08/04/2012, 18 20.027'N:78 20.396'W, Negril Beach, Jamaica
I write and send this update while downloading some weather grib files via the sat phone. We are on the far West side of Jamaica, Negril beach, anchored in front of some resorts where one after the other wedding takes place on the beach. Mundinho will show up in many wedding portraits as the sun was right between us and the beach and each and every wedding couple wanted to have that �"sun goes down behind the horizon picture�". Naturally the night was filled with music, very loud music, but we are already used to that here in Jamaica. Today we hope to move on to the Colombian island Providencia, about a three days sail trip in the direction of Panama. We hope we will have some good downwind sailing or at least the winds in the aft quarter. If the weather is good we will leave today, but only after Easter egg hunt on deck. I have heard the Easter bunny has dropped Easter eggs scattered over the deck, so that will be Auke�'s first mission after he wakes up. For now we enjo y the silence, which in Jamaica you really will only find around 06:00 in the morning. All well with boat and crew.
03/04/2012, Montego Bay
Mo-Bay they call it here, for Montego Bay. Not much to see, it is one large tourist resort with loads of tourist from Europe and US flying in directly. We however are anchored of the Montego Bay yachtclub and enjoy our first hot shower after 4 months, which even in the tropics is feeling great, so much so that Heloisa is spending most of her day inside the shower. The yachtclub has a pool and playground, so Auke is happy. I enjoy the easy fauteuils and sit back and read my book or do some catching up on the www. According the grib files it is tad breezy out there this week, so we hold of for the 3 day trip to Providencia Island till this weekend, when the winds come down according the forecast. We don,t 20 knots winds, but I know from experience it is better to start in calm winds the first day, this allows everyone to get "into the swing" before the winds pick up.
The picture above is Mundinho sailing from Cuba to Jamaica in 25 knots close hauled. The picture was taken by Peter and Kaye on Dancing Brave, Australians on their way to Hobart in Tasmania. Hobart is pretty much where the world stops, if it has not stopped before that already. The picture below shows more cruisers during a lunch prepared by Matane, a Kiwi boat in Port Antonio. There are two great things about the cruising lifestyle. One is meeting and learning all the different places and cultures. Two is meeting all types of cruisers, all like-minded and still different in how we do our things. Pretty much all great people with great stories to tell, especially after some beers. On this one table with around 10 cruisers, we had; Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, Slovania, Polish, USA, Brazilian and two Dutchman (me and Auke), This is what I personally find so interesting about cruising.
01/04/2012, 18 31.926'N:77 33.628'W, offshore en-route
We got 15 knots of wind several hours ago, so under full main and boomed out jib we are now averaging 6.6 to 6.8 knots. Good sailing, everyone happy. There is one major problem however that is haunting us already for some weeks now. We are NOT catching fish anymore. If we would have relied on my fish catching techniques, we would have been in serious trouble by now. We had one line over the stern, with our lucky lure. Well that lure is not lucky anymore to us, so a second line was thrown out with a different lure. Still after 4 hours no luck. We even have placed Auke into the game with his fishing rod. We are �"racing�" over the different depth levels, close to the coast, further away from the coast, so far nothing. Normally we were always lucky on the 20 to 200 meter depth contours. Well these Jamaican fishes have smoked too much ganga I am afraid, as they don�'t find our lure. We have another three hours to go prior arrival. If we don�'t catch anything, I need to fix some new lures or make them myself. Some sailors do that and swear by it. Perhaps the effort you put into it then that will be rewarded. Anyway, three hours to go and we know if we will eat fish tonight or omelet again.
