This was written for a newsletter at Michelle's company. More stories to come...
Sunshine, palm trees, Latin music, communism....communism? Yep, communism. Although to an American visitor to Cuba, the role of communism is significantly played down. We sailed to Cuba with the Havana Cup Regatta. The regatta included almost 200 boats and was granted 'fully hosted traveler' status by Marina Hemingway. This meant that we did not have to pay marina or customs fees and therefore did not violate the U.S. embargo laws regarding spending money in Cuba.
On May 25th, my wife and I cleared into Marina Hemingway in Havana aboard our 32' sailboat Hetty Brace. We spent the next three days looking, learning, and meeting some of the nicest people found anywhere.
We left Tampa Bay on Thursday afternoon and arrived in Havana early Sunday morning. Although we could see the lights of the city 15 miles out, the pervasive smell of the refineries sounded an even louder signal of impending civilization. After 3 days at sea, the smell of land becomes more acute - and the smell of Havana could not be ignored.
At 12 miles off the coast of Cuba (the beginning of Cuban territorial waters), we called into Marina Hemingway to announce our arrival. We were welcomed to Cuba and told to proceed to the Customs dock for clearing in procedures. Clearing in took over 2 hours. In those two hours we met at least six officials from the Health department, Agriculture, Immigrations, and Customs. We also parted with several bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, two Bibles, a six pack of Coca-Cola, and at least one Corona (yes, even at 5:30 am). A humanitarian organization gave us three boxes of medical supplies to donate to a hospital and the declaration of those boxes on our manifest appeared to cause some delays in checking in. Just when we thought we'd seen the last official, another one would be climbing over the lifelines. Bureaucracy is a big business in Cuba. This isn't to suggest, however, that there was anything intimidating about the process. On the contrary, all of the officials were extremely friendly and polite.
By 8:30 we finally heard the words "enjoy your stay in Cuba" and saw the last of the officials for a while. We motored into Canal 3 and tied up along a cement quay right in front of some good friends from our marina in Ruskin. We were surprised to see the canals of the marina lined with recently built condominiums and shops all surrounded by beautifully clear turquoise water. After securing Hetty Brace to the quay, we took some quick showers and settled in for a much needed 5 hour nap.
We were told by friends who had previously traveled to Cuba that items such as soap, aspirin, and over the counter allergy medications were very difficult for the average Cuban to obtain. Several weeks of staying in a Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis over the last couple of years resulted in two large bags of soap and shampoo. We also packed about two dozen Bibles. When we woke up early afternoon on Sunday, we loaded up a small backpack with things to give away and took off to check out the neighborhoods around the marina. Although we expected a degree of poverty, we weren't prepared for what we saw. People living in buildings that were literally crumbling down upon them and smells that could simply not be described. We also found something else...the extreme friendliness of the Cuban people. We barely turned the corner into the first neighborhood when we came across several people sitting outside a small house. They all waved and said 'Hola!' and one man, Alberto, introduced us to his dog, Baron. Baron had a talent for climbing ladders and Alberto had him demonstrate this talent for us. They knew that we were Americans and asked how long we were staying in Cuba. They seemed disappointed to find out that we were only staying for a couple of days. Before we left we tried to give them t-shirts and soap but they refused. They had enjoyed meeting and talking to us and didn't want anything more.
As we walked away, we realized that our lack of Spanish would be a serious impediment to presenting gifts to these proud people. A block or two further on, we saw a girl sitting by the sidewalk. Michelle said 'Hola!' and the girl responded with a definitely American 'Hi!'. Michelle excitedly asked 'do you speak English?' to which the girl responded that she did. Thus we met Sally and her mother and were invited into her home for coffee and some quick advice about how to say 'I'd like to give you a gift' in Spanish. Sally's home was very simple with a cement and gravel floor. In her small backyard grew a mango tree, a lime tree, and a coffee plant. The coffee they served us was from the beans grown in their own backyard! We left Sally some soap and shampoo and a Bible - which she was very excited to have. As we were discovering, religion has only recently been tolerated in Cuba and everyone we met was very excited to be given a Bible - more so than any other item we gave away.
