As we approached Cuba on an incredibly calm sea, we were once again joined by these majestic creatures…..a fabulous welcome to an island we have become very fond of.
On a vacation to Cuba several years ago we met the Hildago family and have stayed in touch over the years. We had always planned to visit this fascinating island on our way home and reconnect with our friends, and we were especially excited about getting a behind the scenes look at the “Real Cuba”.
After 60 years of isolation, Cuba is on the verge of normalizing relations with the United States and this will have a fundamental impact on the economy but it will also irrevocably affect the social fabric of the nation. We felt that this is a critical time to visit before it is overrun by Americans, and the unavoidable changes that will accompany this onslaught. Cuba has built a very special society and, while no one is driving around in expensive cars or living in villas on the ocean, everyone has the basic necessities of life. The Cubans are proud, industrious, highly educated and we always felt welcome and safe, which again is a notable difference from many other places in the Caribbean.
After our sporty crossing to Jamaica, and several days putting Rafiki back together, we had a lovely overnight sail to Puerto de Vita on the North East side of Cuba. We had to take a slip in the military owned marina, however, it was inexpensive and included water, power and came with 24 hour security. Despite, or perhaps because of, the strong central authority, check-in was painless and orderly. We were all given a brief physical by a local doctor, then processed by customs and immigration where visas were produced on the spot. A welcome change from some of the other dog-and-pony-shows we have encountered along the way.
Abdel came to meet us at the marina and promptly invited us home to his father’s house. While he speaks excellent English, we had no idea what to expect and Mommy kept shooting me the “what is going to happen” look, but I could only shrug because I knew little more than she did. We were met by the whole Hildago family and the afternoon stretched into evening where we were treated to a cramped but very hospitable dinner accompanied by animated conversation. At the end of the evening, there was a bit of a scramble to find a way to get us home and finally a ’56 Chevy appeared at the door. Because there is no approved transportation system for foreigners and rental cars were not available, we could only get around by private “taxis” which were expensive and consisted of a mixture of 50’s era Chevys and Russian Ladas. The regular marina taxi was a pimped out lime green Lada, complete with tail pipes and a rear view camera. Our driver, “Victor” had two horns; one for other vehicles and a separate one for Cuban ladies walking on the side of the road…
We were invited back to the Hildagos the following day for a very special celebration. In honour of our visit, they had purchased a pig (which we met the previous evening…) and they were going to butcher and then roast the animal throughout the day. Meat is scarce in Cuba and this extravagant gesture is usually reserved for weddings or New Year celebrations. While this was intriguing to Kathryn and me, it reinforced Mommy and Alex’s vegetarian inclinations. I tried to delay our arrival until the pig had been cleaned and was on the spit, but unfortunately they were a bit behind schedule so we arrived just in time to gut the poor animal. Mommy and Alex were definitely having veggies for dinner!
We spent the day in conversation, playing dominoes and taking a walk around their town. Seeing the country from their perspective was fascinating and you both seemed relaxed and comfortable with our local hosts. We emptied the boat of all the extraneous tools, clothes and kitchen utensils that we could do without, and all were gratefully received. Simple acrylic glasses that we had purchased from Costco and steak knives were especially appreciated.
The following morning we were taken on a two hour horseback ride along the coast which was a special highlight for Kathryn. It was a wonderful day with the five of us racing our horses along dirt roads, each trying to coax our mounts ahead of the other. Lightening, Tequila, Bloody Mary, and Porto (Kathryn’s local race horse) gave us more of a thrill than we bargained for. After several months of inactivity all of our muscles were screaming for days afterwards
While the Americans that we have met along the way have a coloured view of this “Communist” country, probably the result of 60 years of propaganda, we love the island and the people. Warm, polite and generous, they have built a society based on individual need and collective gain. Wages are low, consumer goods are scarce, and housing is modest. There is also no poverty, no starvation, no begging, free education, free healthcare, and people seem generally content. They have an unfortunate habit of comparing themselves to the United States, while a more realistic comparison might be to Jamaica. Our hope is that as the country transitions to a more open economy, that they do not lose the critical social infrastructure and safety net that defines this island. The danger is that it follows the path of Russia or China where the strong rise to the top, corruption spreads and the weak are forgotten. You will have the advantage of hindsight, but the Cuba that we visited last week is truly a special country and the people are second to none in the Caribbean.
After a week of activities we fuelled the boat, loaded the jerry cans with water and diesel and set out for the Bahamas. As an evening storm blanketed the coast and lightning lit up the sky, we departed into the fading sun for the overnight run to the Ragged Islands.