01/04/2012, 18 32.260'N:77 13.110'W, offshore en-route
Sailing again. We left Port Antonio yesterday the 29th. We were done with Port Antonio. Honestly we are both done with Jamaica, that is what we concluded yesterday. We always say; it clicks or does not. In Jamaica we do not have �"the click�". The country is beautiful to see, but the never ending hustling from Jamaicans starts to get even us on our nerves. You cannot sit anywhere, like on a beach for reading a book, as at any moment someone will start a discussion with you with as end goal to gain something, either monetary or in goods etc. Now I have travelled intensively a lot in poor countries, visited in detail all countries of Central America and South America, and know how it works and know very well we are typically seen as the well-off foreigner, which is totally true. However I have not seen this level of hustling we found in Jamaica. Maybe it is the ganga, not sure. It works for some travelers, who enjoy the interaction. It does not work for us. So here we are on our way to Montego Bay. That is the good thing of cruising. When you like it you stay. When it does not work for you, you move on with your house, it is that simple. We know already there is not much to see in Montego Bay. It is a resort and cruise ship haven. However we have heard there is a good yacht club where in front you can anchor for 10 USD and use their facilities. We are in dire need of laundry facilities, so we make a stop in Montego Bay to do the laundry. I also want to get some fuel. We have plenty of fuel left, for another 6 days nonstop motoring if we have to. But to keep the boat on level keel it is best to keep the fuel tank as full as possible. We carry 550 liters water on Starboard and 550 Liters fuel on Portside, so with full water and half full fuel, we list a few degrees to Starboard. Heloisa does not notice it and wonders what I possible am whining about. Me, I am an engineer and like to have the boat at even keel. Another advan tage as other cruisers know is when you keep your fuel tanks full, there is less water accumulation inside the tank from condensation on the fuel tank walls. We have a good water filter (Racor) before the engine, however the problem with water in your fuel tank is the fact that the fuel-water interface is a perfect breeding ground for a certain microbe (bugs). If you during loading pick up this microbe and have water in your tanks, they under certain conditions will quickly multiply to the extend they will glob up all filters and render your engine near useless.
Anyway so here we are, we had 25 knots winds from behind the whole day yesterday. Great for the speed, but a bit wobbly, so we decided to pull in at 18:00 for the night at Rio Ochos for a quite night behind anchor. We left early this morning again before customs would wake up, as officially you need to clear in and clear out at every port. We declared Montego Bay as our first stop while in Port Antonio on our clearance papers, so officially you are not allowed to stop in port in between. A cruiser who left Port Antonio for 48 hours to spend the night in a desolate bay, only 10Nm away from Port Antonio got fined upon his return to Port Antonio, as he had not cleared out and subsequently cleared in again. Long live the bureaucracy. Today there is no wind so far. We running on the engine with the main up to stop the rolling somewhat as the swell never ceases. We are getting away from the coast and hope to get some winds further offshore. Anyway by tonight we should be in Montego bay. A few days there and then on our way to Isla de Providencia, Columbia.
All well with boat and crew.
24/03/2012, Port Antonio
Here we are in Port Antonio and all is still the same. The same chickens run around in town, everyone smoking joints and everywhere you go you hear, "yaah man"! The trip was easy with good speeds and winds abeam.
We are docked at a slip that was not open three years ago when I was here. Cheap and simple and good enough for us. During the mooring operation my excellent boat driving skills and our protruding 88lbs anchor removed the water faucet from the slip, resulting in a large spray of fresh water. In order to repair the faucet the water was switched of for the remainder of the day, not a good way to make friends in a marina. Anyway a few drinks in the bar in the evening amongst cruisers and everything was settled again.
Our mooring lines are tied around the bar stools of the adjoining restaurant with bar, so easy heading home after a few drinks with other cruisers. We will do some school in the coming days and explore the surroundings, there are supposedly some nice beaches around.
23/03/2012, Cuba - Jamaica
We spend a total of four weeks in Cuba and we can all say we could have spent more time in Cuba, however we were done with Santiago. These are kind of two different things, Santiago and the rest of Cuba. Especially Santiago the Cuba marina we are done with, just is about every other cruiser is done with that marina. We were done with the poor quality of the marina, the nightly downpour of soot from the cement factory covering your deck in the morning, with the ever present control from the "guarda frontera" watching your every step, done with the fact you cannot even jump into your dinghy and explore the beautiful bay, due to Fidel's fear you might start another revolution. Done with the never ending inspections in your bags, all out of Fidel's fear you might bring something into the country that can start a revolution or possible bring something into the country that can actually help some poor mother placing clothes on their kids.
Cuba was a great experience, in all facets. We are both glad we made the decision to come here and likely one day we will come back. Things are changing in Cuba, as they have done over the last 53 years and a different Cuba will be found tomorrow and another different one the day after. But then again at the same time "nothing" is changing, nothing improving. The only real major change (for good or bad) can be expected once the "Castro's" (Fidel and Raul) release their solid grip on this country. Their grip is so solid on this country, that some Cubans fear the worst after they are gone, mentioning civil war etc. Whatever will happen, change will be large we can imagine as the system in place currently will demand that change.
