PLANES, TRAINS AND HURRICANES…
Quote of the day: ‘Pro Tip: In the event of a tornado or other such natural disaster, place sausage and/or cheese slices in your pockets so the search dogs can find you first.’ - Unknown
It’s five days until we leave for Cuba. This will be our third visit, the last one being about fifteen-ish years ago. Perhaps much will have changed, perhaps not? The pace of life is very different there and the well-documented difficulties Cubans endure on a daily basis will doubtless still exist, despite some nods at least to minimally better communications.
Cuba’s a tricky place to negotiate independently. Yes, you can hole yourself up in an all inclusive resort, venturing out with hundreds of others to feel a little of the flavour of the country in the tourist hotspots. My belief is that to experience the real Cuba, you have to stay with the people. The best beaches in the country are kept for the resort tourists, but the white sand alone does not give you the truth about Cuba and its people.
Live in their homes with them and their colourful families. Take part in their everyday life if you can, bursting with music, colour and noise. Talk or communicate with them even if you cannot speak Spanish. Nevertheless, it’s not an easy country.
Getting about, for starters. There are petrol shortages even if you can score a hire car. Once renting said car, you will likely look at it and immediately realise it does not in any way resemble the gleaming chariot you were promised. Likely too, that you will venture not even fifty kilometres before you get your first puncture; a puncture that will be fixed in a tiny village, by a man immersing the tyre inner tube in an old bath, by ramming the located puncture hole with cling film using a cocktail stick. It’s primitive and only a temporary fix, but it’s all they have.
Getting cash is a mission in itself. Thankfully there are only two currencies to negotiate this time as the Cubans, less confusingly, now only have one instead of two. Euros are king there now too, not dollars.
After the first time we visited Cuba, its heady mix of frustration and beauty, warmth and fragility, generosity and poverty, left a lasting and life changing impression but none of us felt we had had a holiday. It was an absolute relief to get home to easy living, a land of plenty and a language and systems we understood. Never again we said, but of course we went back for a second go and soon to be a third.
Our dog/house-sitters for when we are away are arriving in two shifts, to care for two disgusting dogs who this very moment have rolled in something fetid and truly vile. A shower awaits the two reeking mutts later which will not please either of them.
Unhelpfully, there is another French air traffic control strike on Friday the very day that our lovely Scottish lady was due to fly in. She has booked tickets to arrive a day later now but her friend, who incidentally has the bluest eyes I have ever seen, and is driving here, will amazingly arrive a day earlier than he had planned. Thank you so much to them both.
The rental electric bikes are booked and we have a rough idea of where we are trying to head off to initially. Peter Marshall at BicycleBreeze is the only rental outlet that consistently returns with answers to our queries, so we book with him. One other company was very quick to répond on the initial uptake but then we heard nothing for two weeks. By that time, the ‘snoozing and losing’ meant she had been kicked into touch.
Simon has cycled across France before and is well aware of the constraints that having only two panniers each for transporting luggage, will enforce upon us. I only have a cabin bag I shall be taking, which unbelievably seems to easily accommodate all the required barest essentials of clothes, with a few extras. Travelling light is the key here and most of my female friends would shy away unashamedly from this. I have already begun to chuck things into it, crossing fingers it all fits in.
Simon will of course still be packing as we start the first part of our outward journey by train, as we get onto the super-fast TGV towards Paris.
Bizarrely, as I pack, even with the eye wateringly expensive filtration and purifying drinks bottle, a snorkel and new mask, trainers, wet weather jacket, camera, two pairs of padded cycle shorts more akin to nappies, string and pegs (for use as a makeshift washing line), and the all important toilet roll, there is still something of a void on the top of the case. Thirty litres of space in my case, 32 litres vacant in the hired panniers apparently so we should be ok. Still a good few litres to try and fill. It almost feels decadent.
All seems to be going swimmingly well until I try to book the Viazul bus tickets. After a very protracted account to register and sets of forms to fill out, the computer says no to our payment. I contact the owners of the B&B (casa particulare) where we are staying on our first night. Amazingly, the email is answered and they respond to say ‘no problem’ to booking the tickets for us.
Hurricanes. We are visiting at the height of the hurricane season which is the main reason we are going.
Not that we have some kind of bizarre and lurid yearning to being caught in a hurricane or anything, simply that the tickets were cheap.
Very cheap indeed.
For the two of us together, and of course our return tickets, it was less expensive than getting a return flight for one person to Athens in mid-September. This latter option of a Greek voyage does seem to be mentioned more and more as having possibly being a significantly more suitable option, when Simon and I start incrementally recalling the jolly japes aka ‘difficulties‘ we had in our two previous Cuban adventures.
We’ve never been the types to take the easy option.
Although even Greece can chuck up unexpected stuff at you, as we know well.
Some twenty five-ish years ago, we decided to try backpacking around the Greek Islands for the first time.
Having bought a one way ticket to Athens (abject folly in hindsight) with our daughter (aged about 16 at the time) and youngest son (about 6), we then find ourselves stranded at Athens airport upon our attempted return. No tickets available until that evening.
Undeterred, we deposit our bags in left luggage and hop on a bus towards the Acropolis.
Spending a very jolly, albeit scorchio day looking around the vast but beautifully enigmatic Parthenon, we descend the majestic hill in plenty of time to get a bus back to the airport. Walking around the hugely ancient and narrow streets of the old village in Plaka, we become aware of a strange fuzziness of vision and troubling vibrations.
