(I don’t have time for rewrites and zero flair for editing in pursuit of publication so here you are, in its entirety. Not necessarily exercise but we did walk (infinity) miles in pursuit of each day’s adventure 😉)
We began by the mention of a Cuban sailing expedition.
A year prior my friends had made the trip and they were so full of amazing stories and experiences that could only be read in their eyes and expressions so I had to make the trip myself.
Leaving on the sailboat out of Naples, Fl. I had only just gotten off of my flight an hour or so before we were thrust into the sea, our bow cutting through the six foot waves to make it out of the harbor with the wind blowing in and the tide going out. I worried that we were in for a rough crossing but was assured that most likely this was as bad as it would get.
The night proved that to be untrue.
As we plunged down the back side of one crossing wave and up the front of the next there were times I was worried about the entire boat going over on its side and filling with water, dumping us into the tepid waters of the Gulf and setting us adrift like so much flotsam from a freshly sunken sailing vessel full of equally intrepid travelers.
Morning brought at least the relief of being able to see what was coming over the horizon but the waves continued to roll in and toss us like a child’s pool toy.
Soon though the sea deepened and we were sailing over a vast canyon. The charts indicated that the depths were now measured in thousands of feet instead of hundreds and the water was alternating between midnight blue and shades of iridescence.
The rolling ocean became more of a gentle rocking and we were like infants in a bassinet with sleep finally coming at ease.
A little too easy.
I awoke to a “HOLY SH*T!!!” from my current co-captain and adrenaline flooding my system in an instant, peed a little in my board shorts and struggled to maintain control of my spasming colon. I sat bolt upright and saw a huge ship having already passed us about 25 yards off of our bow. It had approached as we were paying absolutely zero attention and motored by us silently not even registering that we were there.
A mere twenty five yards is what separated us from blissful ignorance and the deep six and I for one am grateful for the chance to live on.
Suddenly and “inexplicably” alert I decided to try some fishing so we threw out the lines and motored on. After what seemed like an eternity both lines suddenly started to sing and the fishing string began peeling off of both reels in a hurry. We each grabbed one and the fight was on.
My compatriot and I each began reeling for our lives and the fish were fighting us for every inch. My line kept peeling off of the reel and I’d fight back, winding for all I was worth, my brother doing the same thing all the while.
Eventually his catch broke the surface and we saw that it was a 2ft Bonita. Fun to catch and an amazing fighter but not good to eat. When my fish finally came up we at first thought it was the same thing but on second glance found that it was a bluefin tuna. SCORE!!!!!
We couldn’t wait to get that baby on board and make some tuna steaks, poké or whatever else came to mind. It’s in the freezer right now waiting on our decision.
The rest of the day was uneventful and we sailed on through the deep blue waters that now belonged to the Atlantic.
Having gone back down to sleep for a while I woke back up in the dark and glanced outside only to see a thin line of lights on the horizon. Approximately 30hours after our journey began, we finally had Cuba in our sights.
Motoring into the harbor we tied up at the dock and began my first interaction with the Cuban people. It was 11 o’clock at night but several people were on duty at the government controlled dock. A well dressed and pressed gentleman greeted us cordially and a documental parade rivaling the amendments of the American constitution ensued. Our passports were checked and rechecked, forms filled out then filled out again. We had a VERY thorough examination by the official Doctor which consisted of our collective temperatures being taken with a device that read our internals never even touching us. For a moment I felt like I was in a star trek episode.
We were then asked into the customs office and told to fill out another form which turned out to be our tourist visa. Our picture taken and our visa stamped we the. headed back to the boat while we were checked out by what I assumed was a recreation of the WOPR computer from the teenage Matthew Broderick movie War Games. After what seemed like an eternity later we were told “Welcome to Cuba” and off we went to find our moor for the duration of our trip.
