wmthomas-sliderBy William Thomas

I’m trying to work through my issues with Christmas – why I hate this time of year and why I feel so out of place … like Rob Ford at a truth and reconciliation hearing.

Not even a smash of eggnog and rum could cheer me up at this time of year.  I hate rum.  My aversion to this particular spirit can be traced directly back to a really bad bus tour in Santiago, Cuba.

“See The Real Cuba,” said the sign in the lobby of the Delta Sierra Mar Resort promising excursions to the rum factory, the cigar factory and the Santiago cemetery.

(Par. #4) Many people at our hotel took the tour to escape the hotel policy of playing “Guantanamera” non-stop twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Of all the things Cuba needs after the Castro brothers go, a new national song would be an excellent idea.

The tour did not get off to a rollicking start.  After a one-hour drive to the city of Santiago, the rum factory was closed due to labour problems.  We were, however, allowed into the tasting room, where we sampled seven-year-old rum.  I declined, but “No, it ees jess like French Brandy.”  It didn’t matter because even the teetotalers and recovering alcoholics hit the hard stuff after forty minutes of non-stop – you guessed – “Guantanamera” by the rum factory house band.  In Cuba, I was learning even shoeshine stands have their own house bands.

The tour didn’t make a rousing recovery from its initial setback because at the next stop the cigar factory was also closed due to labour problems, or staff holidays, or possibly a period of national mourning for the house band, who were summarily executed by the previous tour group for playing – everybody now – “Guantanamera.”

“Why can’t the house bands ever go on strike?” I asked, a little too loudly.

At this point, I was getting disillusioned:  After all the disappointments, I thought if we get to the Santiago cemetery and it’s also closed due to labour problems, this is really going to ruin my day.

Although most of the sights on this tour couldn’t be seen on this day, the trip itself was not uneventful because at 1:30 p.m. on a narrow street in a residential section of Santiago, Pedro, “the best driver in all of Cuba,” had an accident.  With no more than one hundred cars in the whole country actually operating, at any given time due to the absence of oil and gas, Pedro managed to hit one of them.

Subsequently, Pedro took off in chase of the driver of the car, which didn’t stop and twenty of us were stranded at a souvenir shop that sold ceramic ash trays and photos of Che Guevera.  Standing outside in the searing sun for an hour, I realized my face was fried and my brain wasn’t far behind.  Many of us never wanted to leave the place because … you guessed it – no house band.

On a new bus with a new driver, we pulled up to the famous Santiago cemetery where nobody was having labour problems.  You’ll find this to be true of any cemetery in any country – no walkouts.

I don’t know if it was the rum, the heat, or the fact that I hadn’t heard “Guantanamera” in almost an hour, but I sort of lost it.

As we passed a crypt that was kind of crooked, Angel explained this was due to years of heat and humidity.  As it turns out, there was the resting place of a great Cuban patriot and rum maker.  Through the fog of alcohol and blinding sun I realized – there he was – the source of my pain, the evil man who invented the very rum that was making me crazy, Don Facundo Bacardi.  I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist.  I asked if, due to the curvature of the casket, would this be called – “a Bacardi with a twist.”

Angel shot me a dagger of a look but as they say in Cuba, if looks could kill, I was at least standing in the appropriate place.

The seven-year-old hard stuff was still making its way through my system when we passed the tomb of Bacardi’s nephew, planted right beside the old man.

“So, Angel,” I said, “this a double Bacardi on ice?”

Although no one else laughed, I got quite hysterical.  When I inquired about the rum maker killed in that tragic shipwreck, “Bacardi on the rocks,” I was politely asked to leave the tour and sit on the air conditioned bus where I would be more comfortable.

My ejection from this famous cemetery did not, however, stop me from rolling the window down on the bus and yelling at Angel to tell the story about the other family member who was shot in the drug deal – “Bacardi with coke!”  Anyway, it worked out great because on a Cuban tour bus, the air conditioner is so loud, you can’t hear – wait for it – “Guantanamera.”

And I say with all sincerity, if we as Canadian citizens can’t visit foreign countries and make fun of their most revered citizens with stupid little bar jokes, then what good are we as a nation.  I guess I actually hate rum more than Christmas and that somehow cheers me up.


For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of  Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca