The Friday Traveller: Trudeaux, Cuba, and Me

So there was a brouhaha for a few days about the mostly unlamented death of Fidel Castro. Trudeau 1 and Trudeau 2 were involved. So I’ll insert myself, for your amusement.

Back in 1971 I was still a high school student. A relative from Nova Scotia was in town having actually produced some of the artwork in the True Patriot Love exhibition at the National Gallery, then hanging about at the Lorne Building on Elgin Street. The show invitation brought me to the Gallery at the same time as T1, and I didn’t wash my hand for days after.

Fast forward about 20 years, and with the wife and kid we went to Cuba for a post-Christmas holiday. Our resort was on the then-less-popular coast near Trinidad (the town, not the island). The regular civilian runway was closed, so we landed at a military field. We were instructed by our CPAir stewardess (such sexist terms back then !) to keep the window shades down, but of course I snapped a few pic with my Kodak Instamatic of the ageing MIG fighters and the sod-banked aircraft hangers.

The hotel we stayed at was architecturally superior but totally run down. Terrazzo floors were washed daily with mops and dirty water til they were black with grime. The place was noisy and echo-ey, our helpful guidebook identified the numerous types of police around the property, including the rifle-toting guards on the roof (unlife guards, ready to shoot anyone who swam out too far?).

The promised snorkelling boat was always unavailable due to shortages of fuel, except for its daily excursions out to sea in late afternoon festooned with rather intimidating East German guys who came back at dusk tossing the beer bottles while ignoring the Cuban crew shovelling the lobster shells overboard. Ditto the hotel moped fleet was always “already taken” to the point I got up one morning at five AM to try to get one only to see the last ones going out, “rented” of course by friends of the hotel staff. Hotel scooters had gas.

The reason I could wake up at 5 was because there was giant bulldozer, the biggest I’ve ever seen, on the lot next door filling in the tropical shoreline. The bulldozer squeaked horribly loudly, but of course the driver couldn’t just pop off to a hardware store or gas station to get some lube. How long before it seized up, probably forever?

In Caribbean countries at the time the warning was always to use only ice cubes with the hole them, ie made by a special ice machine, presumably that assured us they were made with clean water. These ice cubes were not available in Cuba, of course, but hotel staff sat around on benches with large Henckel carving knives hacking¬†up giant ice blocks into slivers. Said slivers then landed on the patio floor, the same place the embarrassingly sexist “floor show” had been the previous night, and were swept into metal boxes, later seen on the buffet.

The buffet food selection was, ahhh, limited. But lots of macaroni. In the brochure, we were promised a New Year’s Eve beach party with lobster. We were told this was cancelled. Because … T1 had been at the hotel for Christmas and the hotel has used up its entire month’s quota of meat and vegetables during that visit. There were stories on the beach that Fidel had visited them at the resort, which had about 50% foreign tourists * and 50% upper class Cubans.

The hotel also had a landward side, where I was lounging one day by the pool reading a book. I had brought several on Cuba, Che, and the Revolution. I usually read books about where I am about to go and while I am there. I became aware of a little girl standing in front of me with her jaw hanging down. She pointed at me, and talked away in Spanish. Some adults came and swept her up and away. An American * tourist nearby spoke Spanish, and laughingly said she thinks I am Castro. Whaaat?

Well, I had a beard (rather fuller then) and in Cuba it was (then) illegal for anyone to have a beard except for the original revolutionaries. Modern residents didn’t need beards, because the permanent and everlasting revolution was won. Or maybe it was the pic of Fidel on the back cover of my book. Or maybe it was that Fidel had actually been there the week before. I was probably flattered.

There were grumblings from the unruly mob of tourists at the lack of boat, lack of mopeds, lack of food, lack of NYE party … and suddenly it was announced there would be a beach party after all.

The beach had a huge crowd on New Year’s Eve, way more people than could be staying at the hotel. Many were Cubans, heads up, wearing awfully nice clothes and festooned with so much gold jewellery that if they fell in the water they would have sunk like a stone. A totally different class from the staff in the hotel itself who kept their chins down even when always glancing sideways fearfully.

We lined up for a small bit of lobster, then a separate line for the turkey or chicken. Astonishingly, the chef would take a bird, put it on the table, hack off a chunk of breast from each side, then throw the bird into a metal bin under the table, before giving us a piece of meat. As we left the lineup, the CP “hostess” was last-calling for any more guests ¬†… the tourist line was through … and the hundreds of Cubans lined up and the chef recarved the birds for the locals.

Having already travelled a bit in East Germany (when there was that country), and several times through Tito’s Yugolsavia (when there was that country), enjoyed the student riots in Lima, Sendaro Luminoso blackouts in Arequipa, and the riots in Pamplona (the police bent my tentpole when they kicked down my tent, which was so unnecessary, I resent it to this day, and I had to throw away the souvenir tear gas canister when it stunk up my backpack, and I lost/someone stole my rubber bullet souvenir), and paddled and hiked a bit in the Amazon, I felt I knew something about the world. But that trip to Cuba pretty much kyboshed my enthusiasm for government socialism.

I had finally discovered for myself the problem with an economic system that undervalued capital.

Milton Friedman was looking better, but of course one couldn’t watch that program in Canada. It took years of running my own business and unlearning Econ 101 from Carleton to learn to appreciate capital, return on capital, and what happens when capital has no return.

Actually, as I dust through the memory banks, there was a third brush with T1 (which is supposed to be the subject of this story, after shaking hands and him eating my lunch). Fresh out of graduate school and aforementioned back-packing trip in Yugoslavia, I got a gig with the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs (we had one back then). On my second day at the job, everyone except me and the secretaries got called in and were told T1 had cancelled the agency. Fortunately for me the civil service looks after its own, and within a few days I landed a job at Transport Canada in urban policy.

You may now resume doing whatever useful thing it was that you were doing.



*Foreigners included [East] Germans, Canadians, and Americans. Americans? In Cuba? In the seventies? Of course, even then there were daily flights from Miami to resupply the American non-Embassy outpost. But our Americans were mostly from Minneapolis, who went up to Winnipeg to catch flights to the cheapest holidays in the Caribbean. Perhaps they were inured to the slave trade? The Cubans conveniently did not stamp their passports. Apparently Canadian customs were tougher on the cigar limit than the US border crossing.






One thought on “The Friday Traveller: Trudeaux, Cuba, and Me

  1. Well things DID change, as my vacation experiences (several) in the early 2000s were quite
    satisfying. One had to be in the 4 star plus resorts of course. Enjoyed a great golf holiday there just a couple of years ago, on the only golf course in the country. My regret is only that this experience will now change drastically as crass commercialism invades the last frontier.

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