Thailand travelogue!

Probably the best day yet…

It’s amazing how much fringing advance tickets let you pack in. I’m still planning on seeing a few spur of the moment shows in the last days of the fringe but being able to pack them close together and not worry about getting in, and doing so for free, is amazing. How much do I have to donate to get one of these golden tickets next year?

Three Men in a Boat – Pea Green Theatre – Venue #4

So incredibly British (for a Toronto based group) and well crafted. I’ve never read Jerome K. Jerome but I have seen various Three Men in a Boat inspired things over the years growing up with a Brit grandmother. I more or less knew what to expect but I wasn’t really anticipating it to be pulled off quite so well. Absolutely great and worth seeing if you enjoy quick word british comedy, but if that’s not your thing you’re not going to be converted here.

 

Broadway to Obscurity – Eric Gutman – Venue #16 PTE

An exploration of the personal career arc of the performer as he goes from being the dog in a school production to joining one of the biggest shows in the world on Broadway, then abandons it all. Gutman’s story is peppered with great music, a few spot on parodies and an engagement with the audience that many a fringe performer could learn from. For someone on his first fringe tour he seems to be enjoying the experience. I don’t mean this in at all a pejorative sense but this is the kind of fringe show everyone should bring their mom to.

 

Jon Bennett:Fire in the Meth Lab – Jon Bennett – Venue #9

If you’ve seen either of Jon’s previous shows you know what to expect: a mix of comedy and pathos based on his own experience and augmented by clever use of multimedia. This show is probably his best, and is definitely his most raw. He chronicles his childhood with his older brother Tim, and tries to trace what might have led Tim down the self-destructive path that left him in jail.

 

Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany – Shadows Obscured-  Venue #4

My early favourite for my personal best play of the fringe. Ingrid Garner presents her grandmother’s story: an American family moving to Berlin just as Hitler invades Poland and her struggle to survive. From dull apprehension to suddenly being marked as an enemy, from seeing her first dead body to struggling with the aftermath of the bombings and the Russian invasion, Garner fully inhabits her role. We watch as this young girl becomes a woman under circumstances that would appal anyone and yet survives and rediscovers life even as she realizes she no longer fits in with her fellow American children she left so many years before.

I was absolutely blown away by this play and I’m hoping to grab the book on which it’s based soon. If you enjoyed Spiral Dive/Letters from Wartime etc. this one is for you.

 

Overheard in line:

“Why can’t she do the show without the projector?”    (Well I guess we’ll see after we see the show won’t we idiot)

 

My Highlight:

Eleanor’s Story was fantastic, I’m so glad they fixed the tech issue in time for the play to go forward.

 

Up next:

Graham Clark Reads the Phone Book and 6 Guitars

 

Fringe Weekend Round Up: Storytelling and Drag Queens

It’s been a pretty stellar year so far at the Fringe, no real stinkers, honestly nothing I’d give below a 3/5 if I were handing out stars. I’ve even gotten more companionship for shows than I expected. Here’s a quickie roundup of everything I’ve seen up til sunday night:

 

Trampoline – Weeping Spoon – Venue #3

Trampoline is a sweet and sentimental romantic comedy with a tinge of music and two winning leads. Comparisons to Garden State seem to be the thing amongst reviewers… I can see it but I definitely enjoyed this more. The two leads (Shane Adamczak and Whitney Richards) are a winning duo that really make you care about their characters. Expect plenty of Awwww moments from the audience.

 

Hunks – Venue #4

A couple months ago this quintet started putting on monthly shows at the Park Theatre down the street from my new place. I’ve been meaning to go but they are always the same night as softball or some other activity. It’s just as well it seems because their fringe offering this year is essentially a “best of” package of those first shows and it was all new to me. Really great sketchcom… Inventive, weird and just a hell of a lot of fun.

 

Searching for Dick – Tara Travis – Venue #19

I’ve long been a fan of Tara’s work with Monster Theatre. The wives of Henry VIII was a tour de force for her and last year’s puppet Agatha Christie number was incredibly charming. She has a stage presence that is simultaneously welcoming and comedic which really helps draw the audience into her stories. This year’s journey is definitely something quite different than the show previously mentioned as she tells are more personal story about her visits with mediums on her quest to speak with her deceased in-laws to be prior to her wedding. Whether you think spirit communication is poppycock or not (and most of you know where I fall on that) Travis engages so strongly with the audience that you want to believe in her conversations. Plus she bakes brownies!

 

The Seven Lives of Louis Riel – Monster Theatre – King’s Head

I’ve seen this show before and quite enjoyed it, but it was definitely rough. Ryan Gladstone explained that he’d had trouble finishing the script about the father of Manitoba and had really only finished it several days prior. I’d heard he’d revised it and polished it so I decided to give it another go (the fact that it was around dinner time at the King’s Head mid-long fringe day didn’t hurt either.) I’m glad I did. What was a good show is now a great one and Ryan’s enthusiasm for storytelling makes the manic hour of seven stories fly by.