Upon finding a spot to tie up near a booming nightclub we were greeted yet again by a small mob of helpful gentleman who worked for the marina and the dock master himself. They docked us and seemed incredibly grateful for the tips they received. That small gesture alone made the rest of my trip a breeze. Tipping even a small amount means a great deal to the average Cuban citizen who in general makes very, very little money and anything extra is like a Christmas bonus. If a $1 cerveza becomes $2 it’s not much to me but if a persons salary in this country is say, $30 a month that’s a damn good bonus. How do you think you’ll be treated if you hang out at that particular bar for say, six or thirty beers?(Actually most bars in the neighborhood are more like a walk up snack shack. The front of the building (loosely termed) opens up to the street and voila, your half lidded afternoon awaits!)
Anyway, back to the dock. The dock master came on board and filled out even more paperwork, informed us of the costs of our stay, accepted our tip and off he went, taking his gang with him.
The local marina security guard stayed around to introduce himself and await his tip as well. It’s never a bad idea to make sure that security gives even a minuscule damn about your property in order to retain said property for the trip home. I was told several times that crime and theft in Cuba were very low but I still wondered why there were bars, fences and gates surrounding every property in the neighborhoods as well as the city of Havana.
Having been in the country once before, my traveling companions had met and befriended a “taxi” driver (herein referred to as “Captain Taxi”) and his beautiful wife so we made a call and arranged a day of sightseeing, shopping, drinking and man stuff.
Drinking cervezas from morning until night doesn’t seem to be frowned upon by many of the Cuban people and we felt obligated, nay, delighted to partake in the local customs. Cristal seems to be the local favorite and is much like an American style Pilsner.
My favorite of the local brews was one called Claro, much like the champagne of beers, Miller High Life but being a fan of darker brews I’m still on the lookout for a robust and tasty beer. I’m told I need to visit one of the breweries for that so it’s on my list. One to steer clear of unless getting incredibly “sh*tfaced” (*techical term, not to be used by the layman) in the span of say, three beers, is your goal, is one called 8•6.
The name also an indicator of the alcohol content and, if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant business, the sign that it’s probably over for you in short order.
We stopped at one “bar” in a neighborhood for a beer and found that the beautiful young girl behind the counter that served not only cerveza and sodas but also loosely termed “pizzas” in a country with almost no dairy products, and an instantaneously addicting elixir known as Cuban Coffee. A sweet, viscous, black as night beverage with a powerful punch served in a child’s tea party cup.
If you ever, and I seriously mean ever, get the chance to drink this incredible coffee, don’t ever turn it down. Buy several, tip heavy, prepare for your journey of enlightenment.
*Side note: This morning I decided to make my own and add Irish cream. I drank it like I usually do and finished a pot in short order. I’m currently projectile sweating and can accurately predict the future of any living being on the earth. I’ve cleaned the boat from top to bottom, donning scuba gear to scrub the hull and much like Festivus, performed feats of strength for the occasional horrified passers by. I picked up one scurrying housemaid on her way to the local hotel and spun her like a circus performer spins a plate to the delightful sounds of “AAIIIEEEEEE!!!!!” before she was wrestled away by her equally frightened grey & white clad compatriots, all in my head, of course.
Such is the joy of mucho amounts of sugar and a generous dose of booze at 5am on a Tuesday morning.
Off To Havana
We were told that the bus ran every hour on the hour from the hotel near our dock so we
decided to hitch a ride. The bus is $1 C.U.C, (fondly called the “Kook” by the touristas) the official monetary unit of Havana with the rest of the country operating on the Cuban peso. After hearing that the American dollar was taxed at 10% before exchange we had each decided to try our own approach with one friend getting Canadian money, me getting the Euro and our captain sticking with the dollar. With the exchange it seems that I came out on top but being a mathematical midget a.k.a. “little person” I can’t be sure.
The bus must be on island time because it arrived precisely 30 minutes late and proceeded to take us all the way to the next stop two miles away where we were told that’s all the further it went and another bus would be along “on the hour…”
We’d been riding with an older British couple from north of Newcastle near the border of Scotland and we collectively decided to take one of Cuba’s numerous 1950’s leftover American jalopy’s turned taxi cabs the rest of the way. I’m not sure but I think our ride was a ’52 Dodge Death Wagon.
