When the policemen pointed rifles at me, I knew I was in trouble.
They shouted something in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but I imagine it went something like: “Gringo! Come out with your hands up!”
“I will,” I shouted. “But first I need some pants!”
There are many bad places in the world to be caught naked in public. Saudi Arabia’s one, and Disneyland, because people don’t like it when you’re naked around their kids. Finland would be bad, because it might encourage the Finns to take their clothes off too. The Finns are polite and friendly people, but when they are naked they look like peeled apples.
But I didn’t think it would be such a big deal in Cuba. Cubans are supposed to be sexy, hot-blooded people. I arrived in Havana expecting to see the streets lined with men in white vests leaning against ’59 Chevies, whistling at girls in colourful cotton skirts who know how to make their hips swing in three different directions at the same time.
It wasn’t like that. People in Havana don’t spend their days having rum parties on wrought-iron balconies or dancing to salsa music without underwear. They spend their days working if they have jobs and looking disgruntled if they don’t, much like anywhere. I didn’t catch a single come-hither look or sidelong glance.
“You don’t have to look so disappointed about it,” snapped my girlfriend.
That was the other problem: it was 73 hours since we’d left home, and for 71 of them we’d been fighting. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I’d done right during the other two hours. Maybe it was just a fluke.
We hired a car to drive to Santiago da Cuba. After hours of yelling at each other and trying to find a radio station, any radio station, even one that just played Fidel Castro’s greatest speeches over and over, I turned off the highway and drove down the worst dirt road in the world. It was a dirt road so bad that dirt roads on holiday from Africa would refuse to drive down it for fear of breaking themselves, but at the end of it was the Bay of Pigs.
The Bay of Pigs is where the American invasion of Cuba went wrong in 1961: several hundred soldiers came wading ashore expecting girls in colourful cotton skirts and found the Cuban army instead. But it’s one of the most beautiful beaches on Earth. The sand is white and soft as sieved flour, the sea is shallow and flat and as blue as a Smurf. There was no one around. I swear to you: when I went in, there was no one around.
I thought how nice it would be to take my trunks off, how free and wild and sort of sexy. So I did. I floated on my back and felt the warm Caribbean cup and soothe me in ways and places that made me very grateful. Yes! This was the Cuba I’d come to find!
I blame my girlfriend for what happened next. She was sulking on the shore, and I feel she could have warned me that truckloads of schoolkids and pensioners were arriving. By the time I looked up a whole village was there. I even saw a priest.
That’s when I discovered that my trunks, which had been floating beside me, no longer were. I still don’t know if they were taken by a shark or if to this day they are riding some rogue current toward Trinidad and Tobago. Then I saw the policemen.
They waved me in to check my papers, a favourite hobby of Cuban policemen. I tried to signal that I’d rather not, in front of all these people. The children, senors. Think of the children.
But the more I refused, the more insistent they became. Who is this Yanqui spy defying our authority? Come out, Yanqui! But I couldn’t come out. I just couldn’t. Not until they cocked their rifles and started yelling.
Have you ever walked slowly from the sea, naked with your hands above your head while an innocent village watches as though you’re the entertainment at a children’s birthday party? As my belly emerged above the waterline, I thought, “I should do pilates or something”.
As I kept walking, I thought, “I’m glad this water’s warm.”
I stepped out of the water, and that’s when all the children started screaming.
This is what I learnt from being arrested in Cuba: no matter what you expect from a place, all it is is what it is. And all you can bring to it is you, and if you’re wise you’ll keep it covered up.
TRAVEL PLANNING: Emerging Routes: 14 Unsung destinations and why you need to visit
*Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and aspirant retiree.