May-June 2008 Cuba
We sailed to Santiago de Cuba from Porto Antonio, Jamaica on May 10, 2008 and left that country, bound for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on June 28th, arriving the next day. During our almost 6 weeks in Cuban waters, we saw and experienced so many new things that it's difficult for us to compile them in a single document; so instead of writing an essay, as we normally do, we've put here excerpts from our log, emails to family and some observations about Cuba and the Cubans under Fidel and Raoul Castro.

But first, a few facts: Cuba is HUGE! It's by far the largest island in the Caribbean, almost twice as large as its nearby neighbor Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic). At about 600 miles e-w, if moved north it would reach from our old home in Hampton VA to Chicago. It's shaped somewhat like an eyebrow, and under the arch of the eyebrow are a series of gulfs and bays dotted with hundreds of cays, as well as several archipelagos separating the shallow gulfs from the deep Caribbean Sea. Depths drop from six feet to over 1000 feet within ½ mile of the shores, and the incredibly clear water changes from limpid pale green or turquoise to deep blue-black in a few hundred meters. Fewer than 10 of the islands are inhabited.

The country is a true Communist state: With the exception of personal possessions such as clothes and cars, everything is owned, and controlled, by the State. In a nearly complete reversal of American values, the Cuban Constitution guarantees a number of individual economic rights, from food to housing to health care to education, but does not guarantee political rights such as freedom of speech and of the press. Those economic guarantees mean that every Cuban is provided free housing, enough food to keep from starving, free education to whatever level he can attain, and free medical care. This is not just a formality; for example, the Cuban Community-Oriented Medical Care system provides every little village with at least one doctor, and Cubans visit their doctors regularly. This is made possible by training far more doctors per capita than are trained in the US. The direct result is better routine health care than in the US - for instance, the Cuban infant mortality rate is a fraction of that of the US.

Every Cuban is given food and household goods, distributed through "dispenseries" and regulated by ration booklets. This has its benefits and drawbacks: While the world was rocked by soaring prices for rice and consequent starvation in many poor places in the world, Cubans had plenty of rice -- they grow enough for everybody and the world price is irrelevant. On the other hand, decent soap is in very short supply -- tourists are frequently accosted by beggars requesting it -- and fish-hooks are rare and extremely valuable.

All Cubans who work (and employment is high) get paid in local pesos. As far as we could determine, the only things a Cuban can buy with these pesos are extra food, cheap non-export quality cigars, ice cream and street food, public transportation, and utilities such as electricity. Local pesos cannot, in theory, be converted to dollars or other hard currencies.

For all other goods, including nice clothing and all restaurant meals, there is another currency, Convertible Units of Currency (CUCs). Tourists buy CUCs with their hard currency and use them to pay for everything from hotel rooms to charter boats. Cubans can also buy CUCs with local pesos, at a fixed rate of 25 pesos for 1 CUC. Using CUCs, Cubans can buy pretty much anything a tourist can buy: restaurant meals, TV and stereo equipment, music CDs, mobile phones, good rum and whiskey. There are, however, some tourist places where ordinary Cubans cannot go, for example some exclusive Havana nightclubs, all yacht clubs, and tourist-only areas such as the island of Cayo Largo.

Average Cuban earnings are the equivalent of about $30 a month, but that has to be put in the perspective of free food, lodging, education and medical care. In effect, nearly 100% of a Cuban's earnings are discretionary income. But given the low wages, this doesn't amount to much.

Now for our log:

Sunday, 11 May: Arrived this afternoon in Santiago, Cuba. Sailed in good breeze about halfway from Jamaica to Cuba, then sat around waiting for the wind to blow; finally motored in, only to find that customs etc. are closed on Sunday! We're restricted to the boat (quarantined) until tomorrow morning, but fortunately we've got good fresh albacore for a sushi dinner.

Wednesday, 14 May: It took about 3 hours and 12 officials to clear us in, Monday morning, including a full examination of all cupboards and a general sniff-over by a cute Cocker Spaniel. Our hand-held GPSs are now securely sealed in official tape. Why, nobody knows. Radios are apparently OK. We have some 6 official documents we don't entirely understand. Fine aged rum costs about $2.00 a liter on the black market; all is well.

Based on our first impressions, this place is much more prosperous than we remember. When we were here in 2001, the city was a bit run-down, but now at least the central area is in great shape, with paint on all the buildings and the usual bustle of commercial life. The first night here, we had supper (our favorite - arroz con pollo) in the main square, accompanied by "the best mojitos in Cuba," a boast we heard at every establishment, and which we tried our best to verify. We then went to the Casa de la Musica with some Norwegian cruisers for salsa, dancing, rum and beer. The latter is very good -- there are 3 brands, ranging from an American-style pilsner to a fine full-tasting lager.

Yesterday Rob went to the local sailing center and gave a lecture on the rules - in Spanish! Then to a local family's house for supper: arroz con cerdo. (Last week, the Norwegians bought an entire pig for this family; we were dining for free on the leftovers.) Our hosts, Pedro and Rosa, live with their three children in two rooms of a large, pre-revolution building (warehouse? - it had no windows) with a closed-in porch containing the kitchen and tiny living/dining room. Pretty small for a 5-person family, at least by American standards, and rather squalid. But at the end of the porch sits a large TV with DVD player. The TV programming features the South American equivalent of soap operas, but also includes news in the familiar talking-head-with-clips format. Despite all this, our hosts seemed remarkably out of touch with current affairs, and even with geography. Rosa expressed surprise that the United States had coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific, and when we related our story about the authorities sealing our portable GPS's, Pedro said it was so we couldn't stand next to a military installation and report its exact position to the American government. He clearly was unfamiliar with Google Earth!

One of the houses across the little bay here is pretty nice, with palm trees and shrubbery; nothing at the level of Larchmont or Ft. Lauderdale, but nice. Turns out, it's a vacation home of Fidel and Raoul! Haven't seen them yet.