I could be wrong but that was the phrase that continued to run through my head the entire harrowing way. It was a four door and the posts had been cut from between the doors and a piece of rebar welded from side to side to support the car and keep it from caving in like an origami racer. I was informed by gesture and interpretive dance by our faithful guide that I needed to hold on to the main body of our steed because my door had a habit of opening on its own and I could slide out to my impending doom. The seats had given out somewhere around 1971 and I thought maybe I should have been asked permission before being nearly violated by the spring prodding me in the backside. The driver however, drove like a seasoned pro. Dale Earnhardt himself would have genuflected in the presence of this automotive wünderkind. Weaving in and out of “traffic” he mastered that four wheeled scow as though he was Yo Yo Ma and it was a cheap rental cello.
I use traffic as a loose term.
It was more like one huge train with thousands of cars and a small gap between each one.
Using the horn was as arbitrary to him as me using my middle digit to indicate my disgruntled “hello” in traffic and this guy was a master at “The Finger”. He drove in and out of the mob with a quiet disregard and as much concern as a child with a hot wheels car has while weaving between his action figures on an imaginary track.
He dropped us off a couple blocks from the city center indicating that was all the further he could go and I soon understood why.
As we began to drift our way to the huge city center square I was struck by the amazing amount of garbage in the streets. I thought New Orleans was the epitome of filthy streets after witnessing the aftermath of Mardi Gras but it is now reduced to mere “dirty” status. It seems that even though we saw garbage cans everywhere on street corners and in the middle of the esplanade, I watched as the tourists looked for a place to leave their garbage while the natives dropped theirs with complete disregard wherever they stood.
The street in front of the capital building was torn to shreds and channels cut every which way. We were told that Internet cables and new electric lines were being installed and Havana was on its way to being a modern city. I understood then why our driver could go no further. His car and its zero suspension wouldn’t have made it ten feet.
The center however was PACKED.
Being Monday it was the destination of every vacationing tourist (including us) and anyone with absolutely anything to sell. We would walk two steps, tell someone we weren’t interested in their peanuts/meat/convertible car tour/daughters (“yo siento, no”) and move on only to be stopped by the next guy who had us pegged as American tourists. We did give in when we spoke to a gentleman who offered us Cohibas at a good price so we decided to give them a look. He led us two blocks away, down a seedy, dilapidated alley and up a set of stairs inside a dark doorway where I swear I heard the Cuban equivalent of banjo music.
I was actually afraid that we were getting ready to be mugged as a “Welcome to Havana” gesture but the guy turned out to be a decent man. We bought many boxes of cigars from him at an amazing price compared to US equivalency and felt we made quite the deal. I have no idea where he got them but it seemed after talking to several of the same kind of guy, there’s a brisk trade in under the counter cigars. Everywhere we went men would see us with the boxes and offer to sell us more. We wanted them but nobody wanted to carry any more. I was informed later that many people who work in the cigar factories, in order to survive and supplement their sham of a salary, take boxes and sell them to people just like me and my friends. A $50 bill for a box of Cohibas is an absolute steal but the five boxes we purchased from our new best friend and cigar hookup beat his monthly salary by up to five times. Later in the week we were led to a shack of a house where yet another gentleman sold us seven more boxes at the exact same price. He even treated us each to a free cigar that later I found out was the number one rated Cohiba this year.
Everywhere there were street vendors and little closet like stores selling cerveza and small burger looking sandwiches aptly named “hamburguesa”. As of this writing I haven’t tried the burgers but they’re on my list.
(***I finally got the chance and for $8 cuc was treated to a slab of mystery meat with two quarter sized dollops of indiscernible hot sauce on a sesame seed dinner roll. Disappointing on the heels of what was actually really good tapas but the roll was pretty tasty.)
