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Friday, 29 May 2020

Santiago de Cuba 2020 1: On The Beach!


Breeze. Mountain. Sea. 

The very name of the Brisas Sierra Mar says it all! Sums the experience up perfectly. 

But there's a lot more! 

Located on the island's south shore, the all inclusive Brisas has a dumfy 3 or 4 star Caribbean charm. The type the Cubans' pull off with a certain aplomb. 

It's an hour along the coast outside Santiago de Cuba. Nestled among the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. Today, the Brisas is but a faded, decaying relic of itself. It's no longer the once grand resort it originally was during the 1990's. But it's bargain basement amenities, friendly ambiance and natural splendour, keep the Canadian, European and South American guests coming back. Loyally, year after year. Janet, my sister Maryanne and me too! [See LINKS below]



Sure, lots of stuff needs repair. The Brisas is notorious for running out of this or that. Has been since the rolling electrical blackouts and chronic shortages during Cuba's "Special Period" in the 1990's; when the US last tightened it's illegal, economic sanctions against Cuba. Back when I first visited the resort.

Now US President Donald Trump is quietly, once again putting the economic screws to Cuba. Sadly, this year, the living conditions were the worst I've seen since then. 

This visit the Brisas buffet and a la carte restaurants were constantly running out of meat, vegetables and fruit. But there was always a very nice chicken, pork or seafood dinner available. Simpler, more home cooked, less fancy -basically what the Brisas does best. 

Healthy home made fruit drinks were readily available, instead of soda pop at the bar. Plus the local beer and rum still flowed freely. Like during the Special Period, the Cubans always find a way to make do, rather than buckle under, to the Yankee imperialists.

Sure, preservatives and food chemicals are sanctioned by the US, for "political reasons" As a result, most of the food grown in Cuba is natural. Organic. Unprocessed. Perhaps not to some tastes, but very healthy all the same.

Another of Cuba's many charms; There is little or no resentment of us as tourists. Yes, we get the best food. And preferred service. But the Cuban government's joint ownership of the tourist industry makes sure that it's resorts are the economic hub of the local community. Creating jobs and funding public services for the locals, rather than allowing most of the profits to be siphoned off abroad. 

That's a real sore point for the US! But so be it! Viva Cuba!

Sadly, within the last year, Trump has managed to cut off the cruise ships. Along with most of Obama's initiatives to open the island to US tourists. And so the number of guests was down quite noticably this year. Mostly just English and French Canadians. Italians, Germans and Russians too. 



For us, that just meant more beach chairs. Plus we paid a lot less for a week at the Brisas during high season, than we would anywhere else in the Caribbean. Only about $1200 Canadian each with airfare, transfers and most everything included! Even that was kind of pricey by Brisas standards, because we booked our vacation early last fall. 

Prefer to go last minute? $800 is more common. Some charters will get them to wave the single supplement too.

True, some of the guests were upset. Didn't like that lots of Cubans are now staying at the Brisas on the weekend. Enjoying the empty hotel rooms, left vacant as the US embargo tightens it's deadly grip. 

Quite frankly, we enjoyed their company; very friendly, down to earth and unassuming. 

Hey, it is their island. We're just spending our tourist dollars there. Helping Cuba out!

But no matter. Basically, Janet and Maryanne love lying on the beach all day. Safely. Without being bothered! 

The Brisas is definitely the place to be!

True, the dark, finely ground sand isn't as spectacular as Varadero's world famous, white sand beaches. But there's still a calming vista. Lush palms. A refreshing sea breeze. Plus no bothersome hustlers! 

Top notch all the way!



On our morning walk, the local villagers, further along the beach would sell us fresh fruit. We had our choice of Papayas. Mangos. Watermelons. Bananas. Zapotes. Or come back later, for the catch of the day. That often included lobster, which the kitchen staff would gladly cook up for you back at the hotel!

The Cubans liked to swap for clothes and toiletries. Sun glasses. Towels. Money's not worth much to them anymore, since there's very little left to buy in the Cuban stores. 

And so one day endlessly melted into the next under the hot sun. In retrospect, our escape from the Canadian winter actually seems quite surreal. 

Maryanne and Janet were happy to just lie on the beach all day. Frolicking in the sea and sand. While Omar kept the drink glasses full from the beach bar hut. 

I'd snorkel along the endless coral reef. Making landfall further down the coast. Lieing in the sand on the completely isolated shore. Collecting shells. Working on my tan a bit. Soaking in the sun. In my minds eye, I'm still there!



Alas! A week later, we'd be back in Toronto. Stuck indoors. In self quarantine. Just to be safe. 

Little did we know at the time, but the bus loads of Italian tourists we were rubbing shoulders with, were sometimes infected with the Covid-19 virus!

The pandemic wasn't official yet. Just a small, news story, from the other side of the world. One that kept popping up now and again, during our winter travels, on the satellite TV news, back in our room. Something we planned to look into when we got home. Little knowing. Never guessed.

We were quite focused on the moment instead. Glad to just be travelling about. In retrospect, enjoying much happier, fleeting times.

Retired now, I still keep contact with my former Cuban teacher colleagues and their families. Those with whom I worked in Santiago de Cuba. From the Oriente Pedagical institute. Or the Toronto Friendship School. Some are still teaching, or are tour guides now. Many of our former students are still employed at the resorts. Or are retired, like myself, but without many of the material benefits that we take for granted, in Canada.

Of course, we'd also booked a second week in Santiago de Cuba to visit everybody in town. Make our rounds.

My sister Maryanne, a nurse, likes to also join us on our Cuba trips. She'll bring some much needed medical supplies. While Janet and I will bring along a few extra suitcases of clothing, toiletries, and household necessities, mostly just our own stuff now, as we downsize into retirement. Plus I still like to drop by and help out with the English classes at the school. 



More on all of that will follow in the part 2 of my Santiago de Cuba 2020 travel blog. 

Before we left the Brisas, we invited some of our Cuba amigos y amigas out for a visit. 

It's a yearly tradition. We laugh it up. Renew old friendships. Have a big all inclusive party at the resort. It costs very little and we have so much fun.

When Professors Jose, Martha and Aurelio arrived, the first thing I noticed was that they'd lost a lot of weight. Sure, we could tell that the situation was very tight by the sparseness of the food, services and amenities at the Brisas. 

But just how tight only became fully apparent when Janet and I visited Santiago de Cuba, a week later.

Sadly, this visit, conditions at the Brisas were as bad as during the Special Period nearly 30 years ago. That's a pretty, big set back in and of itself. But In town, the actual depth of the crisis was much, more, readily apparent. 

And when we now add the Covid-19 pandemic into the mix? It's only going to get a lot worse! 




LINKS

Brisas: The Joy of Retirement @ HERE!

Another Brisas Review @ HERE!

Brisas: Back 2 The Beach @ HERE!

Brisas: The Beach Is The Thing @ HERE!

Santiago De Cuba A Go Go @ There!




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