CUBA

The flight to Cuba is uneventful other than that both me and the Columbian lady next to me contrived to lose our sunglasses. We must have been in the Bermuda glass triangle or something. The view from the air becomes more interesting when you start to see the islands south of Cuba – Isla de la Juventud (the island of youth) where they set up a prison in the 1800s, and a few other odds and sods before you cross the thin strip that is Cuba, and then bank steeply to land in Havana. The welcome is not the warmest. I am subjected to minor interrogation a t immigration. Where did you come from? Panama. But you are English. I’m on holiday. Where were you before? Venezuela. Why? Holiday. When? Today. Why not come direct? I don’t know, I didn’t arrange it. There are many flights from London. I didn’t come from London. And so it goes on. I get through. Then it’s customs. “Do you own this?” says the officious twat pointing at my traveller’s guitar. Yes. Give me your passport. After he has strip searched the woman in front of me, he gets me to open it up. “What is this~?” A guitar. “No guitar!” Yes it is, it’s a small one for carrying on aeroplanes. “What’s this?” It’s a small bomb. I saved it because although I could have blown up the plane I thought it would have been more fun to kill you, you silly bastard.*

 

*I didn’t say all of those bits but I’m sure you can work which bits I did and didn’t say.

I played the intro to “I’m a Man” and showed him how the guitar tuner lit up. He seemed quite pleased. “Welcome to Cuba sir,” he beamed and I was allowed to go. The luggage took ages and I was on the verge of thinking that it hadn’t made the transfer when my traveller’s instinct told me to have a look around. Some bastard had whipped it off the conveyor belt and shoved it in a corner. I didn’t see him or her do it but whoever it was was clearly a monumental tosser.

 

And so I drive into Cuba. What are my first impressions on the first day? Before writing this I have thought carefully because I am presented with something of a dilemma. The image, the feel, the impression that one has of the place sets up very high expectations. But on day one I have to say that they have not been met. I am situated in the best hotel in the heart of Old Havana, the mood is good and the location is great. But a quick look at the map reveals that there is almost nothing to see. A few crumbly old buildings, a lot of churches, and a dodgy harbour. It’s okay, but unless you want to go out and dance or get pissed, it doesn’t actually have many features. As I write, I am very conscious that this may not be the view of many visitors, so I am going to hold my opinions until I return to the city in a couple of days, and see if I still agree with myself.

Actually I’m not. Let me paint a picture of my first afternoon in Havana. The drive from the airport is no more inspiring than any other city. Fair enough. I am booked into a lovely hotel in the most interesting part of town. I’m all excited and want to go for a walk and explore. Right, first the waterfront. To the right, and average harbour. Straight ahead, the castilla – Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, no less. I love castles and was hoping for the best. It turned out to be a few knackered walls on the other shore – barely any turrets and no discernible shape. Okay. Turning inland to the Catedral de San Cristobal. Yup. It’s a square with a largish church in it. To add another dimension I cross the square to go to the Museo de Arte Colonial. How much? Two dollars. I hand over two dollars. Blank expressions. I have USD and they can only take Peso dollars. Chaos. They cannot adjust. I say de nada and leave.

 

The place is fairly run down. There’s a guy playing bagpipes in t he square. The phone call I have made home has been incorrectly charged to the Russian who was in my room before – could I pay in cash? I go for a beer at the bar – why can’t I charge it to my room or pay in US dollars? Consternation. I manage to wangle it, and some time on the internet to email my daughters. I go for dinner. It takes an hour to turn up. The guitarist at the table is excruciating. I am within an ace of stepping over and tuning the fucking thing for him. The Americans love it, but they’re tone deaf and I’m not. During dinner the guy who has misallocated the phone call approaches me because he needs the cash to offset the phone call before he goes off duty. It’s all a bit aggravating. I go to the bar for a white rum. It is 9.15 but they have shut the till so could I pay in cash? You get the idea. I retire to bed looking forward to the morning when I travel to Vinales in the west.