Cuba had a history similar as any of the other Caribbean islands till around 1953, when Fidel Castro and 119 other rebels led a badly executed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The army barracks are a school right now and one of the buildings has been transformed into a museum, displaying how it all went down. Many were killed in the attack and pictures showing this are readily displayed in the museum amongst other rather interesting and sometimes morbid artifacts and pictures, such as the bloodied uniform of one of the rebels who died in the attack.
Fidel fled into the mountains with a few others. Soon after they were captured and send for 15 years to prison. However in 1955 the then just elected president Batiste made a for him big mistake (as later turned out) by in his euphoria freeing all political prisoners. Batista had run the country in earlier years after a coup. Basically starting in the year 1900, the year Cuba became independent from Spain, Cuba had one corrupt government after the other, either by Presidents taking seat in corrupt elections or by coups, whichever way suited them.
Just freed Fidel fled to Mexico, trained 300 rebels and came back on December 1956 with 80 other rebels on "Granma", a large motor cruiser now on display in Santiago. Batista's troops were quickly send to overtake the rebels in which they nearly succeeded, except for the fact that Fidel and 11 others escaped into the hills of the Sierra Maestra amongst others were Fidels brother Raul (current President) and the now famous Argentinian doctor Che Guevara. They held up in the mountains and trained additional rebels. 6 months later Batista send 10.000 troops into the mountains to eliminate the rebels for once and for all. It turned different in the sense that by August that same year Fidel (El Commandante) and his by then 300 rebels had defeated the advance and had captured large quantities or arms. From here it went downhill for the government, and by December 31st, 1958 the troops surrendered to Fidel and his guerrillas. The various museums and their displays show how it all went down, and obviously it is one sided, it is Fidel's view how things went down. However after taking it all in one cannot ignore the fact that he and his rebel buddies achieved something quite impressive. The country had been in a mess for many decades while one after the other corrupt government had enriched themselves and their elite followers (Batista himself fled Cuba on January 1st 1959 with 40 Million USD).
Now it was Fidel's time and the very large majority of Cuba was right there behind him. Naturally he upset many as well, as he nationalized all midsize and large holdings (mostly US companies). So many fled and made the short trip of 90Nm overseas to the US Florida coast. However looking at the overall population, the large majority was firmly behind him, which was the reason he had been able to win the revolution.
As most of the companies that were nationalized had been American companies, the US broke off political and trade relations in 1961. In May 1961 the now infamous American led "Bay of Pigs" invasion took place by 1.400 US trained mercenaries. But Fidel had known what it takes to bring down the large sized Batista army, so the 1.400 mercenaries were no real treat to Fidel's rebellions, who quickly took them down in an embarrassing drubbing for the US, including the sinking of a US ship inside the bay by an anti-aircraft gun quickly deployed by the rebellions. Following this defeat the US employed a full trade embargo, here called "the bloqueo" and is a sore topic of discussion amongst the Cubans. Up to today you find banners around Cuba withy contra propaganda about "the bloqueo", just as you find up to today propaganda about the revolution painted on walls, house sides etc. The idea for the gravity propaganda is to appear it has been applied spontaneous, like by some Cuban who wanted to express his feelings. Asking the Cubans about it, they will all tell you that it is done by Cubans paid by the government to jot down propaganda gravity here and there.
While living in the US, I have asked many in the US what the real US purpose currently is of maintaining the Cuban embargo and no one could really give me a solid explanation. I hence suspect that it is a mere handful of hardliners within the US top political echelon, still struggling with the fact they lost their first and only batlle in the Americas or the fact that they lost so many large companies that were nationalized by "abogado" Fidel Castro Ruz and his revolutionaries, who desire to maintain the status quo on the embargo. It really does not appear to serve any true interest for the US and only cost monies for the American tax payer to maintain.
Fidel was a socialist, he was not a communist. However the "Bloqueo" forced Fidel to look towards the Soviet Union. For trade and help. The Soviet Union eager to have a hot spot on the US doorstep jumped on it and ensured trade and supplied arms, which resulted in the now well-known Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In the years after the revolution, (Note that according Fidel the revolution is still ongoing and is currently in the third phase (rebuilding) of the Revolution. It is now its 53rd year as widely advertised, still keeping going strong on this "Revolution" story which naturally is a great "team builder" albeit might get somewhat of an old story now after 53 years) life was relative stable and relative easy for each and every one. Cuba built up an excellent educational system, free for everyone up to university (still in place). It has the best doctors in the world, regularly lends out their doctors (for some necessary hard cash) to foreign countries in Central and South America and to the Middle East. It has an excellent medical care system in place, free for any Cuban and no waiting times. Food rations are available for each and every person in Cuba. Everyone had (and still has) a meal on the table each and every day, supplied by the "Estado".
