In one, impromptu fortuitous, life altering split second we decided against driving to Virginia Beach. It simply was not going to be hot enough. Our friends were golfing and we did not golf , so, we decided not to go. We were on our way to drop off doggies at my parent’s home in the country, following their kind offer to dog sit.
It was a cold gray February morning in 1991 and the snow pelted our windshield in big web blobs as the wipers squeaked out the winter blues.
Our mandate was simple: two weeks, leaving as soon as possible, inexpensive accommodations with hot sand and ocean. Our bags were loaded and we were keen. A random travel office in Ottawa west presented itself in a mini mall, we pulled in.
A rather testy, agent was able to locate a small Cuban Village on the south shore, sporting a 2 star hotel, and a late afternoon flight; she seemed surprised when we so promptly pulled out our credit card. She faltered, “This hotel is not, well not highly, recommended”.
It was dirt cheap, south and had cow hide furniture. I looked at hubby; we nodded, and signed on the dotted.
That night I dreamed of handsome Spanish men with dark eyes, mustaches and flamenco dancing.
A wall of heat, fried food, diesel fuel, blasting music and sweltering tarmac hit us full force, as we de-boarded the plane. My first off continent trip, I was outside of my skin and tingling!
We made it through Cuban customs (a stop light affair, mercifully, green for us) and found a French Canadian tour guide waving our hotel sign “Playa Giron”. We boarded an air conditioned bus and were the only patrons on it, a three hour bus ride to the hotel. Juan, our driver gave an ominous response when asked why we were the only ones on the bus. He laughed and said “No tourists go to Playa Giron”.
Undaunted, a cooler of cerveza aboard welcomed us. Juan held one between his legs as he drove. We sipped ours and watched out the window as we were visually assaulted with palm trees, painted propaganda posters of Che Guevara and assorted mottos such as “socialismo o muerte”.
Once in Jovellanos, Juan asked if he could stop and pay respects to his mother and we, beer buzzed and contented, consented. A small peach concrete shack with banana leaved thatched roof was situated in a row of similar shacks. We waited inside and alternated reading our Spanish dictionary and gawking at the hustle bustle of village life. I was stunned by my ignorance regarding a typical Cuban; the fantasy of a swarthy Spanish man was replaced by an assortment of polychromatic characters.
Juan came back clutching a pair of green crutches which were placed in an overhead compartment; he nodded, “Gracias” to us and off we drove.
The sun was just setting, an orange pink glow on the horizon. The highway whizzed by; dangling avocados, bright red poinsettias, banana trees, pineapple plantations and the people; walking, waiting at bus-stops, chatting, waving, piled onto anything with wheels. Three to a bicycle; on the handle bars, on the seat and one on the back fender and masses squashed into the back of pickup trucks. The road had pot holes, horse dung, and chickens squawking. It was loud, bold, colorful chaos and smelled wonderful, a banquet for the senses.
We arrived; travel weary and sweaty, at the hotel. It was dark now, and at the reception a red headed woman with surprisingly good English supplied our keys, she was friendly and efficient but obviously exhausted with bloodshot eyes. Juan brought our luggage to a beach front cabana which smelled musty, but was clean at first glance. A tiled front porch, bedroom, twin beds and delightful cow hide furniture greeted us. Juan was thanked and tipped.
After exploring the grounds and munching on a suspect “ham” and cheese sandwich in an uninhabited lobby, we lurched in the dark back to our cabana. Before turning in, Bruno noticed the green crutches left behind on the table just inside our door. “Jen, honey, look, Juan forgot these”.
“How weird, I responded, I guess we can bring them to the lobby in the morning, I wonder who they belong to.” We pondered a bit before bed together, then dropped into deep slumberland.
In the morning, they were gone. We heard not a peep in the night, our door had been locked, no windows were open and we puzzled over it all morning. Why were they left in our room, who were they for, how were they taken? It was hard to feel violated, as nothing of ours was missing. There was far too much of a bright sunny day ahead to worry about disappearing green crutches. We put our worries away and ventured out.