We were surprised upon arrival that our Italian friend, Marcello, wasn't there. We had met him during our brief stop in Haiti and then saw him again in San Antonio, where we went with him on a rafting trip. Marcello really appreciated the quality of Jamaican ganja, and on the raft trip we stopped for about half an hour while he and our guide compared the quality of their stashes. Marcello is single-handing and decided to take advantage of a good weather window, sailing to Santiago 3 days before we left. So when we had cleared in, we went to the marina office and asked about Marcello (given his fondness for drugs, we didn't acknowledge that we knew him by name, identifying him as "an Italian"). It turns out he did show up 3 days before we arrived, the drug-sniffing dog got excited, and the authorities found some 600 cannabis seeds on his boat. As the marina manager said, a few seeds might be for personal consumption, but 600? (From what we'd seen, we were not so sure Marcello didn't intend to use them for personal consumption, but we didn't say anything.) In any case, we were told that the Cuban authorities took Marcello to town in a taxi, where he exchanged enough money to cover his marina fees, the taxi and the US $500 fine; then they took him back to the marina and cleared him out, departure immediate, destination Haiti. All in all, we think he was pretty stupid, but very lucky.

Friday, 16 May: Well, our first impressions of Santiago weren't entirely correct. We walked all over town yesterday, and outside the center, the buildings are not well maintained. On some, the paint is peeling; on others, it's long past peeling. Many of the doors are so weathered that it's impossible to tell what color they were, originally.

The marina is quite far from the city (people who live near the marina refer to going to Santiago for the day) and the busses are unreliable, though cheap (US 5 cents), so we've had to resort to private cars occasionally. We've now ridden in a 1954 Chevrolet and a 1984 Lada (or Muskovi, we're not exactly sure). In addition to busses and taxis, public transportation modes include horse-drawn carts and bici-taxis, or bicycle-powered rickshaws. When cars (or busses) drive down hills, they turn their engines off, presumably to save gas. At the bottom of the hill, they pop the clutch and off they go. We decided this is Cuba's answer to hybrid cars. No vehicle - whether powered by gas, animal or human, and no matter what size - seems to go faster than 35-40 mph, which makes for a nice leisurely pace of living.

We went yesterday to museums featuring heroes of the War of Independence (1896; we call it the Spanish-American War) and of course Castro's Revolution. One display said that the Cubans were assisted in the War of Independence by an army of "Norteamericanos". Which Norteamericanos would that be, do you suppose? Canadians, maybe? Teddy Roosevelt would not be amused.

The Revolutionary Museum is housed in the Moncada barracks. It was here, in June 1957, that a group of revolutionaries including Fidel Castro launched an attack to begin the revolution. The attack was a spectacular failure - Fidel's car ran over a curb and stalled - but it did set the stage for the revolution to come. The barracks are now used as a school, except for the corner building, now the museum, which still shows the bullet holes from the attack. (Well, not exactly. The Batista government repaired the holes after the attack, but when the revolution succeeded, Castro's government put the bullet holes back!)

Afterwards, we went to the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia, where a number of notables are buried, including Jose Martí and the "Heroes of the Attack on the Moncada Barracks". There, we watched the Changing of the Guard; pretty impressive, with goose-stepping guards and martial music blaring from multiple speakers.

Saturday, 17 May: We finally left Santiago yesterday, but not without difficulty - and a little drama. A New Zealand boat we'd met in Port Antonio had entered the marina the night before. When we saw them in Jamaica, two of their crew had been hitting the ganja pretty hard. Unlike Marcello, they knew better than to bring any Jamaican weed into this country, but Dave, one of the crewmembers, apparently had an emotional attachment to some paraphernalia he had with him (something about a girlfriend). So instead of throwing the pipes in the sea, he stole off the boat late the night they arrived, and hid them in the men's room of the marina.

Bad mistake. The pipes were found, and the entire crew subjected to lengthy interviews. They finally got off with a $250 fine, but meanwhile the Guarda Frontera had come to our boat and taken away our despacho, or cruising permit, without which we couldn't leave the harbor. There was, of course, no explanation; we think they were simply making sure that potential witnesses (or accomplices?) stayed around in case they needed some questions answered, but who knows? In any case, the despacho was handed back to us about 2 hours after our scheduled departure, again with no explanation, and no apology.

We had planned to stop for the night in a little bay on the coast west of Santiago, but because of our delay in clearing out, when we arrived at the bay the sun was too low for us to be sure of seeing the coral heads at the entrance. So we continued on all night, arriving at Cabo Cruz around noon May 18th - 110 miles in almost exactly 24 hours, about half of that motoring in dead calm.

Upon anchoring, we immediately took the dinghy to the nearby reef and went snorkeling. Wow! Thousands of fish of all colors and sizes, as well as BIG conger eels and hundreds of Queen Conchs, but … no lobsters. We distinctly remember being told there would be lobsters in Cuba. Oh well, we have plenty of provisions on board.

Tuesday, 20 May: Yesterday we enjoyed a nice 6-hour jib-reach to a little clump of cays out in the middle of Guacanayaba Sound, getting there in plenty of time to clear up sheets and halyards and go snorkeling. The snorkeling was poor - mainly sea-grass - but Rob found 5-6 lobsters hiding under an old ship hatch. Three days without seeing a lobster might not seem long to you, but if you had any idea how many angelfish he had to look in the eye before finding those things, you'd sympathize.

Anyway, we had two nice-sized lobsters for supper, boiled and doused in butter. With some Cuban wine somebody gave us; now we know why it was free.

The fridge repair on which we spent 5 days (and at least 10 miles of walking back and forth) while we were in Jamaica, has failed. No big problem as we're living off fresh seafood and stuff from cans anyway, but it would be nice to have cold soda and beer. Oh well. We've put a buoy on the lobster nest and Rob will see if he can nab another one later this morning. Alas, the biggest two are gone. Burp!

Thursday, 22 May: A long sail Wednesday, to the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), an archipelago separating the Guacanayaba Sound and the Caribbean - 10 hours, mainly under spinnaker - in 6-8 knots of wind. We used the autopilot but still, it was a long sail.

