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Australia 31's Cruising Report On Cuba

By doina — last modified Aug 27, 2007 08:10 PM

Published: 2007-08-27 20:10:46
Countries: Cuba


Cuba is the safest country we have ever been. The people are poor but most generous and everyone we met wanted to give us something or feed us as we wandered the country. Truly a wonderful experience.

It is hard to understand that the Government owns every little business from shoe repair to icecream shops. The excess of workers in attendance earn 280 Cuban Pesos a month, equivalent to US$10. However if you spend six years at University and become a Doctor you must work 6 days a week 10 hours a day for 400 Cuban Pesos.$16 a week on which you cannot live so then you specialise, another two years to get a reward of 500 pesos bringing your salary to US20 a month.

The currency the tourist uses and Cubans use for all luxury items is CUC convertible pesos. Luxury items include soap, shampoo, and clothing for example. One CUC is 24 Cuban Pesos and is one US dollar. Soap is one CUC so a Cuban must take 24 Cuban Pesos 8% of the monthly salary to a Government Money Changer to get the CUC to buy soap. In one of the tiny villages we anchored off, a woman burst into tears after we gave her a cake of soap. She was a fisherman (or is that fisherperson) and traded her catch for stuff she needed pork, vegetables etc. and had not seen a CUC for years. "Soap is the most wonderful gift you could have given me," she cried as she showered us with coffee, cake, and fish and…

The family unit is very strong. Grandma is always in the house to look after children while both parents work. Unless the family owned the house before 1954, all houses are government owned. The extended family must live in one house. Thus, we found four or five generations crammed into a house as best they could manage. We also found, and stayed in, wonderful homes with all the pre 1954 furniture paintings and porcelain displayed. Eighteen foot ceilings a delicate internal courtyards and of coarse delightful generous hosts. We paid CUC 25 for a night, the Government declared amount. The owner pays a monthly fee to the Government and we fill out papers as we arrive. Authority can arrive at any moment to check the books of such a house and jail or large fines heavily punish any cheating. Neighbours count the number of guests and report in. To one particularly generous family we tried to offer a gift of an old electric drill. The head was aghast, "If I took that the neighbours would report it and how could I explain, why I could end up in jail."

Same goes for private motor vehicles so all the wonderful pre 1954 down to 1930 cars are running in Cuba. Wonderful history. I saw my ’48 Hillman and 43 Wyllis and the memories of what and who I did in those vehicles flooded back. Yvonne tired of my shrieking, "Look! A Morris, Look a Wolseley." Camera clicking as I shouted. Nothing warms the heart of a man than the sight of his first cars, but to see them running shiny and in better condition than mine ever were…absolute joy. Hire cars are brand new and, of course, government owned.

The people are both generous and happy. They get ration books and can have six eggs per person a month and amounts of bread very cheaply subsidised by the Government. Schooling and medical care are good and free. (Cuba medical care is 49 in the world one behind USA, which is 38)

Private enterprise does occur and we bought great pizzas from a vendor with a street oven for 5 Cuban Pesos (20 US cents) but these are for Cubans to buy as tourists are not meant to have Cuban Pesos only CUC. You can buy CUC in the moneychangers but if you tender US dollars, they are devalued by 20%. We had Euros which are taxed only 2.5% when changed. Poor old President Bush, when we glimpsed him on Cuban TV wore a Hitler moustache and was branded fascist. The TV is subsidised by the government being used to promote itself and the communist system.

But, you ask, why do the many people who complain about the system not revolt.

In a country of eleven million, four to five million are in uniform. Army, Navy Police, Customs and on it goes. These people have little responsibility and get their wage. This uniformed force would defeat any resistance to the present scheme of things. There are many informers and party members so fear of being thought an objector is paramount. The system will not end on Castro’s death, as some experts predict, as Raul, his brother, will become the new dictator. Countries such as Venezuela support Cuba now and fill some of the enormous gap left when Soviet Union "left". We saw unfinished Nuclear plants and, as we travelled the countryside, dozens of derelict but enormous multi storied hostels that housed Russians.

Tourism is enormous US citizens are few and enter via Canada and Mexico. The hotels are all inclusive and we made them a target as we just sat down at a restaurant and ordered a bowl of pistachio icecream (the first for a month) and beers. We did offer to pay each time but the staff were confused at the offer of money and a one CUC tip solved the matter. At one bar, I was challenged. "Are you in the Marina," I was asked as I looked down at my wrinkled yachty clothes. "You must pay CUC 17 to be in our grounds but that is ridiculous so leave us a tip and you can drink and eat all day," the waiter told us.

These hotels keep tourists away from Cuba and the Cubans as they do in most countries.

But wait I have already spent a thousand words and have not told you of Australia 31 and CUBA. WE sailed from Jamaica in gentle winds arriving at Santiago de Cuba on the Sth East coast entering the narrow harbour heads and heading for the marina. We never use marinas but where they are, Cuba insists we use them. Luckily, there were only four on the South coast. However, they were very secure and we left our boat often to travel inland.

