Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017
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Christmas in Cuba

Canadians are flocking to Castro's island nation for superior -- and affordable -- winter vacations

Last Christmas was the first to attain the status of legal holiday in Fidel Castro's Cuba in 28 years, unquestionably part of a trade-off negotiated during the Pope's visit to the island last year. There was about it an element of the surreal for young Cubans; Christmas may as well have dropped in from outer space, some alien rite involving exotic Middle Eastern deities baffling to godless communists.

At booming Varadero Beach, the Cuban Riviera, I dutifully noted a Christmas Eve mass scheduled at Fatima Catholic Church and Christmas Day services slated at Catholic and Presbyterian churches. Cubans, I was told, were feasting on pork and chicken, luxuries rarely affordable for most of the population these days. At Club Varadero, the island's premier all-inclusive resort, staffers were decorating with Christmas lights and tinsel. It was only when the resort uncrated a nativity scene that government spies -- peepers who permeate every level of Cuba's tourist industry with the elan of Peter Lorre lurking behind a potted plant -- jumped out and laid down the law: No nativities. Back into the box went the offending artifact.

For companies from Canada, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Mexico and Jamaica involved in joint partnerships with the government, having to employ legions of government spies is the price of getting in on the ground floor of Cuban tourism, while American companies are left gnashing their corporate teeth at forbidden fruit. In a resort environment, the surliness and incompetence of the spies renders them conspicuous: My favourite was a front-line buffet cook who, glowering at me with Inquisitional fervour, proceeded to incinerate a plump lobster tail as if he were presiding over a choice auto-da-fé.

Foreign investors -- Club Varadero is part of the SuperClubs empire based in Jamaica -- endure these nuisances because someday soon, the 37-year-old U.S. embargo will topple and the Americans will come, bringing with them suitcases of Uncle Sam greenbacks. Then, blessed with magnificent beaches fringing an island three times the size of all the other Caribbean islands rolled together, the architectural grandeur of Old Havana and the human sunshine of its people, Cuba will emerge as the juggernaut of Caribbean tourism.

In the meantime, following the collapse of Russian support and the arrival of a new era of material hardship, Castro is courting once-detested international tourism to bolster his island's tattered economy. The goal is to have two million tourists by the millennium. "Tourism is gold," the leader has said, launching both a new era and a new elite: If you speak English and work in tourism, you are more equal than others, make no mistake about it.

CANADIAN GETAWAY
For now, Cuba seems content to pack its burgeoning hotels and resorts with Canadians and Europeans. Canadians have been flocking to Cuba for about 20 years. The country has become synonymous with cheap vacations, and sales are predictably soaring as Canadians jettison Florida and shift our bleached bodies and battered dollar to Fidel's bargain paradise. Imperfections are tolerated, even expected. Who hasn't been regaled with tales of ghastly food, shoddy accommodations and unflushable toilets? "Tongue? Tongue?" groans a Canadian at Veradero Airport. "They expected me to eat tongue? Man, for a whole week,

I lived on bread and rum."

In reaching for the tourism grail, Cuba's inspiration is Jamaica's phenomenal success with the all-inclusive, the Club Med concept imitated and, in the case of SuperClubs, upgraded: Nobody outclubs le club like SuperClubs mastermind John Issa. Boasting sumptuous accommodations, superlative cuisine and nude beaches, his Grand Lidos are prototypes for the 21st-century all-inclusive anywhere. Issa plans to open a Cuban Grand Lido in the year 2001, although beaches may remain more prude than nude if communism and Catholicism manage some sort of accord.

"Non-all-inclusives," says SuperClubs vice president and chief of operations for Cuba Abe Moore, "are a dying species." He estimates that at the five SuperClubs properties on the island, you pay about 60 percent of what you'd pay for a similar holiday in Jamaica. Club Varadero, a SuperClubs takeover in 1992, is, at least this week, Cuban top-of-the-line. It's a handsome complex of all-suite accommodations in low-rise pink and ochre buildings capped with red-tile rooftops. Lush landscaping goes without saying -- it's almost inadvertent in this climate -- and the beach is glorious.

Manager Patrick Sibourg says 40 percent of his clientele is Canadian -- the single largest contingent of tourists -- while the remainder are from Europe and Latin America. We encountered Canadians at every step: Canadians flown in from everywhere from Halifax to Calgary, Canadians on their second and third visits, Canadians who take a Cuban vacation three or four times a year. Anglo Canadians shoulder our famous reputation as overly polite and sobre-minded. French Canadians smoke like the Hamilton skyline. Either way, Canadians cannot get enough of Cuban sunshine.

Pale Canadians in crimson elves' hats and matching sunburns spent Christmas Day rejoicing in rumours of biting cold and blizzarding weather in Toronto and Montreal (even though the rumours were unfounded). A Santa Claus parachuted down to the beach without getting caught in the palm trees. I watched a Canadian woman sporting artificial antlers nearly impale herself lunging for a plate of Jell-O. The conversation scintillated:

Female tourist: "I'm from Thunder Bay. Where're you from?"

Male tourist: "I am from France."

Female tourist: "France, eh? How long y'up fer?"

 

THE ART OF DOING NOTHING
The range of activities is as extensive as anywhere in the Caribbean: windsurfing, snorkelling, scuba-diving, water-skiing, kayaking, cycling, tennis, volleyball, shuffleboard, Spanish lessons, piano-bar singalongs, midnight disco. For me, the essential charm was the fine art of doing nothing.