Our cruising guide, written in 1999, tells of a French-run tourist resort on one of the islands of the Jardines de la Reina. We jibed and approached the shore where the resort was reported to be. Either the French have backed out or a hurricane came through, but there was nothing one could call a resort - just two small buildings and a dock, so we sailed on by. Nice-looking beach, though.

We passed some fishermen in a small boat, and tossed them a beer. Of course, we didn't actually throw it at them, but into the water nearby. As we sailed off, the fishermen were staring forlornly at the floating can - their boat was attached to their nets and so couldn't move, and apparently they couldn't swim!

We finally arrived at one of the few passes through the island chain that was deep enough for us to enter, and dropped the hook in a little patch of sand. Rob went spear-fishing and was immediately joined by a huge (almost 6-foot) barracuda. He (Rob) was a little leery of hitting a fish with "Barry" around, but pretty soon Barry grew tired of watching Rob and disappeared. Rob then found a nice grouper and speared it. It flapped around on the spear, and suddenly, there was Barry. One chomp and the grouper was in two pieces; another couple of chomps and it was completely gone. The spear lay on the bottom, and Barry had disappeared.

Just as Rob was returning to Akka to relate this story to Andi, a 40-foot fishing boat cruised past, then turned and approached. The three fishermen hailed us, came alongside, and handed Andi a bucket of 6 fresh snappers! They didn't want anything in exchange, but we gave them a pint-sized bottle of cheap Cuban rum that Pedro had given us in Santiago.

So we had fresh fish for dinner, just like Barry.

Friday, 23 May: After that long sail the day before, we spent all day Thursday at anchor, resting up and enjoying the solitary life. Went to the nearby beach & picked up a few really beautiful shells - Rob complaining about bringing more stuff on board but agreeing that these are too nice to throw back. He dove under the boat and speared a grouper, which this time he didn't have to share with Barry or any of his kin. Dinner was arroz con grouper a la criollo (Creole). It was delicious, though we haven't got the Creole sauce exactly right, yet. Guess we'll have to spear another grouper and try it again!

Our isolation was interrupted in the afternoon by a visit from the Guarda Frontera, in uniforms but bare feet. Nice guys, signed our despacho and wished us well. Never asked about our sealed-up GPSs, though. The fishermen who brought the Guarda to Akka offered us free fish, but we had the grouper.

We plan to head west again today, after hoisting Rob to the masthead to check out the wind sensors and to lubricate sheaves. Beautiful weather, 8-10 knots from the east-southeast, blue sky all day but some rain-squalls at night.

Sunday, 25 May: Again, we've spent two days in one place. This time we weren't resting up; we just like it here in Pasa Caballones.

We had an easy 5-hour spinnaker run Friday, passing the cay where Fidel reportedly used to bring his girlfriends. We stared at that cay through the binoculars, but could see no buildings or signs of girlfriends. Probably just a CIA rumor.

When we entered Pasa Caballones, our depth sounder suddenly went bonkers, reporting 2-3 meters when there was clearly 4-5 meters of water (it was easy to estimate the depth in the bright sunlight and crystal-clear waters). Then the navigation/radar display at the helm went out, making navigation a bit awkward because the display serves as a "repeater" for the GPS. Without it, somebody has to be below at the nav station to see where we are, which means there's nobody on the bow to judge the water depth. Still, we found a good patch of sand in about 2.5 meters of water (we draw 2 meters) and dropped the hook.

Soon after we anchored, we dinghied over to some fishermen anchored nearby to say hello. They asked us if we wanted any lobster. Rob, wanting to catch some himself, said no. Andi, the crewmember ultimately responsible for dinner, said yes, but we couldn't pay for them. The fishermen responded by bringing 6 big, live lobsters to the side of their boat and simply dumping them in our dinghy, causing us to lift our bare feet quickly. We've been eating lobster ever since. Did you know the tails are delicious split in half and sautéed?

Incidentally, everybody agrees that it's closed season on lobsters (roughly, April through mid-June); but everybody also asserts that this law only applies to lobsters for sale, not to eat one's self. It also turns out that we are in a National Park where all fishing is prohibited - except for the local sportfishing for tarpon and bonefish, which is world-renowned. Again, there also appears to be an exception for catching food to eat rather than to sell.

Saturday morning, we inspected the wires for the depthsounder, found nothing wrong but shined up some contacts, and now the thing seems to work again. We also found the problem with the navigation display power wire and jury-rigged it with some little connectors we had bought at Radio Shack in Puerto Rico. Saturday evening, we accepted an invitation to visit the floating hotel on nearby Cayo Anclitas. We were told there was a guest at the hotel, newly arrived from America. Just after we pulled into the dock, the employees who had invited us to the hotel arrived in their fishing skiff and unceremoniously handed us a 10-pound jack they had caught. They must be used to our strange non-spending American ways here, because they didn't even ask us for money, and gave us some ice as well! So we've got Sunday lunch and dinner, at least.

There was indeed a guest at the hotel, but he was South African, not American. He bought us beers and we swapped stories about our respective hobbies, in our case sailing and in his case, fly-fishing for tarpon and bonefish. He's been all over the world in search for the perfect catch, landing tarpon weighing up to 220 pounds on fly equipment in places like Belize and the Seychelles. He had hooked a 100-pounder Saturday, his first day here, and was looking forward to his week of fishing. Hotel Tortuga (it's actually a series of large barges converted to houseboats) is apparently world famous as a fly-fishing resort, and usually has 30-40 guests at this time of year. Nobody has any idea why there's only one guest now. With Raoul loosening restrictions, you'd think there would be more tourists, not fewer.

Today's plan is to head into Ana Maria Sound to explore some of the inner cays.

Monday, 26 May: After the spinnaker runs of the last few days, we finally had to beat to windward. We get wind forecasts by e-mail over our satellite telephone from Maxsea (the producers of our navigation software), and until yesterday their predictions have been uncannily accurate (they say they're using a new, high-resolution weather model, and we believe it). But yesterday's forecast was off by about 6 hours, so instead of the east wind we had anticipated at mid-day, we had the north wind they had predicted for the evening. No matter - we had a lovely 15-mile beat in 8-10 knots, flat water, into the Golfo de Ana Maria; it made us think nostalgically of our racing days. We settled down at anchor in a lovely deserted tropical lagoon at about 3 PM. Seeing thunderheads over the mainland (well, the big island), we put up our awnings - and are we glad we did! Overnight we got 3-4 inches of rain, judging from the amount of water in the dinghy in the morning. There was some wind, too, about 25 knots, so we missed some sleep while checking our position periodically. But this morning we rose to a cloudless morning, to find Akka was still where we had parked her.

