Impressions of Cuba? Wonderful, friendly people, badly run, large, lush, green, crumbling, bureaucratic, where to start?
You can study Cuba and try to prepare for a visit but nothing I’ve read comes close to the reality, you have to experience it for yourself. We were fortunate to be able to spend nearly two months there and get off the beaten track, to a large degree. Like a lot of yachts arriving from the north we initially made for Marina Hemingway, about 10 miles west of Havana. This allowed easy access to Cuba’s capital and we spent a few days poking around it. You are inevitably drawn to Old Havana, a crumbling shadow of former colonial glory. It is busy with tourists and locals hustling the tourists. Unlike some places we have visited the hustlers are easily dissuaded and a polite “no gracias” turns them away.
Most Cubans work for the government and in a population of nearly 10 million less than half a million are employed in the private sector. Most of these jobs have been born out of Raul Castro’s reformed and the trend seems set to continue. For the majority who work for the government the average monthly wage is the equivalent of $20 US per month. It is no wonder that poverty is evident at every turn, begging is commonplace and everyone is trying to earn something extra. This starts with the officials as you enter the country who ask for “gifts” i.e. cash, nothing huge five or ten dollars elicits effusive thanks. (I guess this problem doesn’t occur if you arrive by air). There are touts everywhere offering taxis, restaurants, tours and the like.
What does $20 get you? For a start it will get you 240 local pesos. A pineapple costs 10, a meal in a local restaurant about 70 or 80, you can’t live on $20 per month in Cuba, cheap as it might seem. It is no wonder that very well educated people drive taxis and run stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. After two months there I still couldn’t properly understand the way the economy works.
In preparation for our visit I had been studying Spanish and have achieved what I describe as “low functional”. I can make myself understood and if I get a slow enough reply I might be able to understand some of it. The problem is that Cubans speak extremely quickly and slur one word into the next and the precise word endings I have so painfully learnt are lost in a blur of sound. No matter, the people are extremely friendly and very patient with a gringo who is at least prepared to try and communicate in their language.
I need to have a short rant. As you will know there is an embargo in force that prevents US Companies doing business with Cuba. It doesn’t, by the way, prevent Americans from visiting Cuba, this is entirely possible and particularly so under Obama’s administration. It also doesn’t stop the US being Cuba’s biggest trading partner via the US Department of Agriculture and significant food exports to Cuba. However, what it does do is give a failed regime (i.e. Castro’s) an excuse for all that is wrong with Cuba. If the embargo was lifted tomorrow I don’t believe much would change quickly. Sure there would be an in-rush of US tourist dollars but until the Cuban government opens up and allows foreign investment in a significant way then nothing will change. Don’t miss understand me, Cuba has many positives, an almost 100% adult literacy rate, compare that with the US or Europe, an enviable, world class health care system, life expectancy rates higher than the US or Europe and a population that, at least on the surface, seems quite happy. On the downside it has a crumbling infrastructure and an obvious chronic lack of investment. Worst of all many of the people we spoke to feel that they have no opportunity to do anything or be anything different.
One of our first experiences with the way business is done in Cuba was buying charts (i.e. nautical maps). Now in most countries if you want to buy charts you simply go to a chandlers and if he hasn’t got what you require in stock he will order them and they’ll be available in a few days. Not in Cuba. First of all there is no shop in Havana or anywhere else as far as I know that sells charts. However, we knew they existed and eventually discovered that we had to go to the National Hydrographic Office to get them. In the UK this would mean a trip to Taunton, Somerset. Fortunately for us the Office is located just to the east of Havana on the other side of the harbour from the old city. A 20$ taxi ride, there and back, did the trick. Second problem, yes we can buy them but they don’t have them in stock. Wait for it – they print them to order! We wanted three chart books that together covered the coast from Marina Hemingway, west to Cabo San Antonio and then along the south coast most of the way to Santiago de Cuba. We ordered them, no deposit required and went back to pay for and collect them three days later. The cost? A staggering $400 US equivalent. Yes, they are excellent charts and had been fully updated (by hand) but as I explained to the director I would expect to pay around $300 for an equivalent set in the US.
On another occasion I had to renew our tourist visas, the one you get on entry is valid for a month which can be extended to two. To do this you have to buy stamps to the value of $25 per head. This is normally done at a bank and we were lucky to avoid this step by buying them direct from a Guarda Frontera official in Nuevo Guerona, probably illegally. You then have to go to the local immigration office and take your passports and proof of medical insurance. Long story short, we don’t have medical insurance but they were happy to accept our European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs) as proof of same. (Sorry to my non EU readers who don’t know what an EHIC is). There is then a form filling session, done by the immigration official asking questions. They have a hard time with my response to “Occupation” – “retired” this is an alien concept for anyone who is not infirm or less than about 70. You then go away for a few hours and on return are presented with your passport and the “prorroga” i.e. visa extension. It was a pain free if lengthy process. Problem was they made a mess of it.
