Sunday, 24 May 2015
Playa Ancón is said to be the best beach on the southern coast of Cuba. It’s a long stretch of featureless sand with cabañas for hire, fancy hotels, tepid water, and no waves. We had set aside Sunday to spend a day there, and put to use the snorkelling gear that we had so patiently carried with us from Australia.
It took no time to find a taxi on a nearby corner, as the touts are constantly on the prowl. This morning, one of them did as a favour by organising a collectivo (a shared ride) to La Playa Ancón in a coco-taxi.
A coco-taxi is a moped with a two-wheel fibreglass cab roughly in the shape of the coconut. It can carry two or three adult passengers. We caught our first Coco taxi with Clare, along the Malecón in Havana, and I had mentioned several times that I would love to commute to work in one.
During the ride to Playa Ancón, we met Nora. Nora was a Colombian social worker who was in Cuba to give a paper at a conference, and she had organised a little R&R on the side. She spoke little if any English, which suited us fine. The conversation tested the limits of our limited Spanish ability, however. This was frustrating at times because she was interesting and had much to say.
Half way to Playa Ancón the taxi ran out of fuel so the driver had to stop, retrieve a plastic bottle full of petrol from the back, and refill his tank. While he was doing this, Susie seized the opportunity to put me in the driver’s seat and get Nora to take a cheesy photo.
When we reached the beach, Nora went her own way, as we had planned to take a boat out to the reef to do some snorkelling offshore. We had arrived somewhat late, however, so we had to kill a couple of hours on the beach. Nora found us again and we resumed our conversations. We looked after her bag while she went for a walk. We found it too hot to venture out of the shade of our little cabaña.
At length we were advised that a boat was available to take us out to the reef. Due to a bizarre encounter at the “office” on the beach—which I think involved a business proposition of sorts—I left my rash shirt in the day pack. This mistake was to cost me dearly later on.
The boat took us a few kilometres off shore where we dropped into the water over the side. There was not a lot of coral, but a single, large outcrop provided a habitat for many different kinds of fish. We spent a while poking around there, and one of the guides gave us some bread to coax the fish out of their hides. Visibility in the water was fair. The main hazard was jellyfish, which were hard to see and which packed a nasty sting. Susie got stung on the leg and came up in hives. We swam around together after that, figuring that four eyes were better than two.
It’s hard to estimate how long we were out on the reef. Perhaps it was only an hour, but it was long enough for me to get horribly sunburnt. During the afternoon my back went from pale brown to deep red. Back on the beach we joined up again with Nora who was brown enough to lie in the full sun without getting fried, although after a while even she had to retreat into the shade of the cabaña.
Around 4 p.m., while the sun was still blazing, Susie took a dip in the sea and spotted a vast storm heading our way from the direction of Trinidad. We quickly packed up and headed for the parking lot to hail a taxi. The first cab in the rank was the very same Coco-taxi that had brought us to the beach.
One of the questions I had pondered about Coco taxis is what provision there might be for inclement weather. On the way back from Playa Ancón we learned the answer. There are none: the rain blows straight into the taxi. And indeed, it was not long until we found ourselves driving straight into the storm with the wind and rain blowing through our beach gear. The driver asked if we wanted to stop and wait for it to pass, but we chose to plough on, which is a suitable metaphor, for when we reached Trinidad, the streets running downhill had turned into gushing streams again; and when we disembarked, Susie and I were both drenched. Nora had occupied the small middle seat as she had the shortest legs. She disembarked completely dry. So there is one safe place to be in a Coco taxi in a tropical storm: in the middle, at the back.
As we were walking back to the casa on Calle Rosario we discovered that Nora was staying in a casa directly opposite. She suggested that we meet up and go to La Casa de Musica together at 9 p.m., so we took leave of each other for a few hours.
Susie and I dined that evening at San José, which is surely the best paladar in Trinidad. On our second night there, I tried to see if I could get through a plate ropa vieja, this time without an entrée or having had any lunch. I just made it.
After dinner we went home for a brief rest. We then went across the road and collected Nora who had become ensconced in another conversation about Cuban history, this time with someone who could keep up with her Spanish. The three of us walked up the hill together to the Plaza Mayor to find the place chugging with music and good vibes. There was no cover charge to get into the open air venue. We would discover the significance of this fact the following night; but what was amply evident on the Sunday night was that the crowd was incredibly mixed, happy, and well-behaved considering the quantities of rum that were being consumed.
There were people of widely varying ages. There were brown-skinned people, white skinned people, and black skinned people. All were mixing and drinking and dancing. The evening’s entertainment kicked off with an act that combined African dancing, fire-eating and ritual public humiliation of volunteers from the crowd. The highlight of the evening was the dancing, however. It seems like all Cubans can dance, and they are patient and hospitable with those who cannot. Susie was invited onto the dance floor several times. Nora hardly got to sit down: she attracted a constant stream of dance partners, and she was a fantastic dancer herself. She gave me a couple of impromptu lessons, urging me to keep the beat with my feet but above all “feel the music”. At times, all Susie and I could do was sit back and marvel at the music and the majestic muscular arses that surrounded us and kept time with the salsa rhythms: uno, dos, tres … cinco, seis, siete…
Above all, we were feeling the joy: Trinidad is a heady mix of classes, races, and cultures that melt together in the heat and humidity, and the extroverted displays of physicality and musical virtuosity. We walked home on an enormous high, leaving Nora spinning on the stage with a Cuban-Italian dance teacher.