Bogota airport, Colombia. 12 hour flight from Heathrow en-route for Havana and the most perfect touchdown in the Avianca Airbus.
The landing in Bogota couldn’t have come soon enough for me. Out of the plane like a ferret down a drain pipe (or is it up a drain pipe? probably either – or both. God knows how that expression came about; have you ever seen a ferret going either up or down a drainpipe? nor me), I immediately adopted the fastest, most clenched-buttocked, mincing walk possible, weaving in and out around exasperatingly slow moving ex-passengers, beads of sweat dripping from my brow, as I tried, unconvincingly as you’ve gathered, to look as though I was purely intent on catching a connecting flight.
Blessed relief at the nearest loo. Not too much dignity lost. The passageway was deserted save for two largish, stern-faced female security guards who started to indicate to me not to go down it, but, mutual language knowledge being entirely superfluous, immediately understood the necessity from the look of my fixed, death-mask grimace and manic gesticulation towards the facilities. It was, they wisely surmised, as much in their interests as mine that I should proceed unhindered.
Feeling reborn I made it through the security check into the connection transfer area but only after suffering an automatic ‘guilty’, further sweat-making moment when the bleeper went off as I went through the X Ray thing; another serious looking female official frowned. “Arms up” she said; ‘Bleep’ her electronic contraband-discovering stick went as she ran it up and down over my body. Visions of being swiftly marched off for interrogation swam before me. “Oh whoops! some loose change”. I said, digging into my pocket and proffering the offending coins in my none-too steady, rather damp palm. “Sorry. Er….. lo siento – muchas gracias” I mumbled apologetically as I hoisted up my falling jeans and hurriedly gathered up my belt, bags, iPad, watch and jacket from the piling-up trays.
“Not too smooth an entrance for your first visit to South America was it Jeremy?” I thought. Bang goes my intention to look hard and unapproachable. The James Bond mode will have to come later. Regaining my composure somewhat and adopting a slightly more confident air, I sauntered around the designer shops and found a money exchange desk where I cashed a tenner in exchange for some Colombian dosh so that I could buy a coffee and croissant – 40,000 pesos!
“Si ?” “Coffee!” “Waddakind?” “The best Colombian coffee you have my good man’” “Widamillk?” “Si – but strong – Gracias”. The guy yelled over his shoulder to his colleague on the coffee machine: “Café con leche doble para el hombre!” Rich in flavour and with an almost intoxicating aroma, it came with a small bowl of fresh fruit chunks and a tiny glass of iced water. Nice touches; plus a croissant – 18,000 pesos the lot. Eighteen THOUSAND! Sounds astronomic but less than a fiver so no need to panic.
Bit of shopping, writing this blog and 3 hours have gone. OK that’s bye-bye Bogota; my bags have been as close to me as possible throughout and no real contact with anyone thank God so am pretty sure I’m not an unwitting drugs mule. For some reason, in my ignorance, I had half expected this airport terminal to be an ex hangar staffed by bowler-hatted peasant women but it’s as modern and sophisticated as the best international airports anywhere. I just wished I’d had time to explore the city which is the fabulous, vibrant center of Colombia, with great food, fantastic wines, buzzing night life, cobbled streets and colonial charm. But I didn’t. So, sadly, it was time to get out of there and find the gate for the connection flight to Havana!
Another 3 hour plane ride and here we are. Avianca pilots are the best. Barely noticed we’d arrived.
‘Captivating Cuba’ from Stevenage, Hertfordshire (www.captivatingcuba.com) have organised my holiday and as promised there was the unlikely named, Ernest, my personal chauffeur, to collect me with a big board saying ‘Welcome to Cuba Jeremy Fraser!
“Cuba you say?” “Yes, welcome Mr Fraser”; “Thanks but isn’t this a Caribbean island with an average temperature of around 28 degrees this time of year, waving palm trees and glorious, sun baked beaches?” “Si”; “How then Ernie old boy do you explain the torrential rain? This is not what I’ve spent a total of 20 hours travelling for”; “Izgontamorro” “oh OK” – “I xxxxin’ hope so”, I muttered under my breath.
