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Our Cuba Story - 2009

By Sue Richards last modified Apr 24, 2009 08:40 AM

Published: 2009-04-24 08:40:25
Countries: Cuba

Our Cuba Story – Cuba 2009
By Bernie and Yvonne Katchor (authors of Around the Next Bend)

Part 1
Our 3rd visit to Cuba was planned and the front cabin was completely full of clothing, 68 pairs of shoes, saucepans, cutlery, rope - anything we knew Cubans would appreciate we collected. I only hoped I did not have to get into the chain locker which was accessed by passing through the impossibly full front cabin.

December was not the best time for Cuba as the trades as well as the cold fronts bring strong winds. Added to this we wanted to head for the Eastern end of the North Coast. From this point we could day sail along the coast for months with the wind behind us.

We set off with a good brisk forecast, which changed to bad. We pounded our way and after 30 hours, as we were all too slowly passing through Santaren Channel, the wind went crazy and on the nose - so we ran off to the Bahamian Anguilla Cays. Here we spent 2 days hiding and reviewed our plan deciding that when the wind lessened or changed direction the 50 miles to Guillermo was a better idea than our original destination Puerto Vita. These are the only two Ports where we could “enter” and get our cruising permits for a month with a months extension.

Marina Guillermo
We anchored in the lee of a reef as we arrived too late to attempt the shallow pass into Marina Guillermo. Arriving at the entrance to the shallow channel we called the Marina and Media, the PR lady, replied in perfect English. We had to wait for high tide at 4 pm but as long as we did not touch land we could use the dinghy, so I surveyed the course finding it extremely shallow. At 3 pm it was just 6 ft our draft. Finally Media sent out a pilot to lead us in and we followed with our depth sounder showing down to 6.3 ft.

Cuban Officialdom
No sooner had we tied along side the wall than, led by an attractive Media, the army of 16 officials and two dogs to clear us in marched to wards us. This is Cuba and a part we enjoy. Young Customs ladies in the briefest of miniskirts (some with coarse black net stockings) and every one with a briefcase or satchel.

First a doctor for health, then a Vetinarian to check food supplies (and animals), then Immigration - three of them handled our ships papers and passports. On it went, the Guardia came and searched our boat looking in drawers and other amazing places. I made the stupid mistake of telling them we had 231 storage places in the boat, but my poor Spanish was lost and Yvonne kicked me. Next the Port Authority people came aboard to make our cruising permit. After three hours we were in Cuba officially and we bid the army goodbye. Media then offered us a 5 page marina contract in Spanish which she wanted to translate, but I just signed it as I offered her a beer. This mature lass was most helpful and was surprised we were not, by this time, angry. We had enjoyed the banter with those officials who would, or could banter, as some are most serious.

A Visit to the Village
Next morning we walked to the nearby little village which had a small ship unloading at the port at one end. Cuba has 11 million people and 3 million in uniform, so even in this tiny town Guardia were everywhere. Officially we are forbidden to give Cubans gifts, so we walked with two backpacks of clothing greeting the friendly villagers.

The workers are employed at the many tourist resorts in the vicinity. One ancient woman sent a cute tiny boy, her grandchild, to shake my hand and give Yvonne a kiss on each cheek. Their warmth is the reason we love the Cubans so much.

As soon as we were indoors the nearby house, the family crammed into the room and we enjoyed their faces as we handed out clothes to these poverty stricken people dressed in rags. Some ran off to bring a potato or a few beans as a gift for us. A large fresh fish arrived with a request for man's trousers. Yvonne had long discussions with people in the crowded house and translated some of it to me. Must learn Spanish one day.

More Gifts for the Villagers
Next day with 3 full backpacks, one of baby clothes the other shoes, we were stopped for inspection at the marina gate. 'It is washing”, Yvonne said as the Guardia unloaded the bags, “and the shoes are for repair in the village.” “You have a lot of babies aboard your boat,” the guard knowingly replied as he allowed us to pass.

The village was waiting and I was in charge of shoes, women's shoes. I have heard stories of how women try on 50 pairs of shoes before buying and found them true. I made a note not to bring more than 5 pairs of shoes ashore next time as my shoes were passed from hand to hand, the second shoe demanded then a short stroll while every other woman commented on the shoes. Then the same lady began it all over again. Two hours to dispose of all the shoes! Some women even asked for a different colour!!

One man took us to meet his blind father whom we found could see in a blurry fashion. We had 50 or so pairs of eyeglasses friends had given us and one pair was immensely strong. Next day I fitted them on him and he shouted with joy and amazement as once again he could see the pretty girls passing his house.

We were heroes of the town and the next morning as we passed its total length on the way to find a bus to a resort to buy CUC, the Cuba currency, every one greeted us. We bought CUC and “moneda nationale” - the local currency which tourists are not meant to have. One CUC (overvalued to 0.9 Euro or $1.30 US) equals 24 local pesos. We use these in markets and street stalls. (An 8 inch pizza is US 20 cents local money or $3 tourist money for tourists).

The plastic all inclusive resorts were around a plastic town (that only dealt in CUC) crowded with tourists wearing armbands. The market was out of this town but was devoid of vegetables except for local potato-like tubers. The three hurricanes that hit this coast destroyed all the crops and new ones had not grown to date. In any Cuban market buy what you see as you never know when or where you will see it again. Yvonne excels at trading in the markets asking for the unavailable, such as eggs. Someone always knows someone and black market eggs appear within the hour from an unknown source.

The weather was still very poor, so we headed inland to Cameguay.