So naturally this has built a lot of goodwill in the Cubans and a proudness that this has all been achieved, even with the "Bloqueo" in place. You go to any other island in the Caribbean and you will find that these islands are a far cry of what had been achieved in Cuba. Going a step further you have their largest neighbor being the USA, only 90 Nm away, which has been unable to provide health care to all of their citizens and has not been able to lift all of their citizens out of the lowest poverty levels. Fidel is very aware of this feat and naturally has ensured that Cubans became aware of this feat through his propaganda machine, resulting in the proudness you often find in Cubans.
I was in Poland while it was still under communism rule, before "the Wall" came down while working on a small freighter in my school vacations. As the trains supplying the cargo were not on time, we waited several days in Poland for cargo, allowing me to explore Poland that time. Also I was in the Soviet Union, shortly after its collapse, attracted by a cheap vacation (being a student a necessity) in a world just opened up for non-Soviet Union citizens. In both of these countries built on principals that Fidel subsequently used to build his country I never saw the smiling faces you see here in Cuba each and every day. I am not sure if that is simply the "Caribbean Effect" (which really is the nice weather, the rum, the positive outlook of the locals and the attractive looking local female population that settles the "Caribbean Effect" to locals and travelers alike), but I had expected more of the struggling desperate faces I so often saw in Poland and Russia in the years just before and just after the wall came down. No not here in Cuba, people are struggling, but it is one happy struggle on the surface at least. The common answer I got to my question: "Como estas amigo? (how are you doing my friend) was regularly answered with; "muy bien amigo, pero no tan bien como usted (I am doing very good my friend, but not as good as you are).
They have nothing to share, but they want to share and above all want to talk. Not about politics but just about simple things. Where are you from, how is the weather there, have you seen the Cuban woman already, what do you think of them etc. (Later, separated from other Cubans, they start to talk politics if you persist, more about that later...).
So life was relative good and above all secure until the Soviet Union went up in smoke. Then it went wrong;
When the "Wall" came down in 1989, something I remember so very clearly, trade and support of around five Billion per year vanished in smoke, just as the Soviet Union vanished in smoke. Castro declared a "periodo especial" rationing everything from food to electrical power. In all reality this "periodo especial" is still ongoing. There is some light at the end of the tunnel for Cubans, as Cuba has found new trading partners in countries like China, South Korea, Venezuela, Brazil and countries in the Middle East. China is now front runner with dumping their goods on the market and naturally not being bothered by the US trade embargo. You also see more and more European countries trading directly with Cuba. Where in the past these countries often followed US policy, now likely due to the slow economic times, grab every opportunity of business, disregarding the US trade embargo. You find Dutch shipyards building and managing shipyards (Damen) and German cars being sold (VW). However shops are still rather empty.
The problem is cash money. The collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in such a backlash for Cuba that production of goods are at historical low levels. Sugar (cane) is a primary crop for Cuba, but too expensive to ship all over the world. Tabaco is a large income, however dwindling down now the world start to become more aware of the unhealthy side effects of Tabaco.
So Fidel and his brother Raul are now scrambling to come up with hard cash and as such have deployed many schemes of the last few years to generate hard cash. Tourism is a good one and continues to be expanded on. The problem was the house hold currency the Cuban peso simply has not enough value to really gain on the expenditure of tourists. So any tourist had a great time but did really spend hardly anything while in country as they could buy stacks and stacks of Pesos for just a few USD. So a second currency was introduced, the CUC (Convertible Peso) that is on par with the USD in value and valued around 25 pesos. Tourists are only allowed (officially) to spend CUC's and Cubans must charge in CUC when dealing with foreigners. So the taxi driver will charge you (the tourist) 5 CUC while it will charge the Cuban 5 peso for the same ride. Naturally the Taxi driver is not interested in driving Cubans around anymore, and rather waits for a foreigner. In order to spend those CUC's, the government has allowed CUC's stores with goodies from outside Cuba, really from everywhere, such as Gouda Cheese from Holland to remote controlled toys from China and Polish sausages. The problem is the average good to very good salaries (engineers and doctors) within Cuba are in the 350 to 450 pesos range per month. Yes, for you who are slow to do the numbers, this is 14 to 18 USD per month!