 

D&D Improv 8 – GSAC

I don’t really have to “review” this do I? Saturday’s show was definitely an eventful one though as the second early death seemed to throw a big wrench into the works. It’s easy to see why as it seemed as if the character in question is meant to be the narrative driver of the show. The rest of the show saw our (NEW!) DM freaking out and whispered conversations as they looked to retool the plan going forward. I wished I’d booked a ticket to Sunday night’s show to find out how well that worked out but I guess I’ll see at the finale.

Highlight this year is definitely the Beholder puppet that Chadd was running, that thing is fantastic.

 

Sunday:

Two Ruby Knockers and One Jaded Dick – Venue #4

I believe this is Tim Motley’s third go round here with Dirk Darrow’s film noir stylings and he certainly seems to have a regular audience full of fans at this point. It’s a long way from the first time I saw him in a 10 person audience at MTC up the Alley.  His experience shows and the characters film noir patter is perfect even as he ad-libs with the audience and occasionally has his slight of hand thrown off by slowpoke audience “volunteers.”

 

 

Becoming Banksy – Venue #3

The tale of an Englishman fleeing a failed marriage via holiday in NYC only to be mistaken for the popular street artist. Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this.  The performers were talented and the story was cute… That said I really felt like the script wasn’t quite there. Some bits hit well, others were less successful and the whole show dragged a bit in spots. I would imagine that was the point of trying it out on the fringe circuit though and one more solid rewrite will probably have it ready for its New York debut.

 

Lord of the Thrones – Sound and Fury (and some guy named Ryan) – WECC

The CBC reviewer somewhat savaged this year’s Sound and Fury production and while I don’t think it was quite that bad I have to admit that I don’t think they’re a must see for me anymore. The performers are talented and energetic but their show feels less finely tuned every year.  Whereas the occasional blown line was once a planned or unplanned laugh point they are now so common as to make one wonder about lack of rehearsal time. I get it, they have a massive fan base with seemingly endless good will towards them and all three guys are genuinely nice guys… at some point it would be nice to see them deliver a honed and polished (if endearingly silly and slapdash) performance again.

Worth noting, the using a volunteer from the audience as the hero thing was a cute idea… and on the night I went the guy they chose was very game and into it… I could see this completely being death if you got a stiff up there though. The show just relies on him too much.

 

Marathon – T.J. Dawe –  WECC

How does he do this? Seventy five minutes, multiple narratives, all twisting together until you walk out with a sense of wonder. A picture painted with words, a comforting cadence and the occasional movement , you’re spellbound. When people ask me “What is fringe?” TJ’s pieces are always a go to reference in my mind. I love my comedy, I love a good drama or improv… but it just isn’t fringe to me without a storyteller and Dawe remains the best. It’s good to have him back in Winnipeg.

 

The Birdcage – Venue #6

It’s the movie, more or less scene for scene but with fringe production values. That doesn’t tell the whole story though. The performers bring their own touch to the characters and the show incorporates some local drag queens to often hilarious effect. The Christine Baranski role is played by a HEAVILY pregnant (and nowhere near old enough looking) actress lending her line about not being maternal an extra laugh.

I do have a few complaints, one would be that I think Val (the son) comes across as a complete dick in this version instead of just desperate. The Barbara character is also even more of a non-entity than in the film. And honestly, I get that fringe budgets are slim as hell but I think there could have been a bit more of an effort to create a south beach vibe for the opening/exit staging. I get that neon is out… but a pink light doesn’t cut it.

Overheard in line:

(10 Minutes before James & Jamesy started) What do you mean you’re sold out?

 

My Highlight:

Tough one, I can’t really pick one this time.

Trampoline, Searching for Dick and Marathon were all completely stellar though.

 

Flyers Received: Mid 80s

 

Up next:

Three Men in a boat, Broadway to Obscurity, Fire in the Meth Lab and Eleanor’s Story, boy free advance tickets is amazing.

 

Friday Follies

Chess – Venue #1

I’ve always been a fan of that incredibly 80s hit spawned out of the musical “One Night in Bangkok” for the super fun cheese and I’ve always wanted to see the musical as a whole. Unfortunately I’m left feeling like I still haven’t really.  Doing a musical in venue 1 means you’re on a REAL stage, even if the audience is a third of a packed RMTC house. Sitting on one of the sides sound was atrocious. With one exception I could rarely hear the leads unless it was a solo and ensemble pieces were either muddled or had one member’s voice dominating. The aforementioned “One Night in Bangkok” was particularly bad with the band so scaled back for what’s supposed to be a fairly funky song (even with the scaled back music) and the ensemble’s lines were still muddled and the lead inaudible when he wasn’t facing in your particular direction.

Staging didn’t help this either… I get the idea but having two characters turn their backs on the audience for a conversation just does not work without wireless mics in that large a house. With a few rare exception characters were either standing at the front of the stage, or on a podium at the back. It was just a fairly dull presentation.

I really hope they worked some of these issues out but the first performance wasn’t great for anyone that wasn’t in the middle. There are some great performances here and an audience that really really wanted to love it.

