Travel memoir: Varadero, Cuba

Surrounded by mankinis and Che Guevara souvenirs, Robert Drewe retires to his deckchair and a thermos of Mojitos.

We get off the bus from Havana to be welcomed to Varadero by statues of a golden mermaid, a Venus de Milo and a plump naked woman who's expressing breast milk into a pineapple.

We're checking into the Hotel Internacional, where Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and the mafia used to party. But the Internacional, opened to wild mob revelry in 1950, is down to three stars these days, and lucky to have them. Only the service lift is working and it's a trek to our room along a sandy carpet that barely covers holes in the floor, through which you can see the landing below. A throat-catching stench of mould, rum, pork grease and cigars wafts up from below.

Our room has a bullet hole in the window. The king-sized bed has two single-bed sheets and a hospital-style rubber sheet on the mattress. Cheered slightly by the thought of Frank and Ava cavorting here, we notice there are no curtains. Wind whistles through the bullet hole.

Once you've checked into the Internacional and paid upfront, food and drinks are free. You're encouraged to refill your thermos of Mojitos, Piña Coladas or beer and drink all day under framed photographs of Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano drinking and smoking cigars, sitting just where we are now.  

Every morning, guests scurry towards the sparkling Caribbean to find a deckchair that isn't broken. Statues of gods and goddesses, missing an arm or nose, gaze solemnly across the sea. So do the European male guests, straight and gay alike, favouring bulge-enhancing Lycra trunks or the mankini, a bizarre testicle-sling swimsuit that loops around the neck and owes its risible reputation to Borat.  

Strangely, no one swims. Instead, everyone stands knee-deep, motionless, faces raised to catch the rays; shiny, fat torsos remaining dry, before returning to refill their drink flasks, apply more body oil and fry in the sun.  

In the restaurant, a fierce-looking Central American woman with an Amy Winehouse hairstyle and wearing a gold bra and hot pants, sits with her husband and two plump children, all munching pork chunks. The woman's gaze falls on each of them in turn. Under her scrutiny, they drop their eyes. No one speaks. She holds her knife like a weapon, stabbing the food, then eating off the knife, sliding the blade slowly between her scarlet lips.

If you like pork chunks with black pig hairs still intact, you can eat all day here, too. Unless you prefer the Restaurante Esquina Cuba, a favourite of the Buena Vista Social Club, where, if you drag the waitstaff away from the baseball on TV, $US13 buys tasty beef brisket ropa vieja, translated, confusingly, as "old clothes". 

In town we buy paper cones of shelled peanuts, called mani. Our friend Rudolfo studies the wrappers and says, "Ha! These are the dismissal notices of a bureaucrat, sacked for stealing."  

When sunshine breaks through the rain, Rudolfo remarks solemnly, "There's an old saying for this: 'The daughter of the devil is getting married'." He shrugs and adds, "I've no idea why they say that."  

As common as Che Guevara souvenirs are unsettling caricatures of black Cubans. A fat-lipped Sambo and bandana-wearing, huge-hipped Mammy are comically represented in souvenirs from ashtrays to T-shirts, even in stores with black shopkeepers. At home these would be seen as blatant racism. In Cuba, where half the population has an African background, Sambo and Mammy hold sway with Che.  

One day we're accosted by a living, elaborately costumed Sambo and Mammy. As wacky as football mascots, huge heads rolling on their shoulders, they're waddling along, stopping traffic and posing for photographs. Arms outstretched for an embrace, they bear down on us. 

Do they want money? Nervously, I get out my wallet. But big-buttocked Mammy sashays up to me, and from inside her massive head a deep male voice says calmly, "No need. Have a nice day." And then Mammy hugs me to her padded body.

Author Robert Drewe's latest novel, Whipbird (Penguin Random House, pbk, $33), is out now.


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