Stories We Could Tell: Freedom Bracelets

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Jethro and I awoke with hangovers in a Havana casa particular. Like cliché Canadians, we’d rented private rooms and drank our weight in mint-tinged and rum-bombed mojitos the day before. The beautiful, sultry-eyed prostitutes that lingered by the sidewalk patios kept us stationary for most of the afternoon, and it was sunset by the time we’d pulled ourselves from their magnetic stares and towards the Malecón—the once majestic roadway that runs the length of Havana’s coast. There, we drank 15-year-old rum warm from the bottle and flirted with Catalonian tourists while street con artists tried to part us with our money in more devious ways. Like faceless targets, our night blurred into a haze of dancing and sugarcane. When we awoke, we both knew it was time to leave Havana, at least for now.

The rented Peugeot’s engine winds out over the steep rutted highway. We are en route to Varadero, an enclave of all inclusive resorts populating a stunning length of alabaster beach and turquoise water. When frosty-nosed car mechanics visit, this is what they see, and what they envision their seven-day vacation will look like. But turn the camera around and the resorts become run down and unattractive. We arrive to disappointment: concrete walls, rusty fences, and locals who’ve chosen to live near these bargain basement North America vacation outlets for the jobs they produce and the black market trade that surrounds them.

Securing a night’s accommodation is difficult. These hotels are package deals and it’s expensive to come for only one evening. We pay $180 for the night, but bargain for the following day to be all-inclusive. Upon check out, we load up with as many American one-dollar bills as we can. We pack the car and reenter the resort, planning to stay another night, allowing our bright green bracelets and the bribe-ready bills to feed and booze us. We spend the day lounging on the beach and double-bouncing children off the floating trampoline into the bright blue water; and the evening practicing our French with cute girls from Trois Rivieres, QC.

Later in the evening I float naked and drunk in the inky black ocean. Far from the shore, the sounds of the scripted 11 o’clock dance routine is swallowed by the gently rolling swell. I can hear our new party friends near the water’s edge, giggling and splashing. I swim in the opposite direction. Two shadowy figures appear on my horizon. Momentary panic dissolves when I see it is only Jethro and a girl we met from Calgary. They giggle, but in a way that betrays more lustful activity than those playing near the beach. I breaststroke further out into the ocean, lonely but grateful for the silence.

My dreams are vivid. Waves lapping against the shore with the rhythmic wash of the earth’s tide. They grow closer, crashing against the beach. Hypnotic admiration turns to fear. Then panic. I awake to the sight of a chubby Cuban man in the pool at my feet, scooping bucket after bucket of chlorinated water against the pool’s edge to wash the dead bugs and cigarette butts away.

Buenos dias” he says, smiling from ear to ear. Splash. I roll off the deck chair and stumble to the bar. This is Varadero.

Havana 2

The cobblestoned streets of Trinidad are alluring. It is a tourist town with an authentic feel. No streetlights. Stunning architecture. On the steps of town square, we watch oversexed tourists salsa with local dancers who make me feel arthritic with their disjointed hips and liquid movement. We sweat heavily in a nightclub hollowed out of a cave, dancing with a group of Kiwi girls who laugh easily and loudly.

After the bars close, we climb onto the roof of their casa and lay on the warm tar paper. The sounds of town echo above the rooftops and into the starlit sky. Somewhere below, a man named Jose is watching our rental car throughout the night. We pay him $5 for this service. In the morning I will photograph his son inside one of the classic American automobiles made famous in this embargoed country. They will seem like friends. I will promise them prints but never follow through on it.
On the way out of town, Jethro and I visit Playa Ancon. Located on a peninsula south of Trinidad, the beach is similar to every other one we’ve seen in this country — beautiful, and crawling with Canadians and Europeans. In search of a free lunch, we do reconnaissance at the most expensive looking all-inclusive resort. Their bracelets are white. We flip ours inside out, revealing the gleaming white underbelly.

They’re serving lobster.

“Just eat your prime rib and drink your beer, dammit,” says Jethro. We are in the dining room of a resort in Playa de Estes, a Russian block-style architectural eyesore 20 minutes from downtown Havana. It is a local’s favourite. We’ve been here two days, holed up in an uninspiring room that we do little more than sleep in. The rest of the time, we enjoy the hospitality of Cuba’s friendly people. We eat one meal a day, donning the plastic, snap-fit bracelets we acquired in Varadero to poach the free buffet. By now, the bracelets are torn and limp. We’ve sewn them on with thread and needle.

After loading a plate with juicy beef and limp seafood and ordering four glasses of Cristal beer, the management politely approaches us at our table.

Permiso, what room are you’re staying in, sir?” he asks.

“2006,” Jethro answers without hesitation. It is a lie. It also happens to be the current year.

“Thank you,” he answers, returning to his post while scanning a clipboard.

The jig is up, I think. They’ve found us out. My mind races to horror stories I’ve heard of Fidel’s Cuba. Despite traveling throughout the country’s flooded back roads and mountain passes, we have seen little of the human rights accusations that plague this country. Now, we will get a first-hand look. Jethro glares and speaks to me in a tone best described as “dad voice.” “We’re fine. Just finish your meal and we’ll walk out calmly.” Our plates get scraped clean, our beer quaffed, and we rise from the table. By this point, three managers have the papers of the clipboard blossomed out like a flower, desperately looking for any number that resembles Room 2006. We stroll by them, Jethro flashes a charming, toothy smile and we walk into the Cuban sun, free to continue our tour of the nation’s all-inclusives. We are untouchable.

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