 

The phone line is constantly engaged so the woman on reception tells me I can’t pay credit card. I tell her to use the old-fashioned slider box instead, and after giving me a look that might suggest I had parked a stiff one in the middle of reception, she relents. If you get caught short in Cuba without Convertible Pesos you are stuffed, and I am not sure I have enough of them for what’s to come. My lift to the west is an hour late so I play my guitar in reception until he arrives. It’s a mini bus just for me. We thump along what they call a motorway but it is really just a wide sweep of bumpy tarmac. By every bridge there is a gaggle of hitchhikers. There is effectively no transport system in Cuba. In fact, it is so bad that yellow-uniformed staff from the Ministry of Transport are at the roadside to flag down cars and force them to give people lifts. We come perilously close to having a 70 mile an hour crash with a juggernaut.

 

We are about to overtake when it snakes into the outside lane. The driver has fallen asleep at the wheel. I was pretty convinced we were going to hit him but after intensive horn blaring he pulled away at the last second. I reckon we missed by about a foot or two. I am engaged for the rest of the journey in a highly-detailed conversation about the history and politics of the country. Castro booted out the dictator Batista in the fifties  and was hailed as a hero. He got the Soviet Union tio fund everything, and things improved until it collapsed in the nineties. Some infrastructure was put in, people got jobs and free education, and usually a place to live. But in the process he made two crucial enemies: all the exiled rich Cubans now living mainly in the USA, and the US government. So now the country has no money and two of the most powerful enemies in the world.

 

The place is falling apart now, and it will probably take Castro’s death to change anything. Unfortunately, he will probably be replaced by some other nutter, and who knows if things will improve. I hope so. One thing I certainly don’t understand is the worldwide idolatry of Che Guevara, darling of t-shirt designs everywhere. Granted, the guy had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to fight for them. But I think he was a total pillock. Have a look at the facts: he was Argentinian, so actually Cuba was none of his business; he killed a load of people; after being made a minister of the country he invaded, he got bored with his trainset and decided to try to take over Bolivia; he died in an unglamorous gunfight before he was forty. That’s not heroism – that’s being a prick and a megalomaniac.

 

But moving along. Havana and its outskirts are fairly bland, as is the predominantly flat landscape heading west for thirty or forty miles. This could be the flat bits of Spain or a bit of Florida. Perhaps Santa Barbera in California. A few sierra foothills spring up to our right on the north east coast. In fact, it only turns into a more interesting landscape when we turn off for Vinales itself. Here we are entering limestone country – karst rocks from the Jurassic period and the most ancient bit of the island. Sugar loaf mountains, the sort you might associate with South East Asia, spring up out of flat plains. Just like the tepuis of Venezuela, they look as thought they have been dropped on a grassy plain by a giant. In fact, they are just the chunky bits left after the mighty rivers of antiquity have taken the rest away. It’s a stunning landscape, by far the best in the country, and my hotel, Los Jasmines, is perched thoughtfully on the opposite slope to afford an immaculate view.

 

I am given the “best room” – top floor on the corner to give prime position over the valley. This quality – the challenge is what on earth there might be to do. I am not remotely interested in the standard tourist fare on offer in the hotel lobby – visit the local arts and crafts! See a farmer in real action! Unbeatable tour around a tobacco or rum factory! I cannot understand the obsession with cigars. I fully acknowledge the pride and skill involved in a job well done (in this case, rolling a cigar) but it is of marginal interest, surely, to the average person? Particularly if you are non-smoker, cigars are the worst. Instead, I have done some research and I get chatting to the guy who runs the taxis. I have read up about some obscure caves about 30km away – can I go there? Yes I can, but nobody does. Excellent, but can I go? Yes, the bloke over there will take you if you pay for two. Good, it’s $32. So we head of in his knackered Nissan Micra, trundling underneath these fantastic mogotes at close range, to the Caverna de Santo Tomas, the longest caves in Cuba at 45km. When we arrive, there is no-one there, not even any staff. We snoop around, and it becomes apparent that this is not tourist attraction as such, but a school that specialises in speleology – that’s the study of caves to you and me.