Did we say 'deserted' lagoon? Well, almost deserted. There's one fishing boat plying these waters, a 40-some foot single-screw fiberglass boat named Plastico No. 350. (Only a totalitarian regime could come up with a name like that!) The boat came near, its six crewmembers hailed us, and Rob went over in the dinghy to talk to them. They insisted that he take some red snapper they had just caught. They wanted to give us two, but Rob convinced them that the smaller one - which was still twitching -- was more than enough for us. One of the crewmen quickly and expertly filleted it. Rob was right - the resulting meal was too much to finish. They also had tons of ice, naturally, and gave us a plastic bag full - definitely welcome, with our fridge broken.

The next morning our new friends showed up with 5 lobsters they had just caught, ranging from 2 little ones of questionably legal size to a large one, about 6 inches long in the carapace and 6 inches in the tail. It turns out they had dived this morning and got them just for us! We gave the skipper an Atlantic Braves baseball cap and one of his crew some ibuprofen for a headache he'd developed. If that breaks any laws, we'll just have to suffer the consequences.

The Cuban fishermen's behavior obviously transcends the definition of "friendly local population", and we have no good explanation for the overwhelming generosity we've encountered. The best we can come up with is, the lobsters are of no commercial value (being out of season) and the fishermen could easily be sick of eating them. And considering that they catch hundreds of fish a day, one red snapper means nothing to them. There's also the fact that it's not their fish - everything is owned by the State, remember? And of course they're happy to meet anybody out here in this isolated place, let alone exotic foreigners. But we think the best explanation is, they're just plain friendly.

Well, we've (again) got lobster to cook, a new weather prediction to download, and some sailing to do.

Monday, 26 May: We're speaking Spanish every day, as no Cubans speak English except the people in tourism-related occupations (this, despite a requirement that every Cuban take 9 years of English in school - though one Cuban said he'd received instruction only one hour a week). Despite our daily use of Spanish, we actually aren't improving much, simply because we're having the same conversation over and over:

"Where are you from?" (This, despite the little bitty American flag flying from our backstay.)
"The United States."
"Do you want fish [lobsters]?"
"Yes [No], thank you. … Oh, no, that's too much! … Thank you so much!"
"Goodbye, and good luck!"

That's about it. If anybody asks about, say, quantum theory, or even if we want a tow, we're flat out of luck.

Tuesday, 27 May: Got hit with Hatuey's Revenge last night (Hatuey being the native chief here when the Conquistadors arrived, the equivalent of Montezuma in Mexico). We think it's the water, but whatever it is, man, were we sick. So we're taking today off, recovering.

Funny, we've been drinking the local tap water all over the world, including places like Morocco and here, and never had a problem until now. We changed tanks yesterday and Boom! We got clobbered. Not sure where this batch of water came from - maybe Santiago, maybe Jamaica, maybe the DR. We're boiling everything now, and in any case, we're running short of water so we'll have to put in somewhere and - you guessed it - fill our tanks with tap water!

Friday, 30 May: Nothing particular to report. We've been wandering from mangrove cay to mangrove cay, motoring more than we normally would because we want to get to the town of Trinidad. Running out of water -- 6 gallons left -- and have rigged the awning to catch rain from the nightly squalls. Still have plenty of fuel.

We were offered a free lobster the other day and turned it down -- yes, there is such a thing as too much lobster.

Sunday, 1 June: We made it to Trinidad yesterday, hitched a ride into town and spent the whole day walking around the city. Another Unesco World Heritage site, it's one of those "places where time stopped", an old colonial town (founded by Velasquez, and the point of departure to Mexico for Cortez and his boys) that fell into decline in the 19th century (when the harbor silted in; we can testify to this, as we ran aground). So the old buildings weren't replaced or modernized as elsewhere, and then a succession of governments have preserved it, so we get an unblemished picture of what this place was like a couple of hundred years ago.

Impressions: Clean and well maintained; incessant begging, way worse than in Santiago; drowsy backwater despite the tourist trade. One odd thing: In the old city (with its cobblestone streets and no motor vehicles), every home has a front room with tall windows directly on the street, and in the heat, nearly all these windows were open. The room behind the window was invariably large and airy, with a high ceiling and patterned tile floor; very formal looking, with wooden sideboards and pictures on the walls. In the middle of each room was a small table with a dozen or so white ceramic figurines - didn't look like an altar but could have been. Arranged around the table and scattered about the room, there were a dozen or so cane-seat chairs, an overwhelming majority of them rocking chairs. In several of these rooms, there wasn't enough room amongst the rocking chairs for a long-tailed cat. In a couple of the rooms there were more than 20 chairs.

These houses are lived in - the next window frequently showed a tiny room with a single bed - and everybody living there is definitely poor. And, although these houses are old mansions, they are not open to tour groups or anything like that (at least so far as we know). So how to explain these big vacant formal rooms? One possibility is that the place is like Williamsburg, where people are allowed to live in the historical houses but have to maintain a colonial façade for the tourists. Or maybe these were simply living/dining rooms, unused when we saw them because it was Saturday morning?

A delightful courtyard bar-restaurant offered "the best mojitos in Cuba," accompanied by live music. We whiled away the hot midday, then made our way back to the marina. Waiting for a bus, then riding along, we kept noticing people walking along carrying large squares of birthday cakes. Most had gloppy white and blue icing, and were being carefully carried home. Never did find out why.

The Cuban government apparently recently bought a bunch of busses from Holland (according to a Dutch tourist we met, they were donated by some bus company), and put the busses into service - without removing the Dutch signs. (One, stuck to the outside of the front window, says, in bold upper-case letters, "SOLD!") The advertisements for Dutch products not available here fit in well with the 1950s cars, the horse-drawn carts and the 17th Century architecture to give an overwhelming feeling of disassociation.