A couple of weeks later we were checking out from Cienfuegos, you have to check in and check out of most ports with the local Guarda official. He came on board to do the paperwork and clear us onwards. You know when an official doesn’t like something as they slow down and re-read what has just offended them, not just once but two or three times. Apparently the expiration date of our “prorroga” was wrong. Instead of expiring on 2nd March it showed 2nd February, a mistake I hadn’t spotted when it was issued. There was no dispute that we had entered the country on 2nd January, got a visa extension on 31 January and that it should have been good until the 2nd March. The problem was that the date on the form said 2nd February so we weren’t going anywhere until it was sorted out. Now here is a basic problem with a centrally controlled country like Cuba – nobody is prepared to take responsibility and fix something they don’t have a procedure for. Another long story short – I had to go to the immigration office in Cienfuegos where I spent at least four hours (no exaggeration) trying to get the problem sorted. Each official I spoke to agreed that I’d paid the money for an extension but nobody knew how to fix the dates in our passports without us buying new prorrogas. At this point I had a carefully controlled hissy fit and shouted at them, not very loudly and in very poor Spanish. I was then asked to wait and our passports disappeared. TWO hours later they were returned to me with the problem fixed. How? Someone had taken a biro and altered the erroneous date from 2/2/14 to 2/3/14! Brilliant, something I could have done at nine o’clock that morning. Nevertheless an interesting experience and very telling of how the country operates.
We left Marina Hemingway in the company of some new Dutch friends, Hanneke and Pim of S/V Nelly Rose. Destination, Cienfuegos on the south coast where they planned to leave Nelly Rose and fly back to the Netherlands for a month. We planned to continue east and then head down to Jamaica, As anyone familiar with sailing in this part of the world knows the trade winds blow steadily from the east for most of the time. Heading west is a snap, heading east not so. We spent a lot of time running the engine and pounding to windward. Highlights along the way were Isla de la Juventud where we spent a few days and Cayo Campos, again a few days. Cayo Campos was a particular favourite. It is “populated” by staff from the countries Flora and Fauna department, akin, I think, to the UK Forestry Commission. Four men live on the island for 30 days and are then relived by another crew. Apart from feeding a troop of Korean monkeys it wasn’t clear what there responsibilities are. In a country with full “employment” not everyone is busy (as I heard later, “the government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work”). In case you are wondering why there are Korean monkeys on a remote Cuban Cay the official answer is “biological research”. I think this means vivisection although I’m not sure they still use them for that.
Popo and his crew invited us to lunch the first day we were anchored off their kingdom and the four of us went ashore not knowing what quite to expect. What we got was lobster cooked in a delicious sauce and an invitation to dinner. This is all at no cost although we did, of course, take presents, Rum was especially appreciated, white for preference as it doesn’t produce such a bad hangover. Later on dinner was a large fish (tuna family was all we could understand) cooked over an open fire, completely delicious! The following day Pim and I went lobster fishing with Popo and Xavier. The Cuban technique for catching lobster is very simple. They have a number of flat boards spread around the shallows off the island. These boards are about four feet square and held off the sandy bottom by poles about four inches or so in diameter. The nocturnal lobster shelter under these boards during the day. Catching one is simply a matter of lifting the board, hooking the lobster and flicking it into the boat (the boards are in about four feet of water. Simple? Not really, it takes great skill to hook the creature in its soft underbelly, they are lightning fast and as they shoot backwards propelled by the powerful tail the sand is kicked up and they disappear in a white cloud. We caught five or six and enjoyed them barbecued that night. By that time I’d had enough of lobster, they’d given me a bucket full (literally) the previous day.
A couple of days later we were in Cienfuegos. On arrival in Cuba our daughter, Rachel and her friend Matt had been with us. They had taken a trip from Havana across the island and had visited both Cienfuegos and Trinidad, about 100Km to the east. We did likewise and spent a night in Trinidad at a “casa particular”, the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. These are usually excellent places, good value at ,typically, $25 a night for a double room and a great way to meet Cubans at home. The trip cost $100 for a taxi to take us to Trinidad via El Nicho (lovely waterfalls up in the mountains) and leave us there returning the following day to take us back to Cienfuegos.
Pim and Hanneke having flown back to Europe we hooked up with our new best friends, Reg and Phoebe, Canadians, S/V Three Sheets. Once I’d sorted out the prorroga problem we left Cienfuegos in company with Three Sheets and cruised with them down an island chain known as the Jardines de la Reina. This is a lovely, largely uninhabited chain of cays about 120 Km long providing an excellent and less trodden cruising ground. Incidentally, fishing around Cuba is easy and even I managed a few including a decent size Yellow Fin tuna. That night we had a beach BBQ with Reg and Phoebe and enjoyed tuna kebabs.
All good things come to an end and towards the end of February we reluctantly turned south and headed for Jamaica. Reg and Phoebe continued east for Santiago and ultimately Portugal later this year.
For more pictures of Cuba and to continue the story click here.