30 minutes later, having driven past many neglected, dilapidated buildings of all shapes and sizes, and we were outside my hotel, the old Colonial, former Mafia stronghold, Mercure Sevilla. Happy days. Immediate smiles as a terrific Cuban band were playing in the spacious, impressive lobby and a good looking, pearly-teethed, professional Salsa-dancing couple were displaying their brilliant expertise; great atmosphere. “Cafe per favor – no milk, and a glass of Old Havana dark rum – no ice”. Might as well start as I mean to carry on. While that was on its way I popped into the cigar shop and got me a couple of Romeo Y Juliets; lit one up (felt strange that you could smoke inside with impunity!) and relaxed. Bliss. When in Havana etc.
Up to the room. At first glance it looks good. And yes, it’s fine really. Ok so upon closer inspection the door is hanging off the ancient desk on which stands the TV; the bath hand- rails have defeated their own object as it’s best not to touch them, light fittings are askew, and both the plumbing, and electricity wiring are original, so, old, basically; so one is placed in a dilemma as to whether to risk using either in case there’s a major disaster of some kind with Peter Sellers/Pink Panther-like, out-of-control, repercussions. However, after about a 10 minute wait the water from the ‘hot’ tap judders out of the shower and is mildly less than completely cold but just about OK to get under without flinching too much; and in the bedroom, although the adaptor is only just kept in the socket by its own weight, the mobile is charging. So – all good.
Eventually refreshed I ventured out into the now just spitting rain. “Taxi?” “No Gracias”. I probably had to politely refuse around a dozen times in as many minutes, offers for a taxi ride; you can choose from a wide variety; there are the fabulous 50s American cars, many in pristine condition, but some just about holding together, the pony traps, the pedal-bike cabs or the open putt-putt bug like things called ‘Co-Cos’; but I refused them all and decided to walk to Central Square and then down OBISPO street, which is the main tourist pedestrian thoroughfare. The cabbies either whistle piercingly at you, hoot their horns or yell “Amigo! Taxi?” They do it all the time, even if you are motionless, looking in a shop window and show absolutely no signs of wanting to go anywhere. But they all seem quite affable and once refused generally leave you alone – but you can’t blame them for trying – we’ve all got to earn a living.
If you follow in my footsteps you’ll marvel at the cocktail and food prices! One place was selling Mojitos for just 1.50 Cuban Pesos Convertibles, or CUCs as they are known. (pronounced ‘Cook’). That’s close to buggerall in real money. I was intrigued to see a new drink listed which they had called a Ron Collins. Similar doubtless to a John Collins or even perhaps a Tom Collins, I shouldn’t wonder; that Collins family have a lot to answer for and Ron, it would seem, has turned out to be a bit of dark horse. The average price of a plate-full of lobster and rice was around 9.50, about 7 quid! (the value of a CUC is about a dollar or a Euro.) Gradually the airfare here will start to amortise out a bit I feel. At a pavement cafe I had half a barbecued chicken, (couldn’t resist the smell wafting into the street) rice, vegetables, cheesecake, coffee and a Cuba Libre for 10 CUC; nothing fancy but it did the job.
Live music comes from almost every bar and restaurant and seemingly very friendly locals smile broadly and constantly say: “Ola! Where you from?” which is the prelude, one soon discovers, of trying to entice you to buy something or avail you of their services in some form of other, including of course the offer of a taxi, cheap (and counterfeit or sub-standard) cigars, something to eat, or ‘company’ for the night; But a smile back, wave of the hand and a polite “no Gracias” and they immediately pass on or turn their attention onto some other perhaps more susceptible or gullible tourist. One bloke who wanted me to go to eat somewhere of his choosing demonstrated a lamentable lack of geographic education when in answer to his inevitable question “where you from?” and my reply “England” said, “oh Dublin?” – and got a snort of derision from me and a dig in the ribs from his compadre for his ignorance.