Back at the marina, we met two English women of a certain age, who want to go sailing with us. We offered to take them along with us to Cienfuegos tomorrow and they took us up on it. Now we'll have to see if the authorities allow it.

Tuesday, 3 June: We were told there's a joke here: "Fidel and I have a deal. I pretend to work and Fidel pretends to pay me." It certainly does seem that there's no two-person job in this country that can't be done adequately by 5 or 6 people. Examples of rampant featherbedding abound: It took 12 people (and a dog) to clear us in; there were 3 or 4 men in white shirts - presumably some kind of watchers - at the marina in Santiago, who sat at a table outside the building, did nothing all day long and went home at night (when, presumably, the bad guys went home, too); all the fishing boats have crews of 5 or 6, of whom perhaps 3 are working at any one time; at the floating hotel/fly-fishing resort, we counted 10 employees for one paying guest; and there are two muchachos living on each of the cays where the tourist day-trip boats go, even though the boats have on board all provisions, booze, etc. for their passengers. Presumably, the muchachos rake the sand and feed the jutias and iguanas.

The marina at Casilda (i.e., Trinidad) presents an interesting view into the featherbedding situation, and into an economy stumbling toward capitalism. The manager and Rob had a long discussion about how the marina works, and here's what Rob learned:

The marinas are owned by the Ministry of Tourism, which receives no funding from the rest of the government (and in fact is expected to support it, via internal taxes). So it's important for the marinas to turn a profit, or at least to break even. The manager at Casilda is responsible for five distinct operations: Renting out dock space; daily tourist excursions to Cayo Blanco; a bar on the dock; bareboat chartering; and 3 off-marina sites at hotels, where they rent out Hobie 15's to the tourists. For these operations, the marina employs a total of 45 full-time people, according to the manager.

The dock-rental operation makes essentially no money - we were the only cruising boat in the place and of course there are no private yachts to rent slips. The day-trip business, on the other hand, is booming - passengers pay $35-$45 apiece for the trip, and there's an average of 10 or so passengers a day. Better yet, only six employees are involved, as far as we can tell: the captains and mates of the two boats they use, plus the two muchachos who live on the cay.

The marina bar opens at 8 AM, just before the day-trippers arrive, and closes at 5 PM, just after the boats return from Cayo Blanco. There's a full-time bartender, who serves coffee and soft drinks to the tourists in the morning, but gets little business because the boat fee includes drinks. In the afternoon also, there is not much bar business because a) the tourists have been drinking all day at Cayo Blanco and b) the busses are waiting when the boats get in and the tourists are hustled onto them. There is no walk-in business - and in fact it's not clear that walk-in customers could get past the guard at the marina gate. So, the bar essentially has no customers, though the employees do come over and sit in the shade there, at lunchtime. The bartender has a fishing pole and occupies himself that way, all day long. We never saw him catch a fish.

People do charter boats (Beneteau 363's) for about $350 a day or $1400 a week. The marina doesn't own those boats, but acts in partnership with two firms, one German and one Italian. The manager felt that was a good deal, because those firms pay dockage even if there's no business, and the marina also gets a cut of the charter fees.

The three off-site Hobie rentals are a complete bust. They are run by a total of 5 full-time employees, who almost never rent any of the boats. We saw one of these sites one day and understand why. The Hobies were half-buried in drifting sand and were tied down securely with a steel cable that runs through their rigs to a padlock. There were no sails -- and no rental personnel - in sight.

Rob asked, "Can you tell the Ministry that the Hobie rental doesn't pay, and simply cut that program?" The manager laughed. There was a hint of hysteria in his laughter.

So, where are the 45 employees? There are two security guards on duty, 24/7, so that accounts for, say, 8 people. The manager and his bookkeeper make 10. Two marina dockhands, 12. The day-trip captains and mates and the two muchachos on the cay, 18. The bartender and the Hobie-cat renters bring the total to 24. As for the rest, God knows; we were at the marina for three days and certainly didn't see anybody else who could remotely have been regarded as an employee.

Even with all those employees, the broken boards in the dock aren't getting fixed; the water-pressure pump breaks continually; and during the three days we were there, the dockside garbage can never got emptied.

The British women can't accompany us to Cienfuegos; if we add them to our crew list we have to attach tax stamps, and by the time we learned this, the bank where such stamps could be obtained was closed.

Thursday, 5 June: The sail to Cienfuegos took less time than we thought it would, but included a rainsquall and generally dreary weather, so our Brit friends didn't miss anything. Cienfuegos literally means A Hundred Fires. Although the city is actually named after a Cuban hero, locals say it refers to the city's high temperatures, and we quickly came to agree with their interpretation. Thankfully, late afternoon thunderstorms brought brief torrential downpours and cooled things off.

The center of Cienfuegos is a charming plaza surrounded by Spanish colonial buildings and is (surprise!) a Unesco World Heritage site. We enjoyed another "best mojito in Cuba" there. When we tired of walking, we used the local public transportation: horse-drawn buckboards. Each holds 8-10 people, sitting facing inward along the 2 sides, under an awning or even protected by plastic side curtains during the downpours. Sorry, no fringes or isinglass windows, but a charming way to travel. The fare was always declared as one peso, but it was never specified whether this was local currency or CUCs. So tourists find themselves riding beside locals who paid 1/25th of their fare.

We liked Cienfuegos, despite its heat. The area around the marina seemed like 50's Florida, with nice sized cinderblock single-floor single-family "ranch" houses set back from the streets on good-sized lots. Some featured architectural flairs like a series of circular windows or a tall central wall soaring up from a low flat roof - effects that must have been all the rage when Elvis was King. It was quite a change from the apartment buildings or cheek-by-jowl houses in both Trinidad and Santiago. As far as we could tell, single families lived in these sprawling homes - we guessed that they must be Party officials. At the end of the narrow peninsula where the marina was located was a lovely park and gazebo, where we again enjoyed "the best mojitos in Cuba." These very well may have been the best, but we were surprised to learn from the bartender that Cubans don't drink mojitos, despite their readily available contents (rum, sugar, lime, mint and ice).