 

Drinking and Dragons – Monkey Centurion – Venue #1

What if the cast of archer played d&d while drinking? That’s basically the premise of this (somewhat short) romp through a night of the role playing game. We see twin scenes of the players and their characters being (sometimes) directed by the ‘voices in their heads.’  There are some really cute bits in this but some suspect acting and an overreliance on a reference being the entirety of the joke keeps it from being really good.

 

Grandma’s Dead – Sam Mullins – Venue #7

I once referred to Sam as TJ Dawe’s non-union Mexican equivalent. While that’s really not fair to Sam there’s definitely some similarities about them. They are both curly haired Vancouver based guys telling stories based in their real lives after all. I don’t think it’s unfair to see him as following in TJ’s footsteps. Mullins had the audience in the palm of his hand for the full hour as he told story of two brothers on a cross country trip.

It’s hard to describe exactly why these tales are so compelling but I have to recommend you go experience it yourself and go find out.

 

Subway Stations of the Cross – Ins Choi – Venue #10

Kim’s convenience was a great experience at RMTC last year and when I learned the playwright was bringing a one man show to Winnipeg Fringe this year I was excited. It’s a VERY different kind of show but no less interesting. What starts out as a personal journey turns into more of a storytelling meets slam poetry thing that really finished off the night well.

Warning, this venue gets damned cold late night!

Overheard in line:

If this venue has Air Conditioning then I must be going through menopause.

 

My Highlight:

Sam Mullins, I’m a sucker for a good storyteller.

 

Flyers Received: Way more! Forgot to take a total.

 

Up next:

A minimum ten show weekend including Searching For Dick, Trampoline, Marathon and my first D&D improv of the fest.

Winnipeg Fringe 2015 – The Year of the SuperPass

Oh god, it’s here! I’d warn those of you who don’t fringe to avoid this blog for a while but let’s be honest, most of my readers are here ONLY during fringe! (Not that I blame you, it hasn’t exactly been a content machine for a while… house buying tends to sap the writing energy.)

Well, thanks to the kind folks at the cbc last year I have an unlimited super pass to this year’s festival and will be seeing as many shows as I can while still actually attending work. Since it includes free advance tickets too I’m packing shows as tightly as I dare and picking up all my tickets ahead of time. I’m definitely leaving a few spots later in the week for word of mouth shows but I want to make sure I get in some of the guaranteed sell outs early.

Actually I’ve got an extra ticket for half the shows I go to as seemingly every friend I ever go to fringe with is too busy with new babies, moving away, saving lives etc to fringe much. Feel free to let me know if you are free though!

As for the fest itself there are some unfortunate absences this year. Outside Joke isn’t performing as an ensemble this year (I’m guessing due to Andrea being in Les Mis @ Rainbow, DnDimprov and HTA commitments etc) hopefully we’ll see them back next year.  No Shelby Bond is sad as well (as one of my friends said when I caught up with for a beer “I’m so used to hearing that voice cutting across the square.” [update: Said friend actually got back to me later and said he’s around and in Barely Living!]) New faves SexTrex aren’t back either. Argh, the lottery she is a fickle beast! As ever though, a little prodding to go see someone that isn’t an old favourite is good.

In other unfortunate news there was a double down on the WECC as a venue this year. I’m sorry, it’s a great theatre but it just feels even less like a part of the festival than the PTE venues. Hopefully if the GSAC redevelopment ever happens we can just create another cluster there.

 

Wednesday:

I had to go be terrible at softball first so only caught one show Wednesday.

White Pants  —  Hip.Bang! – Venue #4

Hip.Bang! were a pleasant surprise to me on their first visit to the Winnipeg Fringe. I don’t particularly remember why but I wasn’t expecting much from them. I think perhaps I’d just had a few too many “two white dudes” improv/sketch shows be underwhelming but these guys really hit it out of the park.  Fast forward to this year and a strange but wonderful show that had an audience (half full of performers) laughing their asses off. Dancing! Some weird and delightful deconstructed laughs!

Don’t miss it and beware the illuminati!

 

Thursday:

Japanese Samurai Don Quixote Challenging Against Giant Windmills!! — Hiroshi Shimizu – Venue #7

The odd story of a Japanese man’s journey into English speaking comedy at the Edinburgh festival (and probably my favourite title of this year’s fest.) Hiroshi Shimizu has an interesting tale to tell as he describes his journey on the “comedy boat.”  Learn how he talked to the breasts of a Scottish amazon and harnessed the hereditary arson gene inside him. An odd but energetic show at Cinematheque which seems to be the storytelling venue these days.

 

The 11 O’Clock Number – Grindstone Theatre – Venue #2

Improvised musicals have become more common in recent years, Winnipeg’s own wonderful (and sadly absent this year) Outside Joke among them, and Grindstone Theatre shows why they can be a success. Thursday’s show was the (slightly adjusted) story of audience member Erica’s trials as a social worker at an adolescent psychological treatment centre, her cargo schlepping lobster-klepto boyfriend and the angels and demons that affect a strong young man named Ralph.

