“I had dreamt of vintage cars and cigars rolled on the thighs of virgins, of smoky jazz clubs and salsa parties that spilled out onto the cobbled evening streets. Instead I got Happy Hour, aquarobics and an invitation to join a teenage drinking gang.”
I recently wrote an article for the online travel community Pink Pangea entitled ‘The Truth About My All-Inclusive Holiday to Cuba‘, inspired by a holiday I took in 2009.
It was a holiday, of extremes. On the one hand, this was my first proper trip abroad with James – a true test of our relationship, one that we passed with flying colours, which saw us enjoy 14 days of each other’s uninterrupted company on a beautiful, tropical beach. On the other hand, it was a true failure in authentic travel – we saw little to no true Cuban culture, and the pre-booked activities we undertook were soulless and synthetic, designed to make easy money off the easily-pleased tourists that flocked in in their droves.
6 long years later and a lot has changed, not least my attitude towards travel. I no longer dream of brief bursts of sunshine and relaxation; holidays since have focused on the pursuit of more genuine sights and sensations. But whilst it may not have been travel perfection, the revisited series is an exercise of honest reflection for me; I look back on the highs and lows of my definitive holiday to Cuba:
1. Perfecting the ‘Dirty Dancing’ lift
Many people believe that Dirty Dancing is a tale about teenage dreams and forbidden love. It’s not. It’s about the glory of all-inclusive and the wonder that free, organised activities and camp competitions can bring to your life. What better way to embrace the package holiday than by creating an homage to this quintessential ode to all-inclusive. With the adult pool virtually deserted for the duration of our trip, James and I spent hours doggedly trying to recreate the most seminal moment of the film – the lift.
Perfecting the lift is one thing, but trying to capture it in the precise moment where the self-timer goes off is another skill all together. The whole process required the delicate balancing of the (non-waterproof) camera on a sun lounger to point exactly in the right direction, the pressing of the button with damp hands, the manic storming through the water to get into position, and then the perfectly executed leap into James’ (sometimes) waiting arms. Johnny and Baby had it easy.
The closest we got to a Johnny and Baby moment caught on camera. No mean feat.
2. Smoking cigars on the beach at sunset.
So it turns out I hate cigars. I don’t really get the appeal of something which you smoke but don’t inhale, that needs constant attention like a needy toddler lest it goes out, and leaves a taste in your mouth the next morning that I can only imagine is akin to that of a badger’s arse. But nevertheless, Cuba and cigars come hand in hand and this is the closest we got to authentic culture throughout our trip, so I quite literally sucked it up and got on board.
However you choose to travel, however luxurious or budget your hotel may be, you can’t put a price on a stunning sunset. The hotel beach, which was quiet at the best of times, was deserted in the evenings and James and I grasped the opportunity for unadulterated views and tranquil solitude every single night. It was our chance to experience the natural, organic beauty that Cuba has to offer.
3. Having the time to read
The great thing about being stuck in a cultural blackhole is that there’s lots of time on your hands, and not an awful amount of sights to see or things to do. With the Caribbean sun out in full force and the beach casting a pretty fine backdrop, a solid day’s reading was the prime way to pass the time. On a more sophisticated trip, too much lazing around constitutes as a waste of time. But Cuba was an exception to this rule and I happily ploughed my way through 11 books. Bliss.
1. Swimming with dolphins
Before I went on this holiday, I would have cited swimming with dolphins as my ultimate bucket list experience. I was delighted when I found out that our holiday providers could offer us the chance to do so, and imagined that it would be the highlight of the trip. But, overawed as I was to come so close these amazing animals, I left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the seawater. It’s only since this holiday, as I began to fall in love with diving, that I learned to appreciate just how fragile the ocean’s beauty is. It saddens me to think that I was a cog in what I now realise to be a brutal tourist machine that keeps such intelligent, complex wild animals in captivity, wheeling them out on a conveyor belt of cheap thrills that wholly undermines their grace and potential.
All smiles but, looking back, this photo makes me truly sad
No matter how uncultured my experience of all-inclusive was, no matter how much of a Philistine I was by sitting by a pool and not venturing out into the heart of Cuba, it is this single experience that I regret the most. I only wish I’d read more into the truth behind the trade before I went.
2. The cockroaches
All of the cockroaches. What’s that thing they always say about cockroaches? That if you kill one, ten more will come back for its body?! That’s not a risk we were willing to take. Plus, why should the hotel staff have to deal with an infestation. Our feeble attempts to catch them and deposit them elsewhere proved fruitless, and so we resorted to imprisoning them in makeshift cells. Not wanting to alarm the cleaning staff, we left sad little notes confessing our pathetic cowardice in the politest way we could think of:
3. Everything I didn’t see
When you think of Cuba, your mind conjures up images of Latin flair and vintage style. You don’t picture plastic sun-loungers, middle-aged sun-burnt Brits, and “Italian style” buffet bars. But this is what we got. Whilst we bumped into a few classic Cuban cars and saw a knock-off version of Club Tropicana, these felt like hollow mimics of the real deal. It’s the absence of any real authenticity that will define this holiday for me.
From the sublime to the ridiculous
Ultimately, I had a great two weeks in the sun with my wonderful boyfriend. But I could just as well have been in Benidorm for all the cultural uniqueness (or the lack thereof) that I experienced. But, as I outlined in my article, this gives me the perfect excuse to go again. And next time I’ll do it properly.