The Coda On Cuba

By Bernadette Bernon
March 9, 2001
Ensenada de Abalos, San Francisco, Cuba
022 12.171 N 084 25.449 W

Suddenly, it seemed, the time had arrived for Douglas and me to begin looking for a weather window that would carry us safely away from Cuba and across the Gulf Stream to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. We didn't really want to leave, but if we waited too much longer, we risked overstaying our welcome; Cuba allows cruisers to remain in the country for only two months at a time, and we didn't want to get too close to that limit.

We had another compelling reason to make tracks west. I'd just talked to my brother, Mark, in Rhode Island, through an SSB radio patch with WLO. His baby daughter Hannah, our godchild, needed open-heart surgery to repair a hole she'd had since her birth 11 months before. We'd all hoped that the hole would close on its own, as the doctors told us they often do. But this one wasn't closing. Mark said the operation was now a definite, and scheduled for two weeks later at Children's Hospital in Boston. This was upsetting news. I hadn't been home to see my family since last summer, and I missed them, especially in light of this development with Hannah. If we could make it happen, I told Douglas, I really wanted to fly home and be there for the operation.

This would not be a long voyage over to Mexico — about 140 miles, one night and two days sailing — but it can be a boisterous one, as the Gulf Stream funnels powerfully through the narrow Yucatan Straits at about four knots. You need to get the wind right, or it's an ugly shake-and-bake passage. With the season we were having, one strong norther after another, we needed to be ready to seize the moment whenever a rare light easterly showed it's sweet face. It turned out that Sea Camp needed to make hay as well. Diane and Harold had a friend arriving in Isla Mujeres, an island off the Yucatan coast, in just a few weeks' time. For both boats, for different reasons, it was time to say farewell to Cuba and to move on.

The past couple of weeks had been slow and happy ones for Douglas and me, punctuated only by the occasional massive tension fests as we negotiated our way in and out through narrow passages in the reefs, and over shallow sand bars that still make my mouth dry to think of them. How, I wondered constantly, do people ever get used to this? We'd lingered at some stunningly beautiful isolated cays, and then meandered westward along the reef, swimming in the refreshing turquoise water every day, snorkeling for hours over the pristine coral beds, and enjoying the changes in the coastline, which was becoming thick with mangroves. But as we moved out along the western perimeter, there was something missing: the warmth of the Cuban friends with whom we'd spent so much time. When Douglas and I weren't talking about Hannah, our conversations often drifted back to these people we'd come to know.

"Remember sleeping in Miri's and Alberto's bed?" I said to Douglas one night, as we laid in our own comfortable V-berth, staring up through the overhead hatch to a black sky studded with millions of stars.

"Remember it?" said Douglas. "My back is still in spasm."

Harold had rented a car for a couple of days back in Havana, and he and Diane had invited us to go along with them out into the Cuban countryside to visit some friends they'd met on one of their previous visits. Knowing the boats were safe at Marina Hemingway, we accepted. The car turned out to be an extremely conspicuous bright red bug with special license plates pronouncing us to be "Turismos." Not an ideal way to blend into the woodwork, perhaps, but so be it. With Harold at the wheel, we set off early one morning, and headed out of Havana and into the hills. All along the roads people were hitchhiking — mothers with babies, men on their way to and from work, children — and we'd been told it's normal to pick up whomever you can, whenever you can. This morning, however, everyone could see that our bug was already crammed with four people. As we passed, our brand-new red car and special plates seemed to make people stop whatever they were doing, stare, and wave slowly at us, as though we were Queen Elizabeth herself passing by in a carriage.

Almost every acre of the countryside was industriously planted with orchards of oranges, limes, and grapefruit; and fields of cabbages, corn, coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane. Along the roads, horses and oxen pulled carts of harvested cane to government weighing stations. The lush tobacco fields, where Cuba gives birth to its world-famous cigars, are rich deep-red earth, surrounded by acres of the green tobacco leaves drying on racks. Here and there were the distinctive A-frames where the leaves are put inside to age until they're ready to send to the cigar factories. We'd been told that Fidel, who was always photographed famously holding his lit Cohiba, has given up smoking cigars in recent years. "They're good for Cuba," he's reported to have said, " but they were not good for me."

