Which Way to Cuba??

Cuba Travel Blog

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6:44 p.m. “Give us your keys,” they shouted to our boat.

“Why? I screamed back. I’d never been mugged by pirates, so I dashed below deck to stash valuables on my body. Back on deck, I can’t argue with the impatient, AK47-weilding crews on the two larger boats flanking ours. Only one of the twenty guys on either boat wore anything resembling a uniform; both boats had big cannons, nobody smiled. After a useless protest against surrendering the keys, I also threw them the line they used to tow us into port and start “the investigation”.

7:28 p.m. Waiting on the dock was a 100-person army/cavalcade of drug-sniffing dogs and their handlers, police scribbling on clipboards, brooding military personnel, doctors, interrogators and interpreters. Welcome to Cuba?

Americans having to fly through Mexico, Canada or elsewhere to visit the largest island in the Caribbean has always struck me as tedious.
I wanted to conquer Cuba by boat, and the publisher of The Improper, where I write the travel column, made it happen. For years, The Improper’s publisher, Lenny Gropper, pondered venturing there with his father, Lenny, Sr., a retired steamfitter of merit who’s been boating to Cuba for decades. Lenny, Jr. and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, boarded his dad’s thirty-foot fishing boat: Steamfitter, motored south and soon reaffirmed: The adventure begins when the plan fails.

Captain Gropper traditionally docked near Havana, but headwinds burned more gas than expected, so the straight line from Marathon Key, Florida was to the marina in Varadero, 80 miles east of Havana. As Cuban soil rose into view, we made several unsuccessful attempts to radio the marina.
Hunting for the inlet 100-yards offshore, the only other boat we’d seen in Cuban waters was a dilapidated, 120-foot, steely vessel that kept its distance but mimicked our movements. When we turned and approached them to ask directions, another rusting steel beast raced onto the scene and detoured the vacation, just as the sun sunk into the ocean.

9:05 p.m. - until the moon finished slowly arcing across sky. As they searched and picked apart the boat, I occasionally napped on the comfy wooden dock, using a pylon base as a pillow.

The drug-sniffing dogs were followed by a team of quarantine doctors.

“Anybody want a soda?” – Lenny, Jr.

10:50 p.m. A young female physician gave us full physicals. Using the pilot’s bench as an exam table, while probing our abdomens she wore an expression of deep concern.
She suggested the captain “keep his legs elevated,” and returned later to retake his blood pressure.

1:33 a.m. A technology expert stepped on to the boat, gave us nods of confidence, and then completely dismantled each one of our cell phones, taking ferocious notes about each part and serial number. Spy stuff.

3:54 a.m. Became keenly aware that several stone-faced men have photographed and videoed the whole show because when the video camera guy filmed part four of my nap, his camera light woke me up.

Tensions are spiking again between Cuba and America. In 2004, Bush and Co. sanctioned Swiss banks for the “laundering” of Cuban currency. Cuba’s retaliation, starting in November 2004, outlawed the previously common U.S. dollar transactions for all goods and services in Cuba, and imposed a 20% fee for the mandatory dollar/peso conversions. And, Yanks arriving unannounced by boat also became a tad more problematic ... Redoubling these complications is a law making it legal for Americans to visit Cuba, but illegal for them to spend U.S. dollars there.

6:16 a.m. Detainment by Cuban Coast guard and friends sees the sun rise.

6:17 a.m. Emerging from a dream about missing a meal while in solitary confinement because my Spanish is rusty, I wonder aloud if we should call a lawyer. Lenny, Jr. nursing an imported Coke, winks, “Spending that quarter could multiply our legal problems.”

6:18 a.m. “Ham sandwich, please.” – Captain Gropper [Note: Captain’s cryptic request dawns on me later; we have no food, only cases of beer and soda. Captain’s persona melds Rodney Dangerfield’s pizzazz and Howard Cosell’s wit.]

10 a.m. Officials, in a variety of outfits ranging from medaled General to sly undercover detective, test-drive our boat again.

11:11 a.m. Undercover dude seated us outside the grilling office near the dock and formally permitted us access to our bucket of beer and soda.

11:12 am - until sun sets again: They interrogated us individually in a small, windowless office with three desks. Using a Spanish-speaking inquisitor with an interpreter, high-volume questions ranged from “Do you have any Cuban friends in the United States?” to “Have you ever been in trouble with the CIA?” Four other stone-faced padres looked on without blinking. Thankfully, the interrogator skipped any real toughies, like, “Who is cooler, you or your older brother?”