The troupe’s singing chops are decent to good and a willingness to dive into physical comedy helps smooth out the inevitable rough points in a full improvised musical. I will have to see them again to see if they have the variety that marks the best at this sort of thing but super impressed regardless. They deserve bigger audiences, go check them out.

 

James and Jamesy in the Dark – Venue #19

What does one need to say about James and Jamesy at this point. After storming the fringe at the tiniest of venues a couple years back they’ve been selling out practically every show here since. They’ve even come back in the sad non-fringe months to entertain us. They pair fantastic physical comedy with engrossing wordplay to draw you completely into the world of their performance. This year’s show is no exception as they held the audience in the palms of their hands. This year’s concept is a little more directly surreal than previous years but I wouldn’t want to spoil it by saying more than that. This is one you absolutely need advance tickets for (and soon.)

 

Folk Lordz – Venue #27

A very different sort of long form improv makes a welcome fringe return with the Folk Lordz. By pulling from the cultural heritage of both members (and adding a third genre from the audience) the audience witnessed a 3 pronged onslaught of Chekhov play, Sailor Moon inspired anime and Cree origin story (I will let you guess which is which.)

The performers use their impressive command of the chosen cultural tales to take us on an energetic journey. On this particular evening we followed a young doctor on a bleak journey into responsibility in the face of a tuberculosis epidemic, saw our heroic moon daughters rescue a crystal from the C.H.U.D.s and learned how Bison got his horns and why bees make honey. Going into much more depth would be pointless as it’s a new show every time but do yourself a favour and hit them up soon.

Oh, and if you’re not a gargantuan monster like me bring $20 for a T-Shirt, they looked neat.

 

Overheard in line:

(10 Minutes before James & Jamesy started) What do you mean you’re sold out?

 

My Highlight:

James and Jamesy continue to bring it for me. Grab an advance ticket and go, don’t have it spoiled.

actually scratch that…

HIGHLIGHT IS NEW SEAT CUSHIONS IN MULTIPLE VENUES FOR THE FOLDING CHAIRS!

 

Flyers Received: A shockingly low FIVE after a night and a half. Some of these performers need to step up their game. In Edinburgh I’d received 20 just lugging my pack from the station to the hostel.

 

Up next:

A minimum ten show weekend including Searching For Dick, Trampoline, Marathon and my first D&D improv of the fest.

 

 

 

Capitalist Pig Dogs

Somehow I’ve written two full posts and haven’t really discussed anything other than the flight and hotel. Oops!

One thing that catches people off guard as they prepare for a trip to Cuba is that the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a closed currency. What this means for your average traveller is that there’s no way to buy pesos in advance you’re forced to purchase them when arrive/during your stay.  Coupled with the Cuban government’s tight control over the exchange process this is a giant pain in the ass. Though once there appear to have been foreign exchange booths like you see elsewhere, these must have disappeared when the USD stopped being accepted as legal tender. For a current visit there are three places to change money: The Airport, A Hotel, The Bank. All three are terrible in different ways.

The Airport: Apparently offers rates comparable to the bank.Where once the booth was apparently in the arrival hall it’s now inexplicably located in the departure hall. My only guess is that this is to facilitate things for people who have forgotten their $CUC 25 departure tax but why they could not have just opened a second booth just seems to be one of the Cuban ‘Why would we do anything that makes this process easier’  things.

The hotel: Happy to exchange foreign currency for you but likely to do so at a ridiculous unregulated markup. Seriously, do so if you have to, but only enough to take you to the bank.

        The Bank: Best rates but a total ordeal.

When we eventually decided to head into town to get some pesos we pretty much did it entirely wrong (if you’re going anytime soon, learn from our mistakes.) We started off by converting a bit of money at the hotel in order to take the bus to town. We had literally no idea how far we were from town and had been told that taking the bus was a reasonable way to get into town (wrong.) In the end we sat at that bus stop for an hour in the hottest part of the hottest day of our stay never to see the bus go by (we thought, though in the end I think we’d been misinformed as to what we were waiting for) only to find out in the end that we were only about a 10-15 minute walk from the outskirts of town, though of course the bank ended up being on the far end of town.

The bank is a squat, unimpressive building though perhaps painted a little more impressively than others in town. Outside sit two ATMs of which only one was working on our arrival. It had a long line and we’d bought Canadian cash to convert so we stood in line to go to the bank. I’d been warned before departing that the bank was quite the experience and sure enough we experienced Cuban rules galore. If you’ve never been there it’s difficult to describe the stupidity of the process.

We joined the back of a queue of roughly 6 people  waiting to be admitted. A security guard (of the Cuban rentacop variety) stood at the door latching it every time he let someone into the bliss of the air conditioning. Because it was around noon there was a steady line of Cubans depositing half-day takings from businesses (gov’t and non) and they were admitted and served with priority. Once admitted to the bank proper (half an hour later) there were comfortable arm chairs and another long wait. Chatting in the bank or using a raised voice at all as a visitor is strictly forbidden. Anything to do with money is serious business. Standing at one teller is an elderly man apparently depositing his life savings recently rescued from his mattress. Stack after stack of weathered, ancient bills, carefully counting each one top to bottom before handing it over and watching the cashier’s moves carefully as she did the same. I’m guessing these were the old style pesos by sheet volume and the man had brought a giant sack full. I half expected there to be a dollar sign on it and for federales to burst in looking for someone who had robbed a train. Eventually we emerged with our cash but based on our spending habits the rest of the trip I’d probably make a few recommendations.

