This past week we attended the 35th annual Cuban international tourism fair FIT Cuba 2015, held this time around in the tourist enclave of Jardines del Rey (Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo). After 20+ years of working in tourism in Cuba, when our partners at Havanatur asked if we would be attending, we responded with our usual frankness and told them that we’ve been avoiding the fair the past several years. Not being avid brochure collectors, and as an agency that maintain offices in Cuba we’ve not found it to be especially enlightening with the amount of industry and on the ground knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years. For those that come intending to concentrate signing their annual contracts all at once over a period of several days in just one place, I suppose it might be convenient. But being on the ground here on a year-round basis we aren’t in that boat. However, this year the US division of our ground handler’s offices suggested they’d like us to put together a presentation on our cycle tour programs for a delegation they were handling of over 100 US agencies and airlines, so we reluctantly relented and scheduled a few days out of the office to attend.
We like road trips, so decided to break up the longish drive from Havana and overnight on Sunday in the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus, which just celebrated its 500th founding anniversary this year. One of my goals while there was to check out the newest boutique hotel Don Florencio on the boulevard and see if there was anything new on the restaurant scene worth exploring. We toured a new Palmares restaurant with a wine cellar by the bridge and then dined at a local paladar where my husband only complained once about a reggaeton song that somehow slipped into the otherwise very good playlist in the bar. Lots of great Descemer Bueno tunes mixed in with some Ricardo Arjona and that catchy new (to me anyway) song by Pharrell Williams “Come and Get It”. I’d heard it the week before in the Piragua in Havana and it was one of those tunes that you like the very first time you hear it, especially that line “take it easy on the clutch”. On the walk back to our hotel a local rock band was preparing to perform in the square. My husband wanted to stick around, and I sensibly told him I’d much rather sit in comfort in the covered hotel porch rather to listen to the very same music standing next to booming speakers in the rain surrounded by freakies. When one of the local drunks swaggered by leering down my dress, I decided to just ignore my husband’s pleas to stick around with him and go with my gut, so off I strode across the square to watch the scene unfold. My husband loves disco music and classic rock & roll, so as soon as the first notes of the lead singer’s voice were broadcasted over his microphone, I knew I wouldn’t be waiting long for him to join me. They were one of those yelling rock bands that people our age don’t “get”. Perfect. I was up for some rest and surfing through satellite tv channels anyway at that point. A treat for us, since we usually only have 4-5 channels at home. As I made my last pit-stop of the day in the bathroom, I had a surprise monthly visitor top off the day, one I had totally forgotten about when packing for the trip and wasn’t entirely prepared for, considering I was going to be away from my stockpiled home supply of feminine hygiene products for a few days. I started counting the meager supplies I always have stored away for an emergency in my overnight toiletries bag, and told my husband that we were going to have to make a beeline for the international pharmacy as soon as we arrived in Cayo Coco the next day. Being one of Cuba’s major tourism poles I figured that would be my best bet for tampons instead of having to resort to Cuban maxis.
