CUBA DAY ONE:

Family and friends departed under power from Key West around 5 pm Thursday to sail to Cuba. We anticipated it might take us 18 hours so we planned to sail all night and arrive in Veradero mid-morning.  We motored beyond the reef and felt the wind pick up and made the easy decision to raise the sails.  Talk about perfect sailing conditions. Winds were out of east at 12-15 knots.  No white caps and a full moon. Pam Morris’ mad sail trim skills got us averaging 7.5 knots. As night fell the wind kicked up a bit more. If we kept this speed up, we’d arrive in the middle of the night. We reefed the main and still our speed was 6 plus knots.  I left the helm at 8 pm and found a spot to nap mid ship that worked with the substantial heeling that was taking place.   My next watch was 2 am.  The boat movement was pleasant and after a few chapters of the first book of the Game of Thrones series I was nodding off.   I awoke at 1 am and made my way to the cockpit.  The moon was full and a rusty glow below the moon we all agreed had to be Mars. I strapped into the harness and life jacket, tethered myself to the boat and began the tedious scanning of the horizon looking for cruise ships and other large transport vessels that it is imperative to avoid.  I have a system called AIS that shows boats in my vicinity as grey triangles on my chart plotter.  The wind had kicked up even more so we reefed the jib sheet in to once again slow down the boat.  I was much happier and the boat heeled much less at a 5 knot speed.  Whoever invented auto pilot is considered a MVP in boating circles. Punch a button, let go of the helm, find a comfy place to sit and keep scanning. The only lights allowed on a boat at night are red.  That allows you to see but keeps your eyes adjusted to the low light conditions. I kept thinking I could see the lights emanating from the shore of Cuba but it was my eyes playing tricks on me.   Nancy relieved my watch at around 4 am.  We took a moment to celebrate the fulfillment of a dream we both shared to someday sail to Cuba.   As we had planned, the dawn was soon followed by sights of the Cuban coast.  We charted a waypoint near the mouth of the channel leading into the Hicacos Peninsula, more commonly known as Veradero -Cuba’s most renowned and popular beach destination for foreign tourists.  And only foreign tourists – there is a guarded gate at the entrance to Veradero to keep out everyone but the workers at the hotels, restaurants, and shops.  Foreign investors partner with the Cuban government to build hotels, condos, etc. but retain a 51% ownership – or so that’s what we hear.  Using our VHF, we reached out for the dock master of the Gaviota (means seagull) Marina.  No response.  We kept the boat between green and red markers and encountered a number of small fishing boats. The Cuban fishermen waived back and seemed to relish having their pictures taken.  As we entered the final channel leading to the marina, a Cuban in broken English hailed “the sailboat”.  Pam replied identifying us as The Lions Paw. We were directed to pull up alongside a long pier. What immediately struck us was the hundreds of empty slips. A slight mocha skinned man with a toothy grin greeted us and began to tell us what to expect going forward.  Nancy’s months of Spanish classes at the community college began to reveal worth.  Between his broken English and her improving Spanish we learned to expect to see a doctor to inquire about our health, a customs and immigration officer to check our passport, a veterinarian to make sure we weren’t housing animals and to see what meat was in our freezer (go figure that multi-tasking pairing) and a man curious about any vegetables on board.  All were very friendly, loved helping Nancy practice her Spanish, and gleefully accepted our offer of a Pepsi cola.  When all ze papers were exchanged and signed we were led to our dockside home.   (Back to the middle of the night. Nancy rose from an uneasy sleep to find me and Pam in the cockpit.  “I can’t get rid of this nagging thought that I never saw anyone packing the power cords”  (used to give power and most importantly AC to the boat when docked).   Pam and I disconnected the Paw from the dock and we just had brain farts – no other explanation. No cords. We plead our plight to the dock master – Jose’ – and he was able to round up a 30 amp cord.  At least we’d have AC and our generator (that Nancy had spent hours before our departure making sure would be in top form) will keep our batteries charged.  A lapse for sure and another reason for creation of a check list next time but we are a lucky lot for sure.  The afternoon was for exploring and we found a beautiful beach with all the chairs and palm fronded shade structures you’d find along Miami Beach.  Nancy and Pam headed for the Hobie cats and charmed the muscular attendant into taking them for a wild ride along the coastline. At the end of the ride, names and emails were exchanged. Look us up if you ever get to Cayo Hueso we said.   After an afternoon in the sun, we ventured back to the boat, showered and nibbled on cheese crackers and sausage.  A few more pages of GOT and was soon fast asleep. Pamela shared the next day that she followed soon thereafter.  Our night owl, Nancy shared the next morning she had settled in a spot on the transom to meditate and on the day.  Her quiet reflection was disturbed when  a seemingly drunk  French Canadian shouted from the perch of his condo balcony: Que vent me manger les couilles?”     Which translates to:  Who wants to eat my balls?”   Nancy quickly put his vulgar butt in place and echoed back: Suce les TOI meme cochon!!!  Translation:  ” Suck them yourself pig”.   Nancy said the man spun on a dime and perhaps embarrassed quickly closed his blinds.

