Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hasta la Vista, Cuba

I am back online much sooner than expected. Much has happened, not sure where to begin, so I will likely write about the last few weeks in a series of installments. I remember my first image of Cuba early on the morning of February 3rd like it was yesterday. One lighthouse flashing a bright white light, about 5 miles east of Havana. As daylight broke, many layers emerged, ranges of low hills becoming hazier with distance. After leaving Key West, we were pushed ever so slightly to the east while crossing that branch of the gulf stream, so once across the current, we headed the 15 miles west to Marina Hemmingway, our final destination about 8 miles outside the city. We were circled by an American helicopter a few times, but I guess our Canadian flag was large and convincing enough to not encourage any further contact. I had heard stories of boats being illegally boarded by the US while in transit to Cuba, and I was hoping this wouldn’t happen to us. We could hear my friends from Road to the Isles, the Nova Scotian schooner I had last seen in Palm Coast, on the radio, and it turns out they had made the crossing the same night as us.

Clearing customs and immigration was a circus conducted by two 20-year old guys who had been on the job for 2 years. Road to the Isles cleared relatively quickly, and later admitted that they were beginning to get concerned that something was the matter when we were still talking to them well over an hour later. The first 5 minutes of the conversation was, “What do you do for work back in Canada” and “How long do you plan to stay” and “Where in Cuba do you plan to travel”. After that, we were asked where our boyfriends were, told how beautiful we were, and on the back of one of my clearing documents is where they asked me how to say/write ‘naked’ in English. They took their jobs very seriously.

After leaving the customs dock, we moved over to one of the canals of the marina. Once upon a time, I’m told, the place was hopping. Now it’s in a rather bad state of disrepair. There were a few boats coming and going, but in a marina built to handle 400 yachts, the dozen or so made the whole scene feel a bit too quiet. After coming ALL this way, and having gone through so much and with such high hopes of what I was about to experience, my impressions of the country left so much to be desired. After one week in the marina, I was more than ready to jump on the next plane to Canada. Which I did.

I returned, grudgingly, to Havana a week later, on an evening flight that put me in the desolate Jose Marti airport in the middle of nowhere at 2am. I managed to share a cab with an older couple on their way to an all-inclusive resort, and finally arrived back at the boat around 3:30am. My sister flew home the same day I flew to Montreal, leaving Katie and Effie boat sitting for the week. We were all ready at this point to leave the restrictions of the marina and see what the rest of rural Cuba had to offer. Many boats had been waiting for this weather window, and I think 5 or 6 boats headed west that day. It was the beginning of a great sailing trio consisting of Annie Laurie, Road to the Isles, and a boat named Bachannal.

Without the company of the other boats, I’m afraid I would have to admit my short trip along the north coast of Cuba would have few redeeming qualities. Having originally planned to go as far as Cienfuegos counterclockwise around the country, by the time I reached Los Morros, the western point of Cuba, as alluring as the diving and natural wonders of the south coast seemed, I was MORE than ready to get the hell out of there. Bachannal was bound for Isla Mujeres in Mexico, and after some thought and discussion, I decided we would follow.

Difficulties with officials and paperwork persisted right up to the bitter end, as we tried to clear out of Los Morros. Everywhere you go on a boat in Cuba, before anything, you must clear in with the Guarda, and same goes for whenever you want to sail to another anchorage, you must clear out. This always involved bringing the Guarda aboard, having them search the boat, sign my cruising permit, and checking all the passports. Once it involved taking my wallet as a souvenir. As the hours wore on, I became more uptight about making it to Mexico before dark the following day. Only having one large-scale chart of part of the Mexican coast and a photograph of a sketch from a cruising guide belonging to our Australian friends, I was definitely keen on getting in through the reef with daylight. The hold-up on the Cuban end would result in one final kick in the shins for which I will always hold Cuban immigration somewhat accountable………….