There is nothing wrong with a salary of 14 to 18 USD per month, provided there are goods and articles available to match those salaries. And that is now just the problem. They are not.
The only goods and articles available outside the bare absolute minimum are charged in CUC. As my flip flops were worn out, I decided to buy a new pair for the price of 8 CUC. You can see a doctor must spend half his monthly salary if he decides to buy some flip flops. Equally when the doctor's wife decides to buy some regular olive oil or some Dutch Gouda cheese, she will spend respectively 4 CUC (1/4 of the monthly salary) or 12 CUC, (nearly a month salary). So the run is on for Cubans to get in some way or other hold of CUC's. Anything will do. Doctors quite their job to become bell boys in hotels in order to get CUC tips from tourists. Engineers and accountants quite their job to start driving taxis in the big cities where you can find tourists (a condition for the job of taxi driver is however your capability to maintain a car in driving condition without parts readily available, be it a recent year KIA from South Korea or a 1958 Chevrolet) Someone we met had been a marina manager with a salary + bonus of 450 pesos. He quit his job and exchanged that for renting out two rooms in his house to tourists for 25 CUC per day per room (Casa Particular, more about that later).
Naturally when one person in the street is able to purchase some goods in CUC, the better stuff, the neighbor wants the same or more likely wants more of the same. So the race is on for CUC's. You can see the whole system that Fidel has built up in many years of equality, of life without concern about income, of life without concern about payments, (what as we know now was built on a false economy heavily supported by the Soviet Union until it collapse) slowly all crumbling down.
Both Heloisa and myself speak the Spanish language on conversational level, so we had many interesting discussion with Cubans. What amazed us each day was how much Fidel has been and still is involved in the day to day lives of the Cubans. Life is controlled and dictated into the details for each person. Rules are in place and must be adhered to. There is a real and ever present fear for the "Estado" (the state). Something similar we saw in the DDR and (now) other former East European countries and as well the Soviet Union before "The Wall" came down. Everyone here is always careful what they say. The walls have ears apparently and the secret police is everywhere. At first I was joking with this amongst Cubans, I did not believe it, not saw much of that control really. The fact was Cubans kept their voices low and looking around when the topics turned politics or other matters, in their eyes sensitive. After days we came to realize the ever mentioned secret police is real. It is set up similar as it was in the East European countries in that what is referred to by mentioning "secret police" are the many normal Cubans that have normal jobs, however that will "tell on you" to the political party in favor of getting a better political position which will turn into perks as better access to certain universities, school or any other system. As I said I was first joking about it, however after meeting so many people mentioning the same and always dimming their voices we realized this is real. In order to instill such fear in people, I know there must be true reprisals. You do not hear about these, but they must occur all the time, otherwise it would have been impossible by the Castro's to instill so much fear. You cannot create so much fear within the population just by threatening only for over 53 years, I am convinced about that. That is sad and we were surprised how bad it was really. It is rather amazing to see how much the Cubans still smile each and every day and how overly friendly they are towards foreigners. Even more amazing knowing now that there I nothing to get with regards to goods in Cuba, except for some stuff in the CUC stores.
If you only have pesos to spend, though luck, as the shops are empty, totally. No shoes, no shirts, no pants in pesos. No soap, no toothbrush no diapers in pesos. While looking around in one of the "shopping malls", a four story small store with each floor covering a different area such as toys, shoes, clothing and hygiene. There was a very long line on the "hygiene" floor, the other three floors were empty. It turned out that a load of diapers had arrived; everyone was in line to get their hands on some diapers. Beef is not available to anyone, however the tourist will find it on the menu of the restaurants in the better hotels. The only available meat items are chicken and pork. If you get caught having beef in the fridge or buying beef, a big penalty awaits you. If you get caught butchering a cow, you have 15 years in jail. I loved to joke upon my return in my country I would send the friends I made a beefsteak by mail. They always loved the joke, and at the same time you always saw the desperation of wanting to eat a steak again, something no one has had a change to eat for 15 years now. All beef must be preserved for tourist and export, which will bring the hard cash. We booked a horse cart ride, primarily as our son Auke had been asking for that for days. Someone we met (everyone you met will go out of their way to get things "arranged") set it up for us. It was obvious that the driver was very familiar with the horse etc.