The hotel was simple; the shower spit on us, the beach littered with rocks, mosquitoes the size of mice, the food plain and repetitive and a scant group of tourists on site. The staff were extremely friendly accommodating, and entertaining. The nightly music and “shows” were spectacular as only Cuban dancers and musicians lusting after a dream of headlining at the Copacabana can be. Trumpets and bare bottoms, rum and hot breezes, no complaints from us.
Craving an adventure on day three, we asked a local fellow (Mario) to take us to see local sights. He agreed but cautioned us that although he did own a car he was prohibited from transporting tourists as he did not have a government sanctioned cab. Although illegal, he was economical, so we hired him, unaware of the penalty he would face if caught.
We braved his corroded old red Lada and journeyed towards the unknown! Shortly, through the tall grass along the bumpy tar patched road we spotted a couple of men and a herd of goats. Mario pointed, “Is my brother”, and stopped the car. He approached the men, much arm waving, and commotion took place. A white sheet was pulled from a satchel and one man produced a large machete which cut the sheet into strips. What ritual were we observing?
Mario walked among the goats, picked one out and, it was promptly hoisted up and the strips of white sheet bound its front legs and then its back legs. Mario then lugged the unfortunate creature thrusting and bleating, and tossed it into the trunk of the Lada and slammed the lid. More shouting, hugging and embracing goodbyes and Mario sped away.
Bruno and I in the back seat experienced several good kicks planted directly on our kidneys from inside the trunk. “Mario, what are you doing with the goat?” Bruno demanded.
“I give to my mistress in Cayo Ramona, no problem” was his response. He pulled off the main road and headed in land.
The goat continued to pommel us and the sounds and scents coming from the trunk were, well, rather unpleasant. We felt very badly for the goat in the trunk, but I felt a giggle rising in my throat. After a few minutes we were able to anticipate the jolting and recoil in time with the rhythm of Papi Oviedo blasting from the Lada’s tinny radio.
Suddenly, Mario became obviously agitated as he looked in his rear view mirror.
“Es un problema” he frowned. A black 57 Chevy pulled us over and out swaggered two uniformed policemen.
Mario exited the Lada and we again witnessed much arm waving and shouting. It continued for what seemed an eternity. We were very concerned the imprisoned goat busy flexing its hoofs would soon be discovered and were silently praying Mario would not be in grave difficulty with the Cuban police. Unfortunately our prayers went unanswered; as the goat comprehended his last chance of escaping this rusty Russian-made jail. He bleated bloody murder and kicked us with gusto. I finally had to leave the car to save my spine. Bruno followed.
The officers approached the car and gestured to Mario to open the trunk, my heart raced. I held my breath. They looked in, and held their noses in disgust. Mario was questioned repeatedly in Spanish, and eventually pointed down the road in the direction of the goat herders. More animated conversation and the policemen shook his hand, clapped him on the back got back in their Chevrolet and turned the car around.
We were dumbfounded. No handcuffs, no fines, no arrest, the goat still incarcerated. What had just happened?
Mario explained that he was about to be ticketed for transporting tourists and was able to avert possible jail time. In exchange, he had he offered each of the policemen a goat, and directed them to speak with his brother. What a country! Transporting bound animals in the trunk of a car; less of a crime than transporting humans!
We drove in dazed silence to his mistress’s village. The goat was safely delivered to her, and her elderly mother; kisses all around. We were pleased to have released our captive, however, we were apprehensive about his fate.
Mario’s mistress asked us to wait, went into her casa and produced 2 green crutches which Mario then placed in the trunk of his car. More stunned silence from these two bewildered tourists followed by howling laughter.
We returned to visit this magical, poor, crazy Bay of Pigs village many times over the years, each adventure delightful and the cast of characters and stories enriched our lives immensely. We never did discover what became of the crutches, but we did have delicious goat stews and ate them with gusto and slight reluctance.