Saturday, May 16, 2009

Battered crabs


THERE I was sitting in the lobby in Havana, minding my own business and waiting for the next bout of Montezuma´s revenge (they may have banned Mexican flights here but not their stomach assaults) when I heard someone talking in front of me. "Hey, Ron, look here... it´s a gashead!"
Realising that I had my Rovers away top on I looked up to see an elderly couple complete with bags who had just entered our hotel.
"I´m sorry?" I said.
"Oh, hello dear, you must be from Bristol," said the lady. "You´re a supporter of the Gas are you?"
When I nodded, Ron piped up. "I´m a fan of the other lot."
"Great," I thought. Just my luck to meet a s···head.
"I´m a Bristol rugby supporter," he added quickly in case I might take offence. I guess someone has to be, even though they have had another dreadful year. "How long have you been in Havana?"
"Three days," I replied, "but we are about to leave for Varadero."
"We´ve just been there for two weeks," he explained. "It´s ok, depends which hotel you are staying in."
"The Paradisus," I replied, smiling with the knowledge it´s a five-star luxury complex.
"Oh," he looked crestfallen. "That´s where we stayed. I would say it´s the equivalent of a two star."
Great, I thought. All this money and it´s going to be like seven days in Cardiff´s Blue Dragon. "Mind you, I don´t want to put you off, you might have a different experience."
Thanks, Ron. Mrs Rippers and I looked at each other in trepidation.

On the coach to Varadero we stopped off at one of their few rest stops, which aren´t quite motorway service stations but you can guarantee three things. 1. no toilet paper, 2. a toilet attendant who will look at you daggers until you place a coin on her plate. 3. the obligatory Cuban band of musicians playing the same old cliched songs.
As they ran through their repertoire one of the guys came up to us lovingly fawning over a CD in his hand.
"You like to buy?" he said. When I shook my head vehemently in the negative he used his tried-and-tested sales pitch. "But it´s got Guantanamera on it!" Whoopeedoo. If I never here that song again it will be too soon.

Mrs Rippers wasn´t too impressed with her first sight of what she assumed was Varadero. A bunch of crumbling buildings beside the sea with a great big dock opposite and ugly ships pulling in and out of port. But Mrs Rippers could never let her true feelings veer towards negativity. "Oh I expect it will be ok and at least we will be helping these poor Cubans by providing money to their government."
Nevertheless, when we sailed straight through the area and carried on with the trip there was a big sigh of relief from the seat next to me.

So to the resort. We passed through some fancy hotels it has to be said, only to drop other passengers off. We stopped at one with its own golf course then another with a beautifully decorated lobby with vines hanging from the roof. Picturesque. Neither was ours, though.
Finally we pulled into the Paradisus. Well, I could never imagine the Blue Dragon to have porters there to relieve you of your baggage immediately, then when you have checked in give you a lift around to your very own little flat by the beach. Unfortunately, it wasn´t quite what we were expecting. The holiday company had told us that we had been upgraded to honeymoon status but there was no welcoming bottle of champagne, no special message of greeting and no mention of a honeymoon breakfast and cocktails.
I returned to the lobby and asked one of the receptionists. "I´m sorry, what is included in our honeymoon package?"
She checked us out on the computer. "Oh your not booked onto one of those." Bummer.
But to be fair she made a phone call and we were upgraded to a beach view apartment and later had an invitation to a honeymoon dinner and breakfast in bed. It pays to complain, I guess.


We spent the first day getting acquainted, and luxury isn´t the correct word. The hotel has two giant pools, plenty of sunbeds with beach towels for all the desks, and a white sandy beach with little huts adorning it if you need the shade - and often you do. Don´t have a clue was Ron and Mrs Ron were on about - this is truly Paradise.
And it was hot, hot, hot. We spent a little time lying out in the sun on the beach but it was too much for me. I decided to return to the room, and it was then that I bumped into my mate the snake. We had seen plenty of friendly little lizards but when this things quickly crawled in front of me and hid under a rock it took a while to register what it was. Then, I admit, the jitters set in and I asked everyone I knew whether there were any dangerous snakes in Cuba. No, was the reply, but I wouldn´t fancy stepping on one and making it angry. I have stuck to the paths ever since.


Today we met the rep Eduardo who was an interesting guy. He was telling us about the trips on offer and I mentioned I wanted to go to the Bay of Pigs. It is not on the Virgin holidays agenda but he assured me he could fix it with a local taxi driver he knew well. Ten minutes later Mike turned up to say he would be able to take us anywhere we wanted to go on Wednesday.
Meanwhile we had our first meal in one of the four restaurants on site - the steakhouse. Sadly there wasn´t a steak in sight. Expecting a 16 ouncer accompanied with a pile of chips, instead we got a small lump of meat with a few (and I mean very few) vegetables. It said it came with grilled potatoes so Mrs Rippers asked when they would arrive. "Is there," said the waitress, pointing to a thinly sliced offering hiding underneath the slivers of red and green pepper on the plate. Cuisine is not a speciality in Cuba it has to be said.


Another bloody day in Paradise, blue skies, blue sea, hot sun - what more could you want? Well, how about a bit of night entertainment that didn´t involve a band playing Guantanemero? Still, we idled away the day sitting around the pool, going in for a dip now and then and later having a meal at the beach barbecue. To be fair, the chops and calamari weren´t bad at all, or indeed the red snapper.

