The day started early, a few sunrays before six. The sun peeped, ran an eye over Holguin beach, looked up, parted the curtains of our resort room, and summoned me to the window. Our third-floor room offered a fabulous view of the resort and nature: thick vegetation to my right, with the beach curving away from behind my right shoulder to the front as far as the eye can see. Magnificent, indeed! The white sands of the beach seemed to have turned pale by holding its breath at the beauty of the sea. The water was a brilliant blue closer to the shore and turned sea green as it went deeper.
Let me back track a bit with a small introduction. The first image that came to my mind when I heard of the company junket to Cuba was the bearded face of Fidel Castro. It was soon smoked out by another image, that of a fine, fat Cuban cigar. Is that all about Cuba that comes to mind?
Our vacation to Holguin in Cuba changed my perspective about Cubans and Cuba. We landed on a Saturday night at Holguin airport. Our final destination, a five star hotel an hour’s drive from the airport, was located in the resort area of Guadalavaca [which means, literally, ‘Watch out for the cows’!]. What followed was a week of blissful events. This rambling is one such event from my diary.
DAY ONE: It was the day we met nature’s other living beings. For half a day we became strange creatures of the sea.
At nine sharp, the tour bus took us through the country roads to the aquarium. [We had mixed feelings about this trip. But nothing prepared us for what we were about to experience.] Half an hour into the ride, we disembarked at a shaded outpost of the aquarium, close to the tourist docks. The circular thatched outpost had one occupant, a girl behind a semi-circular concrete counter pouring steaming hot coffee for two guests. Outside, beyond a small patch of land the sea gushed in and out through an inlet.
As I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the aquarium, I heard a rustle at my feet. Within snapping distance was a baby alligator! It was loosely imprisoned in a wire fence about two square feet wide and one foot high. I jumped back and gave it enough room to dream about chewing other Nike-clad feet.
A boat soon approached the docking bay; a fast boat with a white metal roof propped up by metal rods and nothing else but a man who I thought resembled the Cuban version of James bond. Twenty people or more crammed into that floating tub and we took off. The captain of the boat sat at the stern of the boat which was the only part that touched the water. Some occupants sat on the edge of a metal bench. Others stood with hearts in their respective mouths. Our boat took a wide turn and blindly drove between two tall buoys marking a safe passage between shallow waters and sharp rocks. At the end of that fast wide turn we came upon a maze of wooden pathways and pens, with a glass-house restaurant at one end. As we approached the maze we heard strange noises.
The wooden pathway from the docks took us first to a huge sea lion wallowing in the water. His pool was about 25 mtrs long, 10 mtrs wide, and a mtr deep. Collecting an audience worth-his-while, he dove in and swam to the other end of the pool. He swam back underwater and slid up to his throne on a podium. The podium is at one end of the pool next to the viewing gallery. It had sloping metal sheet roofing upheld by metal poles and was a mtr above water. The deck was wooden and right at the centre was his throne, a nailed-down wooden winners’ stand with two levels. He raised himself up from the water and slid up that deck as only a thick skinned 180 pound mammal can do. Like a centre-spread in an Discovery magazine he stood there surrounded by all his glory. Then he slid down into the water.
Our trip included a free drink. Wetting our lips we made a beeline for the drinks counter. We had an option! We can choose between a coke and an orange!! We chose coke and got a glass full of ice with an ounce of coke as colouring.
The trip was in three phases: swimming with the dolphins [if you choose], a sea lion show and a dolphin show. The trip cost the three of us US$200. We decided to make the most of it. Our guide divided the group of roughly twenty people into two. We were then herded to a pool about 50 mtrs square. When we reached there we saw the trainer couple in the water wearing shorter scuba suits feeding the dolphins. After every successful lesson the dolphins were fed a piece of fish from a red ice-box.
It was then the turn of the first family to enter the pool to swim with the dolphins. The parents and their 10 year old daughter sat on the ledge with their legs dangling in the water. On either side stood the two trainers, whistles in their mouth and rapidly moving their right hands in small stiff arcs. The dolphins jumped up and stayed three-fourths above the water. They moved close to the parents and touched their chins with their snouts.
