A week at Club Amigo Los Corales, a low-cost resort 51 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba, is not free of adventure, even if most of the climatic refugees from Canada there want nothing less, here only for the sun, the unlimited booze and passable food—all of which came to us with the smiles and greetings that mark resort life the world over.
But I’m one of those who get bored with morning Cuba libres or the variant I prefer, las Cubitas, made with dark rum. I burn in the impossibly bright sun of the Caribbean. And pool life is best experienced in measured doses, watching my fellow lobster-Canadians splashing around carelessly and making too many trips to the open bar while I stayed in the shade reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and hydrating from time to time with Cristal, the national beer, or one of them.
¡Ya basta! I need Santiago de Cuba, and I have heard that a late-night jazz club has opened. Under a sky that has parched the land around the resort to a patchy barrenness punctuated with donkey droppings, I make the arrangements: I would do a half-day tour to get a sense of the place, and stay behind. So we bussed in to the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, passing the Moncada garrison where Fidel made his false start on July 26, 1953, and the rich people’s houses turned into day-care centres, schools, clinics, and a vast cultural palace, whence the fellow who owned Bacardi had fled after the revolution finally triumphed. There was a MIG fighter on the lawn donated by Nikita Khrushchev for the kids to play in. I remained behind to take my unpractised ease on the terrace of the Hotel Casa Granda in the Parque Cespuedes, knocking back some Cristal as I waited for the 34℃ furnace of the afternoon to mellow into a Santiago evening.
It did, and I did.
The rhythm section I had been listening to for half a day (see above), filling the entire square with an incessant salsa beat, went home for the night. In the square there was to be a concert, so I ambled down from the terrace and found a park bench. A man in his forties soon joined me, pointing to his skin colour and my own feverish hue and commenting that in three days I would be a Cubano. He introduced himself as Jorge, a teacher of mathematics and chess, and as the top player in Santiago, who had once had a game with the legendary Bobby Fischer. He was soon joined by a pleasant 50ish woman whom he introduced as his mother. The three of us listened to the concert, standing for the national anthem as did everyone on the brightly-lit plaza, and then Jorge and I headed off to pick up some trifle at a local store. The streets grew darker and narrower, the store was found, the purchase made, and he suggested we have a mohito at a local restaurant.
Well, why not. The night was young, the jazz club far from its opening time, and so we walked another couple of blocks, found the restaurant, and just then, slightly out of breath, his mother caught up with us and the three of us climbed steep flights of stairs to the roof level. There was Santiago, spread out before us under the light of a full moon.
The two ordered mojitos, but I was in the mood for another cerveza. Jorge disappeared for a moment: his mother moved close, kissed my hands, voltage pouring off her, and then Jorge returned. He’d ordered some food, but, stuffed with a cheap fried chicken dinner at the Casa Granda, I had indicated I wanted nothing. Shortly afterwards, two huge and attractive lobster dinners were set before them, and a plate of salad.
At that point I began to worry. I had brought only convertible pesos, no wallet, no passport, no credit cards, and I needed 30 pesos to get back to my resort. It was evident that I was expected to pay for all this, noblesse oblige or whatever the Spanish was, and I was seriously low in dinero. Meanwhile, the mother had notched up to incandescence, and Jorge said that older women really knew what the young chicas did not. “You want to take her to your hotel, no problem.” “You want my seester” is a stupid cliche, but his mother?
When the bill came, my heart sank low into my sandals. I simply didn’t have the amount required, unless I was going to walk 51 kilometres back to the resort. I explained the problem, and their demeanour swiftly changed. They both looked concerned, said this was a serious problem, and that the owners might have to call the police. A dead calm settled upon me. I knew that the last folks these people would want to meet would be the local cops. I suggested that there was no help for it, and that the call should be made. Fierce negotiation followed: I had given Jorge ten pesos earlier in return for some tale of woe, and that ended up in the pot. I scratched together a few more, but we still didn’t make the total required. The “mother,” henceforward in quotation marks, found a plastic bag in her purse and dumped the leftovers into it. The waiter looked very grave.
We were taken down to see the proprietress, a large no-nonsense woman with bleached hair, whose displeasure was evident. I tried to make myself understood, and then, thank goodness, it turned out she spoke French. Hadn’t I seen the menu? No? But you ate? No, only one beer I had.
She softened considerably upon hearing that. She counted the bills and coins, then, with a warm smile, told me to go enjoy the sun. I was down the stairs like a shot, leaving Jorge and his “mother” behind. At the doorway three tough-looking cubanos lounged. Oh-oh, I thought, but wished them a Buenas noches. “Buenas noches,” they said to me affably, and I indicated the general direction of the plaza—“Hotel Casa Granda?” “Si,” and they pointed down the street.
I found my taxi driver, told him plans had changed, and an hour later I was back at Los Corales. I had a stiff Cubata and went to bed.
The story of the lobster dinners was passed around the next day, and jokes about lobster-ladies continued until I returned home. But I hadn’t made the Yazz Cloob yet, and so I made arrangements to get back to the fleshpots of Santiago the following day, heading into the city on the hotel workers’ bus in the evening. They were piling on, three spontaneously breaking into that old slogan, ¡Por la revolución todo, fuera de la revolución nada! Everyone was in high good humour as we bumped along. At the outskirts of the city, some more locals got on, including a Los Corales beach bartender still wearing the St. Patrick’s Day hat someone had given him. Flashes of mutual recognition. Then I was in the Parque de Marte, right beside the Jazz Club, it so happened. But the night was still young, so I cabbed it to the Casa Granda and settled in with a Cristal.
No more dallying with strangers in parks. I ordered a brochette of pork and some papa fritas, and watched the clock. I was supposed to have a chaperone that evening, a local friend of a Canadian couple back at the resort. A deaf magician showed up and did some passable magic tricks, including placing two scarves at the neck of a ravishing chica one table from me which, when pulled away, had a bra attached. She caught my eye and indicated that her real one was still in place. She asked me if I wanted “a particular lady for one hour.” I politely declined, and she smiled and said “No problem.” Just as well, because I was running out of lobster-money.
Two or three cervezas later, my local had not appeared, and it was ten o’clock. I cabbed it back to the Jazz Club, and the driver’s pal who’d called it and accompanied us went inside with me, which was fortunate. No one was playing that evening. “Twes-day” said the owner. And so back to the resort we went at a clip, the dark highway covered with land-crabs the size of saucers. The driver managed to avoid running most of them over, which I took kindly.
I met up with my friends, and burst into helpless laughter, and we drank into the wee hours of the morning. On departure, staff wished us well, and a tour guide I had befriended asked if I was coming back.
Oh, yes, ciertamente. I hear Cuban jazz is some of the best in the world.