A string of pink plastic nearly ruined my weekend.
Our bus had turned away from the Cuban town of Trinidad, venturing instead toward the sandy peninsula and its row of colossal waterfront hotels adorned with over-nourished tropical plants and Muzak renditions of "Guantanamera." But it was the neon bracelet that manifested my fears. Instead of spending the weekend in the historic colonial town, we would be spending it in my personal purgatory—a Cuban all-inclusive resort.
Before I get jumped for being a spoiled college kid or an idealistic punk, hear me out. All-inclusives are great spots for getting away and enjoying a carefree vacation, but they're also a cultural whitewash. Let me put it this way: people don't go to resorts to meet the locals. I had come to Cuba to experience something completely foreign (and potentially amazing), so I was bummed to find myself wasting away in a piña-colada-soaked beach chair.
The Cuba resort experience is a strange one. Similar to those in many developing countries, Cuba's resorts are geared toward a foreign crowd. French fries, ’80s synth-pop, bottomless glasses of Rum Collins—the outside influence is apparent. In fact, very few of the island's actual inhabitants can afford to stay there. The hotel employees are Cuban, but when their shifts end they return to town or stay in employee housing quarters. They are simply cogs in the country's tourism machine.
Our first night at the resort we caught the hotel's version of a variety show. A singer, magician, and pod of dancers took the sparsely decorated and offensively bright stage in front of 10 or so tourists and 100 open seats. For an hour the group went about their choreographed performance like they were entertaining a sell-out crowd, something they apparently did every night at 9 p.m. It was a bizarre display with a handful of older European men clapping along to the music and playfully nudging their (much younger) female companions as we all descended into a haze of sugary rum drinks.
The next day I was determined to at least set foot in Trinidad, a 20-minute cab ride from the resort, and a world away. A couple more from our group made the push too, as well as our appointed tour guide, Alejandro. Alejandro was a 27-year-old Habanero (Havana citizen) who had taught himself English by listening to rock and roll music, was an aspiring photographer, and had quickly become our new friend. He had forgotten his camera, so we lent him one, and we all jumped a taxi as the sun started its late afternoon descent.
Windows down, Canadian and Cuban flags dangling from the rearview mirror, and holes where trunk speakers should have been, our Soviet-era compact sped toward Trinidad, the driver catering to his North American clientele with a classic rock mixed tape. We rolled into town with the Beatles on blast, and Alejandro made sure the cab driver would be around to pick us up before we slipped out into the afternoon heat.
Trinidad is a slow-moving city full of vibrant color, grooved cobblestone, and the deep shadows and dramatic contrasts that photographer's drool over. For the first time all weekend, I felt like I was where I needed to be. Our collective wandered the streets and talked to as many people as we could, asking for directions, taking portraits, and immersing ourselves in new surroundings.
Alejandro remembered a casa particular (essentially a bed and breakfast) he had once stayed in with group of French tourists, and took us to say hello. A woman opened the oversize wooden doors and smiled at Alej, inviting us all in, and letting us know that dinner was almost ready (if we should choose to stay). She led us up to the roof and we gazed out over a sea of chipped terracotta, the sounds of guitar and crackly radio frequencies wafting through the late day air. Far in the distance sat our hotel along the Caribbean shore, but the only view I cared about was the living city below me.
Our rendezvous hour came too quickly, but before meeting up with the taxi we caught an impromptu street performance with a man plucking his guitar strings on a curb and a little girl who could not get enough of the music. Twirling, jumping, and shaking her hips, the girl wasn't more than 5, but she commanded her street stage like an accomplished performer. We laughed and snapped a few pictures hoping that somehow our memory cards would do that fleeting moment justice.
The cab ride back to the resort was lighthearted and relief-filled—our redemptive mission was complete. Our driver once again bumped rock classics, the Eagles' “Hotel California” sweeping over us while we raced the dipping sun, clouds turning purple and water burning fiery orange as day fought off night. I wanted to press pause right there, but I knew it was just a snapshot in time. I sighed as we rounded the bend and caught sight of our fortress in the sand, the words ringing in my head, “You can check out any time you like, but you can ne-ver leave…”
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