Beinvenidos al Hotel California

This is the fifth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

After a few days in Havana we packed our bags and flew to Santiago de Cuba, a city on the other end of the island. The plane took off as soon as the last passenger stepped on board, half an hour before our scheduled departure. What if that person had been half an hour late? Would we have waited for him?

The plane was basic. The little signs you see in planes, the ones that say, “Fine for Tampering with Smoke Alarm” were in Russian. At least, I assumed it was Russian, and that they said the usual things. The seat tray in front of me was a piece of plywood held in place by chains and hooks that would have cost $5 at Ace Hardware. As we ascended, mist seeped into the cabin. No one else seemed alarmed so I tried to stay calm.

About an hour into the flight, the co-pilot came on to make an announcement. I could understand his Spanish perfectly; maybe he wasn’t Cuban. I was happy to be able to tell my group what was going on. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I translated, “We are hearing a strange noise somewhere in the aircraft and we can’t figure out what it is, so we’re going to turn around and go back to Havana.” Everyone laughed nervously, then fell silent as the plane banked steeply.

We sat on the ground in Havana for a while before taking off again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the co-pilot said as we took off, “We apologize for the delay. The pilot is new and neither of us has flown this kind of plane before.” What “kind of plane” did he mean, I wondered? A Russian plane? A run-down plane? There was no mention of the funny noise. Presumably whatever had been rattling had been fixed, or determined to not be life threatening.

The first thing you notice about Santiago is that it is HOT. Hot as hell and humid. I don’t mind heat to a point, but if it’s too hot, this Minnesota-bred traveler’s brain and body become lethargic. We had flown almost 550 miles to experience “real” Cuban music that could not be heard in the capitol. I’m not a music connoisseur; most music sounds good to me unless it’s horribly out of key or country (which seem like the same thing to me), so I was skeptical.

We were transported to our “hotel”, which seemed to be some kind of abandoned camp compound with whitewashed, cement buildings spread out over several acres. I checked into my room and collapsed onto the bed, so out of it that I wondered if I was being drugged. Of course there was no air con, not even a fan, and no window screens, which allowed clouds of gnat-sized mosquitos into the room. The walls were bare and white, there was a bare bulb overhead and a double bed with a thin white sheet. The bathroom was the same as in Havana, with one threadbare towel and transparent toilet paper but instead of a flimsy toilet seat there was no toilet seat. Nice!

I turned on the black and white TV and there was only one channel; I believe Bonanza was on again. I groaned and attempted to wrap myself in the sheet like a giant burrito to keep the mosquitos at bay.

I woke up to knocking.

“Come to the pool!” a woman’s voice called.

Pool!? I detangled myself from the sheet and saw that my left arm, which had fallen out of the burrito, was covered with hundreds of tiny red welts. I flung the door open and there was one of my fellow travelers, an 80-something lady who had been subjected to a strip search at the airport upon our arrival and had taken it all in stride. She had a bottle of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other. Ten minutes later we were floating on a life preserver in the deserted but clean pool, sipping smoooth rum out of the bottle and smoking an even smoooother cigar. Cuba was heaven.

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