Shake Your Nunga-Jugs

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I was at the local Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba, shyly observing a scene of thrusting, fluid hips and fast feet. “If only I could dance like that”, I thought to myself as I sipped furiously on my third mojito, mesmerised by the way their bodies instinctively met every beat – not a single person out of time.

I noticed myself staring enviously at one woman in particular – her perfectly formed bottom pressed neatly against her partner’s groin as they intimately circled the stage. Slightly and awkwardly aroused, I tore my eyes away and began daydreaming about reincarnation (and how I’d like to be reborn with rhythm and tanned skin and a much bigger bottom…) and as I glanced dejectedly down at my now empty glass I noticed a large, outstretched hand belonging to a tall Cuban man with the biggest smile. I looked up at him apologetically – there was no way I was getting up on that dance floor. His excited eyes suddenly seemed so sad.
“Okay fine, but only for one song”, I said reluctantly, immediately realising he couldn’t understand a word of English.

Amongst the architects of “Casino” style salsa, I was the token blonde girl with two left feet. I felt extremely self-conscious as I watched every other pair flirtatiously groom the dance floor – each movement effortless. But my new partner (I think his name was Hoji* but he may have been saying “hold me”) was far too amused to let me leave. He was also very patient and by the end of the second song I had almost mastered a few basic steps.
The band continued to play an exciting mix of traditional son and modern salsa while I continued to stand out for all the wrong reasons.  The atmosphere inside however was madly intoxicating and before long I was lost in the moment, soaked by a wave of confidence and happily embracing my own “unique” salsa moves.

I’m not sure if it was the mojitos, or Hoji’s* encouraging, white smile. Or if perhaps I was a natural after all! Either way, I was having the time of my life, enthusiastically shaking my “nunga jugs” alongside the local ladies.
In hindsight it was then, in that uninhibited moment that I fell (literally and metaphorically) head over heels in love with Cuba. For the first time since leaving Australia I felt happy and excited and particularly grateful. And now I know why.

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Cuban’s are arguably the most joyful people I’ve ever met. Their capacity to celebrate and appreciate life is contagious, yet equally irrational when you consider their turbulent past and present-day struggles.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 Cuba celebrated. “Viva Cuba Libre!” (Long live free Cuba) the people had shouted – knowing that after years of corruption and neglect under Batista’s rule, things would finally be different.

Today however, Cuba’s economy remains crippled and it’s future uncertain and while revolutionary, anti-capitalist admonishments are still emblazoned across highway billboards and urban walls there is an obvious and growing desire for change.

I realised as soon as I arrived that Cuba is a country frozen in time – a time before mobile phones and ATM’s and when horses and carriages were more common than cars. A time long before I was even born.

The absence of most modern day luxuries in Cuba is largely the result of the U.S embargo that was enacted in 1962. The embargo, which limits American trade and spending is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history (I guarantee you will not find a McDonald’s or a can of Coca-Cola anywhere!).

Admittedly, as a tourist the lack of American-inspired consumer goods and infrastructure is part of what makes Cuba such an intriguing and unique place to visit. The streets of Havana are lined with classic 1952 Chevy’s and antique market stalls and people everywhere are playing live music instead of listening to it through their iPods.

For the Cuban people however the economic burden has been enormous. Buildings that were once beautiful and grand are rotting, Internet usage rates are lower than in Haiti and housing is so limited that most divorced couples have no choice but to continue sharing the same room (so choose your partners wisely ladies!).

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It was the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s primary source of financial support) in 1991 however that saw Cuba’s already fragile economy crumble. Cuba’s GDP dropped by 34 per cent and its transportation, industrial and agricultural systems were paralysed. What ensued was a catastrophic, multiyear depression (severe fuel shortages, 14-hour blackouts and widespread hunger) which the government set out to counter by throwing the island open to international tourism.

What happened next has become one of the most interesting and widely debated features of Cuban society today.

In 2005 the Cuban government withdrew the U.S dollar from circulation citing the need to retaliate against further U.S sanctions and invented a new currency – the CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) – to exchange with the much stronger international currency notes flowing into the country through a rapidly expanding tourist trade.

Meanwhile, the local Cuban population has continued to operate using the much lower valued Cuban pesos (one Cuban pesos is worth 1/24 of a CUC, or just over four cents).  Being a socialist state, eighty per cent of Cubans are employed by the government and all state salaries are fixed (the average Cuba wage is 334 pesos per month, or $CUC16.70). Which is fine, except that (and this is the most surrealistic aspect of life in Cuba in 2013) the government, the same entity that pays Cubans in national pesos, sells goods to them in CUCs.

A tube of toothpaste, for example, costs CUC$1.50; an electric blender, CUC$113.60; an upholstered loveseat-and-armchair living room set, CUC$597.35. The availability of commodities available to locals – beyond what their libreta (ration card) affords them – is therefore overwhelmingly scant.

