Statue at Cayo Coco, Cuba
We hit the tarmac at Jardines del Rey Airport at about 8:30 pm. After the normal jostling to get off the plane, people who have sat for 3 hours now acting like they will explode if they don’t get off in 5 minutes, we began to shuffle off the Canjet bird. Making my way to the exit the wall of heat that greets me immediately fogs up my glasses, but peering over them I can see my fellow passengers doing some odd squirming dance on the way to the terminal. Many of them have indulged heartily in alcoholic beverages on the flight, despite the hefty 6 dollar price tag for something that is about two gulps. 3 bucks a gulp. But what the hell, it’s vacation time, and even a small amount of alcohol mixed with the standard blend of pre-flight tranquilizers and mix of fear and adrenaline is enough to get the juices flowing, which is why I presumed my dancing fellow passengers were just aching to get to the toilets, given as there was a queue in the double digits to get into the ones on the plane when everyone was ordered back to their seats for landing. Only a moment is needed however before the assault on my face makes it clear that they are all actually dodging the massive mosquito population. Evolution must be alive and well as these vicious bloodsuckers have learned that the big metal thing means fresh meat.
Scurrying into the terminal we are met by a wall of small individual white cubicles which we will be entering one by one. I’m flying with 12 of my family members from Canada, but I am flying as a Swedish citizen. Having dutifully paid my 585 kronor to the Cuban Consulate in Stockholm, and my trusty all-purpose EU passport in hand, I am not worried. I know everything is in order. When I’m ushered into my cubicle though the guy behind the window is not so convinced. Our conversation, one-sided on both our parts, starts off with my smashing a fat mosquito on the tip of my index finger, splattering a good deal of my blood which thankfully misses my white shirt, and my documents. Documents which I’m feeling quite superior about because everyone else has visas that they have had to handscribble themselves on the plane ride, but mine is splendidly typed by some Cuban diplomat’s flunkie back home, or perhaps the diplomat himself. I can’t imagine they have a large staff. This gentlemen however, impressively dressed in his dark military greens, clearly has no regard for the authority of the typed word and has some questions. Not for the first time during the trip I regret the fact that my command of the Spanish language is limited to “hola” and “agua”, neither of which is going to help me now. Unfortunately his command of the English language is even less than mine is of his, and I’m pretty sure there is no point in my trying Swedish. Still, I realise he is probably asking me why I have a Swedish visa when I am flying in from Toronto. He frantically tries to find a colleague who speaks English, but no one is available. In the end, my calm demeanour and slight smile, while constantly repeating “Family – Toronto – Cuba, Me – Stockholm, Sweden – Toronto – Cuba” is enough to trigger his gut reaction that I am relatively harmless. Of course he couldn’t have foreseen the barfight that was coming later in the evening, but then again, nor could I.
After we all manage to samba through the cubicles, we go through to pick up our luggage. Several uniformed security personnel wander around, apparently aimlessly, although in hindsight I realise that the women officers, who wear very short skirts, with stillettos and patterned stockings are probably meant to be a minor diversion from the airport staff who is removing all of our bags himself from the conveyor and placing them in a row. Initially I think this is perhaps meant to be a pleasant gesture, or even just practical. It turns out it is practical, for the two sniffer dogs who wander around meticulously and check each and every bag. I know my bag is okay, but I don’t know about everyone elses, and as the bags disappear the drama heightens. For some reason I figure that it’s just a matter of time and the fewer bags remaining the more chance one of them will be the one that gets nailed. I try to nudge the rest of the group of 13 towards the exit smoothly but quickly before all hell breaks loose and the place is shut down. We usher ourselves out and through the haze of mosquitoes try to spot which bus is headed to our resort. I am shielded somewhat because I make a habit of always travelling in dress shirt and jacket, but I’m sweating buckets. We find the bus and scramble on, greeted by Junior! All happy little travellers now feeling closer to their destination, we are immediately charmed by Junior’s smile and downhome Cuban style. He almost immediately offers everyone beer, which we first think is free and a lovely gesture. Even when we learn that he is actually selling it, 2 for 5 pesos though, we think it is okay. Only later do I find that the same beer is sold for 1 peso a can in the souvenir store at the resort. My first indication that opportunistic capitalism is alive and well in Cuba.
After a timeconsuming check-in process, largely just due to the number of people arriving, we make our way to our rooms. I am staying in LosCocos 1, a long walk from the main building, but I later find it is closer to the beach. A good thing. It’s still dark out, so we can’t see much of the resort yet, but we change and wander off back to the main building because we know there is life there. In fact there are three different bars there, and soon my Spanish vocabulary is expanded to include “cerveza” (beer). One learns quickly that there are certain survival techniques needed to deal with the crush of people attempting to make the most out of their all-inclusive experience. I’m no different of course and dive confidently into the fray, tip visibly shown in hand, and ordering two beers and a large dark rum each time, to limit the number of times I have to return the masses worshipping at the bar. Of all the things that may have been exagerrated sightly, the availability and freeflowing of rum is not one of them. When I ask for a dark rum the bowtie guy simply starts pouring and asks me when to stop. I know it’s bad form to fill redwine glasses more than two-thirds full, so I figure what the hell, the same rule must appy to rum as well.
