Mangoes in the Morning
Ever since the Garden of Eden, there has been the allure of forbidden fruit. Cuba has that allure. No vessel, irrespective of its flag, can go from Florida to Cuba without a permit from the US Coast Guard. Americans can go to Cuba but are forbidden to spend their money there, apart from through certain exceptions licensed through the US Department of the Treasury.
Some may find their forbidden fruit is a “fascination of abominations”. It might be a compelling desire that results in an experience that is not enjoyable and might even be distasteful. Cuba may not be for everyone.
But for those with the wish to understand things that they do not now understand, and to reach for things that are outside their own experience, Cuba is a fascinating adventure.
Coming from the Caribbean, we made our landfall at Cayo Largo. The marina manager at the Puertosol Marina spoke perfect, accentless English. We were given instructions to Med-moor, for the officials to check us in. There were lots of people on the dock to handle our lines, most of whom also came aboard as part of the official party. The first wave of a final count of an even dozen officials left four pairs of black-soled boots on the dock before boarding. What a picture that was — and we learned that the removal of footwear before boarding is a courtesy extended in every Cuban port.
We found the meeting of local officials an enjoyable encounter. Between
our broken Spanish with dictionaries, translators, and hand signals and
their desire to communicate, we learned much from the people about what
to see, the composition of their families, harbors to visit, what to expect
on future check-ins. We welcomed each with an offer of lemonade or cold
water. Their cruising permit is a work of art and there were no problems
or surprises with check-ins.
Our plan was to cruise eastward, taking advantage of the countercurrents along Cuba’s south coast. It worked. After one stop in Cayo Guana del Este, an almost uninhabited atoll with one fisherman, goats and crystal clear water, we arrived in Cienfuegos. Contrary to reports, the marina, again named Puertosol, was in good shape, the electricity and water fine, the staff friendly and helpful but with limited English. The check-in was again fun, and with lemonade and beer we learned much about Cienfuegos and what to see.
Odalys Toledo Rodrigues was a delight. Educated at the university level
with a major in economics, she is now the marketing manager of the marina.
She had one child, a 10-year-old son, and explained that most people in
Cuba only had one or, at most, two children, as that is all that they could
afford in terms of both time (since everyone has to work for the government
to be paid) and money.
During our stay we met the interesting proprietor of an art gallery, which is a private enterprise where artists can sell their works — and keep the money. He invited us to a Cuban sextet concert that evening. After we arrived and the audience was seated, he publicly introduced us to all as visitors to Cuba on our sailboat. There was a very warm welcome. The music was excellent.
We shopped freely in the “dollar” stores and bought bread from a “coupon”
panaderia. Provisioning is limited but acceptable. We, as non-citizens,
could buy beef in the dollar stores but Cubans were forbidden to buy beef
or lobster. It is unlawful for a Cuban to have or catch lobster for their
own use; chicken and pork, sold in the farmer’s markets, are the mainstay
meats of their diet.
We rented a car and drove to Santa Clara and Trinidad in the Sierra del Escambrays, a breathtaking mountain range populated by farms raising corn, cattle, mangoes, bananas, tobacco and seas of sugarcane. There are many farms, both large cooperatives and small independent farms. The air was clear and delightfully cool; the people in the dirt streeted towns were welcoming and friendly; the housing was meager. We had a delightful lobster lunch at a private paladar.
Leaving Cienfuegos we sailed through the Archipiélago de los Jardines del la Reina (the Queen’s Gardens), a delightful string of uninhabited islands with many snug anchorages. We spent over 2 weeks without seeing another cruising sailboat. There were fishermen who were out fishing for 3 days and then in for one. One night two came stealthily by in wooden dinghy to visit. Our reaction was interesting. If that had happened in another country, panic would have been felt aboard our boat. But there is virtually no crime in Cuba and we welcomed the fishermen aboard. They spent a couple of hours with us. Again using our very broken Spanish, we learned of their lives and their families, and in the normal friendliness and generosity of the Cubans they gave us gifts from the sea: eight lobsters and a beautiful Spanish mackerel cut into steaks.
