Friday, February 8, 2008

Russians are crazy

January 26, 2008 - Cayo Largo
When I booked our trip to Chase Che, I got caught up in the moment and booked another tour immediately afterwards. Despite the good times and good people on the last tour, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. But alas, the next morning we were off to Cayo Largo, starting at.... 5am!!!

Jarred awake by the hotel wake up call, I poked and prodded Adrian to get him moving too. We shuggishly packed our bags for a day on the water. It was then that Adrian realized he'd lost his sunglasses, most likely left on the bus. I think we were both too tired to be upset and simply chalked it up as a travel expense.

At 5:15 our ride arrived; unlike our other tour there was no bus and no tour guide, just a taxi and a driver who spoke English like I spoke Spanish - in other words, very poorly. He was attempted to communicate something to us and gave me a piece of paper with an address. 

Him: blahblahblahgrafasblahblahblahblah yes?

Me: no entiendo, hable mas gazpacho señor? (what I wanted with vegetable soup I don't know)

Him: blah.blah.blah.grafas.blah.blah.blah.

Me: repita por favor.

We went back and forth for 10 minutes, and eventually, something clicked in my head. Grafas. Sunglasses! The tour company had Adrian's sunglasses and we could pick them up at the Havana address on the paper. Well at least I think that's what he said. I looked at the paper but had no idea where in Havana the address was. But the driver pointed it out on the Lonely Planet map for me. With that mystery solved, he ushered us into the taxi and began driving. Adrian and I had no idea where we were going. And our driver couldn't explain much. I noticed signs that said Havana. But still didn't know what was going on until the driver pulled into a very small terminal at Jose Marti airport. He let us out and drove away without any further explanation. 

So there we were at an airport, with no tickets, no flight times and no idea where we supposed to go. There were lineups at all the check in counters but no Cubatur signs. hmm... I checked the departure boards and saw that there is a flight to Cayo Largo at 7. Oh and there's another at 8. And another at 9. And every hour. Oh dear.

I approached the information desk and handed my receipt to the woman behind the desk.

"Donde?" I asked. 

She looked at the paper, shrugged and gave it back to me. 

"No, where do we go" I asked in English, slower and probably louder. 

"Blahblahblahblahgrafasblahblah" She replied with an annoyed look. 

Grafas? I looked at the paper in my hand and realized I'd given her the address where Adrian had to pick up his sunglasses in Havana. Oops. I pulled out the receipt and tried again. The woman merely waved in the direction of the check in counters and gave me back the receipt in a way that let me know we were dismissed. 

We walked in the direction she pointed. There were people with suitcases milling around but no one that looked like a tour guide. Adrian and I found a seat and waited not knowing what else to do. I think we both zoned for half an hour and only snapped out of it when I heard someone calling "Ahdrayahn? Ahdrayahn?" Could that be us? I ran in the direction of the voice. A woman grabbed the passports out of my hands and then handed me two blank boarding passes, then continued to call out names. 

Dismissed once again and still clueless, we went through security only to find ourselves in a cramped boarding area chock full of people. Flights were called out - Guantanamo, Holguin, Cayo Coco, but no Cayo Largo. 30 minutes passed, then 45, when we heard an announcement "blahblahblahAhdrayahnWiyamsblahblahblahsecurity". We ignored it since that wasn't either of us but how many Adrians could there be in the airport? The announcement was made 3 more times, each time more urgent and each time ignored by us. Then a beefy, impatient security guy nabbed Adrian and demanded that he come with him - I wasn't invited  and no explanation was provided. As they disappeared one hundred different thoughts ran through my head and many of them involving rubber gloves and duct tape. But 15 minutes later Adrian reappeared. Since Adrian speaks no Spanish he's still not sure what they wanted except it had to do with his luggage. He explained that we didn't have any and they let him go. Weird. 

At 8:30, there was a boarding call for Cayo Largo. I had no idea if this was our flight but I figured if it wasn't they'd tell us and perhaps even let us know which one was. But they let us on the plane with our blank boarding passes. And we were off for the 30 minutes flight south to Cayo Largo. 

We flew past Havana and over the Caribbean Sea - the water was so clear we could see the reefs below the surface. When we disembarked at Cayo Largo airport, we were still clueless about where we were going. I spotted the woman who had handed me the boarding passes at the Havana airport and followed her. She got on a tour bus full of other non-Cubans and didn't kick us off. The doors closed and we began to drive off; Adrian and I hoped we were in the right spot. 

5 minutes later the bus driver let everyone off at a small marina. But no one had yet to tell us what was going on. I could see the boarding pass woman talking to other people from the bus; they were having long animated conversations and laughing and joking with each other. After what seemed like an eternity she approached Adrian and I.