Instead of sticking around in Sancti Spiritus until the shops opened, we got an early start the next morning and drove through the drizzly May weather to Ciego de Avila where we visited a few shops (because you never know what supplies you’ll find in the Cuban provinces that you never come across in Havana). We picked up some glassware, long fluorescent lightbulbs, sponges, and a few other odds & ends before continuing north. Leaving Ciego, as we drove by the local police station we noticed a car belonging to the head of the provincial government pull in, and we surmised they would be spending the morning going over last minute security preparation for the FIT Cuba 2015 event. After a mediocre lunch in Morón we made our way to the toll booths at the entrance to the causeway where the local authorities were checking everyone’s credentials before they were allowed to proceed. Out came our delegate credentials, identity cards, and with a friendly warning from the PNR to be careful driving in the rain we were off on the final leg of our journey, destination Iberostar Mojito. They checked us in but our room wasn’t ready yet, so to best make use of the time and be prepared for the worst, we inquired with the helpful ladies at the reception counter as to where we should start to look for period supplies. We started at the hotel store where they had nothing in stock except diapers. They sent us to the international pharmacy at the Sol Cayo Coco. Which, after driving over, we found out was closed for the day since the pharmacy worker didn’t make it in. I wasn’t about to tell the four Cuban men at the adjacent car rental company what kind of a mission I was on, so just asked for directions to the next pharmacy. They said to try the Melia Cayo Coco. When we pulled up at the gate, the security guard was circumspect about letting us through as we weren’t registered guests at the hotel. After showing him our event credentials, I decided just to spill the beans. He wasn’t going to turn me down with that request, no way no how. Despite the fact that the lobby was crawling with added security detail with all the foreign & local dignitaries present for the event. I promised I was only going to go to the hotel store and right back to the car. No luck there either unfortunately. Assuming I was a hotel guest, the woman clerk at the store suggested I check with the front desk staff, that maybe they would have some supplies on hand there to get me through. I explained that I was staying at another hotel, and that with my canary yellow all inclusive bracelet from the Mojito I’d stick out like a sore thumb. I asked where the next pharmacy was, and off we went to the Tryp Cayo Coco. We were getting a royal tour of every hotel installation in Cayo Coco whether we wanted to or not. At the Tryp, one of the internal hotel security ladies escorted me straight down to the hotel pharmacy which (surprise, surprise) had no supplies. The woman attending the pharmacy told me that she had some clients who had recently gone through every hotel in the destination and didn’t find anything until the very last hotel at the tip of Cayo Guillermo, either that or go 100 kms (each way) back to Morón. As it was approaching 5 p.m. already I wasn’t keen on starting out on a wild goose chase at that point in the day after all the driving we’d already undertaken. So I told my husband that we were moving immediately to Plan B and cutting short the Jardines del Rey pharmacy tour. Plan B was to plead with the front desk/maid staff at our own hotel. Cuban solidarity is among the finest in the world. Some of the most thoughtful hotel visitors often leave behind supplies that can be expensive or hard to find in Cuba (not just their used t-shirts), and one of the receptionists offered up a ziplocked bag with enough tampons to get me all the way back to Havana without having to resort to wine bottle corks or toilet paper contraptions. I’d actually even considered buying those diapers I saw at the hotel store, and asking the office staff for scissors and tape before the real supplies were beamed down from all inclusive tourist heaven to save the day.
We somehow managed to squeeze in a last minute reservation at one of the hotel’s specialized restaurants. As we were waiting to be seated, my view fell on a Cuban man in a fedora hat sitting behind the piano player. I said to my husband under my breath, I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks on me, but that guy over there in the hat looks an awful lot like Descemer Bueno, don’t you think? That’s because it IS Descemer Bueno, my dear (ok, that’s really not what he called me, but we’ll pretend it is). How exciting…my thoughts began to race. If he’s here at our hotel, then it’s probably because they invited him to do a concert somewhere for this tourism fair. I wonder where it’ll be, and if we’ll still be here when it happens. Man, I love his music so much I’d even consider staying on longer if it’s going to be after our planned departure. It better not be though, with all the work we have to get back to once our presentation is over. I’d love to get a picture with him but he’s having a nice romantic gourmet dinner and I’m NOT going to interrupt that, no way, no how. It’s funny all these tourists here putting tips into the piano player’s glass and they don’t even recognize the huge international star who’s sitting right behind her. His song “Bailando” was even playing in Canada when I visited last summer, and a lot of the people here seem to know it. Or at least have heard Enrique Iglesias’ English version of it.
After feasting on shrimp and imported beef we headed back to our room where I began to comb through the multiple email messages that downloaded at warp speed into my laptop from the lobby wifi connection. At 11 pm I returned to the lobby to send off my work so that I didn’t fall too far behind while out of the office. This nose never gets far from the grindstone.
