Sunday, May 04, 2008

Buenos Dias amigos e amigas!

So, it was out with the “Learn Spanish” books and CDs again for me and Jan’s jaunt to Club Cojimar on Cayo Guillermo in Cuba. It was one of those all inclusive beach type holidays, not my preferred type of holiday, but I must say it was very enjoyable.

Cuba is a desperately poor country that has not had its troubles to seek, especially over the last 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Embargoes imposed by successive US governments since 1959, and supported by its allies, have eroded Cuba’s economy, but still the resilient Cubans struggle on.

These holiday resorts along the cayos, or keys, in the north of the country are providing necessary income for the Cuban economy. They are also providing relatively good jobs for many people from local towns and villages. However, the wages are not great for many of these folk, and they rely quite heavily on tips from holiday-makers. You can eat and drink as much as you want as part of the deal, so, if you go there carry some dosh to tip those who provide you with service.

Any unwanted clothes (in good nick) are very welcome as the costs of such things can really dig in to their income. These will always be gratefully received. Make-up for women is a luxury so if you have some lying around stick it in a bag and your chamber maid will be very pleased with you. You could stick an extra couple of new toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste or some nice fragrant soap in your bag; again these are luxuries in Cuba and are always welcome.

The local people you meet in these resorts are not well off, but they are not desperate either. These small gifts are very welcome and can help make their day. I have to say that many of the local folk I met there were extremely likeable. Mickey, who worked in reception, is a good looking and amiable guy with a good sense of humour. Alex the rep is an excellent guy, helpful and always funny. A really nice young local fellow called Eddie was serving us at breakfast one morning and we got chatting. He apologised for his poor English … which was far better than my Spanish, let me tell you. Eddie is a student studying Tourism, a good subject for a local lad when you consider the future for that industry in Cuba. I have to say all the people who waited on us in the restaurant were really nice and were never overbearing considering they all would want a tip. I can honestly say that I never experienced anyone pressurising me for one (you know, that strained smile, or always hanging over you), that was never my experience – a friendly greeting and a handshake once they knew you – you were left to enjoy your lunch or dinner with frequent top ups of your water or wine.

The sun is very strong in Cuba (well, it is the tropics). I burned my lower legs in just a few minutes walk to the pool, thinking I would just put on the sun block when I got there. So don’t take the chance if you burn easily. I was in some pain for the next few days. Oh, don’t forget the mosquito spray, another crucial piece of kit.

The bar staff – there are two main bars in Club Cojimar, the main bar in the foyer of the hotel and the pool bar. The guys in the main bar were always entertaining, but unfortunately, some of the female bar staff were dour and not a little bit intimidating, especially the older woman at the pool bar. Her demeanour and attitude verged on the extremely rude. Going to the pool bar when she was serving became a bit like going home to my ex-wife with a tenner short in my wage packet – it just wasn’t worth the beer. What made it worse was that when Spanish folk came to the bar she would laugh and fawn over them, but when it came my turn to be served her gaze would turn in what seemed like slow motion and I swear the glasses along the bar began to frost over as she passed them by. I have no idea what I did to annoy her, but in the end I just stopped going there. As it turned out I was not the only one who felt like that.

Having a quiet beer in the foyer meant we met Stuart and Julia from Carlisle. These two helped make our holiday as they were good fun and we shared the same sense of humour. In general we had our own days but met up after dinner for some drinks or to go and watch the evening show in the amphitheatre (usually a music and dance show by the hotel’s excellent dance group). Then back to the foyer to end the evening with a couple more drinks. We also met Jacqui, a nice soft spoken Ulster woman who had been to the hotel a few times before. Jacqui has just moved to a new place in Spain and generally travels on her own.