CUBA DAY TWO:

As planned, we left the ship mid-morning, loaded up towels and headed north to the beach. How often do you ever say the phrase “north to the beach.”   The muscular Hobie cat attendant had sold us a trip to the reef to see mucho fish.  A 20 minute Hobie sail later, we anchored on the reef (considered a cardinal sin in Key West because of the damage it can make to the reef). We were among about eight other Hobie cats. Our guide, Abel, looked much younger than his 42 years. He used to serve in Cuban Coast guard and the father of three much preferred his current gig.  He works for a company that worked for the government. He was paid a salary but made more if he sold more trips – a Capitalistic twist on Cuban communism perhaps.  They used the same tricks the Fury boats of Key West use – toss some bread in the water and the yellow fish come a running.  The reef was not the colorful display we had hoped for.   The reef at Western Sambo is ten times better.   Perhaps it wasn’t a reef at all – just a place where the fish who like bread hangout.  When we returned from swimming around, Abel had a surprise for us. While we were swimming, he had dipped a line and hook over the side of the boat and caught three fat yellowtail snappers for our dinner.  The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the beach and tossing a football in the surf.  I tackled a few more pages of GOT under a shady spot (still managed to get a little sunburn) and Pam volunteered to get the fish back to The Lions Paw for refrigeration. From the beach back to the boat you meander among we guess five different mostly all-inclusive hotels. There is a promenade of shops with mostly European labels, a grocery store and even a bowling Alley.  After a fantastic dinner of fresh fish prepared by Chef Pam, we spotted and walked over to a show in progress showcasing Cuban song and dance – a fitting end to our day in Veradero.

CUBA DAY THREE:

I’m starting to feel like one of those tourists who reach Miami and think they are almost to Key West.   “No friend”, I often tell my customers,  “you’ve got another three hour drive.”  Our next port of call was intended to be Havana.  Pam got out the charts and chart plotting tools and confirmed it.   Pam knew.  Nancy knew. How did I miss that in Veraderos we are almost as close to Key West as we are to Havana. Ay ya ya.  Could be an 18 hour sail … night watches, etc.  yikes.  This awareness caused me to ask our group to reconsider our plan to sail into Havana.   Perhaps rent a car and venture inland and over to Habana?  But that’s day five – back to day three.  We learn we can pay five Cuban dollars each and get a hop on hop off bus to takes first to the town center of Veraderos where we can hop on another bus to take us further west to Matanzas, capital of the province of the same name.   So we gather our backpacks, slather on sunscreen and head to the bus stop.  We are assured that our bus will take us Veraderos. It’s later I get another reminder that everything a Cuban person related to tourism says  should be taken with some suspicion (more on that later when I share The Tale of the  the Horse Drawn Taxi)  Sure you’ll get to Veraderos BUT this bus stops at 43 places along the route. Soooo an hour or so later we pull into Veraderos.  We are not complaining – it was an interesting ride.  We met other tourists – mostly Canadian – and sightings included some faded hotels, a camel, and a young extremely overweight man so drunk his two laughing friends could not keep him standing.  Once we (finally) arrived in Veraderos, we set off in search of the Matanzas bus which is of course only a “block” away. Turn left up there the bus host tells us. I say in my head. Yeah…right.  We could not find this bus connection and finally decide to stay and explore Versderos. Surely it’s not all tourist trap hovels offering Cuban baubles and bags similar to what you find in the markets of Nassau.  Yep. That’s about it. We were getting hungry on our walk (another caliente day) and soon encountered a nice looking man holding a menu in his hand and urging us to come to his home and have lunch in his Paladare.   In 2011, Raul Castro introduced economic reforms allowing Cubans to turn their homes into restaurants. The guidebooks promise “simple dishes that are comparatively cheap”. The menu man told us today’s fare was a $15 dollar two lobster tailed meal.  We told him we’d consider coming back later.  We continued strolling down the street stepping into shops that piqued our interest.  We found a money exchange to change dollars for CUCs (Cuban dollars) Flush with cash, hot, tired and hungry we were easy prey for Johan, his antique cart and thin but spirited horse.  “Señoras .. Let me take you on tour of the city … only $10 CUCs. ” A wisened Nancy said. ‘In total?  all three?”  “See, see” he said, pointing to a price chart on his cart.  Awesome!  As the horse clop clopped down the narrow streets we appreciated the breeze and got a better look Cuban homes and shops. Cuba is a place where time, home improvement, and routine maintenance seemed to stop the day Castro took over in 1959.  Sure the Soviet Union propped up the economy for several decades but in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, that support dried up.  The time between then and the late 90s is referred to in Cuban history books as The Perido Especial (special period).  Tourism for anyone but Americans offered hope for new money into the country.  But that money went to offer free education and healthcare and little else. But back to the trip. We passed a school with the silhouette of Jose Marti’ and his often referenced quote “children are the hope of the future ” at the conclusion of the half hour trip, we presented our ten  CUCs and Johan asked for more. Ten dollars each he says.  We haggled a bit before we threw up our hands. We have so much, so blessed, we were going to pay the man and know that the money (or whatever share the Cuban government allowed him to keep) meant more to him than us. It was a slow and comfortable tour of the town and worth the investment we eventually paid.  We were ready for our $15 lobster meal and eventually found our way back to the menu man who escorted us to the Paladare and we were seated in an air conditioned small room.  We asked for a place to wash our hands and were directed to a bathroom – the personal bath of the owner as evidenced by the toothbrushes and deodorant placed around the sink.  We paced our orders and moments later were told: do sorry, all the lobsters have been sold.  Ay ya ya.  We settled for garlic shrimp and once more learned the hard way.   Not sure if it was a ruse – (there were others in the restaurant eating lobster) or just our luck that lobsters were indeed all gone.  Lunch was so so.  Cuban culinary cuisine is an oxymoron.  With full bellies, we searched for one of the 43 bus stops to bring us back to Gaviota Marina and our boat at the far end of the peninsula.  Along the way my eye was drawn to a bright modern abstract of the face of the Mona Lisa. I sent Nancy, our team’s top street negotiator, to bargain a price for the art and came away with a beautiful canvas of original art.  After a restful afternoon, we ventured out to the bowling alley and played a round or two of pool.  On the walk home we joined in the Melia Marina Hotels 70s party with singers and a full band.  Professional Dancers were also in mix to get everyone out on the dance floor.  The Dirty Dancing song “time of my life” ended with Nancy being pulled into the air by an extremely slim but remarkably strong dancer – like Patrick Swayzee lifted Jennifer Grey.  Oh, what a day and night.

