Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sailing in Cuba

 I'm sure some of you have been expecting this blog for a while, so sorry for its delay. Though Cuba is many things, the land of super fast wifi connection it is not. You may snigger to hear that we are more than five weeks behind in our Radio 4 soap 'the Archers' but on a more serious note we don't really know what's happening in the world given that no independent news is available.  More on communication later...

We spent a month is Cuba.  Not nearly long enough to do it justice.  But certainly long enough to get a good taste of what it has to offer, and also dispel the concerns we had of visiting by boat.

 We arrived in Cienfuegos.  This was a great city that we both took an immediate liking to.   We were able to walk the 20 minutes into town or catch the bus that cost 1 peso national; about 3 pence or 4 cents and easily stock up with all that we needed cheaply at the agromercardo.   The city (large town) had a lovely relaxed and good humoured feel to it, it was relatively quiet and laid back.  

One thing that exemplifies this is the way you may sit in any bar or evening meeting place and whether you buy anything or not you are made to feel welcome.  People hang out in many places along the water edge where you can catch a breeze, you may buy a beer or a bottle of rum in most such places (always for the same price as any shop) or not, no-one's bothered.  If you have a bottle of rum and are sitting at a table it's perfectly acceptable to ask for a glass of ice, the same at an outside kiosk.  We took to joining this custom quickly.  Whatever you had with you to enjoy, no-one was bothered where it came from, the goal of the establishment was not to make money for itself but to provide a service.  

Having said that, due to Cuba's historic problems of 'the special period' where it found itself very suddenly low on trading partners and with a corresponding deficit in it's self sufficiency; there exists a dual economy in Cuba.  The hardship of the 'special period' necessitated extreme action on the part of the rulers, where they suddenly found a place for money making, in the form of tourism.  Tourism did help them out of the 'special period' and continues to support Cuba's economy in no small way.  

In order to make money from tourism and to be able to buy commodities abroad, Cuba invented a second currency.  The CUC is an arbitary currency which is pegged to the American dollar.  The Cuban National Peso remains as the currency for the normal Cuban; most wages are paid in NPs and basic supplies are bought in this.  Over the years the CUC has spread out from the tourist hotels and restaurants by the proliferation of 'dollar shops' where less essential and imported goods can be bought by Cubans and tourists alike.  As the exchange rate is 1 CUC (a dollar) to around 24 National Pesos the difference in prices for similar items can make the eyes water.  A meal in a local place may be around 7-10 Peso Nacionals whereas a CUC restaurant may charge about the same in dollars (CUCs).... that's 24 times the price for what appeared to often be equally mediocre or even less good food.  There are certain things such as transport that are dictated a foreigner must pay in CUCs a different fee although the local buses don't stick to this and many truck drivers offering lifts continue to be offended by an offer of money 'this is socialismo'.  The result is that you can do things super cheap in Cuba if you stick to the normal local stuff.  However, occasionally you'll run in to trouble when someone clocks your skin tone, accent or 'foreign' demeanor and decides to charge you a different price in a different currency, sometimes quite unpredictably.  It's difficult to argue when you've already eaten and sure, everyone knows you could afford it if you had to....  This creates an apartheid which we agree does the Revolutions' admirable goals no favours.          

There was very little traffic in Cienfuegos except a little on the outskirts; all the easier to enjoy some great architecture in varied condition; both splendour and dilapidation.

Our intended cruising ground was to be the Jardines de la Reina; eventually we managed to drag ourselves away from Cienfuegos and sailed to Cassilda. From there we trundled up to the town of Trinidad in one of the many old American cars that still populate the roads along with horse and cart and of course the ever popular push bike. 

 Established in the 16th Century Trinidad is an UNESCO world heritage site and as such the oldest parts remain cobbled and traffic free. Just a few blocks south of where the other tourists were photographing old colonial churches and mansions we were pottering amongst the streets of homes and soaking up the ambiance of a different way of living. Song birds in cages delineate almost instead of house names or numbers suspended over the doors prized for their singing, trained and traded. Many homes were simple in the extreme, though the people spring out looking modern, comfortable and light hearted.

From there we sailed into the Jardines de la Reina. We spent just over a week amongst the cays. As these are not inhabited by Cubans there are no guarda fronteras there, so one is really left alone to explore and enjoy. Our overriding concern began to develop that the wind was almost always from the SE and battling into it was chewing up a lot of our time. With intentions to explore beyond Santiago then returning to clear out, we did a big jump outside the reef to Cabo Cruz. 