Then starts an enormous rumbling and roaring noise much like a train coming into an underground station. In the blink of an eye, I’m thinking “Oh, I didn’t realise there was a metro system, perhaps we can get that back to the airport instead of the bus!”
Then we realise something is wrong. Very wrong indeed.
Bits of balconies and other masonry are falling from the buildings and crashing to the floor. The shelves in the tat shops that carry a host of miniature Greek memorabilia, begin discharging their contents onto the floors, smashing their wares into thousands of tiny pieces.
A motorcyclist falls sideways off his bike and skeeters across the ancient cobbles. He and the many tourists around are dazed and stunned and don’t know what is happening.
The rumbling grows in intensity until it is a roar.
People start screaming as Simon pulls our youngest Tom under a table. My daughter Louise and I stand pathetically screaming in the middle of the street and are immediately dragged under a separate table by a handsome shopkeeper.
“Seismos!” he declares, but then again in English, “Earthquake! If there is another soon, that is good news as it will be an aftershock and the earth will gradually settle down. If there is nothing, that one was just a warning. Then the big one will come but we don’t know when. Go now. Get out of the city! Do not stand near anything that could collapse! Stay in the open!” he warns us in no uncertain terms.
As we hastily leg it from the ancient streets, there’s another rumble. It’s only a few minutes after the first one so with the shopkeepers words ringing in my ears, I am slightly relieved to think it is most likely an aftershock, and that the first was the biggie. But I’m still terrified.
Carelessly darting between the incessant traffic on the gyratory near the precariously tall Hadrians Gate, we are working out where we need to catch the bus, when there’s another aftershock. I am apoplectic with fear and adrenalin courses through my veins, making my limbs prickle with terror. After what seems an interminable wait, the bus arrives so we jump on it, fearful that another major quake will happen and the road will open and eat us up. Not much panic or catastrophising here then!
As we grab our bags, running to get to the heel-draggingly slow check in, they eventually let us onto the plane. Calmly the captain welcomes us in a customarily unflappable fashion, stating that in light of this afternoons events, we needed to be seated ‘lickety-split’, to take off in only a very few minutes indeed. This is not optional and he isn’t taking any shit. We are ordered to be seated without any fuss at all. Ours is the last plane they are allowing out of the airport until the runway has been closed and double checked to make sure it is safe. Superficially all looks ok on the tarmac surface and as long as we get out quickly, in true Greek style they would let us take off. But yes, we all sit down in double quick time, later landing at Luton to rapturous applause.
That was in the late 90’s.
The first time we went to Cuba was early in the new millennium. This time it was only Simon, Tom and myself. Maybe Louise had realised that we were a liability to travel with 😂.
We were flying with Virgin Airways out of London Gatwick and as we loaded onto the plane, there seemed to be a lot of activity around one of the engines. Sitting there on the hottest day of the year in August, the captain eventually made an announcement to say they were waiting for a spare part for engine number two. He didn’t know how long the wait would be. They wouldn’t let us off the plane so we had to sit it out.
A couple in front of us were inconsolable. Her sister was marrying that afternoon and they were only going to make it by the skin of their teeth even if things went well. This meant they would miss the ceremony.
After six hours sitting in a metal tube, with screaming children and two hysterical fellow passengers who were apparently terrified of flying at the best of times, El Capitano makes the announcement we are all waiting for. Yes, we could depart but only if cabin crew unloaded the festering food that had been sitting onboard without working refrigeration for six hours. Then they needed to reload with fresh supplies of food and water for the journey. If it wasn’t done in double quick time, the crew’s hours would be exhausted and they would have to abandon the flight. We had been allowed one paper cup of water and a bread roll the entire time to keep us placated. It was torture.
The wedding guests were crying. They would miss the entire day.
The crew worked like demons and a huge round of applause reverberated around the plane when it finally began pushing back a short while later, making its way towards takeoff.
But no! Something was amiss. A very definite ‘lubdub‘ sensation as the plane lumbered around the apron.
The plane had been sitting for so long on a steaming hot runway, that one of the tyres had become misshapen. We would not be taking off after all. Over seven hours sitting on the plane, people were getting understandably upset, frustrated, scared and a couple of male passengers started behaving unacceptably. It wasn’t us, I hasten to add.
Armed police were called and stationed themselves menacingly at the front and rear of the plane. We were escorted off board in total silence and grumpily handed vouchers for overnight hotel accommodation. It was a hideous experience and I felt particularly for the lady that totally missed her sisters wedding and those with fractious young children. Despite the fact that one of those said children had been kicking hell out of the back of my seat for over seven hours.
During the evening, as everyone began to talk over what could only loosely and inaccurately be described as ‘nourishment’, some incandescent passengers contacted the media. Next morning, we were all at breakfast together, making headline news across the UK on breakfast TV and in the red top papers.
Every cloud and all that though...
As a direct result, we were given return flights anywhere in the world that Virgin flew, apart from Australia. Those compensatory flights enabled us to travel to Mauritius the following year, the very day after we finished our first Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden.
“I’m never doing that again. Never! Ever!” were my words as we finally arrived home from Hampton Court. We were exhausted and emotionally drained from the show but were looking forward to going away to the paradise of Mauritius the following day.
As it turned out, Mauritius wasn’t for us - we were trying to do it on a budget and it’s a playground for the wealthy tourists, of which we were not. Nevertheless, a visit to the beautiful and magical tea plantation called Eureka on that same island was the inspiration for my 2009 submission for Hampton. I designed the garden in five minutes as we stood in front of the exquisite colonial mansion on the very day we visited. That garden won us a gold medal and the BBC People’s Choice.
Silver linings. Never say never.