2 p.m. Mildly panicked paranoia sets in: Cuban detention takes me back to the many hours I’d restlessly endured in my junior high school principal’s office. Of two minds, I’d plunged into a cerebral tied pool … “We’re calling your parents,” I thought I heard someone mumble in Spanish. Images of a $10,000 Uncle Sam fine and a year in prison swirled. (Feds? did I mention this is fiction?).

3 p.m. Every two hours I’d peek back into the interrogation chamber – two computer printers busily chugging our propaganda – to ask when we’d be free to go enjoy their country’s legendary narcotic rhythms. They’d maintain poker faces and predict a few more hours. “We’re checking with your government,” the interpreter nodded. Was he joking? If I’m here trading with the enemy why the hell are you calling Washington? Were we going to become international media example exposing the flipside of the Cuban refugee boating issue?

4 p.m. Revelation: It’s amazing that Cuba’s only ninety miles from Florida, because the cultural differences fly in the face of proximity. I've visited more than 100 countries in travel writer mode and have seldom experienced such lifestyle variation in such a short distance. Typically, I intentionally wander into allegedly dangerous neighborhoods in search of the true street beat. On the other side of the tracks around the world, I’m used to paranoid locals screening me as possible DEA, FBI, CIA, immigration, or worse (a bounty hunter). It seemed ironic to raise that intelligence antenna in Cuba where I was actually attempting a vacation. Then again, the Cold War’s hangover endures.

4:01 p.m. I want my mommy.

4:02 p.m. “Gimme another ham sandwich.” – Captain’s code for someone kindly delivering another icy Miller Lite.

7:05 p.m. Still slumping in chairs outside the administrative cell as the sun sets again, a Canadian boat dweller mused by and attempted illuminating the bright side of Cuba’s militarized bureaucracy: “Thick bureaucracy, thin crime!”

7:15 p.m. Our 24-hour detention concluded with an apology.

Lack of initial radio communication aside, we had no idea that our wandering beachfront search for the inlet raised red flags. Occasionally, it seems speed boat mercenaries storm their beaches and ferry locals to Florida. And, some cell phones have GPS chips (and based on their wireless dismantling science project, you’d think lasers) that could help navigate rafting refugees seeking diplomatic immunity. Who knows what else prompted their paranoia.

Most Cubans can’t afford boats, but it’s odd to not see anyone recreating on any type of floating devices near the beaches. The Cuban government very much discourages Cubans floating on anything. It’s even illegal for foreign boat visitors to use the kayaks they’ve brought along because any such craft could become a local’s ticket to a Dolphin’s game. For sure, very few Americans storm their shores by sea, and their lawmen didn’t seem to have much going on otherwise. If it was an embargo formality, at least they now have a training video for ambushing and shaking down American buccaneers.

7:37 p.m. Group discussion/summary in Havana-bound taxi cab: Perhaps the adage about men refusing to ask for directions when lost has merit – the rare moment when four asked at once, the banana hit the fan.

11:25 a.m. (one week later): On the boat ride back to Florida, we saw only one other boat from afar as we crossed from Cuban into international waters…

“Oh shit, is that the U.S. Coast guard?” … “Dump the cigars!!”

Upon release, we drove two hours to Santa Fe, a random suburb west of Havana. There, a restaurateur suggested we stay in the side apartment of a family home. Migdalia and Deredio, a couple in their 50’s, opened their homestead and hearts to us, sharing photos, books, stories, and urgent truths. For the rest of the week, I strolled their barrio’s humid streets, befriending classic car zealots, backyard carpenters, mothers hand-fanning their babies, and everyone else along the way.

Cubans endure and embody India-type survival, with flair. There’s no litter because everything is modified and reused – a far cry from our throwaway society. They still maintain and use toasters made before JFK was elected. Ancient cars, surely condemned even in India, roll on. Once inside one of these gems, it’s typical for the driver to pass around one window crank-handle to open each window. Their passion for breathing life into otherwise dead cars (and appliances) celebrates 1950’s pride; everywhere are restored Detroit classics piloted by proud mechanical geniuses.

Ninety-eight percent of the island’s twelve million people – with the same land mass as Louisiana – are literate. An undeveloped country with developed people, the communist hangover means that pens, matches, grocery bags, and the freedom to speak freely about politics are in short supply. There’s no malnutrition or neglected illness, and sports and the arts are nurtured, but their system mandates that dreams of rising above the norm are unattainable. However, though money for luxury items is sparse, nobody worries about house payments, medical bills, or not putting food on the table. They chill. Castro’s domain struck me as a sultry, non aggressive, island prison. But the amazing patience, grace and warmth of the people makes it more than just another sunny vacation romp.
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