The beer-guzzling donkey came shortly before a rodeo held in total darkness.
So, I'm in Cuba watching a donkey drink a beer. The donkey, inexplicably, is wearing a tight little T-shirt. How did I get here? And does the donkey actually like beer or would he rather be drinking bourbon?
It started a month ago. I was reading a self-help book that was so inspiring, it made me want to get into a hot bath and cut my wrists. Next thing I knew, I had received an email from the Cuba Tourism Board. They were hosting a travel writers' conference to promote their new slogan, "Authentic Cuba." All expenses paid. Would I like to come?
On Day 1, we went to the Museum of Rum in old Havana. There I met Robin Esrock, a Vancouver-based travel writer and host of the TV series Word Travels. We hit it off like a Cohiba on fire. While the other scribes dutifully toured the museum, Robin and I bellied up to the bar to suck back highballs made of rum, OJ and hand-mashed sugar cane.
I confessed to Robin I'd had a bad year and explained, "I'm in Havana to heal myself through travel." He studied me with his baby blue eyes, then said, "Ken, I've visited 100 countries and interviewed 1,800 travellers. And I've learned five important ways that travel can heal you. Let me be your guru, and I'll share 'em with you during the conference."
Great! So we skipped a no-doubt riveting one-hour speech on a new postage stamp, and instead rented an apple-red '52 Oldsmobile convertible and drove it to the steps of the old Capitol Building.
There, Robin gave me Travel Healing Tip No. 1: "Ken, the key to success and happiness is to constantly remind yourself that wherever you are is where you're supposed to be. You shouldn't be over there at that plaza, or with that person or that job. You should be exactly where you are. Only then will you find peace, happiness, wisdom and the time to reflect on all the issues you have to deal with."
He's right. Years ago, I flew to Mexico to rest on the beach after a tough job. But I was utterly miserable. I couldn't stop thinking about a woman I was dating who wasn't sure if I was right for her. So just a day after I arrived, I panicked, fled Mexico and flew home to see her, only to break up with her a week after that. Total waste of everyone's time.
Next, Robin and I walked the cobblestone streets to Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar, La Floridita.
"Tip No. 2: Ask for what you want," Robin said. "The world belongs to askers. Ask for jobs, money, free trips, free beer. What's the worst that can happen? People say no. Then you're back where you started. You lose nothing. But the best thing that can happen is all your dreams will come true."
Powerful advice. In my 20s, I used to ask for things all the time. Then I got lazy. I started expecting Hollywood producers to bang on my door and demand to see the screenplay I kept hidden in my desk.
Well, enough of that. I borrowed Robin's iPhone, emailed a producer I admired and asked him to produce my script. Two mojitos later, I got a call from the producer telling me to email it to him. So I did. Three mojitos later, he wrote to say he loved the script, wanted to raise the financing and make it into a film. I'm not making this up. This self-help crap really works!
The next day, Robin and I celebrated by skipping a speech about a new bus route so we could drink silos of beer at La Taberna de Muralla, Havana's only microbrewery.
"Healing Tip No. 3 is this: Trust your gut," Robin said. "You hear a voice in your head all the time that tells you 'The taxi driver's sketchy.' 'The chicken's too pink.' 'She wants you to kiss her.' Trust your gut. Listen to what it tells you. If your gut says 'go for it,' then go for it. If your gut says 'run away,' run away."
So that night, I asked a pretty Portuguese journalist to walk along the seaside boardwalk with me. She said "OK," then invited an Italian guy to join us. My gut screamed "Bail!" but I ignored it.
So the three of us sat in the most romantic spot in the Caribbean. Then a handsome street magician appeared, charmed my co-date with a dozen tricks, and left with her phone number.
The next morning, we skipped a lengthy presentation on Cuba's "Mice" (short for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions). Instead, Robin and I saw a fantastic tribute to Alexander Korda's photos from the Revolution. We bought beers from a vending machine and I grumbled about ignoring my gut the night before.
Robin said, "Yeah, avoid street magicians. They make your penis disappear. Now here's Travel Tip No. 4: Smile as often and as genuinely as you can. You can be having a terrible day, but if you smile, everything becomes better. And not a cocky smile. A real smile, like 'Hi. How are you doing?' See? Kind eyes."
The next night, the Tourism Board hosted a beach party on the Camaguey coast. I spotted a young writer we called The Russian. She was so attractive that everyone avoided her. It's like her cheekbones were made from really pretty malaria.
So I screwed up my courage, smiled wide and asked her to dance. She took my hand and we swung back and forth to the calypso music. Her blond tresses glowed in the moonlight and I couldn't stop grinning. Suddenly the music stopped - and she asked Robin to go swimming in the ocean. And why not? Robin has a great smile. I might fall for him myself.
The next day we applauded the beer-chugging donkey. Then we witnessed - to our horror - a rodeo in the dark. It was scheduled for daytime but we arrived four hours late. But rather than cancel the show, the Cubans made the cowboys leap from galloping horses in total darkness to land on pissed-off, sharp-horned steers. Terrifying yet exciting. I mean, total strangers risking their lives to entertain me? I love Cuba!
We stayed up all night to watch the sun rise over fishing boats. Then, for our last night in Havana, we went to the underground La Zorra y El Cuervo jazz club. The young musicians, Yasek Manzano & Grupo, were incredibly talented. If sound had a taste, theirs was like rum, sugar cane and orange juice.
Robin gave me his final tip: "Very simply: The people you meet create the paradise you find. You can be on a beautiful island with a palm tree above you, and have the worst time of your life. Or you can be in a dive bar with good friends and have the best time. Surround yourself with good people and you're bound for a good time, Ken. Apply that to your whole life and whatever's ailing your soul will eventually fall away."
My eyes welled up. The saxophone was soaring, lifting my heart along with it. Just then, a gorgeous Cuban woman flashed me a sweet smile. I smiled back with genuine joy. This was authentic Cuba. Robin whispered to me, "I think Cuba has healed you, my friend."