Off to the beach again. Still unable to get a big convertible to take me there I had to settle for a 40 year old Russian Moscovitch boneshaker which was literally held together with filler. Amazingly, unlike Havana, there were no taxis or taxi drivers around first thing in the morning and I actually had to wait for 20 minutes at the cross roads where I was told they all hang out, before I saw anyone. Then this affable looking chap came from nowhere and said: ‘you want taxi’ I said ‘yes!!’ whereupon he immediately strode off down the road. I didn’t know if he’d suddenly decided against the idea and was going home for some breakfast, or it was just his little joke, chuckling to himself and mentally saying to me ‘tough shit!’, or he expected me to follow him. But he stopped after about 300 yards and beckoned. He was, I saw to my dismay, standing next to what almost anywhere else in the World would have been viewed as an abandoned wreck. ‘Is this yours?’ I asked, hoping I’d got it wrong. ‘Si’ he grinned, as he yanked open the front passenger door with a resounding creak. It was so small inside that my nose was virtually pressed up against the severely cracked windscreen with my knees tucked right up under my chin.
So off we clattered. It was no use asking him if he was sure we’d make it to the beach, as I felt the urge so to do, as he spoke and understood absolutely no English whatsoever. (I dunno – these foreigners!!). This fact had become especially apparent when, in an effort to break the silence, I gestured to the distant mountain range we were passing and asked slowly and loudly, in the best Englishman’s tradition, ‘what – is – the -name – of – those -mountains?’ to which he emphatically replied ‘No!’ God knows what he thought I’d said. Anyway just in case he’d misinterpret anything else, which judging from this first reaction, could well have been misconstrued as some kind of lewd proposition typical of English tourists, I decided to keep quiet other than utter muted exclamations and expletives as he drove flat out swerving around potholes and only just avoiding plummeting into a road side ditch.
The day before I’d booked my place on a snorkelling trip and once safely deposited at the beach, I joined a motley crew of fellow snorkelers on a motor boat which took us out to sea about a mile off shore. Clear blue water and lots of yellow and black striped fish, a few more blue and green ones and some waving coral weed.
Nothing really to write home about; alas no conga-eels, sword-fish, tuna or octopi. But as you know if you’ve ever been, it’s like slow-motion flying as you hover over the sea bed watching daily life under the waves and the silence, other than your own breath, is utterly peaceful and relaxing. Well, it is until your mask inevitably leaks and you start inhaling water up your nose and in your mouth, causing you to try snorting it out as you press the top of the mask to your forehead whilst panic-paddling to the surface, spluttering and coughing. Other than that, as I say, it’s fine.
Back after around an hour and a half, I had decided to just chill out on the beach, sun bathe and gaze at the ocean, contemplating life. Rather than just lie on a towel this time I saw a pile of plastic, body shaped sun beds for hire so paid my 2 CUC, lifted off the top one and found the perfect spot to ‘pitch my camp’. Sighing in contentment with the anticipation of really relaxing I lowered my body, bottom first into the lounger which was not easy as it had to be a fairly slow and painful process to aim it correctly into the curved part, with just that bit in contact with the sand.
Gradually I descended and no longer able to take the strain on my legs I dropped heavily into it whilst swivelling to try to put them onto the front; unfortunately the design was such that as soon as any weight was applied in this way, it immediately tipped right back throwing the leg section three feet into the air and causing the back bit, with my head on it, to crash down on to the ground behind.
With my feet silhouetted against the sky, a maniacal laugh combined with a short expletive and an immediate wriggling struggle to get out of the situation, I couldn’t have found a better way to publicly look more undignified and the antithesis of the smooth James Bond character whom I was still hoping to emulate.
Here was I, on a Caribbean beach wearing my cool shades and in my Speedo trunks, admittedly with the lower bit of my stomach needing a little further containment (but by either taking deep breaths when required, or laying full length, it could look a good deal flatter), and my shiny, soon to be bronzed, otherwise lithe and muscular body, I had been quite certain, at least before the ‘incident’, that it wouldn’t be long before I was approached by some bikini clad beauty rising out of the sea. Not one. My heart leaped a bit when I saw a couple of stunners approaching me but they just walked past without a conch shell or sheath knife between them. Mind you I take some consolation in that one must have (almost certainly) been eyeing me up and was making her first move towards me with seduction in mind but had thought better of it when she saw me tip up and was confronted by the soles of my feet and legs spread-eagled. And who could have blamed her? Who knows what could have happened had I had a conventional sun bed!? What a different story might have been told……well, the stomach could still have been a stumbling block.
Eventually the Moscovitch which was still miraculously holding together arrived and the friendly, if silent and now slightly wary driver, took me back to the Casa.
The agency had said to make sure I dined at least once in each Casa as the food would be far better than most you would find in the restaurants. ‘Meleidys’, back in Vinales, had already proved that so I opted to dine in that night; Anticipating a blow-out I had skipped lunch and, as it turned out, was very glad I had. In my short experience I found the Cuban people to be very kind and generous especially with their idea of hospitality, which is basically stuffing guests so full they can’t get up; and they serve such a variety of dishes you’re sometimes at a loss to know which is supposed to go with what or whether you should be waiting for something else to go with what you already have!
And so began the familiar procession of serving ladies, back and forth, back and forth they plied, carrying one item at a time until both the table and I groaned “No more please…!!!!!!” But it was all absolutely superb! A whole dish of delicious paella, a complete grilled lobster professionally prepared, a plate of crispy chips and a mixed salad that was enough for 10; and that was all AFTER the chunky bean soup starter! Fresh sliced fruit, cheese, chocolate ice cream and coffee finished me off.
All fabulous although my big mistake was in asking for some wine. The lobster was so good I felt I just had to accompany it with some chilled Pinot Grigio or maybe a cheeky little Chardonnay.
So I asked the current waitress if they had any vino. Her expression didn’t give me much hope and I’d foolishly left it too long to say ‘oh it doesn’t matter, I’ll have a beer instead’ as by the time I decided that would actually be the best option, she was half way back to the main operations area burdened with her new mission. I could hear distant mutterings and then emerged Ayala’s very sweet natured, charming wife, trying unsuccessfully to conceal a shopping bag, who had obviously been dispatched to secretly go out and buy a bottle.
Whilst this was happening the latest ‘waitress’ went over to a glass cabinet near my table, took out a sherry glass, made her way back to HQ, washed it and eventually returned to ceremoniously place it on my table along with three purple flower blooms!! Very sweet thing to do. I loved all these senoras and the way they really wanted to make my dinner experience a truly great one – which they most certainly did, but I have to say that I never dreamed this request would have been regarded with such reverence. “Gracias”; I nod and smile yet again suppressing an urge to laugh, not at them in anyway whatsoever, but at the situation. A good half hour later a surreptitious hand-over took place behind me and eventually a bottle of cold Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was presented to me with great panache; the overall impression I felt the team wanted to convey was rather than admit they hadn’t got any, someone had pretended to have gone down to the cellars and taken enormous pains to select just the type of wine I would enjoy but had to shove it in the freezer for a bit, which is why it took so long to appear. During all this time I was trying to make my lobster last for as long as possible, supplementing it with all the other dishes, and when the wine finally came all I had was this tiny sherry glass which I rapidly and repeatedly filled, like some time-lapse photo-sequence, until the bottle was virtually empty. (Moral – don’t ask for wine in Cuba! It is of course all imported and pretty damn expensive – but if you must have some and are staying in a casa, order it a couple of days beforehand!)