We were standing in line for ice cream today. When we discovered the ice cream shop only takes local pesos, we were about to drop out of line; but then the guy behind us gave us the 2 pesos we needed (worth about 15 cents US) to buy some ice cream. He seemed about average, meaning he probably makes as much as $30 US per month. So that's the same as someone at home who earns, say, $150,000 a year, giving some strangers $62.50! Generous people, these. The ice-cream parlor was weird in several ways. First, it's table-service only, with indifferent wait-staff. The ice cream was good, but melting in the heat by the time we got it. The other people at our table all took out plastic boxes and scooped most of their servings into these boxes to take home. We looked around and saw that many others were doing the same thing. The ice cream must have turned to "soup" instantly in the Cienfuegos heat - it was very puzzling.

Saturday, 7 June: Well, after a month of completely trouble-free cruising (not counting the non-functioning fridge), we suddenly have a multitude of engine problems. It all started, we think, when a hose carrying salt water for our engine cooling system sprang a small leak. The subsequent spray pretty much covered everything on the aft part of the motor with salt water, including the starter motor and all the electric fittings in the back of the engine compartment. We replaced the hose and rinsed everything off with fresh water, but apparently the damage was done. As we prepared to leave the marina at Cienfuegos, we got the starter to work (with some effort) but the engine refused to catch. We tracked the problem down to a failed relay for the glow plugs - not a big deal as we can simply short across it.

Just to the west of Cienfuegos on the big island is the large Bahia de Cochinas or Bay of Pigs. It might have been interesting to see this (in)famous place, but ever since the "Imperialist invasion" it's been a restricted military zone.

So we left Cienfuegos and sailed 50 miles south and a bit west to some tiny cays and reefs east of Cayo Largo. As we were approaching the anchorage we tried to start the engine. This time, the starter completely failed - even shorting the main power cable to the solenoid terminal produced no results. So we had the interesting experience of sailing into an unknown anchorage without backup power. The first time we dropped the hook, it turned out we weren't over sand as we had thought but instead over a hard, rocky, sandy-looking bottom. So, in light winds and failing light, we set sail to look for another spot. We found one, with deep soft sand but more exposed to the westerly-running seas. Moving our anchoring spot proved to be a good idea, as the wind came up overnight and we surely would have dragged if we'd stayed in the first spot, whereas in the second spot we stayed firmly in one place, horizontally at least, though moving vertically a fair amount. Sleep was not perfect but not totally absent, either. We were a bit slow rising this morning.

So today's job (in addition of course to the snorkeling) is to mount the backup starter. Failing that, we'll try to take apart the starter that broke. If both those efforts fail, well, we've still got the sails.

Monday, 9 June: Well, we've got the backup starter installed and it works fine. Still having trouble with the glow plugs, but we can get around that by Rob hooking up our jumper cables (the ones just like those in your car) from the start battery to the glow plugs while Andi operates the starter button in the cockpit. A bit of a hassle, but so far, this works.

We're moving slowly along a line of little cays and reefs, closing in on Cayo Largo. We're snorkeling several hours a day, reading a lot and trying to identify all these birds. Andi thinks we saw a blue-footed booby; Rob was skeptical. Rob promised a grouper for dinner yesterday but didn't come through on it. Andi didn't want yet another lobster (having had lobster for dinner the night before and breakfast that morning) so we had rice and peas for supper.

Saturday, 14 June: We're at Cayo Largo, the destination resort island on Cuba's south coast. It boasts 6 all-inclusive resort hotels, 3 of which are run in partnership with European chains (e.g., Barcelo). Playa Sirena, its famous beach, is a breath-taking white sand beach ending in a spit that fades into water so limpidly clear it's hard to tell where land and water meet. We anchored just inside of the spit and enjoyed its beauty and the tourists enjoying themselves on it. Cayo Largo's only permanent residents are the directors of the various hotels and restaurants. All the other employees work on the island for 20 days, then have 10 days off before coming back. They are transported to and from the island by plane. On the island, they live in dormitories and either eat in cafeterias at the resorts where they work or in a general workers' cafeteria. They've clearly had training in hospitality - their service and attentiveness is outstanding. Example: When we arrived to check in, the Port Captain not only processed our paperwork; he took the time to ask what things we were especially interested in. Rob immediately said "arroz con pollo" and El Capitan laughed. A little while later, we encountered him ashore; he greeted us warmly and brought us over to introduce us to the chef of a restaurant, whom he had asked to prepare us arroz con pollo. So, we had a wonderful meal accompanied by "the best mojitos in Cuba. (BTW, arroz con pollo must be something like mac 'n' cheese or spaghetti because everyone seemed amused - but pleased - that tourists from the U.S. would want this simple dish).

We once again puzzled at the economics of these resorts - where on the balance sheets does the cost of workers' transportation go? How about their meals? Does it matter if an employee takes his dinner at the restaurant or at the common cafeteria?

We went today to an "all inclusive" hotel. Once in, we were treated like their regular customers, i.e., everything's free. If the US government comes after us for trading with the enemy, can we defend ourselves by pointing out that, far from trading with the enemy, we've been stealing from him?

Tuesday, 17 June: One of the baffling things about this place is how the US embargo works - or doesn't. U.S. citizens are not supposed to spend any money here, under (believe it or not) the Trading With the Enemy Act, under threat of a $50,000 fine. And of course, we're not spending any money, just cruising on the supplies we bought before we came, plus lots of lobster and grouper!

But some parts of this embargo seem pretty confusing. For example, Coca-Cola is available here, at least to tourists (or more precisely, it's available in tourist shops, to anybody with convertible pesos; but given the price - about $3.00 US for a 2-liter bottle, we'll bet not many Cubans buy it). The bottle of Coke we saw in the store said "Made in Mexico by the Coca-Cola Company" and lists an 800-prefix help number, presumably in the United States. But what difference does it make that it's made in Mexico? Is Coca-Cola (that most American of institutions) Trading With the Enemy?