It is now commonplace to see highly trained engineers or doctors working in the tourist industry driving taxis or cleaning Tourist hotel rooms because it’s the only way to make a living (one High Season month driving a cab is equivalent to fifteen times an emergency physician’s fixed salary).

When you consider these comparisons, adulthood in Revolutionary Cuba offers nothing by way of personal advancement and material comfort to anybody except the peces gordos (big fish).

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But you quickly learn that most people still grant Castro a grudging respect. After all, he did offer Cuba true independence and free education and healthcare. Cuba has one of the world’s highest literacy rates and the supply of well-trained doctors and medical staff to developing and sympathetic countries such as Venezuela is now one of Cuba’s few “export” industries.

Change however, is clearly imminent. In January 2011 new privatisation laws were introduced, allowing people to “trade” familial cars and houses that had been ceded to them for generations of service to the State; to obtain bank loans; own mobile phones; and work for themselves in a variety of small businesses.

The question on many political minds now is whether or not Cuba will sell its soul to corporate capitalism.

All I know is that as I write this article, and as the rest of the world ponders what will happen next, the people in Cuba are busy counting their blessing and embarrassing tourists on the dance floor.

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Excess Baggage

Bag

In recent times, Contiki has been considered a right of passage for many young Australians. Their last ‘Hoorah!’ before stepping into the big wide world of responsibility. That was certainly my experience anyway.

But as I aged and continued to travel the world I realised that as fabulous as these team adventures were, they were also inevitably awkward. Particularly for my friend Amy…

We had barley made it to the airport after a very boozy Tight & Bright party – we’d been awarded free caramel-flavored ‘sperm shots’ all night for being the best dressed.

After narrowly making it to check-in we raced to the security checkpoint. By now my girlfriends and I were very familiar with these routine interrogations. Like every other suspicious traveler we obediently removed our shoes, jewelry and jackets and waited to be ushered through the gun-grey doorframe by He Who Could Not Smile.

At least on this occasion however, their warning stares seemed warranted. Our puffy, black panda-eyes appeared symptomatic of a life-long addiction. We even smelled like the sticky bar top we’d been licking tequila off only hours beforehand. Looking at my friends, it was certainly not one of our finest moments. And it only got worse.

“Excuse me Ma’am is this your bag?” asked one of the uniformed men. “Yes, it is Sir”, Amy politely replied. He was an intimidating man – tall with thick, dark eyebrows and thin lips that stretched across his wide mouth to reveal the top of his smoke-stained teeth. I wasn’t sure if he was smiling or snarling.

“Come over here”, he said, stepping across to another metal table. I noticed a few people in the group roll their eyes impatiently. At this pace we were sure to miss our flight. I was too tired to care. But I desperately wanted to sit down so I hovered nearby looking highly unimpressed. Surely he didn’t think four, dysfunctional blonde Australians could orchestrate anything too scandalous.

But as I watched him pull out a large phallic-shaped object, I wasn’t too sure what he was thinking. Amy’s face suddenly looked sunburned. I hid my face behind my hands and prayed that no one else had seen. I tried to maneuver my wide body to obstruct the others view but we could already hear them laughing hysterically in the background.

I took a closer look at the sausage-shaped package and my fuzzy mind suddenly focused. It was cheese! Over 300 grams of cryovaced Danish Gouda that Amy had decided would be a great idea to buy after a night of Karaoke. And cocktails. And tequila.

At this point I was giggling uncontrollably – until I saw what he pulled out next. “I Love Weed”, “High Life”, “Go Green”, “Time is Never Wasted When You’re Wasted all the Time” – an entire collection of stickers from Amsterdam that Amy tried to convince the man were “promoting vegetarianism”.

He continued to pull out other bits and pieces all of which, out of context, looked equally incriminating. Fluffy pink handcuffs (her prize for eating an entire pork knuckle), another block of cheese (from the abovementioned night), flavoured condoms (that had been served as after-dinner mints) and a fluorescent green, g-string leotard (part of last night’s winning ensemble).

“Okay”, he said and simply handed her back her bag. She turned around, aware that the entire Contiki group was still watching and laughing.

“That was weird”, she said to me. “I thought they would have at least taken this”.  She opened her hand to reveal a shiny, brand new Swiss army knife (a gift she’d bought for her dad when she was sober).

Finding a Lady

I recently sampled a selection of the most exquisite cheeses from a contemporary European food store famous for their Raw Milk Roquefort and Holy Goat La Luna Ring. Since then, Coon toasties have never tasted quite the same.

 

And since a recent trip to Vanuatu, neither has coconut crab.