Cabo Cruz was a stunning destination, located on the southwestern tip of the lower southern coast. A reef protects it and provides rich fishing ground whilst we are still able to benefit from the cooling breeze from the sea as we anchored behind it. Ferro cement fishing boats would trundle out in the morning and return with their catch in the evening. Ashore was a dusty little village with little in the way of supplies but a sleepy restaurant that sold its simple dishes representatively of what the fisherman had caught. Both children and men would swim out hoping to barter fruits and veg for what we might have.

One of the delightful charms of Cuba is money is somewhat devalued; partly because even if you have it, many things are simply not available but also by the fact that the government provides a lot of what they need.  Stuff has more value than money so bartering is common.  What people wanted most was 'Ropas'; clothes.  T-shirts, caps, kids clothes, towels, or useful things like knives, fishing line or lures, rope.  No-one was interested in what we had plenty of, which was like them; rice and beans!  

Those of you who know us will be starting to chuckle at the idea of anyone, far less the stylish Cubans being envious of our clothes.  They just expect westerners to have loads of that stuff.  It was easy to get our position across however; we would just point to the holes and sewn repairs in ANY clothes we were wearing and shrug.  Money was always the least sought reward.  We were able to find a spare torch, knife and give away some fishing line, and laugh when they asked if we had spare ropes, snorkel gear, or mobile phones!  Though we have what we need, we're not in the habit of carrying much that isn't extremely useful to us.  

The stretch of coast from Cabo Cruz Easterly turns ever more mountainous, indeed I believe there is no other place in the world where the height of the mountains drops so sharply in to the depths of the sea.  We saw some beautiful scenery and did some lovely light weather sailing; hugging the shoreline to try to exploit any offshore breeze.  

We stopped in Ensenada Marea de Portillo and after an airless night bothered by bugs, we were welcomed by a delightful Guarda Frontera who had been rowed out to us by one of the villagers.  

So the deal is when in Cuba by boat, you have to abide by some slightly unusual rules.  It is not like anywhere else and so requires a bit of a mindshift and a relaxed attitude to enjoy.  We had been forewarned and therefore found the limitations and rules that were enforced in our direction to be far less onerous than feared.  

When we checked into Cienfuegos we were boarded and checked by around 6 or 7 different officials with or without Spaniels over the first three days.  Since they were all extremely courteous and pleasant and none of them wanted anything but to do their job this was no problem to us.  We then, with some trepidation submitted a proposal of where we would like to visit as was suggested by our cruising guide to the Guarda. He took the document and then promptly went off duty, so when we checked out it was missing.  This was no problem as all they wanted to know was the next place we would be stopping and this was how it continued for the whole time we were in Cuban waters.  

Each place we stopped, if it was inhabited at all, we would make an effort to find the Guarda, or they may visit us first.  At this point they want to see your documentation; Passports, visa, possibly boat registration and 'despacho'.  It's the Despacho that you must surrender when you arrive and find when you want to leave being both stamped in and out by the Guarda and telling them where you will go next.  On occasion we were told that whilst we may go to the next intended place we shouldn't go ashore.  It was never quite clear (thankfully) to us how strict this was so we cautiously flaunted it and had no problems.  However, get caught somewhere you shouldn't be and that isn't on your 'despacho' then you WILL be in trouble and we heard of at least one boat being charged a hefty fine.  These warnings always need to be considered carefully however, as it's quite possible that the place they were found was a military zone clearly 'out of bounds' and they may well have been disrespectful and therefore attracted problems.  

In Cabo Cruz we were requested to not stray too far from the boat if it were unattended for security reasons by the friendly Guarda there, who was happy to fill our water bottles and gave us a lovely strong sweet coffee.  We were told at other times that we wouldn't be allowed ashore so... some rules are a little flexible. Aside from the entrance fee previously mentioned in Cienfuegos, we never had to pay any of these officials for any of the checks that they saw fit.  Boats do have to stay in a marina if there is one in that place (by no means everywhere and stays can be kept to a minimum if preferred.  Even if you choose to anchor in such a place they will prescribe where, charge you for the pleasure and require that you only leave the boat via dinghy through the marina gates.  The main reason that boats are so carefully watched is that the Cuban authorities are very concerned that no Cuban has an opportunity to leave the country illegally; a boat being a possible escape route... 
Anyway, back to Marea de Portillo, the Guarda had been informed of our presence and so visited us.  He wanted to know when we would leave so he could come back to stamp us out again.  His office was around 10 miles away and he had no boat of his own at his disposal, so given the lack of any obvious overseer you would have thought he could just do both at the same time but diligently he wished to revisit.  As we were vague and didn't know how long we wanted to stay, he just turned up the next day to check; and I'm sure would have happily, each day until we were ready to depart.  