The next morning I was anxious to get going early as I wasn’t sure exactly how far the new Melia Jardines del Rey hotel, the site of the tourism fair, was from our hotel. With the poor signage in Cuba that my husband’s always complaining about, you just never know what could go wrong. The fair was to be inaugurated at 9 am and I wanted to be there for the Minister of Tourism’s opening comments. We ended up taking an unexpected detour to Playa Prohibida before we finally got back on track after asking another carload of local Cubans headed to the same place for directions. Cuban tourism signage (or the lack of it) is one of my husband’s pet peeves. As we left Ciego de Avila the day before, he couldn’t see a single road sign for Cayo Coco. There was one for provincial Ministry of the Interior Delegation, he scoffed. Sure, I said, so at least the police don’t get lost and know where to find their buddies. Tourists are expected to know that “Polo Turistico Jardines del Rey” = Cayo Coco / Cayo Guillermo if they ever make it to the point after the rotary where that sign even exists. Eyes crossed.
Journalists scrambled to get in position as the ministerial delegation pulled up to the hotel, the ribbon was cut, speeches & Cuban and Italian cultural performances delivered (Italy was the invited country of honor this year), announcements made about new projects and collaboration and as the opening ceremonies came to a close we made a beeline for the bathrooms. My husband waited outside with the few promotional brochures and magazines we did bother to accept, and when I exited he handed them over to me while he visited the throne. As I looked around there seemed to be a considerable security presence and, oddly enough, even several reporters standing outside of the bathrooms. The head of security took up guard at the door to the ladies room. I put two and two together and realized that the tourism minister and my husband were in the bathroom at the same time. My husband emerged first. I was giggling to myself, with a mental image of them standing beside each other at the urinals and wondering if my husband took advantage of the opportunity to pass along his constructive criticism on the road and signage conditions in Cuba that I’d been treated to with great frequency over the past couple of days. I asked him and he said no, they were washing their hands together and all he could think of to say was, Minister, the conference was very good, the fair’s a great success this year, muy buena la feria. Laughter and eye rolling from me. Your big chance, and THAT’S what you decide to say?!?!
Back at the hotel’s lunch buffet I managed to get our picture taken with Descemer Bueno who happened to be sitting directly behind us, hooray hooray. We did have the decency to wait until he finished his lunch to solicit the favor. And once we did, every other Cuban in the restaurant, staff included, wanted to follow our lead. Sorry about that, but they love you too. The foreign visitors appeared confused but curious about the goings-on. Heavy rains flooded the hotel parking lot in the afternoon, so the concert was moved to the hotel lobby. Conveniently for us, at our very own hotel, no less (nice, meant no driving afterwards and a relatively early night). After dinner we parked ourselves at a table near the back and the place was soon packed with excited Cubans and clueless tourists. With all the local Cuban participation in the tourism fair, it didn’t take long for the news to travel and by the end of the night most of the tourists had packed it up but the Cubans were still dancing up a storm. We had to deliver a presentation at 8:30 the next morning in Cayo Guillermo and when we were walking through the hotel lobby at 7 am it looked a little like a disaster scene as the maids hadn’t been around yet to clean up after the considerable festivities. One guy had fallen asleep on one of the lobby couches the night before and was still there at 7 am in his shorts and flip flops. Party on, dude. I would have liked to have been around to see the look on his face when he finally woke up in the middle of a public space.
My husband figured that he’d actually have a little time on this trip to swim at the beach in Cayo Coco, which turned out to be wishful thinking. The Celimar presentations to the US agencies, tour operators & airlines began at 8:30, but it was almost lunchtime before we ended up getting out of there. Check-out, quick lunch, one last download of email on that fabulously speedy wifi connection I wish I had at home, and then it was on the road again for a 5.5 hour drive back to the capital. I took over driving for about half an hour (at my husband’s request) to give him a rest from the wheel, but since he started offering driving suggestions about 30 minutes into that experience it didn’t last long. He is a nervous passenger, highly annoying to me as a driver. More eye rolling.
So now it’s back to dial-up internet, making my own coffee, and picking at leftovers in the fridge for lunch. But I’m not complaining. I’m usually quite allergic to all inclusive hotels and avoid them at all costs. The main redeeming feature this time around was the truly authentic contemporary Cuban cultural performance to which we were treated, and for that, MINTUR event organizers, I’m eternally grateful. Muchas gracias, Ministro. Valió la pena.