CUBA DAY FOUR:

Day four was a beach day for Nancy and Pam and some alone time for me – this borderline introvert was exhausted by the stimulation of the past few days and needed to recover.  A bit of boat straightening followed straighten more adventures of Tyrion and Jon Snow,  and a trip to the marina showers filled my morning.  No grand adventure to report on so perhaps I could share what being and Cuba has revealed about the things I take for granted as a citizen of the United States. At the top of the list is:

1: FRESH VEGETABLES. I pulled out of our small freezer some pork chops thinking I’d make us a nice dinner of pork chops and mashed potatoes and needed something green to balance out the meal.  The Gaviota Marina boasts they have a fresh vegetable and fruit market and a grocery market so mid-afternoon I set out in search of something green. I went to the market and found lots of cured meat, seafood, cans of tomato products but no fresh veggies. The best I could come with was canned green beans. Perhaps all the veggies are at the fruit and veggie stand.  Not so. Nothing green – one and only one squash gourd, a dozen or so melons and a giant papaya.  I plopped down 3 CUCs for the papaya and headed back to the boat. You know, I never saw many vegetables on menus in Vardero.  My so so shrimp dinner came with a stack of shredded cabbage and carrots and a thin slice of a yellow tomato – slim pickings.  In America we have farmers markets, groceries flush with vegetables. We are a great nation and – sure we have our challenges – but nothing the leading Republican contender says will make me believe any differently.

2: FREEDOM TO COME AND GO AS YOU PLEASE:  for us to sail away from the marina and anchor for the night offshore, we need special permission from the customs and border patrol.  Anchor anywhere between here and Havana and risk the coast guard boarding and perhaps seizing your vessel.  No such limits in American waters.   Set an anchor off the Florida Keys and your only dangers are high winds or a slipping anchor.  We have plan tomorrow to sail over to the only out islands we are allowed to visit so Nancy made a request for permission and we were told the customs officials would be at our boat at 8 am Tuesday morning.

3:  TELEPHONES: I worry about being so out of touch.  ATT needs cell service in Cuba and I hope someones working on this. Just concerned if something happened to anyone receiving this missive I’m so very out of pocket.

So you know what I’ve missed.  Here’s what I haven’t missed – news of the presidential horserace.

CUBA DAY FIVE:

As promised, the customs officers rapped on the side of our boat around 8 am to give us the papers we needed to cruise and anchor for the night to the nearby island of Cayo Blanca.  We checked our charts, plotted a course, and were soon underway.  An hour or so later we spotted a well developed beach spot with lounge chairs, shade structures, what appeared to be a gift shop and one lone worker raking the sargasso grass from the beach area.  So this is apparently the place where the giant catamarans filled with tourists come for the day.  We searched for a place to anchor just off the beach.  It wasn’t long before the cattle call catamarans (as the locals refer to them in Key West) appeared. There were at least six and one by one they beached themselves in an area off to the side of the main beach.  Soon, hordes of people filled the once empty beach.  We decided to snorkel over and pretend we were just a part of the crowd. We found some shady lounge areas and before I could open GOT, we were greeted by three men who were dressed as chefs. You can’t stay here, they said, it’s just for guests and you have no wristbands. Our beach, they said, was around the bend. We did not want to cause any trouble so we headed back to the boat.  The wind was a pleasant 10 knots so we decided to sail out into the ocean and enjoy the beautiful day. We settled into a nice 6-knot speed with the wind coming over our side – called a beam reach and the most comfortable point of sail. We were able to spot the beach we visited first.  It was mid to late afternoon when we began looking for a place to settle in for the night. After exploring a number of sites, we returned to our first anchorage on the lee side of the island, which offered the best protection from the wind.  All the catamarans were loaded and taking the tourists back to the comfort of their resorts.  When the sea of boats and people had cleared we spotted a dock.  “Why don’t we just sidle up to this dock, explore the beach and perhaps even stay tied to the dock for maximum safety.  As we approached the dock a couple of shirtless men waved to us. At first we thought they were turning us away but we soon realized they were welcoming us.  Nancy spoke to them and translated for Pam and me. We can stay here for a few hours but would need to anchor off shore for the night.  We gathered our sunscreen and towels and hit the beach – we had it ALL to ourselves.  Some time ago I purchased a GoPro camera to use for underwater filming. Nancy has become quite the expert at using it to chronicle our trip.  She will gather the go pro stick, turn on the power and joyfully begin describing where we are and what we are doing. A future in travel documentaries that girl has for sure.  While documenting the island, she found a number of statues and monuments to martyrs in Cuban history.  We plan to do more research on this part of Cuban history when we have time and Internet access. While enjoying the beautiful view and the approaching golden hour before sunset, one of the men – turns out there were five or six who lived on the island – walked up to us and gave us a plate of the sweet pineapple slices.  Gracias mi amour … Muchos gracias.  Before we departed Key West, Nancy and I had hit the dollar store to load up on soap, lotions, dolls, elastic hair ties, and sparklers – something to offer as gifts along our journey. We gathered up what we thought the men might like and gave our gifts.  All were well received with huge smiles. An hour or so later we saw a large storm cloud on the horizon. We needed to return to the boat and get anchored before the storm arrived. All the men followed us to the dock to assist our getaway.  One of the men had a large watermelon balanced on his shoulder – another generous gesture. But before we could leave, a huge wind surfaced and pushed us strongly into the dock making it a struggle to leave the dock. Nancy asked if we could please stay the night if we promised to leave soon after dawn. I think the men were truly torn between helping three women out of a jam and obeying a rule about nobody staying at the dock.  The boss of the group a muscular well-groomed man who appeared to be in his late 20s – relented and we promised to leave at first light.  I can’t say enough about how Nancy has charmed the people she meets – complimenting them for their kindness and beautiful.  The Cuban people as a group are beautifully featured.  I know our ability to stay safely moored to the dock had a lot to do with Nancy’s vivacious personality and earnest attempts to connect to them in their own language.  It was a nasty storm. If we had not opted to move our anchorage to the dock and the men agreed to let us stay, we could have had a very rough time staying anchored. We could have easily been pushed into the mangroves and grounded the boat. We counted our blessings and gave heaven thanks. Later that evening, when the storm had cleared, a couple of guys returned to the dock for fishing.  No expensive poles – just twine and a hook. Nancy had brought some bait from home to do some fishing but decided to offer it to the guys instead. They were delighted to have small shrimp and quickly took advantage of the bait upgrade catching a nice sized fish.  Excitedly, one of the men scampered over to us and and offered it for our dinner.  We thanked them for the offer but said they should keep it.  Pam and I retired to our bunks and books and Nancy explored the night sky. There was a late moon rising – a perfect night for star gazing. She soon pulled me out of my book and pointed to Mars, Venus, Ataris, and Saturn. So many stars. No light pollution interfering with our view.  It turned out to be a quiet night.   As the morning light filled the boat, I got out of my bed and began prepping the boat for departure.  We wanted to keep our promise to leave near dawn. I was soon joined by Pam.  While in the cockpit turning on the electronics, I looked over at the hut where the men lived and saw a red shirted man walking toward the dock carrying a tray.  As he came closer I could see he was carrying three plastic cups filled with a dark liquid. He approached the boat and offered them to me.  Buche!!!  Hot, dark, sweet Cuban coffee.!!!   What a wonderful way to begin the day.

