Tom Cruise, lost in Havana
…and the real Cuba
In the latest installment of her ongoing Immersive Travel series, Mariellen Ward recounts her very first experience of coming face-to-face with difference while traveling.
A long time ago, when I first started traveling, and Cuba was still a developing destination even to French Canadians, I went on a last-minute vacation with my two best girlfriends to a very basic resort on a pristine beach about one hour from Havana.
It was my first time out of North America. I didn’t really have any measure of comparison due to inexperience, but I could still tell we were on a very down-market vacation package. The plane was a Russian cast-off. The windows were dressed in curtains — curtains! — that would have been kitschy in the 1950s, and when the plane took off the bathroom door flew open and a roll of toilet paper danced jauntily down the centre aisle, much to our amusement.
The resort was no better, though in truth we loved it. We had an unadorned, bunker-like “cabana” to ourselves. Salt water came out of the shower, temporarily aging our 20-something skin by about 15 years, and several times I had to capture and dispose of giant flying cockroaches (my friends were too afraid to go near them).
But the beach was divine, we ate fresh grilled lobster by the side of the simple swimming pool and each evening at happy hour a man cycled up to our cabana pulling a tub full of ice and offered us bottles of cold Cuban beer and the best rum I ever tasted, for a song. After a forgettable dinner in the communal dining hall one night, some local musicians gathered to play. All these years later, I can still hear the sweet lilting notes of the blind guitarist as he set them free to drift on the tropical breeze.
The resort offered horseback riding in the low mountains, so we went one day with a lean guide who wore a bandana around his neck and a mean scar across his abdomen. Something to do with a knife fight. We walked to other resorts down the beach, swam, drank cold Cuban beer and grew restless. We yearned to have a taste of the local culture, though of course it was not encouraged.
One day, we simply walked out to the road and waited for the local bus by the side of the jungle, where we saw a full-size tarantula spider on the trunk of a palm tree. I would much rather have faced a flock of giant flying cockroaches.
The real Cuba had begun.
We took the bus to a nearby village, walked in the market and went to a small cafe. When I had to use the washroom, I was shown a filthy outhouse filled with flies and an unbearable stench. Growing up in middle class Canada, I had never seen anything like it, never conceived of anything like it.
After this small adventure, we felt ready for Havana. So the next day, we took the bus in the opposite direction, into the Cuban capital, and spent a happy day wandering in the dilapidated colonial district. We saw Hemingway’s fabled watering hole, marveled at the big old American cars held together with rope and hope, watched women rolling cigars in a small, fragrant workshop and sat in the shadow of the Gothic cathedral eating suckling-pig sandwiches that would later make us ill.
At the end of a long day of adventuring, we realized we had no idea how to get back to our resort. We stood in the centre of town, where others were standing at a bus stop, and after some moments of panic, finally caught the attention of a remarkably good-looking young man who spoke some — not much — English. He helped us get the right bus, the same one he was taking, and we all sat together in the back and tried to talk about our lives.
All these years later, I can’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember one thing with distinct clarity. As we were nearing our stop, my friend took out her copy of Vanity Fair magazine, featuring a youthful Tom Cruise on the cover, and gave it to the young man, gesturing that she thought they looked alike. He was overjoyed, and absolutely gushed with gratitude and pleasure. Not because we thought he looked like Tom Cruise (he did), but because he saw the price of the magazine on the cover: $2.00. Two. American. Dollars.
It was, to him, a hugely extravagant gift. And as he gushed, I didn’t know where to look. I felt embarrassed for him and suddenly self-conscious of my own privilege. I had come face-to-face with the reality of economic disparity and with my own identity as a middle class Canadian.
This was the real Cuba I wanted to experience, and it made me uneasy. But I’m glad. I’m glad we gave him the magazine — though the gift was not nearly as generous as he thought — and I’m glad I had my first real experience of the bittersweet rewards of immersive travel.