"I have your sunglasses" She said. And she pulled them out from her bag. 

"You're from the tour?" I asked.

"Yes, I am Marcia, the guide. We are waiting for another group of people before we go - they missed their flight. And then we will go on the boat. You are the only ones who speak English. I will be speaking in Spanish and French but then I will come over and tell you. Okay?"

With Adrian's sunglasses returned, and the lack of communication explained, I felt one hundred times better and could take in the surroundings. We were at one of those typical resorts you see in brochures - nothing like the Concrete Monstrosity™ and nothing like the rest of Cuban we had seen in our first two days. It also wasn't what I was expecting. In my head we were flying to some secluded nature reserve. But I shouldn't have been surprised. Cayo Largo is an island in the archipelago off the southern coast of Cuba. Essentially, it's a sand bar built up with luxury resorts all taking advantage of the miles of sandy beaches. No locals really live there, except for those who work on the resort. So Cayo Largo itself is more like Cayo Touristo.

30 minutes later when the other tourists eventually pulled up, I really questionned what we had signed up for. The new arrivals were mostly Russian and young. and already drunk. As Marcia and the other guide explained the daily itinerary in Russian, Spanish, French and finally English, I realized this wasn't a nature safari; it was a booze cruise. Oh well, when with Russians do as the Russians do - drink. Sure it was 9:30 but we'd already been up for 5 hours. On the boat the Russians immediately stripped down to their lamé bikinis and animal print speedos and started what would be an entire day of photographic exercises. The girls' poses were the sort that needed 1-900 phone number slapped across them. This was going to be a very interesting day.

Our first stop was Iguana Island - essentially a volcanic reef jotting out of the sea and home to a healthy population of iguanas. I thought the posing might stop here but obviously the Russians had connections with niche iguana fetish websites. The island looked like some sort of moonscape and my flipflops were no match for the jagged rocks. I walked as far as I could before turning back to the dock where 6 more boats were lined up with daytrippers. I followed the lead of the iguanas and chilled out, thankfully the Russians didn't pose for any photos with me. 

After 15 minutes we were herded back on the boat and headed to the swimming pool. It was an incredibly shallow part of the sea about 1 metre deep that stretched out for 1 kilometre. There was a sand bar in the middle of it. I didn't want to risk bringing my camera out to the photos but the Russians didn't share my concern and made the tough slog through the water to the sand bar for more poses. Adrian and I stayed close to the boat enjoying the warm shallow and crystal clear water. Once back on the boat, we tucked into fresh lobster while we motored to the next stop.  

When everyone was finished, the crew gathered up the empty lobster shells and began handing out snorkeling equipment. The boat stopped in the middle of a coral reef for us to explore. Neither Adrian nor I had been snorkeling before, and (what a surprise) the crew wasn't interested in teaching. So I thought I'd try to teach Adrian and myself how to do it. I started with the masks. I slipped mine over my nose face and floated face down in the water. Wow! The fish were unbelievable. The crew threw the lobster shells in the water and schools of colourful fish would swoop in for the snack. Unfortunately, Adrian couldn't get the hang of breathing through his mouth and was getting a bit freaked out. He took the mask off and just floated next to the boat where a Russian boy and his non-porn star parents were hanging out. 

I usually get freaked out swimming in the ocean and thinking about all the fish swimming beneath the surface but actually seeing them under the water didn't bother me at all. Even when the fish swarmed the lobster shells and it looked like a scene from Piraña: the Movie or The Toy, I still enjoyed it. Snorkeling is now a must do for me and maybe even scuba diving. But after an hour it was back on the boat.

We arrived at Playa Sirena where a buffet lunch and another open bar were waiting. The rest of the afternoon was to be spent on the beach doing nothing. Adrian and I quickly realised that the open bar was about 500 metres from the beach. We weighed our options - free booze versus beach sloth. Sloth won out so we claimed our quiet stretch of sand away from the russian calisthenics and decided to fork out the cash for beach bar service. We spent hours in the sun and sea, sipping mojitos and piña coladas until the sun got low on the horizon. 

We showered the salt off our skin and attempted to dry off in the sun (I hadn't packed towels or a change of clothes) while waiting back at the restaurant for the boat to pick us up. The Russians were already there, taking photos while wearing turtle shells and doing the splits. What ever picture you have in your head, is close but push it just a little bit further. A staff member came up to us and simply said "russians are crazy" before walking off shaking his head. 

Fortunately, our trip back wasn't crazy. And we arrived at The Concrete Monstrosity™ at 9pm tired, cold but relaxed and ready to start the non-tour portion of our time in Cuba.

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