Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Virgin Atlantic (or Con Air, I prefer to call it)

The return from honeymoon was the proverbial day from hell. It all began in the morning with the realisation that I had lost another baseball cap, probably never to be seen again. This one was my favourite, too, my souvenir from seeing the Boston Red Sox, the one which proudly displays the words Fenway Park 1902 on the side.
Now previous readers of this fastidious piece of work will know that I am rather accustomed to leaving my headgear in various hostelries around the Cardiff area, normally after a few too many beers. But in this case I put it down to Cuban scullduggery. Nice people, the Cubans, always offering you things you don't really need but feel obliged to take off them for the odd peso or two.
Having had a hat made out of palm leaves with two grasshoppers perched on the top presented to me earlier in the week I was then invited by Montenegro, one of the random gardeners who mysteriously emerge on the grounds of the Paradisus as if from nowhere, to partake of some coconut milk.
Not being a fan of coconut I tried to decline, but the old boy was very insistent and, having found some Aloe Vera to rub on my mozzie bites, I felt a bit rude not to follow him. What I had neglected to do was replace the baseball cap on my head and instead left it lying below the sun lounger. After the coconut and Aloe Vera it was the moment when Montenegro showed great interest in my Gas top and I eventually handed it over. I didn't know then that I would be waving goodbye to my absolutely priceless baseball cap, too.
It was only next morning when I realised I must have left it under the sun lounger. And rule number one in Cuba is: Don't leave anything anywhere... you will never see it again. A trip to lost property is an absolute waste of time. "Have you seen my cap," I asked pleadingly. "Muy importante." The guy on the reception counter barely acknowledges me before making the quickest of phone calls (probably to his bookie for all I know) then shakes his head. No.
I then go back to the sun-loungers and look in every corner for my beloved hat. I then ask one of the pool attendants, who gives me a glimmer of hope.
"Wait there," he says in reasonable English, then disappears into a block of apartments, only to return five minutes later empty handed. He then speaks to two of the dodgiest gardeners on the premises - ones who can regularly be seen finding coconuts on the floor, laying into them with their fearsome looking machetes, then selling them for a peso to ladies stretched out on sunbeds. Never, but never, do I see them actually gardening.
He gives them some instructions and they disperse around the pool area.
"We leave at quarter past one," I tell him. "If you find anything by then can you come to the lobby. There will be a reward," I say. Well, I don't really. I just tap my wallet - a universal language unmistakeable to a Cuban.

Ten minutes before our coach is about to leave and one of the shady-looking gardeners emerges with a black sack. "Hat, hat," he says, pointing into the bottom of the bag and beaming. I am hopeful, but the bag looks a bit big to carry a small baseball cap. I peer inside. It's another bloody grasshopper hat. "No, no, no," I shout, pointing to his own baseball cap. "It's like that one."
"Oh," he says, "No, haven't seen that one."
Bet one of his kids is wearing it as I type.

We leave early for Havana Airport, arrive at just gone 4pm and have to join a massive queue for one of the only check-in desks. Still, when we reach the front of the queue the people behind us are snaking out of the door and along the front of the airport.
Then the Virgin Airline check-in desk drops a bombshell. "We don't have any seats together," says the miserable woman in front of us.
I am ready to blow a gasket. This is, after all, our honeymoon and no one even hinted we might have to spend 10 hours apart on the airplane home. In fact, it just doesn't make sense. For there not to be two seats together absolutely defies logic. For that to happen, they are going to have to find separate seats for the 200-odd people behind us, which would appear even more difficult than putting two of us together. They would almost have to fill one seat in one row at a time, then go on to the next row and do the same until the plane is full with people sitting next to others they don't know. And that would be ridiculous, wouldn't it?
Well, maybe not.
I am beginning to smell a con. I want to have it out with them, shout "Do you know who I am?", produce my Meeja Wales credentials and demand to speak to Richard Branson on the phone. We had heard rumours about the "no seats together" policy earlier, and when a woman in front of us in the queue inquires at another desk she is told she will be able to sit by her husband if she pays an extra £60 surcharge. Absolutely scandalous.

Mrs R knows I am on a short fuse though and quickly asks if we can have aisle seats. We end up sitting one in front of the other.
My mood doesn't get any better as our flight is delayed by more than two hours, there are no seats available in the departure lounge because two other flights are also delayed, and we now have just two Cuban pesos left after being advised to get rid of them before we left the country. By this time Mrs Rippers is burying her face deep in a book, fearful of looking at the stormclouds over my head.
Eventually we are able to board, and I give the air stewardess my best scowl as she welcomed me with a smile and wishes me a good journey. If I was being bitchy I would suggest the Virgin girls are hardly a patch on the ones in the famous advert accompanied by the Frankie Goes to Hollywood "Relax" soundtrack. But I'm not a bitter bloke. Honest.
Then, as they start showing us the safety drill I realise not only do I not have a safety card but there is no in-flight mag either. Finally, unable to contain myself, I push the light above my seat.
Eventually a stewardess turns up.
"Oh terribly sorry about that sir. It only happens in Cuba. The ground staff come on board to clean and then they steal all the in-flight magazines!"

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