 

On the way I discover that the driver has been there hundreds of times, but never inside. I tell this is madness and offer to pay to get him in. He shouts “Golden opportunity!” and comes with me. It proves to be an inspired move because not only would the lady not accept any payment for him (only $8), but also he proved to be a godsend when it came to translating some of the more technical aspects of what the guide was describing. The guide was a very brainy, passionate bloke, probably about 50. We walked up a mogote for 15  minutes or so, then went in. These caves have eight levels, each with various names and nicknames. The bat level is indeed full of them. The wasp level can be, but thankfully wasn’t at this time of year. The owl level is indeed home to them – he said they were often there if he took people round in the early morning – and the evidence is there on the floor with all the bones of the rodents they eat and regurgitate in their pellets.

 

The place is a fascinating myriad of formations and colours – red for iron, black for magnesium, green for copper (I think I have that right) – and there is a “pearl” white chamber, and a blue one that looks like camembert. The faintly ludicrous feeling of wearing a construction helmet with a lamp is hugely offset by the benefits. I would have cracked my head at least a dozen times and if you have no light you’ll die. Amazingly, there is life in here. Crickets three inches long, crabs manoeuvring in underground lakes, and frogs. The big ones are the size you would expect at about three inches, and the small ones are in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest – no bigger than the fingernail on your little finger. The rock shapes are other-worldly. Stalagmites and stalactites, of course. Some in the outer reaches grow sideways towards the light. Weird shapes, columns, ridges, coral types, percussion tubes you can play and makes noises with, dams in continuous layers. It’s all here. The guide explains in Spanish that he has only brought us to the tricky pearl level because we showed so much enthusiasm for it. I don’t think he’s lying either. You have to traverse down some tricky tunnels, lower yourself by rope, and negotiate various other hazards to reap the benefit. But it’s worth it, and we emerge blinking into the light all the better for it.

 

I awoke that night with a start. At first I thought it was the Caribbean disco still going downstairs. All the floors in the hotel were tiled and everything echoed horribly, even a door closing. In fact, a massive storm had erupted and was kicking the hell out of the hotel. The wind was whipping up the valley and bringing the rain in sideways. Suddenly my “best room in hotel, top floor, overlooks valley” was rather less appealing. I was facing straight into it. I battened down all the hatches and had to jam a chair against each of the windows to stop the shutters banging in the gale. It had receded a bit in the morning but it was still blowy and cold. For the first time on this trip I had to dig out an extra layer to put on. The changing weather put paid to my plan for the day, which was to drive one and a half hours to the north coast to visit Cayo Jutias, a beautiful island with sandy beaches. On a good day it would have been like paradise. Today it would have been like Margate.

 

I took a stroll round the hotel and was taken with the notice by the swimming pool: “Glass inputs are prohibited inside the pool.” I had visions of people underwater trying to suck at cocktails through a straw. It is cold and I have a whole day to kill. I take a deep breath and, against all my normal instincts, agree to take a tour of the local town, As feared, it is too long and essentially dull. We go to the local town Vinales, named by misguided Spaniards who thought they could establish vineyards here before they discovered that the soil didn’t do the business. So here it is: a street. “Here is a grocery store.” Well, I never. “Here, pharmacy.” Thanks for pointing it out mate, I would never have guessed. And so it goes on. Cuba is having some real problems. Half the people get their whole food for the month with $2, but only in the amounts they can tick off in their ration books. Anyone wanting more, or any choice, has to scrum or queue all day. We are taken to the mandatory tobacco factory. Here is a warehouse full of women unfolding leaves. Here is a leaf at stage one. And look, here is another leaf at stage two! And now, please contain your excitement, here is a drying room!! It’s excruciating stuff. We stop off at an eccentric site – a 100 foot mural painted on the side of a Mogote depicting the evolution of man (La Mural de la Prehistoria).  It is a whimsical idea, but not very well drawn. 