  • Bring an amount of cash (say $200) that you won’t convert except in case of emergency. Leave that and a credit card in your room safe. Since it stays in CAD, it’s not a big deal if you bring it home untouched.
  • Just hit the ATM and take out enough cash for your week, you don’t want to have to make a second bank trip.
  • Immediately set aside your 25CUC per person for departure tax and leave it with your passport/immigration card in your hotel safe.

 

Varadero itself is pretty much a nothing town. It’s mostly one strip of some of the older/cheaper resorts, a few market type areas and a collection of restaurants seemingly owned by the same company (most likely the government organization in charge of Varadero proper.) According to what I’ve read and from speaking from an older guy during my diving trip once upon a time the town was more of a cultural center but the increasing number of all-inclusives has killed a lot of that off. Further back it was apparently one of Al Capone’s favourite getaway destinations and a favoured spot for a number of wealthy folks both American and not. Most of these estates were later seized by the new government and became museums (not much sign of those now) or the foundations for parks like the one where we grabbed lunch that day.

A motley mix of Spanish influenced older buildings, brutalist communist designs  and more modern touristy establishments compete for space with more handmaid looking places. It’s clear that almost everyone who has property with access to the main avenue uses it for some sort of commercial purpose even if it’s just letting a vendor set up a hat stall or pina colada stand. Based on a later discussion with a tour guide my understanding is that for the most part property has been mostly inherited since the revolution and it’s only very recently that any sort of free market real estate business has started to be introduced.

Of course the other big attraction for some people is the one many people know about. Due to the US embargo there are not really any American cars from the past 50 years on the road in Cuba. While to some extent this means cars imported by the government/for businesses rule the road (mostly of eastern bloc make though now shifting to be European in general) there are still a large number of gorgeous old American cars on the road, mostly serving as taxis. Since spare parts are difficult/impossible to come by most of these cars have been held together by bodged parts and Cuban ingenuity until some point where the owner either replaces the engine with a repurposed engine (often diesel,) parks the car to repair later or sells it for parts (a veritable gold mine.) At one point walking down the street I passed in quick succession a Studebaker, early 50s caddies, Chevies and Pontiacs and a converted 30s Ford Hot Rod. This is unfortunately one tradition that will die off quickly once exports are possible to the US as any number of American car collectors are salivating over the opportunity to buy these old beauties and restore them. I only hope that when that happens their owners get every dollar they’re worth. They are beautiful cars, lovingly maintained for the most part and truly a blast from the past for someone who lives in a part of the world where salt insures that anything over 20 years old is a smoking heap of rust.

Almost without exception the Cuban people were lovely and friendly with us and for the most part it seemed genuine. There was very little of the “I’m smiling because I want your money” vibe, especially in Varadero and in fact that most people we met were intent on making sure you were enjoying and admiring their beautiful home. Because Varadero caters almost exclusively to the tourism industry (though another big local employer, Oil, brings in a number of foreigners as well) almost everyone you meet speaks at least some English and between that and my sadly dwindling spanish knowledge I never had any trouble being understood.

 

To be continued…

 

Cuba: A room with a view…

It’s two in the morning, we’re in a foreign country not exactly known for free enterprise and we’ve been told (not exactly politely) to sit and wait while the desk clerk handles all the registrations for people who haven’t had their reservations lost. I couldn’t help but begin to pace. Realistically I knew they’d probably find something for us but where the hell was our reservation? I knew from my time searching for hotels a few days before that most of the non-crap Varadero hotels were full for this week. Were we going to end up at some dive well off the beach just to have a place to lay our heads?

Twenty minutes later we’re following a hulking security guard/bellhop down various twisting paths to what looks like an abandoned outbuilding. There were no lights anywhere, most of the illumination once we left the main hotel block was from the moon or a slight dim wash from the powerful floods at the hotel next door. This hotel was clearly not party central (we’d learn the next day that we arrived after the ‘disco’ shuts for the night) and we didn’t see another soul while getting to our room. Thankfully Hodor knew the way and we were eventually dumped into what one could certain call a ‘room’ and not much more.