CUBA DAY SIX:

After our delicious Buche from the kind men at Cayo Blanca, we decided to extend our morning with a sail into the Bahia de Cardenas (bay of Cardenas) The bay reminded Pam of the Chesapeake Bay – big enough and sufficient depth to aim the boat wherever we pleased.  We turned the boat around just shy of the port of the city of Cardenas. We didn’t have “permission” (see day four) to enter the area and we were perhaps going overboard in following the rules so as to give no one any reason to flag The Lions Paw as troublemakers. Cardenas is famous for two things:  it’s the first city where a statue of  Christopher Columbus was erected (in 1862) and the birthplace and home of Elian Gonzalez – the five year old boy whose perilous attempt to escape Cuba in a boat  in 1999 caused an international incident,   Elian’s mother died on the small boat escape but Elian lived. His Miami family wanted him to remain in America but Bill Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno said he must be returned to his father in Cardenas. The move turned the anti- Castro forces in Miami against the Democratic Party which had to be a factor in Al Gore’s nail biting loss in Florida and the election of GW Bush to the White House. The rest, as they say, is history. But for Elian, it could be said no war in Iraq, no John Roberts as Supreme Court justice, and yes to progress on environmental issues, Ay ya ya.  But back to the trip. We returned to our dockside Gaviota home and spent the day pondering and planning a trip by rented car to some destinations inward – perhaps Ceinfuegos and Trinidad on the southern coast. Our interpreter (and hands down best negotiator) Nancy set off toward the car rental shop on the grounds of the marina. Understand at this point we are really watching our money. US credit cards are not allowed in Cuba. Please add the convenience of credit card use and ATMs as something I take for granted.  We each contributed $1,500 to the trip. We filled the boat with gas.  Fully aware of the poor food options we would face in Cuba, we well provisioned the boat before we left Key West. The first day in port, we asked the harbor master what our bill would be for a full 12 days in port and set aside $1,200 to pay for the marina, our $3 health cards for me and Pam (as a Canadian, Nancy was covered via a pact between Cuba and Canada), and other entrance/exit/marina fees.   We were eating mostly on the boat and watching our dollars so we were confidant we could afford to rent a car, spend the night in one of the many casa particulars (spare rooms rented by Cuban families) and enjoy an evening out for dinner. Nancy found us a car for two days with unlimited mileage – one hiccup, we would need to leave a $200 deposit.  We counted our money again and agreed we would still have enough for emergencies.

Now might be a good time to introduce Rick and Candace Thiele, an American couple cruising on their 38 foot Caliber sailboat named “Wings” and docked nearby.   Their kindness surfaced the first day we arrived helping us tie up to the dock and sharing insights they acquired since their arrival a few days past. I am so grateful for their kindness. It helps to have friends in new and strange places to give invaluable guidance.

A few days prior, hey had rented a car in Veradero, drove to Cienfuegos and found a casa particular that was clean and safe. They advised/warned us that we would encounter many Cubans who seem to make their way in this world by looking for tourists who may need directions etc. They didn’t think any harm would come if we welcomed them into our car to find things. They, in fact, met a man in Cienfuegos who insisted he recognized them from the car rental place and was there to assist them. Whether that was true or just an introductory white lie didn’t matter. The Cuban guide was very helpful in Cienfuegos and knew someone who had spare rooms for them.  So with guidebooks, a rental agreement, and the address of the Thieles’ Zwrecommended casa particular in hand, we decided that the next two days would be devoted to a journey into the heart of Cuba.   We have begun watching the weather. For two Cuban pesos we are able to buy an hours worth of time on the Internet wifi available in the Melia Marina Hotel. This is how I have sent these emails. The weather is looking good for a Sunday or Monday departure from Cuba to Key West.  The afternoon was for reading and wandering.

