Sailing south of the U.S.
Late the second day, Steve pilots us into Marina Hemingway, roughly 15 miles east of Havana, Cuba.
When we arrive, we are bombarded by Cubans asking, “Would you like to give present?” with those pouty little disengenuine eyes that make you think: no wonder these people are so poor, the’re a bunch of babies! This is our first impression of the forbidden country as we get settled in the massive marina. I understand communism doesn’t work very well, but wielding a member’s card to the top ranked species on the planet, I expect a little frontal lobe activity. Then again, getting relatively astronomical bonuses for the display of a little false humiliation could be a most clever use of resources. Everyone and their brother come to the boat with a sob story looking for handouts. They have all managed to survive to the age of 40 and all have large beer guts, so I’m sure I’m not their last link to survival. Some random uniformed man with a 9-month-old Springer Spaniel searches the boat on the 2nd night for drugs. The dog sits on the salon rug, licking his fleas, while the guy asks us for money. Our neighbor (ironically, also kept his boat 8ft from ours in Key West) was smart and brought small U.S. bills. When he handed a “gift” of $5, the authority grimly answered, “I want $20.”
The Cuban payroll system is baffling. Only in a communist country can you have more employees than customers around the clock and stay open for business? I see a select few performing actual work and from what they tell me, the going wage is $2.00/day. Castro hooks everyone up with a monthly ration of rice, beans, cooking oil, soap; whatever the prisoners citizens earn on top is for luxury. Hence, the quest for handouts. In my experience, the times I go without working, the less luxuries I want myself. I just want more free time before I have to go back to work. When I am working, I want to earn and spend and save more. It’s just momentum. Some people in Havana have it and it shows. New European or Asian cars cruise between the typical winged 1950’s Chevrolets and Fords. Artists and artisans dot the streets of Havana, many with jaw-dropping skill and seem to do better than the hustlers.
We were hustled once in the downtown tourist district of Havana. Our guard was down from our visit to the village of Santa Fe. We went there first to see what small town Cuba was all about before visiting the capital. When we told the driver of the classic pink Cadillac with a hand made TAXI sign we want a ride to Santa Fe, he asked us, “Por Que?”
Bright orange dirt edged in green patches of grass, wild yellow palm trees, and matching blue skies and ocean front. Bottom right side if you stand on a globe at Key West looking south. (This is how I interpret geography when floating slowly from place to place) The townspeople are clearly unspoiled from tourism. Concrete ruins stretch out over the beach waves full of kids and teenagers unsupervised. This feeling of freedom reminds me of summer days on the Ogeechee growing up. *Growing up is the real regression and everyone knows it. Sophistication is great, but the real loss of innocence is the gain of etiquette. Gag.) The temptation of wiry little athletes doing backflips off a dilapidated 12ft concrete pier into 4ft deep water is too much. I do a front flip into a fairly deep spot with relatively small chunks of concrete at the sandy bottom. The water feels fresh and salty and I walk away with only a couple of small blood blisters under my right heel. No limp. The kins and we shared mutual entertainment, but I screwed up when I took a pack of 6 cookies from my backpack and gave it to one of the young locals. Like a flock of seagulls, the other 15 kids began squawking. I tell Steve I don’t know what “hooREE-ohs” means. He corrects me, “They’re saying ‘orEos, orEos’. Two things I should have known: (1) Bring enough for the whole class, (2) It’s dumbasses like me that cause 40-year-old fat men to walk around Havana with their hand out.
Part II: The Cuban Hustle. 20miles east of the quiet township of Santa Fe is the bustling metropolis of Havana. Early 20th century architecture gives a historic feel similar to St. Petersburg, Russia. Nearly massive columned government buildings *they have a scale model of our capital building) with connected 4 story apartment buildings like Chinatown, Manhattan or San Francisco. Forgotten colorful classics putt and cruise the streets. Pink Cadillacs, teal winged beauties, and eternally glossy moonshine runners are everywhere you look. There is no denying Cuba’s beauty. The depth of this attribute is debatable.
Like yesterday, strangers walk up and talk to us with curious ears. In Santa Fe they are interested in you. In Havana, they want you to believe they are interested in you. A man and his wife join us on a sidewalk with smiles and questions. He is a school teacher, his wife a nanny. They seem nice and we escape the heat to a cool bar with live music. The teacher offers us a famous drink and asks if we want to see a cigar shop. I don’t really have a good reason for why I followed him around the corner to his friend’s apartment except curiosity. The $500 box of cigars was offered for $100. I bought them for $40, but didn’t’ wake up that morning with the intention of stocking up on Cuban tobacco. When the man and I return to the bar, we are greeted with the bill. The drinks are $5 each which is equivalent to $20 in the States. As Steve, Julie, and I exchange confused glances, the ‘teacher’ and his wife make their swift escape. Class dismissed. The next hustler has the pleasure of joining us as we slowly peruse art galleries for 45 minutes until he loses interest and leaves.
Riding in the air-conditioned, empty bus from Old Town Havana back to Marina Hemingway, I see our driver exchange impatient gestures with the driver of a packed local bus. After almost having to fend off the blood-spattered loser of a small brawl in the park this morning along with other aggressive demonstrations, Havana seems to be a bit dog-eat-dog. Compared to the almost unmapworthy town of Santa Fe, Havana is extremely affluent and developed. But, just because the locals don’t own computers (exchanging info with a local dude got awkward when I gave him my email) didn’t keep us from having a great time. There was no hustle. In the city, we were the hustle.