Me and Jan went on a few of the paid excursions. We went on a snorkelling trip out into the mangroves on Cayo Coco. We had never actually used a snorkel before and I found it a bit of nuisance at first and so did Jan who says she is “a nose breather” … not good if you want to snorkel. She just went and floated around the mangrove while I abandoned the snorkel and just took a big deep breaths and stuck my head under the water. Ooooooo, all those wee fish …. Beautiful!
“Come and see the barracuda!” called the guide.
“No effing chance!” says I.
“S’okay, they’re well fed here! says he.
Yeh, on stupid fat tourists”, methinks.

I also went on the deep sea fishing trip accompanied by two other lads from another hotel, Chris and Richard, and their girlfriends, Kim and Katie. They were good fun and helped make the trip better.
The fisherman guy, I think his name was Pancho, has to snag the fish when it bites then give the rod to you.
The first catch was a large barracuda that my shipmate, Chris, caught.
Then, boy, didn’t I just get the proverbial “one that got away”?
Well, when the fish bit Pancho came over and did the snagging thing, then I sat in the chair and took the rod. Oooooh, it almost bent double so we could see that this was pretty big.
“Barracuda? “ I asked.
“Marlin”, said Pancho and the skipper started parping the boat’s horn. You don’t get to keep the fish you catch on these trips, they belong to the boat – you only pay for the fun and experience, so a marlin can be a big pay day for the guys on the boat.
I had this thing on the line for about a minute, slowly trying to bring it in, hoping for that glorious leap out of the water that you see in movies or the discovery channel … suddenly the line went slack … big disappointment all round. You know, all things considered, I am glad it got away, though I would loved to have seen it leap before it went. Ah well, at least I can say I had one on the line.
The next fish I caught was a barracuda, these things are the snarling pit-bulls of the sea. After Pancho gave it a whack, I got my photo taken holding it. It was quite a big bugger and I was glad to see the back of it when he put it in the bunker on the deck.
I think Chris had the biggest catch of the day, another really big Barracuda. Kim, Chris’s girlfriend, asked to have her picture taken with it. Pancho gave it a whack and handed it to her. I took a picture, but as Chris took his snap, the fish woke up and flapped itself from her hand. The picture (and I wish I had a copy) has the fish wide mouthed with all its huge teeth a few inches from Kim’s screaming face.
When this one was put in the bunker it went bananas and Richard went and stood on the lid of the bunker while the fish banged against it. Aggressive? Strong? And that was it out of the water and that nutcase at the snorkelling trip wanted me to go over and get up close and personal “in” the water!
I’m a fat guy, the bloody thing would’ve thought its Christmases had come all once.
“Hey, is that a barracuda bitin’ to your butt?
“Yep!”
While I was doing my Ernest Hemmingway on the high seas, retitled Fat Man and the Sea! Jan was away on a Spa Day getting pampered by massages and all sorts of stuff like that. We met up about 2 o’clock and we were both highly delighted by our day’s events.
Jan also went horse riding, and we both did some archery, were we were looked after by Gleiver, who runs the tennis courts and the archery place. He is a really nice big guy. Good looking lad too, which is probably why there seemed to be lots of young women there too when we went.

The accommodation was comfortable and we had no complaints about it at all. My only real complaint was the lack of variety of food. Our diet is essentially vegetarian, but we do eat fish occasionally. Cubans have absolutely no concept of vegetarianism. So if you are a strict veggie, you might starve as there is no jumping a fence to go to a local eatery – there are none. This meant we ate fish more often than we would have liked. No cereal for breakfast either, but this is a third world country and in such a resort it can be easy to forget that.

All in all, though, I really enjoyed being there. I got chilled and relaxed which was just what I wanted. I drank more beer and wine than I should have, but hey, I met some really nice people, English and Cuban, not many Scots there I have to say. Oh, yeh, like most other countries in the world, to Cubans, Britain/UK is England! No such places as Wales, Ireland or Scotland. They just don’t understand.
You are English?
No, Scottish.
Blank look.
Scotland … Scottish … Escoc├ęs? … Scottish … Mel Gibson … Braveheart!
Ah, Braveheart, great movie, we love that here.
Yes, Scottish!!
Blank look.
Ah well, never mind!