Later that evening, the all-inclusive hotel we were fortunate enough to be near had planned another night of entertainment of guitar, bongo, and other traditional Cuban band instruments to play and sing for us.  Another great day

CUBA DAY 7 … PART ONE:

Packing for an overnight trip in Cuba (for us) went beyond just stuffing a change of clothes in a backpack. We packed a cooler with ice and our favorite canned beverages, cheese, crackers, apples and sandwiches. There are no fast food shops in Cuba. Some road side stands sell some fruits and vegetables but you can’t count on anything. Ice is in extremely short supply. (More on that when I share “The Tale of the Cienfuego Ice Speakeasy”. We added towels and our bag of treats for the kids to our pile of stuff and began searching for Francisco.

Francisco is a tall muscular man who works for the marina and is always eager to assist us.  Nancy tracked him down and soon he was there with his electric cart to haul all our belongings to the rental car agency.  I agreed to be the principle driver and person responsible for the cars paperwork, etc. I’m a much more happy car occupant when I’m in the drivers seat – Nancy and Pam make allowances for this control freak side of me and just let me do it. I was already a bit nervous when Rick and Candace had shared that driving in Cuba was a wild ride. Pam agreed to be the navigator and Nancy was in the back seat where she could nimbly supply the front seat driving team with beverages and other road trip essentials. The Peugeot rental car assigned to us had seen better days. As in the states, the agency makes note of the dents and scrapes on the rental car so they can hold the renter accountable for any additional damage to the car. The list of dents and scrapes on our Peugeot filled the page. Ay ya ya! I balked at the key which was missing parts and was held together with tape. But when the car refused to start, I said I’m not taking this car.  Why don’t you rent us the red car over there we asked.  The man in charge said we have have no more cars to rent under the terms Nancy had negotiated. Only one car – our sad Peugeot – had unlimited miles and could be rented for just two days instead of the standard three day minimum.  Without saying more, he pulled a battery from another car and installed it in our car. I asked: what about the reason why this battery went dead to begin with?  There are no AAA’s in Cuba. We were given several phone numbers to call in case of an emergency but our US phones don’t work here and most people in Cuba don’t have phones for us to borrow. We would have been truly out of luck if the car quit on us somewhere. He tried the ignition with the new battery … Nothing. I was relieved. We negotiated for another car insisting on unlimited miles but agreeing to rent the car for three days.  We loaded up the car and confidently set off on our journey. I was curious to see the Museo a la Battalla de Ideas – a museum in Cardenas dedicated to the Elian Gonzalez incident. I remember thinking at the time that Janet Reno had it right – a boy should grow up with his father.  After visiting Cardenas and seeing the extreme poverty and crumbling infrastructure I wondered if Elian would have been given a better life remaining with his relatives in Miami. Imagine you are in the car with us driving down a paved but potholed road. Up ahead are two horse drawn carts. One was going in our same direction, the other coming towards us. Also along the highway were an assortment of bicyclists, motorcycles and people waking along the road. This was not some minor road but a major highway on the map we were given by the rental company. We saw more coche de caballos (horse draw carts) than cars on the road. Every few miles you’d come upon a gathering of people standing on the side of the road. They were waiting on a bus to transport them where they needed to go. And when I use the word bus, it’s not what you might imagine. It’s more a big truck with a long bed with wooden benches. People – young, old, pregnant, children – would somehow raise themselves into the bed of the truck and the bus would be on its way. I was driving and being ever so careful to safely pass the slower moving vehicles that dominated the highway.  Once in Cardenas, the signs directed us to turn many times to continue our route south. I gave up finding the Museo.  It’s so very hard to communicate the housing conditions. A photo here would help.  Crumbling concrete block, rusty wrought iron, colorful but fading paint was the norm. Occasionally, some Spanish Colonial architectural features would be seen – mostly in the old town squares.  It was sad to see such beautiful historical buildings so poorly maintained. The road to and through Cardenas was a “red” road on the map. Another red road would take us to Colon but we had to get through San Miguel de Los Banos, Jovellanos, and Perico. Progress was slow because of all the slower moving traffic. We began comparing and admiring the resourcefulness of the Cuban people. Every coche de caballos was rigged differently. Some had thin tires you’d associate with an Amish buggy, others were configured to use car tires. Some had room for just the driver and a load of straw; others had room for three or four passengers   What they all shared in common was a rib cage revealing horse hard at work getting his owner and his cargo from point A to point B. Somewhere around Perico the road forked and it soon became evident that we took the wrong fork. A man in a red t-shirt and jeans flagged us down. We stopped and rolled down our window.  He spoke English and said it was his job to help lost drivers find their way back to the right road. He reached into his back pocket and showed me a tattered worn and government tourist worker identification card: “You see, I’m with government I’m not in the mafia.”  Why the heck he put the words MAFIA in our head who knows.  He began telling us the best way to Colon. I may be paraphrasing but I’m not not exaggerating what he said:  “You turn around and go two kilometers and turn left and then you go four kilometers and turn right and then you go 15 kilometers and take the new road that’s much better but not on the map and the you turn left.” He talked and talked and we became more confused. It was then he said. “I could come with you and show you the way”. Ahhhh there was perhaps a reason behind his complicated directions of what appeared to be a straight line on our map. He wanted to accompany us and perhaps we would leave a few pesos with him for his kindness. Remembering what Candace and Rick advised, we said. muchos gracious mi amigo, but we got this – even though we didn’t.  We made it to Colon and that’s where we intersected with a road that was a wider and yellow line on our map. We began referring to it as the yellow brick road to Cienfuegos. The path offered just as many horse drawn carriages but fewer potholes. We arrived in Cienfuegos around 2 pm.  You’ll have to wait for Part B of Day 7.