After a short while observing the lifeforms on the upperlevel, I wander to the bar downstairs, Vida Loca. Music is pumping loud, and the place is packed, but I immediately spot the two small pool tables located near the front entrance and visible through the windows. Now anyone who knows me knows that I love to play, and so does the rest of my family. One of the joys of the last couple of years in Toronto was playing pool in a league with two of my sisters. These tables are almost ridiculously small, smaller even than the coin-operated tables standardly found in bars, but who cares? They’re free, and we’re just here for fun, not for serious tournaments. Both tables are occupied, but I stand around watching patiently, just waiting for someone to tire. With a cointable the accepted practice is to put a coin on the table and play the winner of the ongoing game – winner keeps possession of the table. We’re all here for a good time though, and I figure it would be poor form to do such a thing. I mean the table I am watching has two parents and their children playing. So I wait, and eventually they do tire, and hand me the cue and in only a matter of moments, an example of said poor form comes up and sets a coin on the table. I immediately point out the obvious fact that it is not a coin table, however I’m also new on the block, so I ask if that’s the custom here as well. He replies that it is, and so the two of us end up playing. He heads straight to the table to start the game and is irritated when I stop him to introduce myself and to make clear what game we are playing, and with what rules. He grudgingly says his name is Juan Carlos and when I say 8 ball he nods in affirmation. When we start to play I realise that there is actually no 8 ball on the table. It’s not a complete set of balls, and the table is even worse than I imagined while looking at it. In fact there is also only one cue per table. Oh well, it’s just for fun. He then proceeds to win rather handily though, and later in our stay I find out that he has in fact been to this same resort 6 or 7 times in the last three months, and knows the table well, including that there was no 8 ball. Hmmm. Multiple trips to the same destination within a three month period. Curious, and many possible explanations, but back to the evening in question.
After having waited a good hour to play, and then getting beaten in my first game, I wander off for a bit, enjoying the club and having fun with family, though always keeping an eye out for the tables waiting for one of them to open up again. There are many people who want to play, and after a time Juan Carlos, and his sidekick Bobby, also wander off. Soon one of the tables is open, and so I start playing 9-ball with my fourteen year old nephew Cody. We’re having a goodtime, and play a few games. At one point, while Cody is taking his shot, I turn my back for a moment to ask the people at the next table a question, seeing as I’m rum-friendly and all. When I turn around again, Juan Carlos, who is in his early forties, has taken the pool cue from my nephew! I immediately step up to the table and say Hey! We were in the middle of a game here! Before I know it, his sidekick, Bobby, who with his little black moustache bears a resemblance to Robert DeNiro in The King of Comedy, has me up against the wall, and is quickly joined by Juanie. Bobby has grabbed my shirt at the collar and has stretched out the leather band I have around my neck to its fullest, and in his best “You talking to me?” voice he keeps repeating “What game? What game? What game?” In hindsight I realise he wanted me to back down and somehow say I was mistaken and that we weren’t actually playing, but that thought doesn’t strike me, as I keep repeating “The game I was playing!” Now we all know time is relative, and so it is in this kind of situation, when everyone is fuelled with alcohol, and the lights of the club are pulsing, and the music pounding, adrenaline rushed to its peak, so I’m not sure how long it was before my brother-in-law, a Harley rider with a group called The Bastards and not shy about stepping up, had joined us. From the back of the crowded dance floor it may have looked like a foursome having a grouphug up against the wall, but it didn’t feel that way from my spot. I gather however that someone realised it wasn’t a grouphug, because in a few more minutes two security guys arrived. My family and I left the club, not wanting any trouble, and pretty dumbfounded over the first evening’s events.
Not long after our leaving Vida Loca, Juan Carlos and sidekick Bobby found my brother-in-law and I, and offered repeated apologies. I don’t know what security said to them, but as they were obviously well known there I presume they were told to somehow make nice. Bobby, who is 36, assured me that if he was sober he would never disrespect his elders in that way. Little shit. Sort of missing the point. Juan Carlos was apologing profusely as well, but I could never escape the thought, for the rest of our time there, that he was the type of guy who could smile and shake your hand with one hand while stabbing you with the other one. Nonetheless, they both spent the rest of the week being uber-polite to us, and we spent the rest of the trip wondering just what kind of illicit activity they were actually up to with their frequent visits to the resort and the fact that they clearly knew all of the staff very well. They were taking the same flight back to Toronto as we were, and on the last day Juan Carlos told me that in two weeks he would be coming back again. Hmmm.