25/03/2011/12:56 pm, Holguin, Cuba
On Friday morning, the rental car man picked up John and Jackie, Jim and me at the Marina and delivered us to the office where we did the paperwork (again, extensive and time consuming but pleasant and with a man who spoke excellent English). That done, we were off! The four boats in from the Bahamas split easily into 2 groups - Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer) and John and Julie (Amazing Grace) travelling together and John and Jackie (Camelot) travelling with us. We did many of the same things but on different schedules.
Our first excursion was to Holguin - the nearest city of any size (265,000)- and it was the perfect introduction to a Cuban city. We drove along the main highway to the turn-off and stopped to ask directions. What followed was the first of endless encounters with helpful, friendly Cubans. There aren't a whole lot of tourists in Holguin so we kind of stood out. The fellow we spoke to motioned his friend over. With a big smile, he pulled out his cell phone and showed John a picture, saying, "Amigos?" It was the two people on the boat next to Camelot - they had stayed at this man's mother's house the night before! He then hopped on his bike and motioned us to follow, and so we did - along the road into the city - past horses and carts, past dozens of bikes and pedicabs and people on foot, around corners and over bumps right into the middle of the city. Jackie had wondered how we would ever manage to go slowly enough to stay behind a man on a bike, but it was no trouble. These were busy streets!
We stopped in one of the many squares in Holguin and he pointed out where the shopping was, where food could be found, and how to find our way back out of town when we were ready to leave. We tipped him a couple of CUC's and started wandering. We had read in the Lonely Planet Guide book (our favourite) about Cuban street food and we started in on what was to become a continual love affair with street food. Not far down the first street was a window where people were lined up. Of course we craned our necks to see - and what we saw was pizza. We joined the line and soon had 6" rounds of cheese and tomato pizza in our hands - for the grand sum of 5 pesos each (20 cents!!). Farther down the street, we bought fluffy white buns filled with freshly sliced roast pork, a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce - another 5 pesos. I bought tiny little balls of coconut and honey dipped in a crunchy sugar coating for 1 peso each.
It is useful to get some CUC's changed into national pesos at the earliest opportunity and then to carry some of each. It takes a while to get the currency figured out and it is complicated because there are two currencies operating here simultaneously - available to both Cubans and tourists. 24 national pesos = 1 CUC which is roughly $1.00. For ease of figuring, we counted a peso as 4 cents - although who needs to think very hard about it at that amount? Most of the restaurants and stores want CUC's but street vendors, local food markets and some small restaurants charge in pesos. They are all called pesos and until you get a feel for it, it is important to always ask, "Is that national pesos or convertibles?" (One is worth 4 cents, the other is worth $1.00) I kept pesos in one pocket and CUC's in the other so I always had them available.
Holguin was the most wonderful place to see the old cars that we all associate with Cuba. And they were there by the dozens. Fords and Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles, the occasional Studebaker and even some Ladas from the Soviet era although these are not as plentiful. '52 and '54 and '56 and all the rest from that pre-revolutionary era. For the most part, they were in wonderful shape. Jim laughed when he saw a '52 Ford (same year he was born) and he thought it looked to be in as good a shape as he is! Unlike in Santiago and Havana, where most operate as taxis, many of these seemed to be private cars and they were lined up proudly on the streets surrounding the main square.
The stone buildings had been grand in their day, with ornate facades and intricate wrought iron railings and brightly painted woodwork, but they are suffering badly from lack of funds for upkeep. The parks are filled with benches and statues and are clearly places for conversation and relaxation. Holguin is arranged around several squares and we strolled along several streets joining a few of them. Art has so clearly been a significant feature in Cuba - from the frescoes and carvings, to murals and statues (not all of them political), to the very design of the squares.
We wandered through a department store that sold clothes and shoes and appliances along with soap and perfume, napkins and toilet paper. We had been told that these are in short supply in Cuba and wondered at them being here until we found that they are available, but are very expensive for Cubans. Jackie looked at some lipsticks but the only colour was dark brown. In another shop we checked out nail polishes - again the colours were very limited. In the clothing sections, lycra and denim prevailed. We found Cuban women to be dressed very well - clean and smart - and not exactly current with North American fashions. Lots of colour - especially yellow - and lots of form fitting styles. We saw many many Canadian T-shirts and hats on people we met - from sports teams and cities. Jim even spotted an Old Ottawa South soccer shirt on one fellow! (that was the neighbourhood we lived in for 10 years - I went looking for him to take his picture but I never did find him). A wedding party went around the square, horns honking and with the beautiful bride seated on the back of the convertible.
We stopped for beers in an outdoor cafeteria - Crystal and Buccanero are the Cuban beers - about 1CUC each - and enjoyed more people watching. We had been told that pens and soaps are good items to have for giving away and that proved to be true. There were some people begging - no more than in any Canadian city - and they were generally very happy to be given a pen or cake of soap. When I ran out of those, I gave pesos. Cuba is the only place I have ever heard the recipients say a heartfelt, "Gracias." (well except maybe Halifax - we have polite beggers too :-) For sure, Cuba is the only place I have had my hand kissed in return for a bar of soap.
At the end of the afternoon we made our way back out of town. Once again, we encountered more horses and bicycles than cars. We passed tiny rundown houses with laundry hanging off the porches, and others that were freshly painted with flowers and well tended gardens. We went by open doors where we could see people at sewing machines and men fixing bikes and motors. We passed horse drawn carts with water tanks on the back, and others with wood, and still others loaded with people.
We exchanged waves and "Holas" with everyone and arrived back at the marina feeling like we had gotten a taste of the Cuba that tourists don't always see. Having a car to travel with made it easy to get around, but one can also take buses for another bit of adventure.
23/03/2011/12:50 pm, Puerto de Vita, Cuba
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?!
22/03/2011/12:45 pm, Southside Bay, Ragged Island
We found Phicol just outside his fishing lodge and hopped in his truck for a trip out to Gun Point. That is where the big new boat basin is being blasted and chopped out of the rock. We had thought last year that it would be useful for cruisers as well as commercial vessels but it's not looking that way at the moment. There are no plans for a floating dock for cruising boats or their dinghies, and it is a long trip to town from there. Phicol, as chief councillor for the island, is trying to encourage a dock and golf carts or some convenient way for cruisers to commute. We'll see how it looks next year!
When we bought our brand spanking new outboard motor last year, we left our old Mercury 5 hp outboard with Phicol. He thought he could get it repaired eventually and would do something with it. We were thrilled to find out that he did indeed get it fixed and gave it to the old fisherman who lives on Buenavista cay. We saw him rowing for miles when we anchored there last year and we wondered this year if he was still around since the place seemed empty. Phicol says he sure is - but was away for a couple of weeks. This epilogue seemed just like the icing on the cake to our good news story of last season.
Percy picked us up again as we walked through town and delivered us to the beach where our dinghy had fortunately remained unmolested by his pig. (Although we did find pig hairs and dirt on one of the pontoons!) After changing into swimsuits, we set off across Southside Bay to the shoal on the other side for an idyllic final evening in the Bahamas. The tide was out and the sand bars were wide. I picked up one lovely penshell, and looked through the hundreds of sand dollars for a white one but they were all green and very much alive. We wandered for over an hour, as the ripples of water came creeping back over the sand and the sun dropped closer to the horizon. Then it was time to head back to Madcap and ready her, and ourselves, for departure to one more adventure.
We both slept for a bit, and then at 2am, the alarm went off. We poured coffee into our thermal mugs, pulled the anchor out of Bahamian waters for one last time, and followed our track out of the bay. Good bye to the beautiful Bahamas for another season.