Sloppy Joe’s, a former favorite of Ernest Hemingway, is a prerequisite stop on any tour of Havana and Key West so we stopped in but left after 20 minutes of being ignored while sitting directly in front of the bartender. I was willing to spend my dollars and of course tip well but I realized why the place was almost empty when others were completely full. The service was terrible.
(***I have since returned and although the drink service was a bit more attentive (not a lot), it took 45 minutes to get three tapas plates when there were less than 20 patrons, three of whom had food while I was there. I guess “island time” is a factor the world over. I ordered the shredded pork mini tacos, the prosciutto and cream cheese roulade with honey and the pork medallions with what looked like chimichurri not really realizing I was gravitating to my favorite animal to eat but each plate was really very good and the best commercially made meal I had in Havana.)
Back to Havana
My traveling compatriots, seriously having the time of their lives decided to rent a little two bedroom house a few miles away arranged by our intrepid friend with a maid and a cook and most importantly, air conditioning.
The hosts of that fine and amazing house that was an oasis in a neighborhood looking like a World War II demolished French village also made what became my favorite meal in Cuba.
Eradio, a Cuban baseball fanatic,who knows for absolute certain that local player Kendrys Morales singlehandedly won the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals and his beautiful wife Landia made us grilled, open faced lobster tails with clarified butter and freshly crushed garlic, another lobster dish made with pieces of the still shell clad tails and an amazing red peppered sauce that went amazingly well with the delicate rice. Fried bananas and sliced tomatoes with shredded carrots topped off the meal and I couldn’t get enough. Eradio made me a Cuban coffee after dinner and gave me a glass of fresh guava juice as well as a slice of chilled guava. I’d never tried the actual fruit and was surprised at how hard and prolific the seeds were.
As I’m constantly surrounded by people in my every day and the little rental was a two bedroom I was more than happy to take my leave and go back to the boat by myself.
It was spectacular.
The first night I made dinner with some chorizo that I’d purchased at a local super mercado and some pasta I’d found on board. I thickened the sauce with an egg and holy haysoos it turned out good. I was in bed by 8 thinking I might go down to the local hotel bar later in the evening but woke back up at 1am and delightfully went right back to sleep.
The next night, with the same intentions in mind, I got back to the boat after running around the countryside with our taxi friend and did the exact same thing.
Before though, I had decided to visit the US embassy and with any luck, meet our ambassador to Cuba so I left the marina and headed for town. I ended up walking about 10 kilometers trying to find the right bus and finally hailed a cab for $10 cuc. He took me to the front door of the embassy by way of every back alley, hooting and whistling at every pretty girl along the way, asking if I had a wife or girlfriend and if I wanted a Cuban girlfriend.
Keeping my libido in check I asked if we could just soldier on to the embassy.
After being dropped off at the front door and watching him drive away I walked over to the guarded gate, informed the guard as to my nationality and asked if I could come in and visit the embassy. I was immediately told “No way, José” and informed that although I was welcome to visit I would have to call and make an appointment. I found that to be a difficult proposition as I hadn’t had cell service since a couple miles offshore of Florida. I’ll see if I can regroup and try again another day.
(At least a hundred flag poles in front of the embassy with the Cuban flag prominently displayed and the American flag down in the bottom right.)
Once again trudging the streets of Havana, I walked along the street and sea wall fondly called the Malecón by the locals and the gathering spot for friends, lovers, the lonely, the happy and the sad, toward downtown and decided to cut inland and see some more of the city.
What I got was a glimpse of the seedy underbelly of a government consumed by itself. While the tourism areas of town are being built up and rehabbed to their hopefully former glory, the rest of town is literally crumbling away.
Piles of rubble litter the street and trash is everywhere. Everyone I’ve met on this trip has been incredibly nice and very helpful but even being a pretty large and occasionally intimidating looking man It felt a bit dangerous to walk the streets alone. No real reason to believe I was in any imminent harms way, just a general feeling of angst and extra watchfulness. Maybe it’s the abject poverty and seeing that the people don’t really have anything to lose.
