After eight days at the dock in Puerto de Vita it was time to head further afield and discover Cuba’s frontier and what anchoring here is all about. Continue reading
We gave Omar his walking papers a few days ago, not because he wasn’t a great taxi driver, but mostly because it was exhausting communicating with him; he spoke little English and, despite our best efforts with our Spanish for Cruisers book and our iPhone translator, by the time we’d looked up various phrases, Omar was still confused and the people we were talking to had wandered off to more interesting venues. We felt we weren’t getting a feel for the history of the various places he took us to and often we’d be taking pictures of wonderful buildings and parks but have no idea what their significance was. It was time to find a driver with better English and, serendipitously, we met Julio at a restaurant in Santa Lucia with his wife Yazmin, who was from Arnprior of all places 1/2 an hour’s drive West of Ottawa. Julio speaks wonderful English, has a droll sense of humour and, even better, had a Maquina, a private taxi in the form of a 1952 Chevy. Julio, Yazmin and Blair and I drove to Santiago de Cuba the next day.
On the way south we stopped once for a cool drink of sugar cane juice from a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere. Once Julio placed our order, the vendor stripped the bark from the cane and started feeding it through a pretty primitive combo crusher/strainer. As the cane went through at least three times to be well-splintered and crushed, the juice flowed into the machine’s small reservoir. The vendor handed over three glasses of green juice that, at first taste was wonderful, but after the second sip we handed it back; just way too sweet.
The main highway to Santiago was a two-lane, bumpy road with potholes so bad that occasionally Julio slowed almost to a halt to creep over them and often detoured through fields at the side of the road to get around washouts. It wound up and down through gentle hills and across huge tracks of fertile-looking farmland, always with the mountains hazy in the distant south; the mountains from where Fidel launched his revolution. We shared the highway with slow-moving horse carts, bicycles and old 5-ton bus trucks carrying people from village to village. Constant on our travels were people standing under trees at the side of the road. Sometimes it was a single man, sometimes a group of people, sometimes a mother and baby. It was curious to see these people, at the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere (well it was the middle of nowhere to us). But they were all waiting for rides it seemed. They’d walked across fields, down dusty lanes or been dropped off at a cross road by another bus truck. Our friends on Matador, docked beside us here, said they’d noticed this constant presence of people all along the roads during their bike travels. Actually, they said they’d been looking for a place to duck off the road to take care of ‘business’ and, in over 26 miles, there was never a time when there wasn’t at least one person standing beside the road within sight. Santiago was approximately 200 kilometers from Puerto de Vita but light years away with respect to scenery, density, noise and music.
We were pretty glad Julio was driving as there were few road signs on the way to Santiago and, worse, once we got there, the street signs were pretty well non-existent and the few that were posted had changed names since the last time Julio had been there. Santiago is far busier than Puerto de Vita and Holguín with taxis barreling down the narrow one-way streets, motorcyclists with passengers riding side-saddle and carrying huge parcels in their laps and wall-to-wall pedestrians and dogs (always the dogs!). Ever present in vacant lots and small scrubby parks are the kids playing baseball, Cuba’s national sport. Never mind that they have no equipment – no bat, just a heavy stick and, if there is no ball, they make do with a good-sized rock.
After a few circuits of the downtown area, we finally found our casa particular and parked the car, unloaded our luggage and ordered lunch. This is a private residence that, in addition to housing a fairly large extended family, also rents rooms to tourists. Only the rich gringos stay in the few hotels that exist and we wanted to experience the real deal, hence the casa particular. For $25 it was clean with a double bed, private bathroom (soap and toilet paper but no toilet seat) and had a wonderful little garden in the back with lime and fig trees and a fountain. They fed us a huge four-course meal for lunch and although we lazily discussed having a siesta to sleep it off, we weren’t here for very long so we headed out to see the sights of Santiago de Cuba, one of the most historical cities in Cuba. Approximately five hundred years old, Santiago has over 1 million people living here and it felt like they were all in the downtown area enjoying the sun, listening to music in the outdoor cafes, shopping, hustling for pennies and just generally part of the surge and ebb of humanity that was definitely noticeable here. We strolled through the main square, Parque Céspedes, where all the speeches were made to the common folk in the past and where many cultural events take place in the present. We toured the nearby Diega Velázquez House which showcased the different periods of Cuban history, the art, the sculpture and the living conditions. Looking for a better view of the city and a cool breeze, we entered the opulent Casa Grande hotel and climbed five flights to their rooftop restaurant, took lots of pictures and then got hustled out after we wouldn’t sit and buy drinks or, at the very least, pay the waitress for the privilege of taking those pictures. Most of the afternoon we wandered up and down the narrow streets, did lots of people watching (our favourite was one wizened old woman smoking a big fat stogie) and just mainly soaked up the great atmosphere while sitting in cafes entertained by guitarists.