CUBA DAY 7 …PART TWO

Cienfuegos is southwest of Veraderos on the Southern coast of Cuba and the Caribbean Sea. It is the largest city we’d visited and credited with the birthplace of the cha cha cha dance and rhythms. It’s architecture and city structure reminded me a lot of Havana.  We decided it would be wise to get where we would be spending the night settled before we set off exploring the town. Rick and Candace had given us an address and the numbered road system made it relatively easy to find where the couple had stayed a few nights previous. Nancy found the homeowner a learned she had nothing to offer us.  She did have a friend who might have something available. She climbed into our car and led us to a dark green home a couple of blocks down the street. The owner had a room with two beds, a wall unit AC and our own private bath. The cost? Thirty Cuban pesos and 5 more if we wanted breakfast the next morning. We m and were very pleased. The room was simple but clean. We even had a separate entrance so we could stay out later without fearing we would disturb the owner. There was a gated area we could park our car giving us one more reason to thank heaven for guiding our path. I was exhausted from the pressure of the drive so I settled in for an afternoon siesta. Pam and Nancy were eager to explore the area. We had spotted a marina nearby and Rick and Candace told us not to miss a historic home Palacios de Ville where the road ended nearby. The neo Moorish palace was a sugar barons home in 1917. Batista later turn it over to the mafia to operate as a casino.  The girls returned a few hours later with stories of all the places them had seen and more importantly a group of young men in their twenties who were eager to tell them about the neighborhood nightlife.  They invited us to meet them later at “the discotheque.” And Nancy promised they would return for some salsa dancing.   Ay ya ya. Mi amigos.  What have you gotten us into now?  Showers were in order before we hit the town. Pam went first and it wasn’t long after that we heard her laughing – ” you guys aren’t going to believe this she shouted”.   What caught her attention was the way hot water was delivered to the shower. A cylinder shaped hot water heater no larger than a big tub of margarine was resting on top of the showerhead.  Electrical cords led from the cylinder to somewhere in the ceiling – a Cuban variation on instant on hot water perhaps? Electrical cords near bathrooms are something we’ve been told to avoid for fear of electrocution. Oh well. It worked and we were grateful for a hot shower. Since we had saved so much on the hotel, we splurged and caught a cab into town. We asked the friendly driver to take us to the the center of town. We were in search of the club where the pride of Cienfuegos, Benny More’ – the self-taught musician and singer once sung. Annually there is a festival held in his honor. We found the club but its doors were closed. A nearby shopkeeper said work was being done on the inside, a common reason for closure.  We continued our walk down Avenida 54 to Parque Marti, another of the many parks and squares named after Jose Marti, whose poetry and impassioned advocacy of Cuban independence from Spain has made home the most revered person in Cuban history.  My opinion there – don’t tell Fidel. He was exiled and spent some time in Key West where it is said he delivered a speech from the balcony of LaTeDa, a few steps away from were celebrated drag queens Randy Roberts and Christopher Peterson perform nightly.  In search of a bathroom, we were directed up a flight of stairs to a charming restaurant with large paintings of Benny More’ on the walls. There was a four-piece band playing traditional Cuban music crammed into the corner. We ordered our beverages and settled in to enjoy a long set of music. We asked him to play some songs associated with More’ and were once again celebrating our luck. The music was wonderful but the menu for dinner was so so. We tipped the band and continued on our way. Soon, our nostrils were filled with the smell of meat cooking on a grill. It was the best food smell we had encountered the entire trip.  We located the source – a restaurant with what appeared to be a rooftop-dining terrace. Dinner was kabobs filled with chicken, pork and beef. The cost? 18 pesos. The cherry on top was another live band for us to enjoy during our meal.    Best food and deal of the trip.  Taxis are plentiful in downtown Cienfuegos so it wasn’t long before we were headed back to Punta Gorda – the tip of the peninsular. The cab driver knew the location of the discotheque and dropped us off at the entrance. We were barely out of the cab when voices yelling “nancy!   Nancy…..we have been waiting for you’ the young men said.  Both were stylishly dressed and very expressive in their joy that we had arrived.  We would be fronting the one peso admission price for the, and buying a beer or two.  The club was open air and three large men guarded a wrought iron gate. A hostess led us to a table for five. It was then we could see that there was a stage and a show by the local dancing troupe was in progress. The show had young men and women in moden dress performing modern and Cuban dance routines. Most folks in attendance were stylishly dressed and could haven attending a disco club in Miami. We stayed until the conclusion of the show, danced a bit with the boys and then headed back to our shared bedroom. Oh what a day and night

CUBA DAY 8:

We decided the second day of our road trip would be to Trinidad, an ancient city whose retained cobble stoned streets and Colonial facades (well kept (by Cuban standards) made it a destination recommended by Cuban guidebooks.  It was a few kilometers further down the road but figured we could do and see all we needed to by mid-afternoon.  We needed to be on the road by 3 p.m. so as to be back in Veredero by nightfall.  I did not want to be driving with horses, buggies, bicyclists, and walkers on the roads at night.  Our casa particular host prepared a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh papaya and pineapple, a sliced salty cheese, and (here was the surprise) hotdogs.  Our dining table was white wrought iro with green patterned tablecloth to match the hunter green paint on the casas walls. Already, at 8:30 a.m, the warmth of the southern coast of Cuba was filling the back yard terrace.  We soon packed up the car and decided the first order of the day was covering the remaining soft drinks and water in our cooler with ice.  Surely there is an ice machine at the nearby marina.  We drove to the guarded and gated entrance.  There were perhaps a half dozen people hanging out there – who knows why.  We inquired about getting ice and all eyes turned to Edwardo.  We assumed he would lead us to the cooler but not so fast gentle readers.  We would need to go downtown for ice and it was way to complicated for him to tell us where, but he offered to get into the car with us and show us.  We accepted our fate and after a short trip into the central part of town, Edwardo led us a private home.  We stopped on the street, Edwardo got out of the car and began rapping on the front door and yelling for the people inside.  No one answered, so he jumped back in the car and led us on a new route up and down a number of streets and then stopped at another house, one side of which was all tin with a sliding door of similar material about one foot by two at eye height.  Ed wrapped on this door, and it wasn’t long before the sliding door opened and a woman greeted him.  The whole experience reminded me of a speakeasy – only the chosen few knew what lay behind this small sliding door.  There were no signs – something like: “Ice…$5 Pesos”  = nothing.  You just needed to know about the door or know Edwardo.  Success…we had ice.  Pam and Nancy had been searching everywhere there were shops for a pair of jean shorts we had often seen being warn by Cuban young people.  Patches, tears, pocket lining with matching cuffs created a one-of-a-kind pair of jeans and my friends were on a mission to find them.   I dropped them off in downtown Cienfuegos to shop while I drove Ed back to the marina.  I learned along the way that it was his job at the marina to provision all the dive and sailing excursion sailboats that departed from the marina with ice and food and that’s why he knew the sources of the precious commodity of ice.  I tipped him and thanked him for his kindness and returned to town to pick up Pam and Nancy.  No luck on the jeans front – they had concluded they were not sold in conventional stores but perhaps in homes of enterprising Cubans who sold them on the black market. That may be the only way to find them.  (more on that later) .   The drive to Trinidad provided a new landscape for us – rolling hills, fields of coffee beans, mango trees dripping with fruit, and more sugar cane fields in various levels of growth.  In the distance we could see the Guamuhaya mountains which rise about 3,000 feet above sea level.  The road to Trinidad hugged the coast line offering cliff top views of the Caribbean Sea.  Hitchhikers populated the road along with the horses and buggies we had come accustomed to seeing.  We felt so sorry for the folks seeking a ride and came very close to stopping and giving some women a lift and eventually did succumb later that afternoon on our way home.  We arrived in Trinidad and found it to be just as the guidebooks had said it would be.  But as with many towns recommended by tourist guidebooks, there were way too many tourist trap stores and street fair shops offering the same trinkets with Cuba emblazoned on them,  But, there were a few gems.   We always find ourselves in the most interesting places when we are in search of a bathroom or “banos.”  I spied a small coffee shop with a young man sharply dressed in black pin stripe pants, crisp white shirt, and a knee length black apron.  He reminded me of a scene just outside a Paris restaurant that I had photographed and promised myself I would one day garner sufficient skills to paint.  We MUST wander into this coffee shop.  We were welcomed into a cool space that couldn’t have been any larger than 15 X 15 and the decor was stunning in its sophistication, and eccentricity.  Two tables along one side were old singer sewing machine tables. The seating was efficient square leather stools. A typewriter rested on a table near the front door.  Old record albums by jazz era Cuban and American musicans, antique scraps of paper, and three dimensional vintage objects hung from the walls. The chrome front of an old Chevy car hung behind the bar opposite the front door.  An old rectangular bathtub occupied a corner of the room signaling that long ago the area once was perhaps a bathroom.  Every square inch of the restaurant was a work of abstract collage and a feast for my eyes.  We ordered three cafe con leches and Nancy practiced her Spanish with the charming young man in pin stripe pants.  The air conditioned space made for an enjoyable place to take our time with our coffees.  We were beginning to get hungry and asked the barista for the best place for lunch in the city. With a heavy accent, her replied:   “Best Gourmet.”  We said yes we were hoping for the city’s best place.  He said, yes, best gourmet and directed up several cobblestone paths in search of a restaurant that has blue and green paint and was named:  “Best Gourmet”.  It made me think of the restaurants in NYC’s China Town named: “Good Fish Food.” Well, Best Gourmet was Trinidad’s best attempt at a fancy restaurant, offering a terraced view of the gabled rooftops of Trinidad.  Mi Amigos ordered the special lobster dish of the day and I ordered the waiter recommended pork dish.  It was a more expensive meal but being from KeyWest we know how prices go up in a tourist town. All in all, it was a fine meal.  It was getting later in the day so we decided it would be prudent to get on the road home.  We opted to stay away from “red” roads on the map, preferring the “yellow brick roads”.  Just shy of Colon, Nancy spotted a woman who appeared to be in her early 30s carrying a heavy bag holding her hand out in search of a lift.  We decided to give her a ride.  She climbed into the back seat with Nancy and they began a conversation that I truly wished I had been able to follow from start to finish.  Turns out she was the administrator of an elementary school in Calimete, a small town up ahead in our journey.  She was returning from a weekend of work at a resort in Play Larga, a destination for diving in the Bahia de Cochinos – the Bay of Pigs History buffs will associate this infamous bay with the failed attempt by the Kennedy administration’s CIA to overthrow Castro in 1961.  She asked if we could pick up her son that was staying with a relative in a smaller town just ahead and were were delighted to meet Diego, whose high pitched, sweet voice filled our car with many questions and delighted in the ball that lit up on inside that we gave him.   We asked his mother what she would have done if we had not stopped to pick her up.  She said she would have “hoped, and hoped, and hoped, and hoped.” for a lift but if one never came, she would catch the “bus” that would eventually come along and who knows what time she would have made it home.  Before we dropped her off, she gave us her name and telephone number and said for us to reach out to her when and if we ever visited Playa Larga and she would return our kindness in whatever way possible.  This Playa is considered among the best places to schedule a diving trip into some of the most pristine and beautiful waters of Cuba. If I ever return to Cuba, it will be to visit this area – hopefully in a sailboat.  So perhaps, once again, heaven guided our path and helped us make a friend of a kind Cuban mother eager to connect culturally with Americans.   We dropped her off in Calemete and proceeded down the our yellow brick road path.  It took us a bit further east of Veraderos – there would be one switchback – but we knew from experience, it would be a safer and shorter way home.  Night fell as we entered the Veraderos peninsular. There were no low beams on the sad Peugeot but thankfully the high beams worked at full strength.  We were grateful to be home safe and sound.