Finally, having walked to the capital building from the embassy, (I was proudly informed that although the US capital building was the tallest governmental capital building in the world, theirs was now three feet taller) I wandered about and finally decided to splurge on a classic car tour and hopefully a ride back to the marina. I settled on a ’56 Buick with what I was told was a 2005 Mercedes Benz diesel motor and negotiated a $30 tour. Basically $10 more than a regular cab ride and well worth it.
Enciento (I think I’m saying it right) is from northeast of Havana. He inherited his car from his father and is hopefully making a good living with it. He took me all over. Down the Paseo and through old Havana then through new Havana, the difference being old Havana was built around the 1820’s-1830’s and new Havana is about a century newer.
We went through revolution square and past the largest cemetery I’ve ever seen in person. Embassy row on what I was told translated to Fire Bunny avenue was eye opening. Every country I’d never thought would want an embassy in Cuba has one. South Africa, Jordan (I think), the huge Russian embassy, and the precisely groomed and immaculate Swiss embassy along with many, many others.
Enciento was kind enough to allow me to act like I’d driven his car and even took a few pictures of me behind the wheel.
My dad is going to be amazed.
The Back Country
Captain Taxi, our intrepid driver, fixer and friend, is a literal driving force and arranger of our days. His faithful steed is the omnipresent loved and equally hated Russian Lada. It looks as though a 1980’s Volvo, a 1985 Civic and a 1983 BMW 3 series had a sadistic threesome and the Beamer wound up preggers. After the embargo the Russians flooded Cuba with these cars and having no other real alternative than say, the Yugo-esque/Ford Festiva wannabe Fiat of yor, many Cubans are still driving them.
Captain Taxi. Is. A. Master.
As we rode around town one fine afternoon, the Lada began coughing and lurching as my cat Henry is wont to do when he’s coughing up a particularly dry hairball. The Captain pulled over by a really nice park which turned out to be a wonderful setting for Lada-auto 101 de Cuba.
“No pro-lem!” With a smirk on his face and a “watch this” attitude, he switched the #2 & #3 plug wires, started the car again, revved it up, shut it off, re-switched 2/3 and started up again with the engine running perfectly. I don’t know if there was a little back flushing going on in the fuel filter but it was pure genius.
Another time, we were driving off into the back recesses of the north central coast at night and the lights suddenly flickered and went out.
Popi pulled to the side of the road, shut off the engine and stuck his hand under the dash. Fooling with his wiring and/or fuses by feel, the lights suddenly came back on and the forever phrase “No pro-lem!” flowed from him and once again we were hurtling into the void.
When we pulled into a neighborhood where the local fishermen sold their goods I was informed with a thumbs up gesture “You no speak. You talk and she know you tourist, price 👍🏼 PPFFFFT!!!”
So, as I watched the cane fields burning in the distance, he disappeared around the corner only to appear minutes later to gesture me back, taking me to meet the local fish monger.
He had informed her that I was a comisaro (cook) from the United States and was interested in buying some fish.
She showed me several fish I’d never seen before along with some parrot fish and what looked like white mullet along with pulpo (octopus) that although is amazing, I couldn’t imaging stinking up the small galley on the boat with that juicy baby. I could smell it even frozen.
We settled on a dozen lobster tails that looked 6-8oz each for $40. A damn fine price since we hadn’t been able to dive on the way down to catch our own. We had the one tuna but I think I’ll wait and see what she has today.
All through the little what I would call a village, there were people walking in the streets, calling out to one another, greeting each other warmly, catcalling and generally happy to see one another after a long day of doing whatever job they’d been given. The little bars were all lit like tiny las vegas’s and advertising their particular specialty foods along with pictures of the various beers they carried. Although devastatingly poor, the natives are also fiercely proud and hopeful for the future of Cuba. In general, happy that Fidel has stepped down for a more progressive Raul and soon, with all the hope they possess, a younger, progressive man that will pull Cuba and its people back into the modern world.
(***BTW, currently doing jumping jacks and stretching into shapes I never knew existed after this mornings Cuban caffeinated elixir.)