Have you ever been kissed by a dolphin? This is it! Another rapid movement of the hand and both the dolphins aimed for the small cheeks of the girl. The little kid was tickled pink. The family then clapped their hands and the dolphins followed suit! With their fins they splashed water till the family stopped clapping.
Our turn came soon after. Donning orange life-jackets that covered the pride of our bulk [or, the bulk of our pride!], we sat down on the edge of the pool to test the waters. The dolphins seemed especially fond of my son who got a kiss from both dolphins on either cheek. The kissing session over, we slid into the water propped up by life-jackets. [Life-saving equipment they may be, but have you ever tried to stand in water with such a jacket on? Straitjacket may be a better term. It takes about 5 minutes or so to master the art of balancing inside a life-jacket.] The instructors then asked us to clap, the dolphins followed suit. They asked us to wave our hands in the air and the dolphins emitted this shrill sound which in animal parlance is singing. I was tempted to join the chorus, which was promptly stopped in the throat by my adroit-in-the-water wife. [Later on I expressed my distaste at her dissuading my fledgling career with the dolphin symphony. The complaint, needless to say, fell on deaf ears.] More instructions from the trainers and I too may have received a piece of raw fish for my troubles!
After the initial introductions, the trainers asked us to turn the dolphins on their backs! Imagine this long body of fish with a perpetual smile asking you to rub its belly? We obliged, delightfully! Delicately, the five of us [three of us and an east-European couple] stood on either side of the dolphins and turned it around. The dolphins were very much amused. “Come on guys. We are not so delicate. Now go ahead and scratch our bellies.” We touched the pinkish-white under-belly of the dolphins and I thought I heard it gurgling at my touch [or the female touch, depending on the gender of course!]. The skin felt quite hard and there is nothing slimy about it. The best fitness centre in Cuba could not have produced a more athletic body.
The trainers now asked us to swim to the far end of the pool. [Life-jackets are good only for floating.] All of us lined up at the far end. Before this, the trainers explained about the two stances to adopt for the ‘ride with the dolphins’. Stand straight in the water with both arms outstretched. When they do this, the dolphins were visible at the other end of the pool. The trainers then did this thing with their hands and the dolphins disappeared. From our vantage point we saw the dolphins emerge behind the person with the outstretched hands and dive down again. They went to either side of the person, and positioned their top fin exactly inside the person’s palms. The person was supposed to hold on to the fin and the dolphins will drag them to the other end of the pool!
The second stance, which we chose, was also simple. The first one to go was my son. The trainer told him, “Lie on the water flat on your stomach. Put your hands in the water in front of you. Lock your knees so they do not bend.” The rider got in position. The trainers rapidly motioned with their arms and the dolphins disappeared. They then appeared behind my son, positioned their snouts right in the middle of the feet and pushed him up above the water. He, however, bent his knees and the dolphins dropped him halfway. My wife was next. The dolphins propelled all of her above water and she squealed in delight. [The dolphins joined the chorus!] Just before they reached the end of the pool they dropped her.
My turn was next. I heard the sound of the water swirling behind me and tensed. This was the sequence. I lay flat on my stomach arms stretched forward. The next thing I felt was two soft pokes under the feet with hard snouts. [The dolphins propel with their noses, more like pointed chins. One needs to be under a constant exercise regimen to propel my body above water.] These two dolphins lifted me like a sack of potatoes completely above the water and propelled me to the far end of the pool. With outstretched arms, the wind in my face and water all over my body I rode the waves on two dolphins [a less classic version of Leonardo di Caprio on the deck of ‘Titanic’ although for only a few seconds. When I thought I might go and smash against the railings I jumped ship, unburdening them of their precious cargo!
After the ride, we completed the trip with the sea lion and dolphin shows. Ordinary fare, when compared with our ‘ride’. That was one experience I may never forget. My wife was so impressed by the ride that she is all set to have her own show: ‘Swimming with the lady’!
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