That night we met Pedro in the Fun Pub. Fun Pub? The place always looks shut from the outside and, just like a British pub, if you are taking your drink out into the lobby of the hotel you get it served in a plastic glass. Fair play, you might say, until you realise that the lobby bar also serves booze and this comes in a perfectly ordinary glass. It sounds like a trick of the most miserable man in Cuba, the bloke who runs the "Fun Pub". Bit of a contradiction in terms there, I reckon.
Those aren´t my words, either, but the locals, including Pedro, who had called all the Brits together for a fascinating chat on the history of Cuba.
Did you realise, for instance, that their national tree, the Palm, was introduced to the country by the English, or that the Aborigines were the first people to settle in the country. It is virtually the same size as the UK but, unlike the UK, is long and thin. Guantanemo Bay, still owned by the Yanks even though they were supposed to give it back in 2002, is at its Western-most tip.
A few drinks later and they carved up the whole pig that had been brought in for the occasion, serving it with crisps, merangue and a cocktail of your choice. I went for the Mojito while Mrs Rippers opted for the Pina Colada.
That night we ate Italian. A little bit better than the steakhouse it must be said.


Our roadtrip with Mikey got underway bright and early at 8am. He immediately got me talking about football. Who did I support? he asked. Bristol Rovers, I replied. He looked perplexed.
Ignoring my explanation of the delights of League One football he told me about his love of Barcelona and how much he was looking forward to the Champions League final against Manchester United. He seemed very knowledgeable about the Premier League. I asked him if he had satellite TV. Not allowed, he replied. It seems the government keeps the population in check with what they can watch. He did whisper, though: "You can put it in illegally."
He wouldn´t throw any light on whether he had it himself - loose talk costs lives, I guess. He then told us that four days earlier the Cuban government had BANNED its people from using the internet. Shocking.
When we spoke about Cuban newspapers he just laughed. I guess he doesn´t read them. After all, you can´t believe everything you read in newspapers. I should know, I work for one!
Later, we got on to American Baseball which is shown on three channels here. By this time Mrs Rippers had realised that most of the conversation was going to have a sporting bent. Still, she was very patient, I must admit. Mike was a fascinating bloke, an excellent guide and a nice fella.

First stop was a small animal reserve which doubled up as a kind of service station. Then it was on to the Zapata peninsula and the biggest national park in Cuba - an astonishingly vast place.
We saw the Sugar Factory in a place called Australia, where Fidel Castro organised his troops for the battle at the Bay of Pigs, where they booted out an invasion of 1500 mercenaries backed by the CIA.
Then it was on to a Crocodile farm where the inhabitants, both the American and larger Cuban Crocodiles, were lazing around in the mud. A little bit scary, though, particularly when Mike explained that on the odd occasion they had escaped and been seen roaming up and down the main highway.
A big hurricane once blew all the fences down and there was crocodile carnage. Unfortunately they had to be shot, virtually halving Cuba´s crocodile population in one fell swoop.
After that we got a great boat ride through a mangrove swamp where we saw a preserved village set up by the Tanio, the first local Indian population. On the way back we saw Ospreys, herons and a huge termite nest built half way up a tree. Fascinating stuff.

It was getting hot by now so we travelled on to the Bay of Pigs. Starting at Playa Largo we had lunch at an unspoilt local holiday camp which is mainly the preserve of the local population. The Caribbean coast seems to be free of the tourist infestation.
Then we started along the road from Playa Largo to Playa Giron, where the main Bay of Pigs museum is - and it was here I came across my thrill of the day.
Not long ago I was watching a programme on the Discovery Channel. I must have come across it while flicking through channels to find some football or baseball - it´s the only reason I can think of. The programme was about these amazing crabs that come on land in Cuba to breed and virtually take over the countryside. They hide in every nook and cranny of local hotels, woods etc. But their annual trek has become a dangerous one because they must cross the main road.
I mentioned this to Mike and he said, "Yes, it is this road. I know because it plays havoc with the tyres. I have had mine punctured three times."
No sooner had he said it than we started to notice red marks on the road surface, which was becoming more and more uneven. "There is the evidence of the crabs, they don´t normally arrive until about June."
Just as he was saying it I looked astonished as two crabs made there death-defying sprint across the tarmac for the safer climbs of the forest beyond. It was amazing stuff. The smell of crabmeat permeated through the car as we carried on, the road becoming redder and redder with the bodies of crushed crabs. You often wish you could see one of these places featured in nature programmes, but rarely expect to come across one.
Anyway, on we went to Playa Giron on the Bay of Pigs exhibition. Outside are a couple of soviet tanks and a plane which helped stave off the invasion. Inside, it was difficult to understand everything because this seldom visited museum only gave explanations in Spanish, but there was plenty of memorabilia collected from the war dead, whose graves also line the roadside where they fell during the invasion.
Heading back, we stopped off at fish cave, a lovely untroubled spot of the national park where you can scuba dive, though it is easy to see the many tropical fish with your own eyes. Then we had the joy of seeing the national bird, the Trocolora, or some such, which has a red breast, blue feathers and a long white tail, the colours of the cuban flag. They are only ever spotted in this part of Cuba and we were very lucky to have spotted three, apparently.
There was nothing left for it but to travel back, discussing baseball and Mike´s love of the Chicago Cubs on the basis that they now have several Cubans playing for them. As we drove we were hit by a savage rain shower - it is apparently the rainy season in Cuba now but this was our first experience of it.
Once it cleared, though, it was fine and we headed back to the hotel happy with a day well worth organising.
Crab sandwich, anyone?

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