Travelers I’ve spoken with who’ve recently visited Cuba agree. If you have a chance to visit this vast island, I recommend planning a trip east or south of Havana. It’s a big country and the tropical, mountainous landscape is breathtaking. We missed the opportunity to stay with a family with only the excuse of already paying nightly rates at the marina. This option is available with very little effort in finding. Good food and good people.
First deep breath of the day although the sun is already ½ way on its decline. The 12” Cuban courtesy flag, tied as high up the stainless steel wire shroud as Steve could reach, dances around and occasionally ignites in its attempt to conceal the fiery ball of our solar system’s center. Breaking crests mist my neck and ear. I watch the sizzling waves roll out from under the port side of the cockpit, white gassy mountains hissing and then submerging like sudsy serpents into the hauntingly pure blue. A couple miles further the razor thin line of sand lines the rolling hills of tropical trees, shadowy mountains behind. We are heading west at the moment to round the north coast of Cuba. A current promises to help until our crossing of the Caribbean to Belize. We decide to skip Mexico because the bribes and other forms of annoying corruption is supposed to be just as bad as Cuba.
I get to use one of those useless talents of mine tonight and it makes me feel proud. I have a couple unique abilities like touching my toes while my heels are against a wall. Try it. I’ve only met one person with the shoe size to height ratio required. Tonight’s skill is writing in the dark. I taught myself to do it in high school to take notes without removing my eyes from the projector. In college Advanced Steel Design called for it and many late night song writings. I am in the dark to keep us incognito. I hope that a boat with radar doesn’t need to steal money to sustain their desired luxuries. Hustlers are fairly lazy, let’s hope the same is true of pirates. If they have the wherewithal to invest in radar, they should be able to come up with better methods of generating income.
Distant fireworks from what turned out to be a floating shopping mall, aka cruise ship, gave me the idea to turn off our mast and cabin lights. I first thought the fireworks were flares at a distant. Deception to get aid is sometimes used by pirates to lure in helpful victims. The short length of water between Cuba and Mexico is also notorious for traffic routes of narcotics, so our best bet is to just stay away from other boats.
It’s hard to tell what are reflections of stars on the glassy surface and flashes of bioluminescence. Orion just joined the party and moving satellites don’t blink. We have a great view of the Milky Way tonight. The point of the top of the mainsail is faintly silhouetted by the absence of sky diamonds. Planes move faster than satellites, but slower than shooting stars. The first night on open water is always thought inspiring and spooky. Occasionally you realize the only thing keeping your 7,000lb lead keel from taking you to the bottom of 2,150ft deep water is the ½” thick fiberglass hull.
So we are sailing right along, Steve and I are out in the cockpit stargazing when, what appears to be, a commercial jet due to green lights and velocity hums horizontally about 4 fingers above the horizon. It looks too bright to be a jet and doesn’t blink. We get Julie out from the V-berth to marvel at this oddity as it slows down and breaks off into a dozen emerald lasers streaming through the velvety walls of our atmosphere. Then cosmic fireworks spectacular lasts a full 20 seconds. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a night sky. Afterwards, we paid close attention to channel 16 on the VHF for news of an alien invasion. That’s all I have to say about that.
People write about how you should bring an extra autopilot. Well guess what; they cost 300-600 bucks for a used one. Ideally, we would take that advice along with an extra chart-plotter ($1500 new – we use a $200 tablet with $50 downloaded charts) and an extra everything else and a-whole-nother $30k boat, but we don’t even have one $30k boat. We have a $3k. To address the haters and curious, no I am not independently wealthy (yet), I just don’t consider “No” as one of the possible outcomes in my adventure planning. Just like in billiards and engineering, there is always a solution.
We are not over-prepared, but we have done some homework and exercise safety measures. Steve knows a lot. I used to think it was selfish that he stayed up all night surfing the web while I disciplined early bedtimes and wakeups to labor on the boat. He stayed up night after night for months and years, feasting on information, which he spouts at times of crisis.
I got about 5 hours of sleep and though the heavy breathing of mild fatigue are tickling the base of my brain, the sky is slowly illuminating. I anticipate a morning breeze and the black cloud cutouts suggest delivery confirmation. Time to sail.
5 days on the Gulf/Carribean. Half a dozen consecutive storms push us north and we change course for Mexico. We see some cool stuff. A dozen spotted dolphins snack on the keel buffet under our boat. Two dozen whales come within a mile, migrating south for warm water. It must be nice to be a submarine in times of fowl weather. A couple of water spouts and a bunch of squall lines keep us busy and on Saturday, we sail north between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Our crank battery is dead, so we tack back and forth into the bay of Isla Mujeres and reach a good spot to drop the hook. Our new neighbors tell us it is laid back and we can check in on Monday. We paddle our kayak to a restaurant.
Side note: If you die in a hammock, you win the game.
Julie explains it as such, “Steve and you are very accepting of each other and want the other to do what they want, but when you are together, you are constantly reminding yourselves to let the other do what they want. You end up just grinding gears. It’s just time to go separate ways.”
We’ve done some cool stuff and now we diverge. Tomorrow, Wednesday August 14, 2013, Julie and I head out with packs on our backs and feet on the street.
Look back at the things you did with contentment. If you changed the smallest bit, you would change everything.