Eight years ago my family and I spent an unforgettable week in Vanuatu diving some of the world’s most spectacular reefs and enjoying regular midday naps. So when my (ex) boyfriend Tom* and I decided to book a trip to Vanuatu I was obviously thrilled – a quiet, romantic week away was exactly what I needed…

“Okay guys, let’s go!” says our divemaster Max. He’s perfectly calm as we begin our descent. I on the other hand already feel like I can’t breathe and I’m still above water. Tom gently takes my hand and together we make our way to a small coral garden 10 metres below. A few more metres down and finally … there she is – magnificent, enormous and completely intact.

Like many others travelling to Santo, we’d come to explore the famous SS President Coolidge – one of the most accessible and largest wreck dives in the world.

Originally one of America’s biggest luxury liners, she was stripped of her finery, re-dressed with 20 millimetre cannons and employed as a troop carrier during WWII. While there is not much marine life, there is a never-ending trail of artefacts – rifles, helmets, toilets, ovens, a mosaic-tiled swimming pool, ammunition and medical supplies remain in situ since the date of her death on October 26, 1942.

Not far from the Coolidge site is Deco Stop Lodge – a well-known retreat for divers and lovers and our resting place for the next four nights. Although it’s dark by the time we arrive the candlelit tables, set neatly upon a large, open deck reveal everything their site had promised: comfortable rooms, excellent dining and ‘tranquillity with a million dollar view’.

The following morning we surface after a wonderful night’s sleep and eat breakfast overlooking Santo’s quiet Segond Canal. Breakfast is a basic spread of cereal, fruit and toast however guests are welcome to order a hot breakfast at an additional cost.

I’ve just finished my second glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice when Jim, a smiling, middle-aged man from Allan Powers Dive Tours arrives to take us to ‘The Lady’ – a beautiful ceramic figure that attracts thousands of divers each year.

Despite having survived our first two dives, I’m still feeling nervous – today will be our deepest dive inside the 654-ft long wreck. “Don’t worry Blondy, you’ll be fine”, says Tom. I only believe him because I know I’m in safe hands – Alan Power and his dedicated team have been operating out of Luganville, Santo’s main town, for over 35 years and are known to be the most experienced in the area.

We arrive at the dive site and follow Jim to the familiar coral garden below before making our way across the ship’s promenade deck. As we enter the wreck through a narrow sea door the sun quickly disappears behind the ship’s thick, gun-grey exterior. Panicked by the sudden darkness, I grab Jim’s hand – there is absolutely no way I am going any further. Judging by his reaction, I’m clearly not the first frantic diver he’s had to deal with. He calmly reaches over and turns on my torch (so that’s what it was for!).

He waits for me to recover and signal I’m okay before we continue on. I wave my torch around, hoping to spot more pots and wheels and guns and pans but instead all I notice is that there is no obvious exit. Enclosed by her enormous metal frame, it feels like I’ve been led into her private chamber. Or swallowed whole. Either way I need to get out!

But then I see her.

Like a seraph from the celestial gloom, she sits brightly at the end of the first class dining saloon, 40 metres below. Perfectly preserved by Alan Power and his fellow caretakers she is far more colourful and imposing than I’d imagined.  In that moment, I’m glad I’ve arrived. She is a truly, lovely lady.

Before our second dive we have time back at our lodge to relax by the pool and enjoy a simple feast. Regular menu options include Thai beef salad, salt and pepper squid or a traditional beef burger. Luganville is only a short walk from our accommodation however it’s not a particularly charming town so we opt to have a nap instead.

Our final dive for the day is at Million Dollar Point – named after the millions of dollars worth of military equipment dumped there by the Americans after WWII. The quantity of wreckage that lays submerged just offshore is quite astounding. Expect to see jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, forklifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron and more.

“It’s definitely time for a beer”, announces Tom as we’re dropped back to our lodge. I couldn’t agree more. We both order an ice-cold Tusker (Vanuatu’s local beer) and place ourselves on the deck to enjoy the final hours of afternoon sun.

By the time we sit down for dinner I’m feeling very content, I’ve sun-baked, showered and sampled a long list of delicious, fruity cocktails. Dinner arrives – a coconut crab the size of my face – and as I chew on an enormous piece of succulent white flesh I wonder if life could possibly get any better.

I thought it was a rhetorical question but by 11:30 that night the answer is obvious. I hug the toilet bowl for hours until I find the strength to crawl back into bed but before my head even touches the pillow I’m back in the bathroom where I decide to stay and die.

Days later however, I’m somehow still alive. In fact I almost feel human and manage to enjoy one more day of sunshine and a solid meal before flying home. It’s a bitter ending to an otherwise lovely holiday.

*Tom is my (ex) boyfriend because he suggested I order it.

Where to Stay:

Deco Stop Lodge

Address: PO Box 105, Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Phone: +678 36175

Email: deco@vanuatu.com.vu

Getting There:

Air Vanuatu

Flights from approx. $900

High season = May – Sep

Things to Do:

Alan Powers Dive Tours

Nando Blue Waterhole

Millenium Cave

Mount Hope Waterfall