Yuly is an absolute angel – the bustling kind, unfazed by our pre-dawn divers’ start, preparing a hearty breakfast while we finished up our packing in the dark. After yet another uplifting meal in the shade of Margarita’s lovely garden, Yuly presented us each with a small pendant of our initials. We exchanged hugs, well wishes and addresses, and would write back and forth for many months to come.
The melancholy we felt as we drove away from Casa Blanca quickly gave way to a tight coil of tension as we navigated the roads with one map and a lot of guesswork. We moved our little jeep precariously out of La Habana along Via Monumental, then made a few false turns before we were certain that we were on the Autopiste Nacional. Many aspiring hitchhikers dotted this main vein of asphalt at regular intervals, hoping for an alternative to a scarce and unreliable public transport system. S dearly wished to pick them up, but I was too worried about missing our rendezvous with Yasser.
Yasser, who runs a dive shop out of Varadero, had been communicating with me over the past couple of days via telephone, and we had finally concluded on a dive plan which involved meeting up with the crew at a service station of sorts 141km from La Habana. Our panic mounted when we missed the landmark and had to reverse on the highway into the parking lots, and then discovered that there were no divers in sight. Thankfully, they arrived 20 minutes later – 5 people packed into a white car, eager to stretch their legs and join us for coffee.
Yasser is an easy going guy with eyes that are kind and attentive. He speaks perfect English and enunciates his Spanish words for us in conversation, so that even I might follow the complex discussions that arose from S’s inquisitiveness. Yasser’s right hand man, Iglesias, is a dark, smiling mountain. With them were a caring, humorous couple from near Manchester, and Monika, a young Swiss doctor with a riot of curly hair and a flair for languages innate to those who come from a country which borders upon so many others.
My little coffee was accompanied by cana de azucar, and I feel now as if all coffees should be so accoutered. Aside from the Spanish for sugarcane, these are some other words and phrases I learned:
swamp / wetlands
Me quedan la tanto
I’ll look after the stuff
Baleo de pena
De donde viene la aqua de coco?
Where does the coconut water come from? or WTF does that have to do with anything?
From that point on, we drove through an area called Ciénaga de Zapata, and though I didn’t know it at the time, it is a vast ecosphere boasting a rich biodiversity which makes it a standout in the entire Caribbean, if not the entire planet. There were scores of different species of birds here, we heard, as well as a wealth of crocodiles, but the main species to concern us were buzzing brazenly under the mid morning sun; the air was laden with hardy, golden dragonflies, the magnitude of which I had never experienced in my life! A couple of them flew through S’s window and concussed themselves on his noggiin!
To the right and left of our tiny road, the landscape alternated between marshlands and brush so thick that it gave off the feeling of a wilderness untapped. There were bound to be cenotes in there, too, Yasser confided with a yearning in his voice as he gestured towards the unbroken country. Divers are curious creatures, delighting as much in the idea of contending with the enclosed embraces of a jeweled cavern just as quickly as they could kick their fins towards the big blue sea.
Eventually the swamps opened up into the most brilliant of coasts. The water was the sapphire blue of dreams, so pure in the sunshine that it practically shone.
When we arrived at our dive point, we saw two men standing near a rock in the shallow waters, removing the spines and scales from several lionfish. Iglesias tells me that with the spines gone, the fish is rendered non venemous, and has carne blanco blanco blanco y muy rico! This meat does not find its way to the menu as often as lobster, though, as only the authorized few are allowed to fish it.
Ah, another new word! : Pes leon.
We are champing at the bit to go underwater! This kind of blue can only get prettier. We did 2 dives today, starting off in the sandy shallows but eventually coming onto the wall. One of the most special moments happened just as we coasted into the blue. A cloud must’ve sailed across the sky, for it went dark by a couple of degrees and the colors in the water deepened marvellously. Blue can get bluer. Yasser flipped up towards the surface and I quickly followed suit, IN CASE it was a tiburon ballena coming to say hello.
The most prominent corals in these parts were the tuberous cylinders, lime green and almost as long as my arm. S and I snapped greedy photos underwater, and had lots of time to explore as Yasser had brought his own camera along and were not too strict with us so long as we did not get into too much trouble. I spent close to 10 minutes at one point chasing a little blue wrasse around a coral, intrigued by a little mite that he had on his cheek.
My favorite thing about diving is – as simple as it sounds – swimming with the fishies. No matter how encumbered you are with your BCD, tank, fins and accessories, once you get into the groove of breathing in and out in the big blue sea, it feels like there is no sweeter escape. You get to go where the eels and lobsters go, see where the clownfish and groupers live, swim alongside schools of creole wrasse, sturgeons and silversides, all with a big smile on your face. The treats are the best – the moments that take a bit of patience and a bit of luck. Stealthy blennies poking out from their hiding places, juvenile boxfishes swimming haplessly in the currents, the star dust that erupts from the corals, the eyes of a stonefish that transforms a lump of rock. The ocean is a marvel unlike anything else that I have ever come to know.
My other favorite diving delight is the post-dive meal that we descend upon like wolves. There are dives that I recall for the nourishment we are given after dragging ourselves salted and sandy from the sea. In Ras Abu Ghallum, we ate large flat Egyptian bread with seasoned chicken, sitting crosslegged under a tent surrounded by camels. In Mabul, I sat on the sunkissed decks next to a large bowl of banana fritters, the seaspray in my nails mixing with the sweetness of the banana, a recipe for contentment. Here in the southern coast of Cuba, we took a lazy drive to a local home and lunched on a feast of rice, frijoles, crab meat, langosta, yuca, greens, fish and even crocodile!
God bless S and his hardy driving skills, cos I was passed out in post prandial bliss in the passenger seat most of the way to Cienfuegos. In the snatches of consciousness, I noted horses and carts on the roads, and vast countryside giving way to small towns where the housing seemed even more run down than La Habana.
According to Monika (who, unlike us, had arrived in Cuba accompanied by a Lonely Planet guide) there were 2 main areas of interest in Cienfuegos – the center, and Punta Gorda which jutted out into the sea, and it was towards the latter that we headed. We spotted a hotel and were accosted by locals trying to persuade us that the hotel is very expensive, and we would be better off staying at their room for rent for 25CUC. S was so tired of the pushiness by now that he replied tersely when they asked the usual engaging question, “Where are you from?” I wish someone would tell them that being pushy doesn’t win them customers. But who knows what the story is? Maybe their house hasn’t seen business for days now, and with the internet being as it is in Cuba (non existent), they could no sooner depend on online advertising than manage it efficiently even if they found customers through it. Maybe being pushy was all they had.
We found ourselves spending the night in a casa particular eventually, having relented to a suggestion by the hotel barman (the hotel, here in sleepy Cienfuegos, was surprisingly booked up). We were greeted by a trio of grandma, mom and daughter, who gave us a clean, comfy room with an awesome shower and a romantic dinner for two. “Lilellube,” I said as we settled down to digest on the patio under the stars, trying out the new Spanish word on my tongue. I don’t think it was too long afterwards that I fell asleep.