CUBA DAY 9:

Seeing the cabaret show at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana had been on Pam’s bucket list for quite some time.  She found that the nearby hotel offered a day trip that included a tour of Havana and ended with dinner and the show at the Tropicana.  She decided to go and Nancy and I opted to spend the day at the boat.  We also wanted to settle our bill with the Marina and begin making plans for our trip home.  We had a few more hours use of our car and Nancy wanted to give one more try at finding the sporty jeans she and Pam had been lusting for after the entire trip.  We headed back up the peninsular to the Veraderos town central.   We managed to miss the first turn off and when we did eventually turn off, we found ourselves in the true back neighborhoods of the tourist town – the place where the locals lived.  Instead of tacky trinket shops, there were small stops offering, onions, garlic, papayas and other foods from gas stations and ration shops where Cubans bought much of what the government collected to sell.  The primary mode of transportation was coches de cabellos and bicycles.  Nancy was on high alert for any shops that might sell the previously described jeans shorts.  She decided to stop and ask a couple of young men who were handing out on their bicycles talking on the side of the road.   In perfect Spanish, Nancy asked them where she could buy the jeans that all the locals wear.  The young man said. “Me mama,” and motioned for us to follow him.

Thinking we were being led to a shop or something, we were surprised when the boy on the bicycle lead us into a neighborhood of mostly homes that were in disrepair or unfinished.  We had heard that homes in Cuba go back many generations.  When the young ones grow up and have no other home to go to, the family just builds another room on top of the house they own or add a room next to the structure.  The result is quite a hodgepodge of housing.  The boy turned into the courtyard of one of the houses.  Nancy and I parked the car and followed him inside.  We soon met his mother and he explained to her what we were looking for.  She said: Si, Si….and motioned for us to follow her into the house.  We passed the kitchen, which was basically an outdoor room, a couple of interior bedrooms, a bathroom and eventually found our way into a room that would traditionally be considered a dining room and living room.  This room, however, was lined with clothes.  The young man’s mother was a black market capitalist who was using her living area as a clothing shop for her community.  Nancy described what she was looking for and, of course, she had a number of choices for Nancy to choose from.  Nancy was jumping for joy and I reminded her that the price of the clothing was going up by the minute.  A price was settled on for three pair – two for Nancy and one for Pam.  Our mission for the day was accomplished.  We returned for a final afternoon at the beach.   Pam did not get back from her day long adventure into Havana until 3 a.m. – she really enjoyed the show and was so very glad she had gone.

CUBA: THE FINAL CHAPTER

Pam, our best passage planner, checked all her usual sources for weather information and suggested to depart Marina Gaviota at 4 a.m. Sunday in hopes we’d reach Key West before nightfall on Monday.  We made an appointment with Cuba Customs for our 4 a.m. departure and soon after we had our 3:45 a.m. cup of coffee, the customs agent rapped on the side of the boat requesting permission to board.  She went through the formalities of checking our passports and just before leaving asked if she could search the boat.  We said, of course, and she did a fairly thorough search opening closets and storage areas.  Since we weren’t hiding any Cubans seeking American asylum, we passed inspection and were soon off.   We had made a number of way point marks on our chart when we arrived in Cuba thinking we might need to depart in the dark and wouldn’t it be nice if we had them to help us safely get out of the channel.  They were indeed helpful and we were soon off.   The sea was calm and winds out of the east were never more than 10 knots the entire day.  Since we were facing a Gulfstream current off our port side pushing us west most of the day, we decided we must turn on the Yanmar diesel engine and the steady hum of that workhorse engine was with us all day.   We saw perhaps four boats – all large tankers heading somewhere.   Once I needed to alter my course to avoid a large tanker that my AIS information on my chart-plotter said I was destined to intersect if I kept up the same course.   It’s much easier for 44 foot sailboat to alter course than at 300 foot tanker so I gave the other boat the right of way.  About midway, we came upon a huge thundercloud and altered our course east for a bit to stay clear.  About 14 hours since we departed Cuba, we crossed over Western Sambo reef.   I called the Coast Guard and reported we had returned from Cuba.  The coast guard officer took down passport information and asked if I had the appropriate papers.  I replied that I did indeed and he said I needed to check in with Customs and then report to the offices at the airport within 24 hours.  Much easier to get to the U.S. via a boat – makes you think what a joke all the effort that goes into getting in and out of an airport.  Our trip to Cuba was a true experience.  Glad I went but very glad to be back in the good ole USA.

 

 

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