We arrived in the southeastern “boot” of Cuba and explored numerous little fishing and resort villages. After dark, we could hear the sound of oars of an approaching dinghy. It was a young couple in their late 30s who said, “No lights, please.” We invited them aboard. She handed us a huge bag full of beautiful onions, bananas, and the most delicious mangoes we have ever eaten. We talked for quite a while and found out about their lives and their frustrations. We were regularly reminded of them over the next few weeks when we had those mangoes for breakfast.
Our final stop was in Santiago de Cuba. The marina itself is a very
attractive building with a small snack bar and a restaurant. The docks
are concrete. There is a swell that rolls in, so it is best to lie alongside
(which they are reticent to have you do, preferring that you do a Med-moor)
or Med-moor with your bow facing the harbor entrance.
We had another encounter with a professional at the marina, who was more outspoken about the Revolution. In his words, “Maybe it should be over.” He said, “I need choice and I can’t have it. The best I get is to decide if I buy clothes and shoes for my daughter, pay for food, or take care of the house. But I can’t do all three. I need more choice than that.”
In the city, we had to go to Immigration to have our 30-day visa extended. There was a crowd of easily a hundred people there. We were told to go to the head of the line. The others were Cubans filing for visas to come to the United States. It takes 2 to 4 years of standing in line and filing paperwork to be granted such a visa.
We met and spent a couple of hours with an historian who spoke excellent English. (He claimed he had learned it from the Beatles.) He and his entire family fought in and actively supported the Revolution; and he cast new and different light on it. To him, full Communism was the desired and ideal end-state. That state was achieved when the populace worked together, built a strong, healthy and international economy, became internally self-sufficient, and everyone had the necessities that they needed.
There was now resentment, he held, of those people who had better homes
(because the Revolution had not yet had time to give everyone a nice home)
and those who had large-screen color televisions (thanks to American relatives
who brought gifts and sent money), when others had little in the way of
luxuries. It appeared to him that those who were faithful to the Revolution
were worse off than those who had not been supportive and had family in
He observed that, as long as the US embargo continues, Fidel has an external foe to blame for the state of Cuba’s economy. His opinion was that if the embargo was lifted and American tourism and investment rushed in, Cuba’s socialism could no longer be sustained.
There is a not-to-miss music spot in Santiago, the Café de Trova, almost next door to the hotel. The café provides musical entertainment in approximate 3-hour sets starting at 11:00AM and running well into the night. Its existence goes back for centuries, and it is considered an honor to be allowed to perform there. The musicians may be stars from the past or up-and-coming talent. You may hear a talented folk singer with a guitar or a quintet with a vocalist. The entry fee for a tourist is one dollar, and for a Cuban one peso (about 5 cents). The music is fantastico! The people again are very friendly, and you can stay there all day and all night if you wish.
The typical income for a Cuban working person is the equivalent of about US$12 a month. Back at the marina, we met our best example of a person who was willing to work hard with the obvious hope of being rewarded for it. He is the wharfinger, or dockmaster. One of his jobs is to provide the diesel fuel that visiting cruisers need because there is no diesel service at the marina. (By the way, if you are going to Cuba, either bring lots of diesel fuel or lots of fuel filters.) His mode of transport was a pedal boat such as you might see on some recreational lake in the US. He took our jerry jugs, pedaled about a half mile out of sight, hiked to an inland gas station, filled the 5-gallon jugs, then walked and pedaled back — and made the trip three times, always with a smile. We tipped him US$10 for those and numerous other tasks that he performed, many beyond his job requirements, and this is how he augmented his monthly income. There are many Cubans who are making significantly more money from tourist’s tips than their government pay.
In conversations, he mentioned the need for some basics. One was vitamins:
C for his daughter and calcium for his wife, both of which we were able
to supply. A bottle of Neutregena shampoo was received with great joy.
Clothes and shoes are in very short supply. We will send some of our granddaughters’
outgrown things to him.
And we’ll always remember having mangoes in the morning.
Rod and Jan Tuttle are cruising the Caribbean aboard the yacht
Copyright© 2000 Compass Publishing