 

Then on to the Cuevo del Indio, which is thin and commercialised by comparison with my speleological experience of the previous day.  They have put steps, railings and concrete floors in, and lit the whole thing inside.  The only bit worth doing is taking a ride in a boat on the underground river, but even this is contrived since they had to build a dam to make it navigable.  I lie on my back in the boat watching the limestone formation twist overhead – with the eerie lightning, it’s how I would imagine an acid trip to be.  I am tiring now and I skim over the lecture in the botanical garden on the way out, decline the glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, and head for the bus.  When we stop again to look at a tobacco-drying hut, I decline.  This is about as much as the Pinar del Rio province of Cuba can offer – the view of the mogotes on a sunny day is excellent, and the Cueva de Santo Tomas are mind-blowing, but nobody goes there.  This is without a doubt a one-night destination. 

 

I pause to regroup with a beer amusingly called Soberano.  At 3.8% you’d have to have lots of it to get pissed, although I discover from my Spanish dictionary that the word means sovereign or supreme.  The guy wandering about nearby looks German and is videoing the hotel reception area wearing a pair of jeans branded “Big Key. Everytime.  Everywhere”.  This claim pretty much defies rational analysis.  Are they suggesting that you should wear your Big Key jeans everywhere?  In bed?  In the shower?  On the toilet?  In a massage parlour?  And are they saying that every time you wear trousers you should use Big Key jeans?  It’s all very confusing.  I retire to my room for the rest of the day to strum my guitar and write songs, hoping that the weather will improve tomorrow.

 

Whilst reading various wildlife books, I believe I may have solved the riddle of identifying the oversized rat that was ceremoniously murdered in Venezuela.  Check the following description “Resembling overgrown, long-legged rats, they reach almost a metre in length… they are mainly nocturnal, often seen foraging for anything edible along watercourses… both terrestrial and arboreal and, when cornered, will hiss and attempt to bite”.  That’s the very man.  And I can now triumphantly reveal his identity as… the common opossum.  I’m very pleased that there have been no sightings on London commons so far.  They also have a forked penis but that, as they say, is neither here nor there.  Time now to report, in a rather prosaic way, on the vagaries of the restaurant at my hotel.  It’s truly awful, and represents something of a time warp, transporting you effortlessly back to the early seventies when the tourist industry was beginning in Spain. 

 

The tablecloths are usually covered in crumbs and debris before guests arrive.  Menus sometimes arrive, but not always.  I have seen more than one guest stride up and get their own.  The contents of the menu are a disaster.  You can have chicken, beef, pork, and rice or potatoes.  There are a dozen combinations, but those are the essential ingredients.  There are no sauces, no vegetables and it’s the same at lunch and dinner, day in, day out.  On the first day at lunch I mistakenly went for the fried chicken.  It was a greasy old leg, possibly of a knackered street pigeon.  The chef’s special proved to be a dry, if tolerable, bit of pork croquette, if you can imagine that!  The following lunch I plumped for the plastic cheese, luncheon meat and soup surprise.  The whole experience tallies nastily with the run down nature of the décor and the service. Further confirmation that this is definitely not a two-night venue. 

 

The weather the following morning is less windy, but still overcast and cold.  There is nothing left to do here and I am keen to get back to Havana.  But really, I am keen to leave the country – it’s all pretty bland I’m afraid.  I return to Havana and have a couple of hours free so decide to give the city another go.  First stop is the Museo Nacional de Historia Nature.  There’s not that much of it, but there are some interesting specimens, despite the fact that their taxidermy leaves a bit to be desired.  It seems traditional, for instance, to stuff a big cat in an aggressive pose when in reality they are more likely to be lying down or walking quietly.  Stuffed crab on the other hand displays no attitude at all.  There are usually one or two curios to marvel at – the duck-billed platypus, and the sheer enormity of the killer whale’s tooth, but otherwise it is limited because it is all in Spanish.  I get some of it but by no means all. 