First: some perspective. I’ve stayed in some not great places, I’m well aware that hotel standards differ in different countries etc… I’ve stayed in hostels  and hotels all over the world, I regularly camp and sometimes rent a rugged cabin. This is all serving as preamble to say that I have a reasonable idea of what to expect when I walk into a lodging establishment of a certain quality. The Sunwing website had claimed this was a 3.5 star hotel, the hotel itself claimed to be 4 star on their entryway, the room we were put in that first night was neither. It was clean, I can say that for it, but spartan in the extreme. It was just wide enough for the two rock hard single beds that sat along each wall. (The pillows were seemingly inflatables.) One window face directly into the air conditioner for what we later learned was the kitchen for the a la carte restaurant and snack bar. The other window led directly into the corridor off which we’d entered. That window had a very flimsy lock and a curtain that really didn’t cover the entire window so you could easily wake up and see someone watching you sleep. A small tv from the 80s was perched precariously on a noisy old minifridge (neither of which seemed to function in any meaningful manner) and which occupied more or less the only free space in the room. The bathroom was tiny with a non functional sink and a shower that provided no hot water whatsoever. With a sigh we dumped our things, went back up to the lobby bar (through the darkness) had a quick rum punch as a nightcap then hit the hay. It was a measure of our fatigue that we were both out like a light.

Just before we’d left the check in desk the clerk had said “If you don’t like you’re room, you can return at 10 and we will see if we can move you.” That was a warning bell to me right there, I mean honestly have you ever heard a clerk in a decent hotel pre-emptively suggest you might not be happy in your room? The light of day revealed more about our first night’s stay. The room was one of two or three in this outbuilding which seemed to predate the existing hotel complex. It housed the beach bathrooms (which never smelled great and which were directly under our door,) the a la carte restaurant, snack bar and accompanying kitchens (usually reeking of fish) and the patio on which I imagine the original hotel had served some meals. If I had to guess (based on the complete desertion when we arrived, not even emergency lights were on) we were the only guests in this building. Most of the rest of the upper section we were appeared to be being used to store overflow furniture and in all honesty this room felt like what they probably used as overflow/spare staff sleeping quarters when needed. I could have easily made do with it (and would have been happy to on my backpacking travels) but even at the discount price we’d paid it wasn’t acceptable for the cost. Needless to say we were willing to take our chances on what else they might have for a room so after a quick breakfast we presented ourselves to the front desk.

The desk clerk of course went on again about how full they were but eventually consented to show us a recently vacated room to which we could be moved after it was cleaned. Somewhat unfortunately for the hotel’s claims the woman who shared the elevator with us (and the security dude) started chatting to us and it turned out that she’d been stuck in the same room on the first night… had been moved… and when their second room had turned out to not have a functional toilet the “full” hotel had found them yet another room to move to. In the end though the room they showed us was fine. Probably three times the square footage of the other room, beds softer than a concrete block, a shower that was instantly hot and a faucet that actually delivered water. Coupled that with a window that actually gave natural light (and a balcony!) and we were more than satisfied. Of course since they hadn’t cleaned it we couldn’t move in for a while but since the sum total of our ambitions for the first day were to explore the beach and swim/read it wasn’t a big deal.

Actually looking at the hotel in the sunlight revealed a small but quite pleasant place. Because the hotel was set back from the road a bit on a fairly narrow lot the distance to be beach was a lot shorter than most of the other resorts. The main level ring around the pool consisted of the lobby, the buffet, the ‘disco’ and two lines of what the resort called duplexes which seemed to be a room fairly similar to our second one with a spiral staircase up to a second bedroom above. The rest of the rooms were on the floors above. A largish pool bar sat next to the small main pool while a ‘river’ of shallower water snaked up to what was no doubt once a functional water feature but was now a block of concrete making it look as if a soviet sub was about to surface in the courtyard.  A small stage faced the patio by the bar behind which stood the building where our first room had sat, behind which was the beach. For the most part everything was clean and tidy but showing various levels of wear. Pretty much everything needed a coat of paint and anything that needed any kind of maintenance was likely shut down. From my understanding this is pretty common in Cuba but after discovering that the construction next door on a new mega resort was owned by the same company I would not be at all surprised to discover that our hotel was simply in low cost stasis mode until the new hotel opened and our was torn down to build villas or something.

I’d heard horror stories about the food in Cuba and while some of them were perhaps exaggerated… meals were definitely one of the less pleasant things about the trip. The reasons for this are probably many-fold. Some ingredients are no doubt difficult to get consistently, the cooks are not well trained and the job likely doesn’t pay well and doesn’t involve the fringe benefits of tipping that most other hotel positions provide. That said there’s really no excuse for some of the practices.  Food from previous meals will constantly turn up in following meals, usually not even disguised. The burgers you saw thawing in an unsanitary manner at the snack bar are likely the same burgers (now chopped in half) that are on today’s breakfast layout. Variety was pretty much non-existent. Actual food layouts themselves (particularly of the nicer things) disappeared quickly and were not replaced, cheeses being the most prominent example. More than anything else though the thing that killed me was the blandness. Pretty much everything I sampled had little flavour and as someone who does a lot of cooking I realised just how little effort would have been required to take things up several notches. Even dessert was a collection of different looking bar cakes that underneath were the same vaguely sweet spongecake with vaguely sweet layers or frosting at more or less tasted the same.

