|We sailed overnight, leaving Key West just before sunset along with the
several large power and sailboats that carried hundreds of holidayers out to
see the sunset. Every day at this time they load their passengers and motor
or sail out of Key West Harbor onto the banks, the shallow water that
fringes the entire south Florida coast. Once out they tack back and forth
until the sunsets then they hustle their customers back to town so they
won't miss too much bar time.
|We spent a week in Key West, partly because we like it, partly because
we were getting a marine radio fixed and partly because we were waiting for
a weather window in which to make the crossing to Cuba. It wasn't a tough
wait because Key West is a fun place. We ate excellent Cuban food at El
Siboney a wonderful little restaurant in an unassuming, pink stucco
building, which is well off the beaten path. We "discovered" El Siboney
when we visited Key West 4 years ago. When we returned this year we
couldn't remember the name or location so we asked. We stopped someone who
looked like a local (don't ask me what a local looks like) and started the
conversation by saying "There's this Cuban restaurant..." and before we said
another word she said "El Siboney" and proceeded to give us directions.
|The heart of Key West is Duval Street. Duval street runs pretty much
from one side of the key to the other. Between the "highway" and the
waterfront the street leads past more restaurants, bars, taverns, saloons
(the distinction is unclear to me but they had'em all) than one can count.
Every one of them is open to the street and virtually every one of them has
more or less full time live music. Some of the musicians are distinctly
average but some of them are pretty good. Get yourself a walkin beer and
cruise the street to sample the music available at any given time. There
are at least as many such places off Duval Street but the street is clearly
the center of activity.
|The first time we visited Key West we listened to a local musician named
Michael McCloud. In fact we bought his CD. McCloud was on stage by himself
in the heat of the afternoon. He was so laid back that I thought he was
going to fall off his stool. This year we stopped by the same bar and, sure
enough, there he was, still laid back beyond belief and still singing the
same songs, one of which included the lines "just came down for the weekend
.... 25 years ago". I believe he did. We didn't buy another CD.
|Key West to Havana is about 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. One
figures about 15 hours in a sailboat. We wanted to arrive in the morning
hence the evening departure. If you wait for good weather then it is not a
challenging crossing. If you don't then it can be a bitch. In this part of
the Straights of Florida the Gulf Stream flows west to east at up to 3
knots. If an easterly (from the east) wind is blowing it opposes the flow
of the "Stream" and the opposing wind and current make for very bumpy water.
To compensate for the easterly flow of the stream the navigator (that would
be me) must maintain a heading that is some 10-15 degrees west of the
heading that points directly to her destination. We started out in a light
breeze and flat seas. Sailing out of Key West in those conditions with a
gorgeous sunset off to the starboard was sublime. The weather changed
around midnight. It didn't get bad. It just got a lot less comfortable
than it had been. We continued to sail in pretty bumpy conditions until we
approached the entrance to Marina Hemingway about 0900 the next day.
|One is advised to call Cuban officials on the marine (aka VHF) radio as
soon as one enters Cuban waters (I think it's 12 miles out). When we called
them they were more than gracious, welcoming us to Cuba and giving very
explicit directions for getting through the reef and to the customs dock.
You can be sure that we followed directions precisely (the gap in the reef
is about 100 feet wide) as we entered the harbor and found the customs dock.
When entering any country in most of the world on a private boat the
skipper's (that would also be me) first responsibility is to report to
customs and/or immigration and/or whomever else the local authorities want
you to report to. Until this happens no one but the skipper is allowed to
go ashore. It is a pretty universal practice. In some countries the
skipper has to go seek out the authorities. In others the authorities find
you. Some countries (e.g. Cuba and Bahamas) require that you fly a green
quarantine flag until you've cleared customs. Cuba further requires that
you tie up temporarily to a special dock to clear customs etc before you're
allowed to go on into the marina.
|During the two hours after we tied up at the customs dock we were
visited by nine people and a dog. First came the harbormaster and the
medical officer. (As soon as the medical officer gave us his blessing
we were allowed to lower the quarantine flag.) Next came immigration,
customs, agriculture (one lady to inspect our fruits and veges,another lady
to inspect our meat products), more customs (this one came with the dog) and
more harbor officials. They were all very friendly and courteous. They
searched the boat but they put things back where they found them. The dog
took a couple of whiffs here and there then took his handler and left. The
agriculture lady confiscated some onions that were so bad off we couldn't
have eaten them anyway. One of the customs doods made us put our small
electronics devices (handheld GPS, VHF and cell phones) in a bag which he
sealed and told us not to break the seal until we left Cuba. I'm not sure
what they're concerned about but it wasn't an inconvenience to us.
Immigration offered to stamp our passport but gave us the option to not do
so (we got'em stamped). Finally another harbor official came aboard and
gave us explicit directions to the slip where we were to spend the week.
|What to say about Cuba? The revolution is still alive. One is
constantly reminded of it, primarily by billboards and signs one sees
everywhere. Che is lionized to this day. Even Fidel doesn't get as much
exposure as Che, perhaps because, like JFK, Che died young, before he
screwed up too badly and before the Cuban people were faced with the
economic hardships that they've lived with for so long with Fidel.
|Cubans are tough. Their economy and their people have suffered
immeasurable damage due in large part to the US embargo, yet they keep on
keepin on. Many of them drive 1950's era American cars. Lots and lots
of old Chevys in particular. Many of the old cars look to be in pretty good
shape but, on closer inspection, you can see large sections where the body
is mostly bondo. Further, most of the old American cars no longer have
American engines in them. The resourceful Cubans have replaced the engines,
for which it must be very difficult to get parts, with Russian or Chinese
gasoline or, diesel engines. It's a little strange to see a brightly
painted, good looking, if bondo filled, 1953 Chevy chugging down the street
emitting diesel sounds and fumes from it's Russian engine.
|To tell the whole story, there are lots of modern cars as well. They
are primarily Japanese cars with a few Korean and even fewer German cars
mixed in. Virtually all the cars are "taxis". It appeared that most of the
modern Japanese cars are legitimate taxis with meters but virtually every
person driving a car will claim to be a taxi and offer you a ride for a fee.