Similarly, the rental catamarans on the beaches are Hobie Cats, made by Hobie Europe, according to their decals. But what could be more Californian than a Hobie?

Can these companies claim that they don't know their products are being sold to the Cuban Government? Suppose a US resident arranged a trip to Cuba through a Mexican or Canadian travel agency, paying all fees to that agency. Could he claim ignorance of, and take no responsibility for, any payments the agency makes to hotels, airlines or rental car companies in Cuba, thus avoiding prosecution or fines for Trading With The Enemy? No. So how do companies like Coca-Cola apparently get away with the same ploy?

Airlines are another issue. How can US carriers, like American Airlines, fly into Havana? Don't they have to pay for the gate, airport taxes, etc.? And how about fly-over rights - US planes from Miami to the Caribbean fly right over Cuba (we know this because we've been on them). Didn't the US Government bargain with Fidel for those rights? And if so, does this mean our own government is Trading With the Enemy?

Presumably the purpose of the embargo is to bring the Castro government to its knees. But then how do you explain the millions of tons of wheat US companies sell to Cuba (at current world prices), or the 140,000 US citizens who come to Cuba legally under license from the State Department every year? So from our point of view, it looks as if little people like us have to toe the line, but the Big Boys can find ways around the embargo. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

Thursday, 19 June: We just realized that we're almost due south of our "home" in Ft. Myers, Florida -- almost 300 nautical miles south, to be sure, but feeling closer to home than Akka's been in years. We're simply hanging out in this beautiful shallow sound east of Isla de la Juventud, working our way in 20-mile hops toward Nueva Gerona, the principal town on that island. We're back to eating lobster - for dinner the last two nights, then for breakfast (lobster bisque omelets) today.

Rob went aboard a lobster boat the other day, and in the hold they had at least 100 lobsters - maybe 200 - all good-sized. He asked how many days they had fished for those lobsters, and they said that these were a single day's catch. Apparently the fishermen put gratings - like pallets, but painted white - on sand patches on the bottom of this shallow bay, each with a little buoy, then wait for the lobsters to hide underneath the pallets. Some time later (that afternoon? next day? Rob forgot to ask), the fishermen go around to all the gratings in little rowboats. One of the guys jumps overboard with mask, snorkel and rubber gloves, lifts up the grating, and simply picks up the lobsters he finds there. The lobsters don't really try to escape, as there's nowhere to go.

We visited a little cay where there are about 40 monkeys, cared for by a team of four who work for the Ministry of Flora and Fauna and, as far as we can tell, have absolutely nothing to do but feed little pellets to the monkeys once a day to balance their natural diet of fruit, leaves and bugs. The staff members live in a single run-down shack on the island for 20 days (no electricity - a solar panel powers the VHF radio) and then go home for 10 days (by boat to Isla de la Juventud). They all gathered around us - eager to have visitors from the outside, we imagine - and answered our questions with good grace.

The monkeys were originally used to develop vaccines on the mainland. It's not clear whether they were used for some research purpose on the island, also, but now they just roam free. They eat, breed, get into occasional fights with the huge fat iguanas (the iguanas always win), and survive the hurricanes by moving to higher ground and climbing into the palm trees to wait them out. In that event, the staff retires to Juventud.

In turn, the guys asked us lots of questions about our cruising life. We again got the impression that the locals' knowledge of geography is very weak - for example, they had no idea how far Mexico is from the west end of the island, and maybe not even that Mexico is west of here. The names of the other places we'd been seemed unknown to them.

When we left, the youngest (20-something) staff member gave us a little homemade bracelet. He said it would protect us "en camino", during our travels. Nice.

Saturday, 21 June: Yesterday was our forty-third wedding anniversary. We celebrated by having a special treat - a meal that involved neither fish nor lobster: coq au vin from a jar bought in the Dominican Republic at Carrefour, the huge French supermarket, accompanied by a bottle of French burgundy that we had bought in the United States at least eight years ago. It was excellent.

This morning we sailed downwind in true cruising fashion, with just the genoa, arriving in early afternoon at Nueva Gerona, the capital, and only real town, on Isla de la Juventud. This large island has had at least five names since Columbus dubbed it "Esperanza", and we're betting it'll change names at least once again in our lifetime - "juventud" means "youth" in Spanish, and the present name derives from the years of Socialist Youth camps and schools run on the island, for young communists from all over the world. That project, like many in this land, was funded by the Soviets and has been dead for many years. So the reason for the name no longer exists. The island is profitable for the government, exporting citrus fruits and, believe it or not, blocks of marble. Its main historical interest is its "model prison" (now empty), which once housed Fidel Castro.

Nueva Gerona is a pretty town, with a general feeling of prosperity - the main street is a broad pedestrian boulevard of colonial buildings fronted by deep shady arcades, crowded this Saturday morning with reasonably prosperous-looking shoppers wearing new-looking clothes (mini-skirts and patterned stockings, or spandex tights, for girls, and droopy shorts or warm-up pants - unfrayed - for boys). We would have stayed, but the only place to dock was a commercial pier with a stiff fee for overnight docking, and we're not spending any money in this country, so we left. Besides, it was beastly hot - not much wind gets around the nearby hills, and, according to the locals, the marble in those hills absorbs and radiates the sun's heat. So we got the local officer of the Guarda Frontera to sign our despacho, then went out and anchored in a nearby bay.

Sunday, 22 June: After a stormy night serving anchor watches in unprotected water, we're now on our way to the southern part of the island, where there's a tourist hotel and a crocodile farm. There's also a little town named Jacksonville, founded by Americans and home to a number of pre-Revolution immigrants from the Cayman Islands. Last week in Cayo Largo (the resort island staffed mainly by people from la Juventud) we met a bus driver who grew up in Jacksonville. He spoke excellent English, and told us that English was his first language - he had spoken it at home and with his friends for the first nine years of his life, only learning Spanish as a second language in school. Amazing.