"Wait the authorities are coming," the marina manager told us in perfect English. The well-educated populace often spoke English. Come they did for the rest of the day. About thirty in all and from this, you can begin to see how many public servants Cuba has. We had three doctors with assistants, health, vetinary and quarantine plants etc. We had Customs who bought on two beautiful sniffer dogs. When I produced my camera, it was forbidden but finally I was allowed just one picture of the great Labrador who gallivanted excitedly inside our boat. I must add every one, unlike all other countries, took off their shoes and walked our decks barefooted except for one who donned cotton operating theatre shoes over his old boots. On and on they came, all delightful people , doing the job as best thy could and apologising then sitting and sipping the cool drink we offered before inviting us to their house or offering advice of what to do and where to go in their district. Some boaties whine and say they keep losing days because of the authorities but we enjoyed them. This was the major check in and at other stops, they would row out to us in a fisherman’s dinghy and go through checking passports and immigration and visas. Again always polite as, in some cases, they told us we could not come ashore but would have to go to a port of entry 40 miles away then come to their village by hire car to see the magnificent lighthouse. I offered to tow them the mile or so to shore (so I could photograph this structure) but my devious plan was foiled as this was forbidden and they paddled away in the overloaded dinghy bailing as they went.

Finally, all authorities had inspected us, our vegetables, our tin food our music cds and inside each drawer and cupboard looking for stowaways and we were free to enjoy Cuba. We walked to the bus stop where a horse and cart awaited armed with our Cuban pesos someone gave us in Columbia. "One CUC" the man holding the reins asked.

"But that lady paid 5 centavos, why should we pay 120 times as much."

"The fare for foreigners is one CUC while the fare for Cubans is 5 centavos. If I am inspected, as I often am, and cannot show CUC when I have foreigners aboard this government owned transport I will be put in jail." We explained we had no other money as we had just arrived and were heading to a bank. He told us to hold the money until we were getting off and hopefully at that time no one would see us and asked him to show CUC, as he had none. A woman aboard saved the day by asking for 26 Pesos for the CUC she offered. All aboard chastised she for asking too much and we were ordered by those gathered to give her 50 as she passed two CUC to the man at the reins. This was a lesson in Cuba as no one complained while this ten-minute transaction and discussion took place they just waited. Often on the country roads, we saw hundreds of people waiting for a bus that did not come. Private transport is uncommon in Cuban countryside. People waved CUC as our hire car passed trying to get a lift.

Clipping and clopping towards town centre was an adventure in itself as we talked to the six other passengers about markets and moneychangers. When I produced my camera, they ordered the cart stopped while I alighted to photograph the waving passengers. The town was clean and had a wide blocked walking street crowded with shoppers and controlled groups of tourists. Icecream at five Cuban Pesos was my first purchase. The line was long, as the chocolate ice on a stick had just arrived. We learnt to buy what we saw when we saw it. No point coming back later as it was sold.

The CUC shops were stocked with goods from refrigerators and TVs (both seemed subsidised) to toys and foods considered luxury such as spaghetti and tinned goods.

We found a travel agency and Yvonne organised a car and driver to take us to her beloved birds. This was expensive and in CUC but any thing for tourists is not cheap by our standards. Public transport is very unreliable except for buses that carry tourists. Regardless wherever we wanted to go to the birding areas, it was not available.

A guide was compulsory and he held a doctorate of biology and several other degrees. We soon learnt that many highly qualified people turn to tourism as a guide or taxi driver for a $5 tip is half a month’s salary. Our guide was exceptional and found the Bee humming bird for us to see, the smallest bird in the world. Cuba has many endemics and Yvonne was delighted with each birding expedition.

Music was a highlight. Towns and villages had Music Houses where for a dollar you could hear exceptional jazz groups from 4 pm to whenever. We bought a cd from many groups and relive Cuba as they play.

We were treated badly as inferior beings by USA embassies in Columbia and Jamaica who wanted us to wait months for an appointment to get a visa. In Cuba, it is said USA has a room in the Swiss embassy. I called and we could come any time to get a visa. This "room" is a 7-story building with 3 acres of grounds and about 200 people. 200 visas are issued each day. So much for the USA presence in Cuba. Our visas were issued the next day. Havana had some wonderfully restored buildings (as well as dilapidated unrestored buildings) and we delighted in walking for miles. The Capitol, where the one time democratic parliament operated from was a masterpiece and we spent hours exploring its nooks and crannies. We stayed with a family in a beautiful home for the 25 CUC a night.

Yvonne’s brother and his wife arrived in Ceinfuegos, where we were waiting, and we toured inland before heading for the islands and lobsters. It seems there are no small lobsters in Cuba. Fishermen in rusty concrete boats with bits falling off would throw lobster on our decks looking for a trade. $1 of rum gave us five grand lobsters. We also ate stingray and turtle given us. Many Islands had walking trails and good snorkelling but due to the many gifts, we had no need to shoot fish. David did land an enormous Tarpon, which we released.

Two months is all we were allowed in Cuba before we had to leave and after David and Irene departed from the Island of Youth, we sailed for Maria la Gorda to check out. Then came Barry the first named storm of 2007 before June 1 so we sheltered along the North West Coast of Cuba Island hopping each day. As soon as the weather improved, we sailed for Beaufort North Carolina and entered USA. Interestingly the customs told us we could not come from Cuba to USA and took my Cuban cigars. We showed our USA visas issued in Cuba which amazed them, as USA has no presence in Cuba.

We are now heading for Norfolk where we will refit our boat.

Bernie and Yvonne Katchor, "Australia 31"

"Around The Next Bend" by Bernie Katchor, an account of their voyages in the rivers of Venezuela and Guyana is available from