Last May when we arrived in Santiago de Cuba, we were surprised at first to witness the freedom with which people spoke about their country, their difficulties and their dreams. While last year some tongues, only untied on a bench in front of the sea , away from eavesdroppers, but with a glance over the shoulder to make sure no one is listening, and this year the quick eye was gone and the political and economic views were revealed more easily.
We attributed this “relaxation” of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the effects were devastating over Santiago. The people have lost a lot and blamed the rest of the country to have failed helping them rebuilding their homes. Suddenly the mood of the city changed. More insecurity, a hundred aggressions were recorded the last 8 months of the Santiago region. For a country that knows no insecurity, even at night in the busy streets (or not) of cities, it’s a shock. Tourists are also solicited in the city center with all kinds of people (improvised guides, newspaper vendors, beggars, musicians) mainly also because many tourists give easily. The tranquility of the marina is not anymore, although it’s still not at all dangerous for boaters or anyone. But there’s people offering grass, coco, smuggled fuel or even diamonds! The Cuba we knew had not got us used to all this last year. You could almost forget sometimes that Cuba is still under a dictatorship. Yet Cuban is still not an open society in the western sense. Cuban internal security is still tight and the supervision of its people close. We still had evidence of easy arrests and expulsions of the country (for tourists) just for being seen in the company of political “dissidents”. Denouncement is still widely used, the law is harsh and ears lurking everywhere. So beware of boaters who might be tempted by some diamonds ….
The day after we arrived, our friend Julio, representative of Casa del Caribe, was waiting for us to take us to his village of El Cobre, 20km from Santiago, to meet the artists who have created paintings specifically for our association fundraising “Artistick Boat.” Meeting with these artists was very moving and full of humanity and spirituality.
In this lovely village, famous for its Basilica and the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre”, patroness of Cuba, we also had the opportunity to do some cinema projections that children and adults have much appreciated. A week later we had to take leave for Cienfuegos and saying goodbye to El Cobre, Julio, his family and friends was difficult, heart breaking and moving.
On the road to the west we stopped to say hello to Yaniel and his family (who we met last year) at Marea del Portillo, then we made a stop in the islands of “Jardines de la Reina” (Garden of the Queen) a good occasion to eat plenty of fresh lobsters.
Unlike Santiago, Cienfuegos has not changed much since last year. Always a nice little quiet town reminding us of the fifties. It’s like sometimes being dipped into a Tati film. A strange mix of ‘Un Jour de fête” and “Trafic”.
Then we left Planet Ocean for a week to visit Havana and Viñales (Western Province known for its tobacco, fruits and wine).
Havana surprised us with its amazing tranquility for a big city. The “casa particular” (family pensions) in the city center are very warm and welcoming. In ours (at David and Lydia) in the district of Centro Habana,we were able to meet all the family over several generations. The kids loved the crocodiles and turtles (“jigoteas”) in the patio!
Sandwiched between the old city (“Habana Vieja”, the tourist area), the “Barrio Chino” (Chinatown) and Vedado (residential area of the middle class), this district of Centro Habana is now overcrowded and families crammed into dilapidated buildings. But the atmosphere is very warm, supportive and welcoming. And then there are people like David’s family who have rolled up their sleeves to restore several buildings they then transform into beautiful family pensions. Here is for once a real positive effect of tourism! As for the old city center “Habana Vieja”, a sort of tourist showcase, it benefits from an extensive restoration project (far to conclude) initiated by UNESCO in the early 90s. There you leap back several decades and find yourself in the Spanish colonial era with beautiful facades. Of course, the old Buick, Studebaker, Pontiac, Chevrolet and other 50’s American cars are playing their roles, as well as the horse-drawn carriages and bicitaxis.
After buzzing in the (quiet) streets of Havana, we left for the beautiful valley of Viñales. There we went for a beautiful horseback ride through the magnificent and peaceful landscape. Perched on our little horses that seem to move on autopilot, we walk between these impressive sheer limestone cliffs called “Mogotes”, in grove-pine, the orange and tobacco plantations.
During a stop in one of these plantations, we were shown the art of making THE Cuban cigar “the Habano”. The growing and harvesting of the famous tobacco are quite close to those of wine: the importance of soil, orientation and quality of the land, the timing of harvest (per leaf levels), then drying and highly controlled fermentation. Finally making the cigar is a blend of several sheets who is qualified according to its functions: the leaves that burn well, the ones that give the strong taste, those gentle, those who hold the cigar … the latter giving the shape and color of the cigar. Not to mention a few drops of honey! I did not become a fan … But I know how to recognize the bad and good cigars now!
As the pretty colonial village of Viñales, its streets are colourfull with its rows of pretty painted low houses with bright colors. A bit too touristy for our taste but at the end of the day when the tour buses leave, the city finds its tranquility and moreover its authenticity.
Then comes the time to go back to Cienfuegos, not without stopping en route at Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario to swim in the Rio San Juan.
There in the middle of a beautiful landscape with lush vegetation along the river we find beautiful natural pools with little cascades and in which we could refresh ourselves with delight. As it was the weekend, around noon many Cuban families came to picnic, fun and great ambiance guaranteed!
Finally back on the water, to the delight of Camille who pined for his boat, we return to the Gardens of the Queen eat “one” last lobster in the company of fishermen. One of them was celebrating his birthday the same day as Stephanie, so we take the opportunity to celebrate the birthdays together!
It is a pleasure to chat with the Cuban, when you can speak a little bit of Spanish, I had to give it a try … but when it gets complicated Steph is chatting further rich and varied subjects.
In Cuba, the conversations and exchanges with taxi drivers, of bicitaxi, encounters random street corners, old, young, greengrocers are a real treat. All have an excellent education and brilliant ways of thinking about the world! Hopefully this will enable them to be able to find a path which gives gives them greater political freedom, while at the same time preserving the social gains of the revolution, and make smarter choices than ours for the future?Given the mass propaganda, both pro and con, that the Cuban revolution has generated, it is impossible to come to this island without at least some pre-conceived ideas. We defy anyone who arrives with an open mind to leave with those ideas intact; simply being in Cuba is a rich educational experience. Cruising in Cuba is far removed from the stereotype of Caribbean cruising. It is for the self-sufficient cruiser who wants to blaze a trail, experience nature in its pristine state, and live off the bounty of the sea. It is for the amateur historian and sociologist who wants to see one of the great social experiments of this century. And it is for all those who want to immerse themselves in an incredibly friendly and culturally rich Caribbean society. Then, we have left the best for last, it is for anyone who wants to meet the wonderful people of Cuba. The Cuban are quite the most spontaneously friendly, extraordinary, brave, curious and generous people that we have met along our travels. So you should go to Cuba just to meet them!
To see more picttures on Flickr : http://flickr.com/gp/3metz/7hp3S8/
Olivier & Stephanie