I spend two hours with the driver upfront talking about his life, he had grown up on the farm (finca) of his parents, which still had the farm several miles outside town. Cows for milk and horses for the horse rides. For sure his parents had some beef steak occasionally I asked. He looked at me if I was mad. No, not a single beefsteak for someone who holds 150 cows. If one dies, you better have a good documented reason for it or else troubles again.
People get a free ration of rice, around 2kg rice per person per month, a small ration (handful) of beans and milk for the kids till they turn 7 years old and bread. All from the "Estado", from Fidel and his brother. Heloisa being a nutritionist could quickly calculate that the calories and variety would not be sufficient by any standard nowadays. So additional rice, beans and other items such as vegetables must be bought from the pesos. There are "mercado agro's" everywhere around. Farmers must send most of their crop to the Estado, which will distribute it. However they are allowed to sell around 20% of their crops on the Mercado. Here you buy for a few pesos (in our view a few pesos) tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers and perhaps if you are lucky some other grown vegetables. 5 tomatoes will set you back 20 cent USD. Same for onions. Three medium sized cucumbers will also set you back 20 cent USD. Lettuce is rare and on the rare occasion you find it, it will set you back at least 40 cent USD. So with salaries of 300 to 400 pesos for educated people, you will not starve. You will have meal on the table each day. For the ones on lower jobs with lower salaries it get's though, however in the weeks we have been here, each and every Cuban will tell you they are never really hungry. There is basic food for every one available. The real problem is as earlier mentioned is in the goods, or rather in the lack of goods. They are simply not available for the peso earning Cuban. A strong black market exist, like always is the case in those situations as human beings become very creative to enriching their daily meals of lifestyle. Fidel's control goes beyond the food systems. It controls every aspect. American made large refrigerators (you will be surprised to see how many US made products make it to Cuba despite the embargo, except for common goods such as Coca Cola, which they have a nice equivalent in Tu Cola ("your cola")),
had to be changed out for smaller Chinese made refrigerators by law, to our frustration of our "dono de casa particular" (bed and breakfast owner), which had to get rid of his large size double door US made refrigerator. Every house hold holds the same refrigerator in their kitchen and is required to pay the same small amount each month for many years to come to pay off their new Chinese refrigerator. Naturally the Chinese refrigerator company is the laughing third here.
We have all read about the cars. The never ending row of 1957 and 1958 large size American cars that still cruise the streets of Cuba. You see them everywhere, many still with their original 6 or 8 cylinder engines.
Parts are made on the lathe out of anything to get the cars going. Complex parts like pistons are send out of the US by mail. But these are pricey, even in the states as they are collector's items there. Talking to taxi drivers, their typical week consisted of driving around 5 days per week and maintaining their car for two days per week. You see now more and more foreign new cars however. Small South Korean and Chinese cars are available for the ones lucky enough to be able to save enough money to buy one. To tend to tourist needs, Fidel ordered a bunch of good quality Japanese and European cars to serve as taxi. So over the years you will see the parade of US gas guzzling 1958 cars dwindling in numbers I forecast.
Travelling around in Cuba is easy and very safe compared to many other countries, any time of the day or night. Bus systems are good and takes you in relative comfort where you want to go over longer distance. We flew from Santiago to Cuba for 153USD per person. The plane was a Russian built Iljoestin, however of very recent construction, same apparent quality inside as western built planes and enormous in size. The same plane would continue onwards to Paris in France! We travelled back by bus, which was a good way. Although many hours wear you out. The advantage of being only 7 years old, you can fit yourself on two seats and sleep for 6 hours in a row.