The base unit of Cuban currency is the peso. The preferred currency,
however, is the US dollar. The official exchange rate between the Cuban
peso and US dollar is 1:1. The real exchange rate, the rate one gets on the
street, is about 22 pesos per dollar. Actually there are two different
pesos in Cuba. The one I've already mentioned is the long time standard.
The second, we've seen some call them "convertible" pesos, was established
in the mid 90s, when, for the first time, the government made it legal for
Cubanos to possess US dollars as well. The official exchange rate for these
pesos with US dollars is also 1:1 but the rate is real in this case.
Government agencies and tourist facilities will actually exchange 1
"convertible" peso for 1 dollar. We didn't see any convertible pesos while
we were in Cuba.
|We heard all kinds of claims about the income of the average Cuban.
I've read that the average income is somewhere between 150-400 pesos per
month. Think about it. At the black market exchange rate 400 pesos is less
than 20 US dollars. Therefore, if one can figure out some way to get close
to tourists then one will certainly make a lot more money that he/she could
at virtually any other type of job. That's why every car is a taxi. That's
why Cuban doctors, lawyers and other professionals abandon their profession
to operate bed and breakfasts or get involved in some other tourist related
businesses. Clearly this cost Cuba dearly at least in terms of lost
contribution from such professionals.
|We met a Adrian, a young Cubano "independent contractor" who worked on
boats around the marina. A neighbor boat paid him about 200 USD to do clean
the bottom and wax the hull of their boat. 200 USD translates to more than
4000 Cuban pesos or about 10 times what Adrian would make in a month at a
good job in Havana. Adrian made more money working for himself at the
marina than he would have made as a surgeon. The only down side was that
Adrian had to pay the marina 250 USD per month for the privilege of working
on boats there.
|Havana is a city of 2 million people, about 20 per cent of the total
population of Cuba. It is a city of old buildings, many of which look as
though they've been bombed. They haven't been bombed. They've just gotten
old and deteriorated to the point that they've collapsed. For the most part
there's no effort being made to restore them ...there's just no money for
it. These conditions exist throughout the city, even in areas like the
waterfront, which, under other circumstances would be considered "prime"
real estate. Some of the buildings are so bad; they look so precarious,
that it makes one a little nervous to walk close to them.
|On the other hand, while walking in Havana we encountered a street fair,
street performers, bars and restaurants with live music and lots of Cubans,
generally enjoying themselves. They've learned to live with the hardships
and seem to be determined to enjoy life in spite of them. That's not
to say that they are happy about their circumstances. Those that we talked
to were realistic about Castro and his system. Some thought he's been in
power long enough. (Considering the history of Cuba in the 20th century it
is absolutely amazing that Fidel has been able to hang around so long (he
literally "took" the office January 1, 1959)). Fidel has improved some
aspects of life in Cuba. Someone told us, that Fidel has three major
successes and three major failures to his credit. The successes are
healthcare, education and athletics. The failures are breakfast, lunch and
|In a sense the US has contributed significantly to Fidel's stability.
On the one hand our punitive policies toward Cuba are at least partially
responsible for their economic difficulties. On the other hand, because of
those policies, Fidel has always been able to point the finger at us and, to
some extent, divert blame/responsibility from his government and it's
|I think (I know you're waiting with baited breath for this) I think that
Cuba will open to US visitors (and investors) within the next 10 years, for
sure, 5 years, perhaps. This is why; two of the major reasons that
hostility still exists between Cuba and the US are 1) Fidel, 2) the Cuban
expatriates living in south Florida. These expatriates are the people who
lost their property and/or businesses when Fidel took over. They are a
political force whose lobbyists keep the pressure on US politicians to
maintain the irrational US policies toward Cuba. Fidel and the expatriates
are getting old. They don't have many years left. The sons and daughters
of the expatriates and their sons and daughters must be more American than
Cuban. It stands to reason that these folks are preoccupied with their own
lives to the exclusion of paying a lot of mindshare to whether we do
business with Cuba or not. So, as Castro and his nemeses in South Florida
(and perhaps Strom Thurmond) go by the way, the pressure to keep the
pressure on Cuba will diminish to the disappearing point and Cuba will open
up. . My opinion.
|Before we left home we had planned to spend a month in Cuba. As is
usual we got started late, stayed too long in Key West and ultimately only
spent a week in Havana. Actually a few days is enough time to see Havana.
If we return we will spend most of our time in other parts of the country.
|The Cubans require that you check out of Havana in pretty much the
inverse process to checking in. On the outgoing stop at the customs dock
another 6-8 officials came aboard to fill out various forms, ask lots of
questions and verify that we hadn't opened the sealed bag into which he had
put our handheld electronics devices. Once again all the Cuban officials
were friendly and courteous.
|Note: In general, it is not against US law for US citizens to
visit Cuba. It is, however, against US law for a US citizen to spend money
in Cuba. That is ANY money . not US dollars, not Canadian dollars .
not nothin. Clearly this strange policy makes a visit to Cuba
difficult. We prepared by stocking the boat as if we were going to be at
sea the whole time so we wouldn't have to buy any supplies in Cuba. The
Cubans, as I've said, are only too happy to welcome both visitors and
dollars from the US.
|Follow this link to a few
pictures we took in Havana.