 

I am however, intrigued by a pelican labelled “Alcatraz”.  Looking this up in my Spanish dictionary, it says “gannet”.  So we either have varying taxonomy here, or they’ve got it wrong.  Either way, one can only assume that the famous San Franciscan prison was full of pelicans or gannets in order to gain its appellation.  Second stop is the Museo de Arte Colonial.  I made a bit of a mistake with this one (this is where I failed to get in before because I only had US dollars).  It was basically full of old furniture, doorknockers, tables, ceramics and bedpans.  It was very dull and full of uniformed attendants, one for each room, who were essentially doing nothing but then stood to attention when you drew close and followed you round as you went.  I then went in search of a black t-shirt with a small Cuban flag on it, whose design I rather like.  Apparently a writer called Miguel Tolon in 1849 originated it.  The three blue stripes signify the old provinces of Occidente, Las Villas and Oriente and are on white to symbolise peace.  The sides of the equilateral triangle represent the revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”.  The star is a symbol of freedom.  So now you know!  I just think it’s a nice flag, and I certainly wouldn’t wear anything with that silly arse Guevara on it.  That would be tantamount to canonising Lee Harvey Oswald or Guy Fawkes.  There’s plenty of bustle and thousand of churches, but still nothing staggering to see.  My suspicions are confirmed that unless you want to get slaughtered and/or dance all night, Havana lacks depth.

 

In the morning I will fly to Costa Rica via Mexico City and, as usual, have been doing a little advance reading.  One of my destinations, Volcan Arenal, is unnervingly described as “continually exploding, the most active volcano in Costa Rica”, and that “flights stopped in September 2000 after a plane crashed into it due to pilot error”.  I shall certainly be strapping myself in well when I approach the area.  I shall also be passing through the capital San Jose, a couple of times, and visiting the Parque Nacional Corcovado or The Peninsular de Ora (of which, more later).

 

A table for one at home might be a slightly sad affair, but overseas it can be great fun.  I am back in the Santa Isabel hotel in Havana old town.  A three-piece band come in, two blokes and a girl, all wearing jolly nice shirts, ties and chinos.  It is a flute, guitar and voice ensemble.  The good news is they are in time, and have good voices.  The bad news is that their set sports an obligatory version of “Yesterday” – this one on the flute.  I am unreliably informed that this is the most covered song in the world.  They apologise for taking a five-minute break when in fact I am rather glad that they have.  Their degree of enthusiasm in confirmed when I can hear the guitarist playing next door – he’s still playing on his break, so he doesn’t need the rest, he just doesn’t want to play to a bunch of diners, who aren’t interested.  Neither would I. 

 

After the chicken nightmare of Vinales, dinner here is a pleasure, with tasty consommé and croutons, followed by a nicely-done bit of pork, and some palatable white wine.  Cuban wine is not known for its outstanding qualities, but this is fine.  There is a limit to how many beers you can have when it’s weak and tasteless.  Now if it were Stella Artois… Last night, in desperation, I asked if they had any wine, since it was not mentioned on the menu.  They did.  I opted for Vino Tinto (for some reason, red wine is not rosso in Spanish) and it was the classic paint stripper.  I immediately ordered another glass on the grounds that it could only get better.  Curiously, it did.  Whether it was because I had spent the bulk of the afternoon pillaging my mini-bar and drinking 50p Bucanero 5.4% beers at the bar, or some other reason, I’ve no idea.  I didn’t care either.  The Bucanero imagery is amusingly macho – a picture of two pirates looking very audacious.  I have always found this type of imagery amusing when used with brands.  They used to say in the beer trade that people drink with their eyes.  In blind tests, other beers would often beat their regular pint for taste, but put their favourite logo on it and they’ll swear (blind!) that it’s better.  The guitar/flute/voice trio are now swaying in unison like the Nolan Sisters, to something that sounds like the soundtrack to a Nimble bread commercial – “She flies like a bird in the sky-y-y”.  The guitarist wears a beret and looks uncannily like a guy I hired for an ad agency in the eighties. 