Travel in Cuba - Ceigo de Avilla
Foreigners are not allowed to travel on Cuban buses and have their own CUC buses to travel on. There is a “workers only” Cuban bus from Guillermo and, giving the driver a gift on New Years Eve, he allowed us to travel with the partying workers to Ceigo de Avilla, a town where we had a friend with a bed. It was wonderful to enjoy the family of three children and we walked the town with them discovering all the bargains, for example large ice-creams for just 1 peso (5 cents),

The greatest thrill for the children was to go to Copelia, the two level Ice-cream parlour for Cubans. The line was long and we waited for two hours along with many happy Cuban families. Waiting is never a problem for Cubans. A day's wait for a bus is normal-and if the bus never arrives, “that is life” the Cubans laugh. We sat in the gutter and waited. Finally we were allowed to climb the stairs to find more than half the tables were empty. I commented on the empty tables to our friends who shrugged their shoulders and said, “The wages are low, $15 a month, and the job is Government, so keeping tables empty makes work easier”. Glasses of water arrived and a half hour later our orders were taken. The boys asked for a budget for our order - I replied about two CUC. Yvonne and I ordered the 3 peso sundae and there was much babbling between the parents and children. A half hour later our order arrived, one sunday each for the adults and five each for the boys. Total bill about two dollars. I noted, with dismay, every one orders more than one ice-cream but I had only one.

Camaguey with its music halls beckoned, so our friend, telling me not to talk, ordered bici-taxis to the bus terminal for a few pennies. Foreigners are forbidden to ride on bicycle driven taxis and must use normal taxis and pay in CUC.

The pulsating bus terminal was chaotic so our friend told us to wait and he would fix tickets. We waited and eventually a driver asked us where we were going and on hearing our destination told us his bus was about to leave. Aboard the bus we worried about our friend. 15 minutes later the bus had a 60 minute stop at a restaurant. Here we phoned our friend on his cell phone but he was at home and unworried.

From the equally effervescent Camaguey bus terminal a young man helped us find a horse and cart into the centre. We were looking for a private house to stay in and the passengers had much advice. Finally we were put out on a corner and walked. Bocito is a bread roll with freshly cut pork inside, delicious for a couple of cents, so I was delighted to see a pig being carved on a table in the street. Replenished we soldiered on finding a door with the sign for room to rent. We were welcomed inside and offered a cold drink. Their room was occupied so the husband and wife phoned around to find us a bed. Eventually one was found and bici-taxis were about to be ordered when we said we would walk. A map was drawn after we insisted we would enjoy walking. Finally the man changed and walked a half hour with us to find the room. This is a typical happening in Cuba.

The room was delightful at $25 and we rested. Dinner at a Cuban money restaurant consisted of soup, fish main and with two beers included cost just $3.50. The music house was the next stop and we squeezed in to listen to a fabulous Cuban group.

Next day we walked to the market and bought what was available. All the cooking bananas (plantain) were destroyed by the 3 hurricanes, but one enterprising stall had plantain and the line waiting to buy was long. As everyone chats with the vendor, these lines take forever to move. We did not need the vegetable that badly. A large cart full of four foot long by six inch diameter sausages was being pushed through the market. They trembled at every bump with their large globules of fat seemingly desperate to escape the translucent skin. I am sure they would have fallen from the cart but two huge pig legs on top held them aboard. A local cheese is normally available and Yvonne asked for it. We followed a man from stall to stall and even out of the market to a CUC shop where imported cheese at a high price was available. We thanked the man who was desperate to help at no reward to himself, but declined the expensive cheese.

Our suitcase on wheels was full of tomatoes, carrots, oranges grapefruit and local sweet potatoes. We began the walk home but the enthusiasm of a bici-taxi youth got us aboard his vehicle. If the Guardia catch him with foreigners aboard there is jail so his route to our rented room took him for miles so he could miss the police. He was exhausted so I gave him a tip as he moved to the seat we vacated to rest.

That night we visited another Cuban restaurant and ate a delightfully spiced pork stew and then the chef who had a magnificent thunderous operatic voice accompanied by two guitarists sang many arias. This we enjoyed and when he was done we went to two more music halls. Cuba is all about music and song.

Wandering home in the wee small hours we noted all the night guards at commercial buildings. One old man invited us to enter and view paintings we could see. He opened the whole gallery and we spent an hour enjoying Cuban art.

Next morning found us at the money changers where there was a long line but foreigners line up on the left of the door and are admitted before the Cubans. Accordingly the clerk was surprised when we only bought local currency and not CUC as foreigners are meant to do.

Camaguey had a long shopping avenue with many shops selling goods in CUC. These had a variety of goods which followed no trend. For example one had buckets, televisions, clothing and perfumes. Dozens of staff ignored customers who actually wanted to buy and were not those just gazing, wishing they had CUC to buy.

There were also Cuban peso shops similarly set up. One had a hardware section and I bought electric switches I saw in a glass case, but was not allowed to hold and examine the switches. Finally authority was given by a more senior staff member and I opened the box of the switch and found it to be exactly what I needed and it was 10% of the USA price. There were Cuban money clothing shops as well with reasonably priced clothing. It must be extremely difficult to live for a month on US$15 without having to buy shoes or clothes. Many Cubans we met had an illegal way of earning a few more pesos. Tourism bought tips and hotel staff and taxi drivers often were qualified dentists, doctors or other professionals just trying to survive.

It seemed impossible to get back to our boat by bus carrying all the food we had bought, so we took a taxi driven by a specialist doctor.

Our destination was still Puerto Vitas into the wind and current as we, again, crossed the shallow channel out of Guillermo Marina bumping the bottom twice.

To be continued . . .