One day, we summoned up the energy to actually do something and ventured into Havana, two hours away. On the highway, we passed motorcycles with sidecars. Sidecars? Havana traffic convinced us the whole city is a 1950s' automobile museum. When I suggested Cuba might be an auto collector's paradise, I was wryly advised to check out what's inside those vintage vehicles.

Equally noticeable were the prostitutes. Recent times have seen the return of the oldest profession on a grand scale, bringing Cuba full-circle to the 1940s and 1950s, when American mobster Meyer Lansky was brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista's personal advisor on "gambling reform" and the island was a brothel for American gangsters, gamblers and celebrities: When the Mob met in Havana to designate a hit on Bugsy Siegel, Frank Sinatra showed up with Al Capone's cousins, apparently with a gold cigarette case for Mafia warlord Lucky Luciano.

Old Havana reminded me of Madrid 30 years ago: It sits under a seemingly impenetrable layer of grime and seems about to crumble, but its architectural integrity, unshattered by reckless development, shines through. Here is an unalloyed collection of Spanish Colonial buildings of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Havana is to the Caribbean what Paris is to Europe. It is a traipse through time all the way back to the glittering city it was for the conquistadores, priests and other murderers and thieves who managed Spain's New World conquests. God, gold and greed have since come to dust, but

Old Havana has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the past 17 years. One day soon, it will assume its historic position as the urban jewel of the Caribbean, effortlessly bumping Puerto Rico's San Juan with its faux ancient stones and gauntlets of gimlet-eyed shopkeepers.

PAPA'S PARADISE
Wherever you walk in Old Havana, it's in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the writer lived in the 1930s, a maid will show you the room in which he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls for $US10 (more than the author paid for a night). We strolled the length of Calle Obispo and looked into Hemingway's favourite bar, El Floridita, where the daiquiri was invented. We wound up at the Plaza de la Catedral, at the Baroque 18th-century Cathedral of Havana. Workmen were festooning the Cathedral front with Christmas decorations. We decided the spies back at the club were behind the times.

An obligatory stop is the Nacional Hotel. The bar at the Nacional welcomed them all, everyone from Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano to Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth and just about every royal in exile with the possible exception of King Zog of Albania.

Returning to Varadero, we made for one of the numerous bars on site. Our local was a pyramid of thatched roofing rising out of the palm trees. It came stocked with superior booze including Johnny Walker Black, Jamieson's Irish, aged rums and a cocktail called Sex on the Beach. I developed an addiction to double cappuccinos after my customary breakfast of fresh papaya, made-to-order omelette and an alp of crisp bacon. Gawd, the coffee. Cuban coffee, splendidly roasted, wafting with aroma, packed with flavour and low in the acid that gives most coffees a nasty gut-punch, is the best I've ever had, enough to make me jilt Starbucks forever. I stocked up on La Cubita before going home.

Have I neglected to mention food? All-inclusives tend to rely on buffets, which usually bring out the worst in people and at best deliver the basics for a harmonious meal. The buffet at Club Varadero is a cavernous space, its charm a friendly and helpful platoon of servers. The raw materials were perfectly fine, ranging from fresh whole groupers to legs of New Zealand lamb, but the chefs displayed a creepy English tendency

to cook everything into archeological relics. The lamb would have made nice boots and the shards of grouper were so resilient, they actually stood up on their own.

Once we attempted lunch at the Beach Grill, but it proved a dour affair compared to its easygoing counterparts in Jamaica's SuperClubs. We were greeted by the decapitated head of a roast suckling pig. Chicken was a blackened crisp on the grill. A decent slab of swordfish had already gone to hell. The cook shot us a suspicious look as we eyed the head of the pig. We retaliated by adding him to our growing list of spies.

CULINARY CLEMENCY
We might have given up on food, but gastronomic redemption arrived in the form of the "pasta restaurant" tucked away in our own block of suites. This turned out to be a small " la carte restaurant serving not only nine different pasta dishes, but a menu of three appetizers and three mains. Instead of a brightly lit buffet barn, candlelight flickered. Instead of the roar of the crowd, we had strolling musicians. Instead of spies posing as chefs, we had a bright, charming waitress whose name was Lizabeth Santesteban Diaz. She was by education an industrial engineer, but beleaguered Cuba doesn't have jobs for people like Lizabeth. That didn't stop her from demonstrating vast resilience and immeasurable warmth as an ambassador among the touristos. Ultimately, it is people like her who bring the Canadianses back to Cuba time and time again, what Cubans themselves call "the human heat."

Just as happily, this little kitchen can cook: Smoked salmon with capers and prosciutto with papaya were classy starters. The pastas arrived al dente, the conchiglie loaded with shrimps and chunks of lobster and zapped with explosive basil leaf. Among mains, the beef tenderloin was juicy and flavourful, while the Caribbean rock lobster tails walked away with the evening. This is part of the all-inclusive package, but at an independent restaurant, the same meal would cost at least $150.

The lazy Varadero day finishes with entertainment. One evening, it was a toga party. Toga parties do not work for Canadians, who blush at the thought of getting semi-naked with strangers. Nor does it work for me: Outfitted in a toga, I start to resemble Casca in Julius Caesar. Infinitely more rewarding was the Cuban Show, the island's answer to Brazil's fantasia -- African rhythms, bare bums and breasts, spangles and bangles, feathers and plumes. The Big Daddy of such spectacles is at Havana's venerable Tropicana, where at one point, the dancers trot out with chandeliers on their heads. It costs a bundle. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Then, faster than a Cuban smile, our week was up and we were back at the airport, awaiting another delayed Air Transat flight. "Next time, two weeks," a husband chirped at his wife near us. Not a bad idea, ducky. Maybe next Christmas. I'm betting the nativity scene will get out of the box.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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