They cunningly send the girl over to ask for money and to be fair she has very good English.  “Excuse me, would you be able to make a contribution…?”.  I hand her a dollar.  The money in Cuba is maddening.  You can’t buy anything unless you have convertible pesos, but they’re @*!ing useless anywhere else, so you need to time your run appropriately and not end up with tons of them at the end, because you might as well give them away or chuck them in the Caribbean.  They finish their set with the ubiquitous “Qui sas”, presumably “Who Knows?”.  And who knows how many versions of this I have heard recently – certainly three in Cuba, one in Panama and one in Venezuela.  May be it’s covered as much as Yesterday!   The band retires gracefully and there is a blast of welcome peace.  I order the “selection of delicious cheeses”.  The waiter looks confused, and then frightened.  They don’t have it. 

 

I press on with the glass of red wine I was going to have with it anyway.  They have a sommelier and he is fastidious in providing new glasses with every wine and allowing me to taste.  Good man.  I am in a reflective mood.  Tomorrow I move on to my next country – my third if you exclude the shopping centre at Panama airport, and the connection I have to make at Mexico City on the way to Costa Rica.  I’ll be back in Mexico at the end of the trip so no matter.  Three plates of food sweep through to the ante-chamber into which the band disappeared.  So they play for dinner.  I’d give my experience of Venezuela ten out of ten, and Cuba four.  Harsh or accurate?  I can only tell it as it is.  When there are fascinating things to do and observe, you don’t even notice you are away from home, let alone miss it.  When there’s little to find, you just want to move on.  I am looking forward to more jungle.  I know I’ll get eaten alive, but I’ll survive it.  (This proved to be unfounded – Ed).  And the “continuously exploding” volcano sounds brilliant.  Let’s go now!  When I sign the bill and put my room number on it, the waiter, who has been excellent up until now, looks as though he has been shot up the arse with a poker, hot or cold.  It transpires that he can’t extract his tip of $2.50 if there’s no cash.  I send him to reception with my last remaining $10 and give him three.  Boring, boring.  Later from the balcony of my room I saw him prowling the Plaza de Armas outside trying to drum up trade.  Most unbecoming.

 

The following day starts in a leisurely style, as I get up late and watch the sun dapple the Plaza de Armas from my balcony.  I am ready to roll at 12.30 as agreed, but as usual my transfer is late.  In fact all of them have been in Cuba, apart from the original meet on arrival at Havana airport.  The tardiness span has been 25 minutes to one hour.  I make the call because, although it’s a waste of time sitting around in hotel reception areas when you could be doing something more appealing, it won’t kill you.  If you’re catching a flight, it’s a different kettle of poisson altogether.  In Cuba, you should always allow a spare half hour to check out.  On this occasion they failed to add the mini bar cost only to demand it in cash later; charged for two calls home that were engaged (£8 dollars for nothing); could not get through for the phone authorisation of the credit card; and eventually had to resort to the normal swipe system.  When they rang to confirm the transaction, it was refused on the grounds that my MasterCard was “run by an American bank”.  On reflection, it is Citibank in fact.  I made sure she ripped that one up and I gave her my English Visa card. 

 

The whole thing is total bollocks as far as I’m concerned, and I am now completely fed up with Cuba.  It’s like visiting a tropical Russia, which I suppose in a way is what it is.  I fly to Mexico City.  It is a lot further from Cuba than I originally thought, partly because I have been consulting shitty stylised maps that aren’t cartographically accurate, and partly because there is a two-hour time difference and I guessed there might be just the one.  It takes about two and three-quarter hours, which I guess is 1,000 to 1,200 miles.  It is still night when we land and we do a full circuit of the City which allows me a good look round.  The city is in the plain between mountains on both sides, and we fly over several volcanoes on the way in, some of which have been stripped of their sides by quarrying. 