Walking around and seeing Cuba in motion was fascinating and exciting. There are scores of small Russian cars, the ubiquitous 50's American cars that everyone expects, more than a few new Japanese and German cars, and even a few new Jeeps and Neons. A really interesting sight was seeing a bus move down the road at 50 MPH with 12 or more people on bicycles hanging on the rear bumper! There are probably as many bicycles as cars traveling the roads.
The next day, we met Jose who drove us in to see downtown Havana. We drove down embassy row, past the monolithic Russian embassy, and asked Jose if he knew where the old American embassy was. He did and we went there - except 'old' isn't an adequate description. The United States Office Building (it is not officially an embassy) is one of the newest and largest buildings in downtown Havana. Although there were several new American cars in the lot, it was Memorial Day and thus the building was closed. It probably wouldn't have mattered, however, as they didn't appear to welcome visitors. When we brought out the cameras, the guards came over and asked us not to take pictures. Considering that we don't have diplomatic relations with Cuba, we sure seem to have a large presence there. Judging by what we saw, it's apparent that the embargo is not expected to last much longer.
After a brief incident that could have gotten us all arrested, we had a lunch of cheeseburgers (although the word 'burger' is used very loosely here) and went to meet Jose's family living on the outskirts of Havana. How did we almost get arrested? Well, Michelle wanted to give a person sitting in a park a gift of soap and nearly started a riot with a large crowd descending on us hoping to receive something. She barely had the backpack open when at least 20 people were surrounding us. The amazing thing is, even these people were polite - no one grabbed or pushed or was too demanding. Jose told us not to do that again because the police take notice of such crowds. From that point forward, we decided not to do more gift giving in the central city. Other than the threat of arrest, it probably would not have been any different had we brought out a backpack of things to give away in downtown Tampa or Minneapolis.
Much of Havana was a shock by U.S. standards - and particularly by our Minnesotan standards. Buildings that must have been beautiful in their time literally had the appearance of having suffered a recent mortar attack. Many buildings were collapsing and yet had people living in them. We went into a 'Peso store' where Cuban citizens were allowed to shop (as opposed to 'Dollar stores' where tourists shopped) and weren't completely surprised to find it nearly empty. The large store contained a few items such as a comb or two and some suspiciously labeled household cleaning chemicals and not much more. The embargo - and communism - has been very, very hard on the Cuban people. It's amazing that they haven't lost their spirit and warm demeanor.
Armed with our new and dangerously limited knowledge of Spanish, we proceeded, over the next two days, to give away two dozen gift bags. Many people hugged us and were almost moved to tears. It felt good meeting these people and bringing in a little happiness. They, in turn, gave us possibly greater happiness and a renewed faith in people. We gave away all of our Bibles and virtually all of our soap and made friends that we will never forget.
By Wednesday, the weather was good and we decided to clear out for our trip north to the Dry Tortugas National Monument (90 miles west of Key West and 93 miles north of Havana). Clearing out was even more trying than clearing in. We were searched by both Customs and the Cuban Coast Guard. The Coast Guard officials said that they were looking for things, such as guns, that would "get us into trouble with the U.S. government". Apparently that sounded like a plausible excuse to them but as U.S. citizens, it sounded pretty weak. Our personal opinion is that someone noticed us walking around the neighborhoods giving away gift bags and as such they searched us to see if we were carrying subversive materials. Even though the searches were very thorough and quite lengthy, the officials were extremely polite at all times. They did, however, consume the last few precious cans of Diet Pepsi left in our icebox. We were finally told "that's it and come back soon" and were cleared to depart for the USA. The sails went up just outside the reef protecting the coast and we pointed Hetty Brace north.
We are already looking forward to our next trip to Cuba during which we would like to circumnavigate the island. The southeast coast is said to be among the most beautiful areas in the Caribbean and most people who've been there say that the officials are more relaxed once you get past Havana. We are definitely looking forward to meeting more of the Cuban people. The beauty of the island and the warm memories of our encounters with her citizens will stay with us forever.