the area and then we headed back to Varadero. We stopped at Kiki’s Club for a drink. Of course it was run by a friend of his (Pancho pretty much knows everyone in Varadero, I’m convinced). We ordered a few drinks and had some cheese bread (some really, really good cheese bread I should add) and when I asked for the bill, it was about ¼ of what it should have been. His friend gave us a pretty sweet deal for sure.
After Kiki’s Club we headed to Plaza Las Americas where his wife Ana works. She is a sweet older lady as well – a former History teacher who now works at a t-shirt store. We left Ana at her store and we explored the mall. There is a big department/grocery store in the mall that we went into. I was noticing the prices of things and pointed out the price of powdered milk to Pancho. He started to explain that it is very expensive for them to buy things. Aha… here it comes. The big “we’re so poor, can you give us money Brad?” speech. I asked him what I could get for him. Was there something I could buy them? He immediately got upset. He said “NO! I can’t complain about how bad we have it. Everyone in the world has their own problems. We aren’t the only ones.” And that was the last time we would talk about the living conditions in Cuba.
We zipped back to pick his wife up after her shift ended and made our way to Don Quixote’s for a drink. I had a Mojito, Pancho got a Cuba Libre and Ana had a beer. When it was time to leave, Pancho asked the bartender (another friend of his) for the bill. They started arguing. My Spanish was not good enough to figure out what they were saying. Finally, Pancho turned to me and said “He won’t let us pay”. HA!! How horrible. I put 5 Pesos on the bar for him and he would not take it. I forced it on him (stuck it under an ashtray) so he cracked a beer and handed it to Pancho. It was awesome to see such friendship.
He dropped me off at the hotel and when I was getting out I thanked him for such a great day and asked that he take some money for his time. He pushed my hand away and said “It was my pleasure. It was fun for me. You are my friend”. I walked out of that car with the greatest feeling in the world.
He had the next day off but when I saw him the next day he explained that him and Ana would like to have me over to his house for a traditional Cuban dinner.
So a few days later I was off in a cab to Santa Marta to meet Pancho. I had a meal of rice and beans, slow-cooked pork, yucca, fried bananas, and sautéed green peppers. That’s not to mention the best Cuba Libre I have ever had to drink!!!
A few hours later I was off in a cab back to my hotel. What an experience.
On my last day at the hotel I gave Pancho a letter thanking him for the great experience and had a bit of money stuffed in there. I knew he wouldn’t let me pay him anything so I had to hide it. I know he will appreciate the money but he’s probably mad that I did it.
The reason I love travelling is seeing new worlds, hearing other languages and experiencing other cultures. I did not ever think I would get the real look at Cuba that I got this time. I will never forget it.