It quickly became apparent that sticking to the freshly made stations was the way to go, but just how many bowls of pasta with tomatoes and and onion can you have? By the end of the trip I was MacGyvering feverishly to get through meals, finding cheese and sausage and feverishly mixing it with the pasta and some salt (brought from home) to get more flavour or getting a second plate and mixing ingredients to something different and palatable. From talking to my mother as well as other people while outside the resort I gather some other hotels aren’t quite as dire in terms of variety/quantity but the pervasive blandness seems to be universal. I have to say, that’s one thing they’re really going to have to work on once the Americans start coming, even for a lower market American crowd you’re not going to be able to serve a tray of ‘pork’ like the one I saw everyone ignoring my last day there.  We slightly alleviated things by grabbing the occasional meal in Varadero proper. Well, that and copious amounts of alcohol.

 

To be continued

Viva la Cuba Libre (y viva Mojitos)

varadero

Cuba is an odd place. It’s a land of sun and sand but also a land of rules and regulations. It’s a curious mix of backwards and forwards, of old and older and of sudden hints at rejuvenation. There’s an air of anticipation (and indeed some fear) at the thought of another impending American invasion. While this one may bring investment and renewal many wonder if Cuba will ever really be the same again. This travelogue encompasses my impressions as a first time visitor (and longtime travel junkie,) some contrast/comparisons from others as well as a pretty lengthy diatribe against Sunwing Vacations with whom I hope to never travel again (part of the reason for the delay on posting this is my ongoing complaint submission with them.)

Arriving in Cuba is a different experience than most other holiday destinations we Canadians seem to frequent. It was dark when we arrived but even seen through the window of our 737 the airport looked very old/communist derived to me. It reminded me strongly of some of the train stations I’d visited in eastern Europe, and impression only reinforced once we’d deplaned and gone inside. Thanks to Sunwing’s ludicrously tight flight scheduling we arrived fairly late into Varadero itself. We deplaned to the tarmac then walked across, up two flights stairs and across a jetway into the terminal only to go back downstairs. (I’d originally thought that because we were late our jetway was in use, but in fact when departing we left from one that wasn’t in use when we arrived.) The warsaw pact vibe was reinforced inside as we passed a number of revolutionary slogan posters before even reaching the arrival hall.

Unfortunately (thanks Sunwing!)  our late arrival (and I suspect that of another large plane) made the arrivals hall into a packed cattle yard. You know the queue system(s) most sensible airports have to ensure immigration control moves along at a reasonable and fair pace? Not so much here. Let me paint you a picture…

You arrive at the bottom of a flight of stairs, to your left and right stretch a guide rope parcelling off the front section of floor for some unknown purpose. On the other side in the distance is a wall made up of individual customs booths. In front of each booth opening stretches a line of 50+ weary looking tourists. It’s instantly clear that the line is moving at a snail’s pace and indeed many people are sitting on their suitcases and fanning themselves (it may be midnight local time but this is a huge mass of people and there are no air conditioners.)

Back home sitting at our gate we’d become aware of a very hilarious group of Portuguese people. There were at least five of them, all seemingly in the same family, all (I’d guess) over 50. They were loud. VERY loud. One particular seemed beyond bitchy and would begin violently gesticulating and shouting every few minutes. Even the normal conversation was at the volume you would expect from a three year old tearing around a McDonald’s play area. This became markedly less entertaining as they were seated near us in the plane and started up again. It became beyond tiresome as they ended up immediately behind us in the customs line. They simply did not shut up ever and the yelling grandma got increasingly shrill. As someone who speaks French and some Spanish I think I found it especially grating as I could understand words and phrases here and there but it was just on the edge of intelligibility to me. It took everything I had not to turn around and shout “INSIDE VOICES PLEASE” at them. Adding to their annoyance factor was the two women leading the group who seemed to feel that unless they were pressing right up against us the line wasn’t going to move. I lost count of the number of times I was smacked by the woman’s sharp tote bag and it eventually got to the point where I stuck out my elbow a little knowing that eventually  she’d smack her head on it… (sure enough.)

Before we’d left my mother had warned me that Cubans are big about obeying the rules and often had arbitrary and stupid ones. I got my first taste of this as we waited in line as some poor Quebecois had the gall to go to the restroom. Upon emerging he made to cut under the rope line and head back to his spot in line with his wife and child. You’d think he’d pulled out a gun based on the shriek he got from the people dressed like nurses who seemed to serve no purpose at all. He was called back, berated in Spanish and made to walk the twenty feet to the gap in the rope line, then back down as though it made any difference (as mentioned the rope seemed to merely define the area that wasn’t the bathroom area… he was in no way inconveniencing anyone.)

Inevitably we’d chosen the wrong line at customs (we always do) and the processing was taking eons. There was little signage and indeed no clue why some of the people we saw that go into the booths went in groups and some solo. It turns out that if you have dependent children or a senior in need of aid ONE adult can go with them. How you are supposed to know this I’m not certain. In the end we chose lines so poorly that not only did everyone (probably 60 people) in line before us move to other lines and get through first, but in fact we ended up among the last 10 people processed in the entire queue. Our customs lady was beyond bitchy. I get that you hate your job miss but don’t mumble into your chest as you type and expect me to hear you while  standing against the far wall so you can take my photo. I was yelled at for:

  1. Not hearing the initial mumbling
  2. Being too tall and not sliding down far enough for their shitty webcams to take a photo
  3. Daring to put my glasses back on after she’d clearly had enough time to take 5 photos

Eventually cleared I found myself in yet another queue, this time for a security style metal detector. I suspect this one is mostly focused on not bringing in military grade radios and sat phones (though a lot of the things people claim you can’t take are myths) but with the amount of attention they were paying to the screen I could have brought anything in. It was very clear this was the end of their shift and in fact I ended up having to call them back to actually move my bag out of the machine.

