Bigger than Life
23 March 2011 | Puerto de Vita, Cuba
Beth - 90's
How do I even begin to tell you about Cuba?
It is lush and beautiful, arid and dry. We have driven through mountains and across valleys, along coastlines and through farmlands. We have shopped at Farmers’ Markets in the tiny towns of Santa Lucia and Santa Marta, and sat in the plazas of Santiago de Cuba - a city of 400,000 and Havana - 2,000,000. We have travelled among horse drawn carts and bicycles on rutted and pot holed roads, and with buses and trucks on modern two lane highways. We have negotiated our way through narrow city streets jammed with bikes and carts and horses and buses and trucks and people on foot all together! It is like “Wild west meets old European city”.
But let me go back to the beginning ... March 23/11 (and this posting is mostly about the process - it gets more interesting later!)
We came all the way across the channel from Ragged Island under sail and began to see outlines of mountains from miles off the coastline. It was such a change from the approach to the Bahamas, or the approach to the US on our way back. The purply outlines grew clearer as we got closer, and we spotted the lighthouse at the entry into the channel. The buoys were just where they were supposed to be and we started into the river. We hadn’t been able to raise the Guarda Fronterra (Coast Guard) on the radio when we called, but we had heard that they don’t always answer so we didn’t worry. A fellow on a jetski appeared out of nowhere, motioned us to follow and led us all the way through the well-marked twists and turns to the anchoring area. We had heard from Peter (Wanderer) and Duncan (Talisa) that the procedure was to anchor there first, get cleared by the Doctor and then proceed to the marina so we knew what to do. We were the first of the four boats coming from the Bahamas that afternoon so we all dropped our anchors and waited. Alexi arrived from the marina shortly to tell us that the doctor had been delayed at the hospital and would be along later. We happily settled down to wait some more, and as time went on, we began to realize that he wouldn’t be coming that night. Another couple of boats came in and we heard that our check in would be the next day.
After a lovely night’s sleep, we were sipping coffee in the cockpit when Ali (Alexi) came alongside with Dr Rolando. He pulled out his forms, checked passports, asked if we were ill, and where we had come from (he was pleased that we had not been in the Dominican Republic or where cholera is a problem - in his words “That is a pain in the head!” - and told Jim he could pull down the Quarantine flag and raise the Cuban one. We were cleared. As Ali delivered the Dr to the next boat, we hauled anchor and followed Ali in his little blue boat into the marina. The moorings are Mediterranean style, and we haven’t done much of that before but it was easy. There was little current so as Ali tied a bow line to the mooring ball, Jim backed us toward the large open space on the dock. Two fellows waiting there caught our stern lines, pulled us into position and we were set. The only complication to this was that we had to learn to crawl over and under our stern railings and dinghy davits to get on and off the boat! We tied the dinghy alongside and left it there because we were not allowed to use it while we were there.
The rest of the officials arrived shortly and neatly climbed through the obstacle course to sit in our cabin with their forms and papers. There were four of them - harbourmaster, immigration, customs and a health officer. We had a white uniform, a khaki one and a green one, and the last fellow wore a hospital type scrub shirt. They were all very polite and friendly. We offered sodas and beers, and I had a plate of home made gingersnaps on the table. As we all sat around eating and drinking, they started filling in forms. Their English was adequate for the task, and our few Spanish words were jovially received. In fact, the Immigration fellow found amusement in teaching me how to give the answers to his questions in Spanish. They wanted to know where we were from, what jobs we had, last port of call, intended destinations in Cuba (we gave a list of about 25 possible stops along the north coast and all but 2 were approved), length of time we would stay (we asked for 30 days and got it with the assurance that if we wanted to stay longer, it would be easy to get an extension), where we would go from there and were we carrying guns (no). Then there were the boat questions: size, make, kind of engine, how much fuel we carried. We had a form (copied from the Spanish for Cruisers book) all filled out and ready to give them and this helped the process. Once the main questions were answered, the Ministry of Health officer asked if he could look at our provisions. He was so shy and polite that he barely looked in our lockers and fridge. He wanted to know if we had fresh meat (no) and where our produce had come from (Bahamas). Everything we had was OK - oranges, apples, cabbage, eggs. He asked what milk we had and was satisfied with the powdered milk and cartons of long life milk. While he was filling in his forms, the cocker spaniel drug dog made a quick run through and then leapt off again. Another cocker spaniel (explosives expert) made a quick check as well.
All in all, it was a painless process - even a pleasant one. My impression is that the only thing one really needs is patience. It takes a while to do the paperwork, but there was nothing intrusive or threatening or bothersome about the process.
We had heard that Tina in the marina office would help with all the arrangements for getting money and paying the fees, but she was off that day. Her replacement didn’t have as much of a command of English, but arranged for taxis to take us all to Guardalavaca to the bank. It closed at 3 and we needed to hustle but we made it in time. We withdrew money from a Canadian credit card and changed it to CUC’s (convertible pesos). There was a small charge for that but we pretty much got 1 CUC for $1. Cdn. Changing American money is more costly. It can still be done but there is at least a 10% charge. (We heard 20% but the sign in that bank said 10%) We could not change CUC’s for national pesos there, but that can be done at the Cadecas in other centres. We obtained pesos later at the Cadeca in Santa Lucia (near Puerto de Vita) and in Santa Marta (near Varadero), and also at a roadside fruit stand when we bought pineapples (we paid in CUC and asked for pesos in change).
The fees (90 CUC’s) were paid to Tina who then dispersed them to the appropriate officials and there was no request or expectation for any further exchange of money.
Another 15 for a cruising permit was due when we left.
We, along with John and Jackie (Camelot) visited the Cubacar rental office in Guardalavaca while we were there for banking and arranged for a rental car for two weeks. There was no room for dickering on price - weekly rentals were 56 CUC per day including insurance and a second driver. We discovered later that Tina can make all these arrangements too, but since she was off, we did it ourselves.
After enjoying a browse around the (touristy) market area and our first Cuban mohito (a minty rum drink that we proceeded to sample at every opportunity) we taxied back to the marina and a relaxing evening after a busy day.
We had been warned to have mosquito coils and or good screens and it was good advice. The marina is in a mangrove area and as the sun goes down, the noseeums come out. This was the first time we have ever really coveted those lovely big screened in cockpits. We have a full enclosure with screens but it would have blocked pretty much all the breeze too so we didn’t put it up - we stayed outside as long as we could and then retreated into the cabin. We have a dearth of fans on Madcap so we were delighted to accept Tom’s offer to lend us a high efficiency and quiet 12 volt fan for the next week or two. It made a wonderful difference in our comfort level for those nights when there was no breeze.
Madcap in Cuba. How about that?!