Toward the end of that day of driving and touring, we arrived at a modest village in the western countryside. We weren't expected, as very few people out here have access to a phone, so there was no way to let anyone know we were coming. Consequently, when Harold and Diane got out of the red bug in the center of the village, and it sunk in to the Cubans who it was on their doorstep, there was much jumping up and down, pandemonium, excitement, squealing, and hugging. I almost cried watching it. Alberto, Miri, and their children were soon joined by the other villagers, who gathered around us, and the car, in front of the house. Douglas and I, and Harold and Diane, had brought bags of food from the boats, and other supplies we thought would be useful, and Alberto and Miri, who seemed to be in stunned disbelief, immediately began running around to fabricate dinner for their surprise guests: langouste in sofrito, black beans and rice, boiled yucca, and cabbage salad.

Harold and Diane were treated like returning heroes, as they showed everyone pictures of the last year they'd been here, including countless pictures of many of the people in the little village, which they gave to each of them as gifts. That night Alberto and Miri opened their house to us and their neighbors, and we all stayed up late talking and eating and playing dominoes — a national passion ranking right up there with baseball. One teen-aged girl named Sylvie took a particular liking to me, probably because my Spanish was so comical, took me by the hand, and gave Diane and me a tour of the village, all the while pointing to different plants and objects, naming them in Spanish, and having me repeat the names back to her. She told me all about her studies — she was training to be a veterinary assistant — and she never left my side until it was time to go to bed. As much as we vehemently protested, the four of us were made to sleep in the only two beds in the little house — each a hard straw mattress covered in a thin film of a sheet — while the family dispersed to stay God knows where. The next morning, we were awakened at dawn by a chorus of roosters, and there was Sylvie sitting outside waiting for me. She wanted to introduce me to her parents before we left, she said, and I followed her down the street. There, her mother and father gave me some yucca as a gift, and told me Douglas and I were always welcome in their home.

We knew we'd be passing by this village on our boats a couple of weeks later, and we told all our new friends that we hoped to visit them then. Maybe we could even figure out a way to have some of them visit us on our boats for lunch. But, then again, to be realistic, this was pretty unlikely. As innocent as it would have been to do so, it was not allowed. Indeed, one night a few days before, at Marina Hemingway, when I sprinted the quarter mile from the bus drop-off point back to Ithaka for some exercise, I found myself being chased down by three guards with guns. When it finally sunk in that it was me they were after, I stopped. Huffing and puffing, they caught up with me, and we all had a laugh about it when they realized that I was a marina guest and not a Cuban on the run. It had been an amusing moment, but then sort of pathetic at the same time. We left the village with more gifts of yucca pressed on us, as apparently I'd mentioned how much I liked the flavor at dinner the night before. Sylvie came out to see us off, and waved slowly after us as we drove away. I wondered what she'd made of me, and us, and the car, and the commotion, and I hoped we had made a nice impression on her.

Three weeks later, as Ithaka and Sea Camp rested peacefully at anchor along the coast, Douglas noticed a raft coming our way. To our complete shock, on it was Alberto, Miri, and their two daughters. When they arrived, they were very nervous, as were we. They climbed aboard our boats, and proudly sat with us for lunch — breaking every rule in the book. As they took turns keeping a horizon watch for the Guarda Frontera, we talked of life and our families and fishing and work and opportunity. Diane showed Miri and the girls how to hook, a craft in which she's a master, and she explained to them all about how it was a passion with many women in Nova Scotia, where she and Harold had lived before going cruising. In Cuba, there are almost no native handicrafts, and the family was fascinated by the idea of making something as beautiful as Diane's wall hangings on Sea Camp. As they tried their hand at it, I took their pictures with my digital camera, loaded the disk onto the laptop, and showed them their images. They were delighted. Before they climbed back aboard the raft and rowed away, they gave us the gift of even more yucca, and Miri gave me a written message from Sylvie. Touched, I took off a little sterling silver necklace I'd been wearing for a few years and asked Miri to give it to Sylvie for me, along with a note in which I told her how much it had meant to me to spend time with her. I told her I'd never forget her, and asked her to write to me in America.

"Remember 'The People's Ice Cream'?" said Douglas, breaking my reverie.