In the end by the time we were parked on the bus we were fully 3 hours behind where we were supposed to be. Half the bus had grabbed beers from the hawkers outside the door (at a ridiculous markup) and it was a boisterous crowd of unfunny drunks that pretended to listen to the tour guide spiel as we headed out to Varadero. The young university student giving the intro guide talk was kind of hilarious. Her English was quite decent but for whatever reason she’d obviously used the words “well so you know” as a memory phrase so as she finished each memorized paragraph she’d revert and every single new paragraph went something along the lines of: “Well, so, you know, the oil industry is very important in Cuba…” Unfortunately due to the hour my first impressions of Cuba (non-airport division) were of a few poorly lit towns, a few spots with waves crashing that promised great views in the morning  and stop after stop dropping people off at hotels that weren’t mine. In the end it was after 2 am when we finally staggered up to the front desk of our hotel and tried to check in only to hear some of the most dreaded words in travelling: “I can’t find your reservation…”

 

To be continued…

 

 

Is it because I’m eating alone?

First a little backstory:

The municipal government building in which I work is situated more or less on the fringe of ‘business downtown’ and starts the shift towards ‘sketchy downtown’ here in the city. We as employees don’t have any actual lunchrooms in the building (at least not that I’ve found on floors I have access to) other than a counter space for a person or two to sit in the floor kitchen. Happily on the main floor of the building there is a cafe that sort of doubles as a cafeteria with a number of tables as well as some couches. It’s open to (and frequented by) outside people as they often have a good lunch special and the food is decent if sometimes bland. Most days at lunch I take my lunch break in the cafe, almost always watching an hour’s worth of tv or 1/2 a movie on my laptop or sometimes reading a book. Usually I just eat my lunch from home but I often grab a bowl of soup or an order of fries.

Anyway… so today I’m sitting in one of the corners (wearing my parka but unzipped as the wind often sneaks in the door and chills the place down) my headphones on and my laptop open watching a show and occasionally texting. I eat my sandwich from home but leave the rest of my food upstairs as I’m working a bit late and want to fend off hunger eating my apple and almond tart later in the afternoon. As time winds on the place gradually empties out until it’s only about half full, the credits are about to start rolling on my show and I’m just thinking that I should get my butt back up to my desk. That’s when it happened.

I notice a woman across the room who has finished her lunch stand up and begin walking towards me. I figure she’s heading to pick up one of the freebie papers that are sitting a few booths down from me by the door but no, now she’s speaking to me but I can’t hear her over the soundtrack. I pull out my headphones and say: “Pardon me?”

“I said would you like a soda pop?”

I manage to stammer out some sort of puzzled reply along the lines of “I’m fine” as I have a closer look at her. She’s late middle aged/early senior citizen, wearing a faded pink sweatshirt and ugly denim skirt. Her eyes are somehow simultaneously caring and vacant and I quite honestly can’t begin to figure out where she’s coming from.

“Well, are you hungry? Do you need something to eat?” There’s a concerned inflection to her voice now and it begins to click that she thinks I’m homeless/needy. Now on occasion homeless people do come into the cafe, we’re not far from a few of the bigger shelters and someone once told me the cafe owner donates a fair bit of leftover food to one of them. I’m fairly sure he also gives them a fair bit for their money when they do come in and want to pay for a meal. The thing I can’t figure out is why on earth she would think I’m homeless. I realize now that she’d come in after I finished my sandwich and therefore hadn’t seen me eating but I’m pretty clearly a staff member here. About the only visible reason might be that I forgot to shave… yet

  • I look well fed (well let’s be honest, overfed)
  • Other than being unshaven I’m reasonably well groomed
  • I’m using a laptop/headphones and texting on a fairly new phone.
  • I’m wearing a spotless fairly expensive looking jacket over what’s clearly a pressed dress shirt .

Obviously none of these things preclude me being homeless, but I think all of them together don’t really paint a picture of someone who needs her to come over.

Slowly starting to realize where she’s coming from I say: “No thank you, I’m good” But she leans closer and insists “No, you look like you wanted someone to come over and buy you some food.”

I thank her as politely as I can, tell her I already ate my sandwich and she finally accepts it and walks away saying “You know sometimes people just sit here hoping that someone will get them some food. (I eat lunch in here every day ma’am, I’ve never seen that.) Eventually I start packing up to leave at which point she finally gives up and goes to police her tray as I scurry back out to catch my elevator.

The damn thing was… the moment I went upstairs… I DID want a soda pop.