 

As we descend I can pick out a wide range of colourful buildings, and eventually the distinctive green and white VW beetle taxis that are everywhere.  It is bright high up, but there is a massive smog over the city, presumably trapped in by the mountains and the heat.  I immigrate into Mexico for twenty minutes because I am desperate for cash.  But I have time to spare, so I queue for immigration, use an ATM which gives me pesos, go to a cambio and change it into US dollars, emigrate, buy a pair of cheap sunglasses to replace the ones I lost between Caracas and Cuba, and go to the bar.  It’s two hours to my flight but it still isn’t showing on the board.  No matter, I am already checked in, I have my boarding pass and in theory my luggage is en route.  I sit and write up my journal with my last remaining serviceable pen.  All the other three have exploded and started leaking in aeroplanes, so that design clearly doesn’t like altitude.  Note to pen makers – pressure test the bloody things at 30,000 feet! 

 

So here I am in a bar in an airport lounge in Mexico City.  This was never entirely part of the grand plan, but de nada.  It’s not a bad thing to watch the world go by.  All of humanity passes through an airport, conservative white parents with gangly adolescent kids; fat black bling families who take twenty minutes to take their jewellery off to go through the metal detectors, screaming kids in push chairs, Scandinavian heavy metal back-packers; rotund businessmen in blue blazers; moustachioed twits banging into old women because they are jabbering on their mobile phones; skinny peroxide tarts preening themselves at the Chanel counter; shell-suited suspicious-looking men furtively eyeing the top shelf of the newsagents; an obligatory nun; countless Japanese videoing the check-in counter for no apparent reason; and of course, the American couple having a flaming row in the queue for immigration, whilst their child looks on bewildered.  Ah, yes, they’re all here, plus me.  By tonight I will have covered 10,000 miles in 10 days – not a pace one could keep up for too long, although judging by some international businessmen, maybe they do, not that I would like to be as permanently knackered as one of them.  Indeed, one of the main points of setting up your own business is precisely to avoid such nausea.

 

Fucking Ada! It’s all gone pear-shaped!  I breeze up to gate 9 for the “on-time” flight to San Jose, to be told it is delayed by four hours.  Right – Hold. Hold.  Deep breath.  Regroup.  I accept my voucher to the Freedom Restaurant and head off for the Air Mexicana desk to call my man in Costa Rica.  This proves more complicated than I thought.  After several tours of this massive airport, I discover I have to go out again.  Which I do.  The surly bird at the Mexicana desk won’t make the call and directs me to the other end of the airport.  Eventually I march into their staff headquarters and ask for a helping hand, and here I discover a fantastic example of human kindness.  An off-duty steward says, sure I have twenty minutes.  He takes me downstairs, insists on buying a phone card with his own money, calls Costa Rica, explaining my flight is late, and finds out the time of my connection in the morning.  What a gem.  Totally unnecessary, and a real joy.  So here I am in the Freedom burger bar, with the rest of flight 387.  It’s not so bad.  I get my complementary club sandwich, and Bryan Adams Unplugged is chugging nicely on the TV monitors.  I order a beer.  What do you have?  Corona?  Anything else?  (Corona is last resort bat’s piss).  He isn’t sure. 

 

Eventually I order a bottle of Negra Modelo, so it’s a bottle of Naomi Campbell – I’d better delete that or she’ll sue.  Some dolly bird has thrust into my hand the “This is Mexico Pocket Guide”, and some of the contents are priceless.  Page 41 for example, the Deluxe Evening Fiesta, reassures females “Unescorted ladies may take this tour with confidence, we are your escort”.  Page 7 – “We visit, work through and explain locations with an asterisk”, so that must be a very knowledgeable asterisk then.  Travel tips on page 9 – “we are not responsible for any loss of life that occurs while on any of our tours”.  That’s clear enough.  Page 20 has one of the great non-sequiturs of our time: “Because these monumental structures were built atop a hill, making the complexes vulnerable to attack, fortification walls and moats were built just before its abandonment in the year 1000.” Right, so it was easy to get to because it was on top of a mountain.  They fortified it, then left.  Good thinking all round, I’d say.  Perhaps not surprisingly the delay turns into an extended saga.  I end up drinking beer and Chivas with an American of Mexican extraction.  The flight eventually pulls out five or six hours late.  I’ve rather lost track, because I’ve been travelling for 16 hours and keep criss-crossing time zones.