"I sure do," I said, immediately transported back to Havana. "I could use one right now."

Cubans have a love affair with ice cream and they appear to eat prodigious amounts of it. The favorite place to eat ice cream in Havana is Coppelia, a huge space station of a place that serves an astonishing 30,000 customers a day. As the story goes, only the elite could afford to eat ice cream before the revolution. After Castro came to power 42 years ago, he opened what is now called Coppelia to the public, and brought the price down so everyone could afford it. Now, long lines of Cubans wait patiently for their scoops at Coppelia , while visitors wait in separate lines for the same ice cream at several times the price.

"Remember the time you served the boys that beef stew?" said Douglas.

How could I forget. We'd been anchored off a secluded cay, fishing with our Cuban friends every day. In return for their tutorial on spear fishing, I decided to make them a special lunch of beef stew, thinking that beef was a luxury that was pretty hard to come by in this neck of the woods, and that they must be sick and tired of fish. I presented my stew to them, and then sensed something amiss. They sniffed it, tasted it, poured on the salt, and politely managed to get it down their throats. But even through their smiles and appreciative remarks, I could see their hearts weren't in it. Then, Felipe produced an old plastic container, opened it, and passed it around. In it was rice and some fish, made for him, he said, by "mi Madre." The boys scooped it into their stew bowls, and devoured it with gusto. So much for my theory on meat.

"How about the disks to Canada?" I said. "That was a close one."

We'd taken a series of digital photographs, which were on several floppy disks, that were intended to accompany our "Log of Ithaka" stories from Cuba. We were planning to send the stories themselves back to Cruising World in Newport, Rhode Island, via our Inmarsat C satellite system, as soon as we were away from Havana. But Inmarsat C can't send images and, without an internet connection here, there was no way we could email the photos back to Newport for posting on the web. Harold came up with an idea. He was sending some of his own mail to a friend back in Canada through the international DHL courier service. He offered to include the disks, along with a note asking the friend to send them down to Cruising World in Newport. As Canada has a good relationship with Cuba, and therefore a seamless mail system, this seemed like an ideal solution. The people at the DHL office in Havana told Harold that the delivery to Canada would take five business days. More than three weeks later, Harold's package — including our disks — arrived in Canada. They were intact, but they'd been opened, and were in a different envelope. Spooked, it was then that we decided to change all the names and places in our Cuba articles to protect those about whom we would write.

Now that we're on the back doorstep of this complicated little country, and ready to leave, so many images of Cuba fill my head. I remember the shrill voices of the people selling "Chicklets! Chicklets!" on the streets of Havana Viejo. I remember the day, in the Museum of the Revolution, when I realized that the Cubans were referring proudly to the American invasion of the Bay Of Pigs as the Cuban "victory" at Playa Giron, a significant difference in perspective. I remember feeding starving dogs, and liberating frogs trapped in toilets. I remember trying to absorb as much of the history of Cuba as I could by reading biographies of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, as well as Tom Miller's brilliant "Trading With The Enemy," which served to illuminate the country for me. I remember the decrepit yet beautiful city of Havana, alive with music and action. I remember the discussions of Fidel with the people who at the same time greatly admire him and wish him gone. I remember that one Guarda Frontera who welcomed us warmly to his country, who loved opera, and who sat with us onboard Ithaka while we all listened to Con Te Partiro. I remember halcyon days swimming on pristine reefs. And I remember the wonderful people we came to know, especially a young girl who took my hand and tried to teach me about her world, word by word.

Finally, none too soon considering I needed to be back home in Newport in just a few days time, a weather window opened and, just like that, we weighed anchor and were gone. As the coast of Cuba fell away behind Ithaka, and the Caribbean sea opened out ahead of us, the mottled green and turquoise waters of the shallows began to give way to the dark-blue depths, and I began to think of Hannah, an innocent baby who was about to have her safe little world shaken up. For a few hours, there was three feet under our six-foot keel, then for an hour there was 14 feet, then 50, suddenly 186, and then the depth meter went haywire as it does when you go off soundings. In one way, at least, we could breathe easier; Ithaka, carrying us and our bounty of yucca, was over the reef, and on her way safely out to sea.