The best and worst of Christmas: Just another Havana morning

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS Christmas Eve and I was on a flight from Montreal to Varadero in Cuba. That morning my father had issued two points of guidance: 'Trust the old people' and 'men are the same the world over'.

He didn't realise I had no accommodation and would be spending the flight trying to arrange somewhere to sleep. I was 20 years old.

As I saw it there were really only two possibilities: the lady with her 11-year-old daughter who sat next to me, or Jan, the lone Canadian in his thirties who worked with handicapped people and knew something about Australian aborigines.

I'd met him in the airport lounge. When I told him my problem he seemed particularly understanding. 'You can trust me,' he said. Oh well, he seemed nice enough.

I kept saying this to myself as everyone else's luggage slid past at Varadero airport. The mother and daughter had left in a rush of jubilant goodbyes some time previously and it was too late to start approaching people now.

Besides, Jan had already booked a taxi and his hotel was just a 'short drive' from the airport.

With a bottle of Havana rum in one hand, he said: 'Just keep your cool, girl, keep your cool.'

I did what was expected for a while - sipped the rum and giggled a bit. But my companion became more obnoxious after each troubled mile. 'Stop - hey buddy I said stop,' he would say to the driver every half hour.

'Arretez] Yeah - yeah here, somewhere where it's dark.'

And he would look up at a tree admiringly as he urinated over its trunk.

It was past midnight and into Christmas morning by the time we arrived at his hotel. It suddenly appeared - in the middle of nowhere - a huge raw concrete block with a fluorescent pink sign saying Ranco Luna Hotel.

Jan handed me his personal stereo to take care of and counted out the agreed taxi fare: 130 Canadian dollars. Once changed on the black market Cdollars 130 was the equivalent of six months' wages for the taxi driver.

We walked through the reception to the pool where paper decorations were suspended from straw umbrellas. At one end a band was playing while a group of unaccompanied teenage girls danced to the music.

The hotel complex, it seemed, was a parental haven: no drugs to corrupt their dear daughters, men who were obviously taught never to have sex with 'high risk' tourists, and a disco that wound up at a respectably early hour.

When the music came to a halt and Jan had finished his 'sobering-up' egg sandwich, we went back to his room. He said to follow behind - we didn't want to 'make it obvious'.

Mercifully, Jan lay flat on his back and fell asleep the moment we arrived in the room. I wrapped myself up in a sarong, feeling lucky that there were two single beds.

I woke a few hours later, early for Christmas Day. It appeared to be just another day for the Cubans. Outside the window a boy was picking up leaves one by one with a pin at the end of a stick.

I thought briefly back to my family at home. Everyone would be crowded around my parents' bed by now, opening Father Christmas stockings full of presents, the heating turned on to make it warm, wrapping paper all over the place.

At 10am there was a loud knocking on the door. 'We know you are in there. Open up]' said the voice. The 'girl' was to leave immediately. Extra persons overnight were 'unacceptable'.

Gratefully, I packed my bags, said goodbye and thanks, then wandered back past the pool and the breakfast hall decorated with pine needles and pink flowers.

People were eating at separate tables, the Christmas spirit still trying to filter its way in.

Outside the hotel lay the Cuba I had always wanted to experience: rough dusty roads and a tropical smell in the air. Suddenly a local bus roared up. It was full but they took me anyway.

As the bus drove off an old man held on to my hands to make sure I didn't fall out. Later he offered me his seat.

I looked inside my bag. There was Jan's personal stereo. I gave it to the old man; he looked astonished. I was the only one celebrating Christmas that day - I did it on the bus to Havana.

(Photograph omitted)