Our last port of Cuba was Santiago.  Though a vibrant city, on a boat, this is far from ideal as a place to stop.  The whole big bay of Santiago is off limits currently for Sailboats (and has been for some time).  You have to stay in a small marina which is in poor repair and cramped by the mouth of the bay and so not always brilliantly sheltered.  The bay proudly sports an enormous bilious petro-chemical refinery so after a few days there, we're now on day three of scrubbing to remove the yellow spots allover our decks; we finally found that phosphoric acid gets it off.  Also Santiago marina is at least 10km from Santiago town. There are buses which are exceptionally cheap but not especially reliable or frequent.

We ran out of time at the end of our visit and decided to postpone our visit to Baracoa, my (Ruth's) favourite part of Cuba.  The wind was too much against and our minds were turning towards the Pacific.  We will definitely be back and first priority will be beautiful sleepy Baracoa.

Cuba has a gentle yet quirky charm that is greater than its constituent parts; its Spanish origins and its socialist ideals. People seem happy and content; they have a sense of purpose and a belief in their system (mostly). It all seems to produce a heady mix more relaxed than their Spanish cousins, with more time to find fun and enjoy the finer things in life.  The lack of emphasis on material wealth shared by the majority (though by no means all) produces an atmosphere which is unlike anywhere else either of us have been.  

Cubans have excellent (free to them) healthcare and a ruling power which tries to exert moral influence over its' population.  The ethos which is nurtured is that family, education, pride and patriotism are what makes Cuba great.  However we cannot gloss over the fact that Cubans are not free.  They are encouraged to make choices and take pride in their decisions to a point... but they do not have unbiased information sources, they may not travel freely or do as they wish unless it falls within what is permitted.  The controlling force is not - as in the West (largely) money and opportunity but what is decreed from above, facilitated by community enforcement and peer pressure (backed up by stronger state enforcement when deemed necessary).

'Granma' is the national newspaper which does report on world issues but it's hard to take seriously what may well be perfectly sound reporting when you know (and can tell) that it is the official line. Internet and international phone calls are prohibitively expensive in Cuba and are definitely not affordable to the average waged Cuban who would be spending half their months salary on 1 hour (slow connection once you've waited in line to use it) internet or 5 minutes of international phone call time.  I find it astonishing that the government can effectively keep the internet and all it offers from the Cubans whilst still enthusiastically encouraging high levels of education for all.  Cubans are often extremely overqualified and their expertise are generously donated for free to assist other struggling nations.  There is a national pride in the work that their aid teams of doctors, engineers, scientists and military offer to assist other countries. 

The atmosphere bred by the state's moral view is palpable day to day though of course complicated.  Just cast your eyes down a street and you will see people being treated with respect and dignity, young and old. There is an integration that they prosper within, where race, sex, age and disability seem to honestly matter less than in many other communities.  Where difference does not appear to be exalted particularly, merely accepted and enjoyed in a low key way.  Families and wider communities are seen together, interacting in a normal but very cohesive way which is seen less and less in our modern world.

Just in case you were wondering, all the photos are entirely how they came out from point and shoot with the occasional crop.  We have no photoshop skills and haven't changed any colours.  We have however found the 'straighten' button on our photo editor to be exceptionally useful when failing to take straight pictures from a rolling sailing boat.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful, evocative and informative account of Cuba. And your photographs are stunning!

Hope you get to catch up with The Archers have some major drama in store...I was so shocked my jaw nearly hit the floor listening to the omnibus this past Saturday!!!

All the best,
Martina (on Carina of Devon)

Impetuous said...

Hi Martina, thanks for your comments and good luck with your cruising plans.

We're currently reeling from the shock; not of the Archers content but we've just found out the podcasts are only available for one week so the backlog we were so looking forward to enjoying appears to be forever lost from us; all we've got is the omnibus you describe so we haven't yet listened to it, we're putting it off in hope of another solution...

Dunc and Ruth

mbt said...


A wonderful piece of writing, inspiring and honest. Hopefully we will cross wakes with you both.


Mike Wagoner said...

Ruby and I in Texas are not familiar with "The Archers" but Ruby and I have seriously enjoyed (TV) Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Doc Martin and the latest and very interesting: The Bletchley Circle. Hope to soon find out more about what I have read is the longest running radio broadcast "The Archers". We have really enjoyed your Cuban account. I was there in 1970 but only on the American base where all I could do was look across a very tall fence to see the other side!!! Even back then many Cubans came on the base to work - I found that interesting. Your Cuban visit account was amazing and as usual the writing was a rewarding experience for us landlocked friends that are fortunate to see the world through your words and images. Mike & Ruby