Another way to travel is by train, which was our original plan. We decided not to do that due to scheduling conflict, as the train only departs every 3rd day. For other cruisers, who did take the train we heard that is was somewhat of a challenge. They greatly advertise there is a first class, you pay 62 CUC for that, quite a bit higher class than the second class and supposedly much higher class than the regular class. In reality there is no first class and the seats which are somewhat elevated over the remaining seats in quality are quickly taken by Cubans who will not give up their seat. There is no water in the rest rooms, nor is their water in the restrooms on the train stations. So after 19 hours travelling by train, most cruisers are somewhat done with Fidel's train system. We were glad we had opted for the plane. Another interesting travel mode is Fidel's "organized hitchhiking". Fidel is paying staff to flag down government cars at city exits etc. Government cars are recognized by their blue license plate. As the cars and the fuel for these cars are paid by Fidel, he wants to ensure that his cars are utilized. So you can go to the city outskirt, find an organizer with a yellow flag standing by the road and he will flag down a government car which must take you on board to wherever he goes, so you might end up sharing the major's car with your dirty backpack who is on his way to a village community gathering. Unfortunately Cubans have learned as well and play every trick not to take you on board, so in reality it does not work. It is with so many, if not all Fidel's ideas. The ideas are actually not bad on paper, they just never work. For local transport around the city you best hop on a bici taxi (Bicycle taxi) or moto Taxi or you hop on the city bus for 1 peso (4 cent USD) and is typically an old run down city bus from some part of the world, often with the route details still upfront. Many buses from Holland, worn down in Holland they send or sell them to Cuban. I know if Dutch people give away something, you better be careful as it is typically very much worn out at that point.
You can spend the nights in hotels, good quality ones (again that never ending story you are confronted with each day of Fidel making sure that the visitor to Cuba has what it desires, but not making this available for its own people) or a better option is what we would call bed and breakfast places. Here called "Casa Particulares". This is nothing more than a home owner freeing up one bad room for you. The price typically is in the 25 CUC range (is 25 USD) per night per room. You typically have your own shower and can interact with the family if you desire or not. They typically serve meals as well, breakfast for 4 CUC and a good meal will go for 10 CUC. That is where they make the real money. These bed and breakfast places had been around for as long there came tourist to Cuba. In order for Fidel to get money out of it he made them all legal so they could be taxed. A wise move, except for the fact he taxed it with 70%. So now many casa particulars go underground again to evade the taxes. Another detail is you pay tax for 22 days per month. Irrespective if you have guests or not. If you do not have guests, thus no income, you still get taxed 70%. So by the end of the year with a 50% occupation rate you are lucky if you break even. The meals go untaxed, hence they go out of their way to service you meals. Since the restaurant meals on average are heavily disappointing (for example you order chicken in tomato sauce, a typical Cuban dish, it came without the tomato sauce for example, as that was not available). A typical restaurant menu has many dishes described, on par with western restaurant. However once you go down the list to order, it is typically, "I'm sorry, that is not available today" and you are back to rice, sometimes a little beans, mostly not and an old chicken.
The best meals we often had were in casas particulares, especially in the ones on the country side. It was obvious that the black market was much richer there, with more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables etc. then in the big cities. However on average each and every meal is very blend and meals served in restaurants are often a watered down version of the meal on the menu chart. After several weeks the typical visitor is graving for some food with a "bite", with some real taste.
Cuba is very literate, each and every one can write which is impressive compared to many other Latin American countries. The only thing what is available to read however is books about Fidel or books about Che Guevara and perhaps some Marxist ideology. It is like Fidel is a broken record now for 53 years. He kicked off that revolution and did a pretty impressive thing. Now the broken records keep repeating every aspect of it, day in and day out, for 53 years already.
It is also unfortunately that besides the fact the average Cuban will need to listen to this "revolution rhetoric everywhere he goes, he does not have the option to go on the internet and find out more about it. Internet is not available to the Cubans. The internet houses we went (set up for Tourists) were not accessible for Cubans living in Cuba. One Casa Particular showed us proudly his computer with unlimited internet access. He was allowed that as he catered to the tourist industry. He himself however was NOT allowed to make use of it. After asking him if he would never have a peak on the www, his voice toned down and in a whisper mode he ensured me he knew what was going on outside of Cuba.
This is Cuba nowadays. A country where everyone smiles and everyone wants to lend you a helping hand, despite not having anything themselves. A country that is proud of their own achievements the last 53 years, but at the same time are not happy with their own achievements. A country so in fear for their leaders, that every time a topic is "sensitive", the voices tone down and one will look to the walls if as these have ears. A country with a great love for great music, which you can widely admire in their "casa de trova's", open for everyone, where "stand up" musicians play music the whole day.
We loved it and certainly would like to come back one day in the future. For now we were glad we are on our way to Jamaica, where I am going to order a spicy big steak.