Can we go to Cuba Mum?
Umm – After some googling – “no” was my initial reaction. Three weeks later and a lot of research we were heading to Puerto de Vita in the North East of Cuba for our biggest land based adventure so far. I have to thank Brent and Emma for wanting to go, as this ended up being a hugely eye opening and thought provoking experience.
Puerto Rico to Cuba – “wow” what a sail! 610 miles of downwind sailing, sun and calm seas. This was Brent’s first long passage and he was a bit apprehensive when we set out, but he loved it, we all did. In fact to date this has to be our favourite passage, enjoying gentle breezes and clear skies we sailed into the sunset and moonset every day, making night shifts a pleasure to get up for. It was a heavenly crossing and I think Brent, who was straight into taking on his solo shift, has become a convert to overnight sailing😊.
As we approached Puerto de Vita on the north east coast of Cuba, we called the marina on the radio and they were so helpful, coming out in their pilot boat to guide us to anchor off the marina until the officials were ready for us. An hour later waiting for us on the pontoon were three officials - the Doctor, Customs & Immigration Office and the Police.
Each Official stepped aboard and set up camp in the Saloon wading through a mountain of paper work. They could not have been nicer, (almost apologetic), and were thrilled when we offered them some chilled coke and biscuits and typed out lists of our equipment and medical supplies. Approximately 45 min later, after the sniffer dog had checked us out, they sealed all of our portable electronics in a box, gave us clear instructions on what we could and could not do, and then departed. Fernando our friendly police chaperone passed by us every day at the marina and we had our bags checked by him when we left and arrived back at the Marina.
We left the following day to backpack to Bayamo and Santiago. Oh my goodness – turning right out of the marina and we got and instant picture of rural life in Cuba - pitted dusty roads the main transport was horse and cart. The few cars there were seemed to be taxies and all pre 1957. The food shop was like pre 1950s with wooden shelves and a serving counter with old scales and an old fashioned till. The thing we noticed first was that there was nothing really on the shelves.
First we needed to get Pesos (the local currency). There are two kinds of currency in Cuba( CUP and CUC”s – CUCs roughly equate to a us$, and 25 CUPs+ 1 CUC). Owing the Marina 280 CUCs for visas and customs process we were provided with a taxi to the bank. This is when I found out that my cards don’t work in Cuba! Luckily Emma’s and Brent’s did. We then had to work out the buses - Tourists have to get Viazul busses, which you have to book a few days in advance. The locals use a mixture of very old trucks and very modern Chinese coaches.
As we ventured south on our “tourist bus” the roads look left over from the 1960, evidence of dual carriageways just left to decline now only occupied by 1950s cars, trucks and motorbikes and you find yourself held up by horse and carts. The countryside was turning from green to brown with a lack of rain, and we passed a lot of sugar cane, banana fields and many fields being farmed with Ox & carts and single ploughs. There were families dressed in modern cloths, complete with baseball caps, out for family outings on their horse and cart.
We loved Bayamo and started to relax into the local town. Ice cream and beer are the only thing we saw the locals having out. It was at an ice cream parlour where we handed over our 10 CUCs for three ice-creams (costing us 3CUCs) and they had to go to the bank to get change!.
The shelves in the local shops seemed to routinely have beer, rum, tomatoes, cucumber, bananas, papaya, garlic, onions, eggs. Outside that we grew to understand everyone gets food stamps for the monthly staples, a lot of things just were not available and when things like lightbulbs were due in you could tell something was arriving as long queues started to form. Capitalism was rife in this communist country as the main way to get things is bartering on the Black market..
On our trip we met some fabulous people. In Bayamo, Olga hosted us in her house and provided us with a lovely breakfast. A local band taught us some Cuban dancing which Brent and Emma perfected over the course or our trip. In Santiago, Carlos showed us to his home, talked to us about Cuban life and introduced us to his family. I watched four small children spend hours playing with an old bird cage helping each other in and out of it. You could see where the helpful, caring good nature of the people is nurtured. Michael, in his friends 1950s car, showed us the Revolution sites in Santiago, and we started to understand some of the history that has resulted in Cuba been what it I today.
Santiago was a bustling old city with old cars serving as taxies, old motorbikes and trucks churning out their leaded fuel fumes which stuck in your throat. Everywhere looked clean but you felt grubby – and it was really hot. We then flew to Havana, what a difference with its beautiful old Spanish buildings and more modern American buildings built between 1900 and 1957. Post 1957 any large buildings were taken from the rich and allocated to numerous families – giving everyone a home seems a great idea, however no one can afford to maintain these old buildings and they are just crumbling into disrepair.
A lot of things just didn’t work, they advertised diving – but the compressor was broke. In two weeks we never found a functioning toilet!– no lids, no flush, no loo paper, no soap and rarely a tap that worked. The best bit – you still had to pay to use them! Internet was only available in the main parks of a town and it was soooo slow. At the Marina we had one computer we could use in the office and that broke. To be fair they got it fixed in a few days. This is normal life in Cuba.
Emma and Brent took a 8 day tour and visited the numerous towns and villages enjoying the local bands and vibrant company of some lovely Canadians and very charismatic Americans.
I backpacked and had a huge experience staying in local houses, having to improving my Spanish, renting a bike to get around, trying to find something to eat other than rice, pork or chicken and listening to different folk as they impart their views on living in Cuba.
Smelling the horse drawn taxi ranks, seeing how well some folk had restored 1950s cars, and that leaded petrol – yuk. Learning about the fight for independence through Spanish colonialism, the American backed government from 1900 and then the revolution of 1957-59 which left Fidel Crastro
and Che Guevara worshiped across the country. The US trade sanctions have taken their toll, and since 1998 as the communist countries collapsed trade has become even more difficult. The people say when Fidel’s brother (Raul) who took over as Cubas leader failed to pay some importers for their goods, so companies stopped shipping to Cuba and things got really bad. Now a new president has been appointed and there is hope that things will get better. When Obama was in power there was much hope and things did improve for a while between the US and Cuba, but now with Mr Trump in the driving seat folks are giving up hope for a change.
We all came back to the boat just buzzing at our Cuban experience – why? because it was so different from anything any of us have ever experienced – fabulous people, living in a communist regime negotiating life through capitalistic actions. After two weeks we were Cuba-d out, so pleased we took time out to visit Cuba and all very grateful to get back to our sanctuary - SAORSA.
Time to clear out and set sail for the Bahamas….