Ah…Cayo Largo, I remember it well.
Sailing up from Cayman we entered the marina and docked near the nearly deserted large restaurant, to the booming sound of “Hotel California,” a song I would come to know well. Of course, the working Cubanos themselves were really nice and made us feel very welcome. They are a grand folk. My unexpected stay of nearly three weeks revealed many things, like the septic (do-do) smell of the water off the famous white beach, filled with visiting Canadians and Italians. A small problem with the system, don’t you know. The Italians were of particular interest with their practiced detachment and bored looks—- and upturned noses. How about them fine hotels, all gussied up and strung out in a row, off limits to the working Cubanos in the area. One night we managed to sneak one good fellow in for a cabaret show, under the radar of the local gestapo. He really enjoyed the risque entertainer’s ribald and perverse sexual jokes. The rows of individual cabanas at the end of the beach were of particular interest, this is where the bohemians tended to migrate, those with “alternative” lifestyles. One thing you learn about nudist beaches ..... some folks really shouldn’t be nudists.
For us sea gypsies the food was sparce, expensive, and hard to come by at the local “commissary.” No such problems for those at the hotels though, which included three fine buffets per day. The gaunt faces and rail-thin frames of the locals was a sharp contrast to the plump white bodies that inhabited the beach.
The big restaurant was out of most sailor’s financial reach with prices rivaling those of the most luxurious resorts in the Carribbean. The waiters mostly stood around all day visiting quietly, although the bar was well patronized. We made do with local hamburgers, two pieces of white bun and a beef patty for about a buck and a half. The marina’s shower didn’t work because it had been built too low and would not drain uphill, so we showered on the dock, open air. The toilets, god bless them, had no seats. Ah Cuba, home to the government who owns everything….down to the skinny rental horses on the beach.
My new made Cuban friend, who like me was a veteran of foreign wars (Angola), was college educated and ran the gift shops in the six or seven hotels. He handled hundreds of thousands of greenback dollars regularly. His salary? Forty five bucks a month and a sparce apartment in Havana, with occasional use of a government car. My other Cuban friend, a travel agent at the local airport, tried to live with his wife and family on twenty five dollars per month, “not even enough to put rice on the table for my children,” he said. And my best friend, a local bartender, almost cried when we brought him and his barracks pals some fresh fish we had caught earlier in the day.
The big event when I was there was the visit of “los jefes,” the “bosses,” who came down from Havana. They were the fat Cubans. And no wonder, out came the five pound lobsters and two pound steaks in the big restaurant, where they ate free. All was a’ tither for a while in the big restaurant, waiters scurrying everywhere, catering to every whim of the fat ones. Their bodyguard, “un hijo de Fidel,” a “son” of Fidel by his own description, and high up in the state security apparatus, was a bit in his cups when I ran into him at the bar. Jovial and full of mirth he invited me to have a seat with him and the local security chief, a veteran of the ‘59 revolution who had been in the jungle with Fidel, and a truly kind older gentleman. All went well until I mentioned the obvious fact that the maids at the hotel were really grateful for their jobs, and their access to greenback tips. That was a mistake. The jovial round-faced clown quickly morphed and the newly minted red-faced tyrant went into an unbridled tirade, defending “la Revolucion!” As his voice became louder, meaner, and more bellicose, and the veins of his neck began to pop out, the locals scattered like chickens from a mad dog. I could see his total and corrupt sense of power and quickly realized I had inadvertently kicked a very big skunk in the arse. Uh oh.
You know, the absolute power of life and death over others does strange things to us two-leggeds. Thank goodness the still humane older local chief realized the situation and came to my rescue. and helped me guide the conversation to other matters. After things had cooled a bit I was able to take my leave.
When you’ve looked pure evil in the eye, and seen the turgid pool of maniacal darkness there, you don’t soon forget.