Santiago is Buenavista Social Club territory and the music was amazing. That night we headed out around 9 pm and found a hole-in-the-wall hall where a band had set up. This was all acoustic, no microphones or amplifiers, with a standup base, flat guitars and a Latin rhythm section (maracas, congas, cow bells, wooden sticks, you name it). They played Cuban music and the audience took to the dance floor for Salsas, Rumbas and innovations in between. The highlight of the evening was when a tall, skinny local who was all legs asked Yazmin to dance after seeing her don her special dance shoes. Yazmin was both a Canadian and American dance champion and she and her new dance partner went to town on a Salsa. These songs go on forever (well – at least 10 minutes) and people were clapping and encouraging Yazmin and her partner to go faster and faster and when the song finished, the entire hall was thundering applause. At the end of the night we walked back to the casa down darkened side streets with Julio guiding us and, surprisingly, felt very safe.
The next day we toured the famous old cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where so many of Cuba’s historical revolutionary heroes are buried. As usual, someone new attached himself to our group, initially following us then eventually leading us to various crypts and graves to tell us the history. When we took his leave, Julio gave him a small tip and the fellow wandered off, his pails in hand, to continue his regular job of whitewashing gravestones. We then drove over to Santiago castle sitting high above the harbour, built to protect the city from pirates and corsairs. Typically, there was a small admittance fee to the site plus a slightly larger fee to take photographs. We could see the marina that other cruisers pull into when they transit the south coast of Cuba. It sits right underneath two big smoke stacks and the cruising guide notes that even a one-day stay here results in a filthy boat due to the fallout from these stacks. Throughout the whole of our visit to Santiago the damage from hurricane Sandy was very obvious; Santiago took a direct hit and many buildings were missing roofs and trees were uprooted and still waiting to be cleared away.
We headed home from Santiago feeling that we’d really seen a big part of Cuban history and especially glad to have Julio along. He and Yazmin were good company on top of being good tour guides and we made plans for the following afternoon to catch a ride with them into Guardalavaca where the resorts are. We’ve been able to communicate via SSB sailmail emails but we haven’t had Internet for a week now and thought we’d try to download our regular personal emails. This proved to be a real exercise in frustration. The receptionist at the first resort we tried said ‘there is no more Internet’ which we took to mean that the system was down. But no, that actually means that the resort had sold their daily minute allocation already and they had no more minutes left. The next resort had minutes but with a dial-up connection it was terribly slow. There’s no wifi here in Cuba so we logged in to the resort computer in a corner of the lobby. It was so slow that I didn’t bother trying to insert any of our photos into previous postings and will continue to send Brooklyn our Cuba postings via SSB email which she’s been wonderful about putting up on the website. In the hour that it took us to get our emails, it wasn’t all boredom as we were entertained by all the pink, sunburned tourists strolling around the lobby. Having been on the boat for almost seven months, we are well-acclimatized to the sun and don’t burn. Back in the Bahamas, we used to refer to sunburned tourists as lobsters but now that we’re in communist Cuba, we think we’ll start calling those sunburned people Pinkos. We’re glad to be back aboard Strathspey, in our own comfortable bed, and our nice bathroom with its toilet seat! We had no qualms about leaving Strathspey for the trip to Santiago as the marina is well-staffed with security guards and dock people. In fact, every morning, one of the marina staff walks the length of the dock and writes all the names of the boats at the dock in a very official looking book. If Strathspey went missing, I’m pretty sure these guys would track her down fairly quickly.
Hugo Chavez died yesterday and all of Cuba is in mourning. The president of Venezuela was considered a great friend to Fidel and Cuba and, with the US embargo, an important trading partner – one that provides all of Cuba’s oil, diesel and gas. We’d asked the marina to fill our diesel jerry cans a few days ago and they’d been dragging their heels for some reason. Yesterday, we finally got our diesel tank topped up along with our three jerry cans so we’re relieved that we aren’t involved in a protracted struggle to refuel if the death of Chavez affects any transport of goods our way. So right now, we have a full diesel tank and are waiting for a good weather window to continue sailing Northwest up the Cuban coast.
Our first day in Cuba was stifling hot and unfortunately in this marina there is not a breath of wind. Continue reading
After Brooklyn flew back to Ottawa, we re-provisioned in Georgetown and then headed south to Long Island to wait the passage of another very strong cold front. Continue reading