This blog's title means "Cuban-hearted woman" (very loosely translated!). I settled on this name because it had a nice ring to my unschooled ear and, more importantly, because I think the Cuban people seem to have so much
heart, and they're in my heart for that reason. In general, the people I've met in Cuba are quite consistently open-hearted and big-hearted in the way they relate to each other or to visitors in their beautiful land. A piece of my heart now resides in Cuba, with the warm, wonderful friends I've made there. This blog is not intended to be a guide to Cuba, just a forum for my eclectic bits of writing – poetry, opinion pieces and information gleaned from my personal experience and reading.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

New project in the works: suitcase sponsorship!

A few years ago, I began organizing groups of interesting and interested people to travel with me to Cuba. But, we're not going just anywhere in Cuba; we're going to a very special place called Marea del Portillo, where many a Canadian tourist has left a chunk of heart. This is a small, low-key Club Amigo resort on the southern foot of Cuba. It's at the opposite end of the island from Havana and the opposite end of the spectrum from the posh over-stuffed hotel complexes of Varadero, and the laid-back atmosphere is exactly why I like it!

Club Amigo Marea del Portillo and Farallón del Caribe are the only hotels in this nook of the Granma province. The diminutive resort is set like a gem on the hem of a horseshoe bay, fringed by the majestic Sierra Maestra Mountains. This is a sleepy agricultural area, over the hill and far away from the relative hustle and bustle of mid-sized urban areas like Bayamo and Manzanillo de Cuba, where the nearest international airport is located.

If you travel with one of my groups to Marea, you will fly into and out of Manzanillo, which is about an hour and a half drive away from the resort. Don't worry - you won't need to hitch-hike! Once you board the plane in Toronto, you're in the hands of Sunwing, and you will be well taken care of for the entire journey. Air-conditioned buses transport you from and to the airport, and staff is ready to assist at every juncture.

The staff at Marea del Portillo are very good at their jobs and, in the tourist industry, that means keeping everyone as happy as possible. It can be a challenge at times but the Marea crew is generally very good at it! The high number of returnees attests to the quality of the care here, I think. Couple that with the glorious scenery and you'll begin to understand why so many people consider it their "second home." The accommodations here aren't the most luxurious but they are clean and well cared for – and when I say "cared for," I don't just mean in the physical sense. The staff really cares for this place and for the repeat guests who have, over the years, become genuine friends. That's part of the Marea magic.

It is, of course, in the best interest of those employed by the resort to care for this place because there's a lot riding on it. This tiny dimple on the massive cheek of Cuban tourism is the most significant employer in this region. Therefore, a lot of families rely on it in a time and place where there are not many other employment options. That's one of the primary reasons why I've placed it squarely in my sites for the humanitarian work I've begun. It's also why, in part, I lead groups in April and October, during the shoulder season for tourism. My hope is that the modest injection of business I bring will help to keep a few more people employed for a little longer at the beginning and end of winter. As well, I prefer those times precisely because it is less busy - nobody has to fight for a spot on the beach.

The All-Girl-Yoga Posse greeted the sun almost every day at Marea del Portillo.


When my groups are in residence, the beach becomes our yoga studio! My pal bendy Wendy Martin will now be leading yoga classes during each and every group trip I arrange. She joined me for the first time last October and quickly understood why I'd fallen in love with the place and people – and she offered to team up with me twice a year, which is wonderful. She brings a gentle, gleeful and powerfully positive spirit to the group experience. I couldn't be happier to have her along!

When not in Cuba with me, Wendy operates her own studio - Sacred Breath Yoga, in downtown Huntsville (Muskoka). In October 2011, we offered the inaugural "All-Girl-Yoga-Posse" trip. About 40 women, spanning several generations, traveled with us and many participated in yoga on the beach at sunrise and/or in the late afternoon. The flat fee for the week of yoga was $60. The April trip is open to both men and women, and yoga will be too. The rate will be similar.

Yoga instructor Wendy Martin (left) loves doing playful yoga with kids!
Wendy and many others in Muskoka and elsewhere have been beautifully supportive of the projects I've launched to enhance the community surrounding Marea del Portillo. These endeavours are embryonic but, even so, we've been able to take a dozen bikes and hundreds of pounds of clothing and other gifts to the people of this impoverished, under-serviced rural region. And, I've got lots more good stuff ready to go! My house is becoming populated with boxes and bins full of clothing, shoes, toiletries and other simple household necessities, and a small herd of bikes is corralled in the car port.


I have devised a three-pronged system for getting bikes to Cuba, and it seems to be working pretty well. People can donate a bike (adults' mountain bikes are preferred), pay $30 to sponsor a bike (that's the fee Sunwing charges for a 20-kg box o' bike) and/or, if in my tour group, shepherd a bike (a bike box becomes part of that passenger's checked luggage). A "bike shepherd" gets to use the bike he/she has helped transport to the resort but, when the shepherd goes home to Canada, the bike goes to a new home in Cuba. It would be too much hassle to take a used bike back on the plane at the end of the trip anyway, right?!

Chacho received this excellent bike in October 2011.
Since this bike shepherding project has been working so well, I plan to riff on the theme and set up a similar system for suitcases. I already have a nice collection of donated suitcases, which I will fill with clothing and such. For $40, a Sunwing airline passenger can have a seating upgrade (to what's called "Elite Plus") that includes an extra 10 kg (22 lbs.) of checked luggage capacity. A group member can become a "suitcase shepherd" for one of these loaded bags and, as a perk, will get extra leg room on the plane. Once at Marea, these suitcases and their contents, as well as the bikes, can be left at a depot I've arranged at a friend's nearby home.

With this new suitcase sponsor/shepherd option, I will be able to get more clothing into the hands of people in isolated areas who do not have jobs in the tourism sector and, therefore, have little access to foreigners and their generous gifts. That's my goal: to spread the wealth of goods further afield.

I'm excited about all of this and quite eager to begin booking but, annoyingly, the prices are higher than I prefer for a week's all-inclusive holiday at Sunwing's Club Amigo Marea del Portillo. However, the two-week rates are better, so I may start there. I'm curious to see if there will be enough people interested in going for two weeks; to make a group booking viable, 10 bodies are required. I know some people can only escape for one week but...we'll see! The April 2012 group should be quite an interesting one, I believe. There will be a loose theme of "art and spirituality" on this trip, for those who want to participate – it's optional, as is yoga. I'll explain more about that later.

Meanwhile, my bags are packed (mentally), and I have extra suitcases full of free clothing, ready to match up with sponsors and shepherds. The dates Wendy and I have tentatively set are as follows: April 5-19 (two weeks) or April 12-19 (one week). Keep in mind that Easter falls during the first week, on April 8, which may make it easier for some folks to get away...but more difficult for others. It's impossible to keep everyone happy all the time, despite valiant attempts!

Keep smiling,

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