When we entered this country, we didn't understand the significance of the customs agent's question about how long we planned to stay. We were our usual vague selves - "Gee, we don't know; 6 weeks? 2 months?" So, the customs official decided for us and chose June 26th as the end date of the temporary importation of Akka. Which means we've got to leave by then or extend our current license, which we can do only if we apply exactly 3 days before our that license expires. That's tomorrow, when we'd rather be exploring crocodile farms and model prisons, so we may just be tourists tomorrow, and take off to Mexico before the 26th. On the other hand, there's a tropical wave headed this way. Although it's weak, we're monitoring it and, if conditions warrant, we'll hunker down here at Juventud, apply for an extension of our temporary importation permit, and leave after the bad weather has passed.

Monday, 23 June: We didn't get an extension on our temporary importation of Akka (it turns out the local customs office can't do such extensions) but we did get the next best thing, a letter from the local commander to his boss in Maria la Gorda asking that we be given a break. In effect, we have a "get out of jail free" card. So we'll tarry in Cuba a few days more.

On our way back to Nueva Gerona on the local bus, we met a couple of medical students from East Timor (Get your atlas out)! They're among 600 (!) from their country who are studying medicine here for 5 years, a few of the thousands of medical students here from all over the world.

Along the road, we passed a number of large abandoned concrete buildings, all built in the same ugly style. These were all schools, dating from the 1970-80s when Juventud was populated with many students from all over the world, who, in addition to studying, planted, tended and harvested huge citrus crops. Most of the citrus plantations have become overgrown, but some continue to operate.

We visited the crocodile hatchery (criadero). Juventud has an indigenous species of crocs that they're working to preserve. This breeding farm was staffed by a young couple and the jefe. Despite the heat, both men were wearing big rubber boots, and we soon saw why, as they led us to the concrete pens that held crocs, sorted by size/age (they're cannibalistic). The men jumped in over the waist-high walls, chased down and caught crocs, and held them for our inspection. The littlest ones, 1-2 years old and about 15" long, were kind of cute, but they didn't improve with age! The farm included an egg hatchery, and the jefe dug out an egg for us to hold - bigger than a hen's egg and pure white. Each mama croc lays about 40 eggs and buries them in black sand, which absorbs the sun's heat, and the eggs hatch in about 90 days. The jefe guided us along the walkways between the fenced-in ponds that house the crocs until their final release into the wild. There we saw a 7' long croc who did not seem amused - her mouth was wide open in threat, and she was growling. We were glad of the fence, though the jefe says they don't really attack.

Despite all the hype about preservation of this endangered species, the jefe told us that they occasionally kill one of the wild crocs to feed to charter groups of tourists at big outdoor parties held at the criadero. We guess that as usual, money talks.

Thursday, 26 June: We've left Juventud and are in a really safe anchorage - to the west of some cays over good sand bottom with 2 anchors - and spent yesterday waiting out thunderstorms while eating lobsters - Rob found several on the grass/sand bottom under Akka, and simply picked them up. But we've got to get going soon, and the next couple of anchorages don't look as good as this one. So our dilemma is, stay or go, and if we go, how far? We listen to a SSB weather net in the morning, but this morning we got no reception. This happens.

Later that day: Looks like this tropical wave is passing us by. We're aweigh; should be about 30 miles W of our last anchorage tonight, and off to Maria la Gorda tomorrow morning. We'll check out there, then off to Isla de Mujeres, Mexico, probably Friday or Saturday.

The gin is running out, and we've been out of single-malt scotch for weeks now. Time to go, though we'll miss the unlimited supply of lobsters and grouper.

Saturday, 28 June: The time has finally come for us to leave this country and head for Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We're now at a mooring off a scuba-diving resort at Maria la Gorda, and will leave later today. Weather forecasts are all for settled weather, which is a nice thing, because the Gulf Stream passes through the Yucatan Channel on its way from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, reaching speeds of up to 6 knots; and when the wind blows against the current, it can be rough. As it is, even with calm seas we'll have an interesting problem in navigation to compensate for the stream's effects.

This little resort is known for its diving, and the waters are incredibly clear. We've gotten used to clear waters while we've been here, but this is really amazing. The divemaster says that visibility is never less than 25 meters (80 feet), and frequently over 40 meters (130 feet)! It was weird to bring Akka close to the shore and to be able to see fish and coral quite clearly in 6 meters of water.

Last night we stopped by in the resort bar for our last "best mojito in Cuba." The cook and the divemaster were there, and when we mentioned that we had run out of butter (an essential ingredient in our lobster-intensive diet) the cook went into the kitchen and brought us a slab, courtesy of the resort. The pair then told about the latest in Cuban emigration: According to them, Cigarette-style boats show up a couple of times a week at Maria la Gorda and take aboard Cubans who want out of the Communist paradise. The Cuban fugitives fork over US $15,000 apiece and the boats take them on a quick trip to Mexico. Before disembarkation, the Cubans pay another $10,000. They then stroll over to the Mexican immigration office and declare themselves as illegal immigrants. The authorities give them 72 hours to get out of the country. The Cubans take a bus to the US border, walk up to the US border station and declare themselves as Cuban refugees. Under the US "dry feet" rule, they are welcome to enter the country. The Cuban government can do nothing to stop this trade, as they own no boats that could conceivably catch the Cigarettes. Our friend the divemaster told us sadly that his girlfriend had just taken this trip in July and was now in Miami. He wondered if he'd ever get enough cash from tips (and possibly stealing from the till, though he didn't say so) to join her.

$25,000? Gee, we've got a pretty good hiding spot just behind this hanging locker, here … On second thought, maybe this idea is not leading us in a good direction.

Sunday, 29 June: Safely in Isla Mujeres, Mexico; no Cubans aboard. We had an easy passage, 140 NM across the Yucatan Channel in about 22 hours. We haven't cleared into Mexico yet, because of course it's Sunday; but everybody assures us that's OK. Went into town and BOUGHT things! Ice cream, beer, diet Pepsi, chicharrones ...

We are back in the Capitalist world, where we can simply buy things we need - but also where we will have to pay dearly if we ever regain our appetite for lobster. Ciao, Cuba.