April 29, 2004
Some people travel to Cuba for the sun and the beaches. Others come to experience the rich Latin culture and magnificent colonial architecture. We came to get rid of THE BOX.
The story of THE BOX begins a couple of years ago when we were in the Bahamas with our friends Cindy and Doug on the catamaran "Neshama". They told us they were going to visit Cuba. They had never been there before and asked us all sorts of questions about our previous experiences in Cuba. They had all the guide books and charts and were practising Spanish. We were very enthusiastic. We told them that Cuba was great, they had to go. Fantastic snorkelling, friendly people, interesting art and music. David got excited just talking about it and mentioned we were planning to return there ourselves real soon. This was news for Eileen. "We are?" she asked.
A few months later, we met up with Cindy and Doug in Annapolis. They had been to Cuba and had had a great time. They remembered what David had said about our cruising plans and invited us out to dinner. After the dishes were cleared away, they brought out their Cuba charts and guides and told us where they had been, what they'd done, whom they'd met. They told us we could use their charts, replete with Doug's cryptic pencil marks and post-it stickers. Then Doug brought out THE BOX. THE BOX was one of those plastic storage containers you can pick up at an office supply outlet for storing files and other important stuff. It was significantly bigger than the TV set we had just jettisoned because it was taking up too much space on the boat. It was packed with school supplies: pads of paper; boxes of pens, pencils, and crayons; a bunch of very complicated looking calculators.
"You can take these to the school in Puerto de Maniti," Doug beamed.
We looked at THE BOX. We tried to visualize where it was going to fit on the boat and what pieces of equipment, like the galley stove or auxiliary engine, we were going to have to remove to make room for it. "What's Puerto de Maniti?" we asked.
Doug and Cindy explained that Puerto de Maniti was a small Cuban town they had visited; nothing special to look at, but very welcoming. They had made some friends there and wanted to return the hospitality. "Everyone seemed quite poor, they didn't have much of anything," Cindy said. "I think the kids will really appreciate these supplies."
Well, how could we let those kids down? Muttering some less-than-magnanimous thoughts, David lugged THE BOX back to the boat, squeezed it through the companionway, and dropped it on the cabin sole beside the saloon table. "What do you think?" he asked. "I think we're going to Puerto de Maniti," Eileen said.
For the next year, THE BOX migrated from under the saloon table to the quarterberth to the bathtub and back to the saloon table. We began to develop a distinct dislike of THE BOX. Despite having never met them, we even began to think some unkind things about the kids in Puerto de Maniti. Last summer, we met Cindy and Doug again in Annapolis. "How was Cuba?" they cried.
"Uh, we haven't gone yet," Eileen admitted guiltily.
"What about the school supplies?" Doug demanded..
"Oh, don't worry, we haven't forgotten about them," David replied. "Everyday when we squeeze in at one end of the saloon table we're reminded of them."
Last fall, THE BOX accompanied us from the Chesapeake to Florida and back to the Bahamas. Finally, earlier this month, we and THE BOX arrived in Cuba. Upon checking into the country, we discovered a potential wrinkle in our plans to advance the education of the kids of Puerto de Maniti. Apparently, foreigners aren't supposed to make direct donations to Cubans. We decided we'd figure something out when we got to Puerto de Maniti. We dug out our Lonely Planet guide for Cuba to find out more about the place. It wasn't mentioned anywhere. In fact, the entire province of Tunas, in which Puerto de Maniti is located, only takes up five of the guide's 289 pages. Lonely Planet told us, "Las Tunas is the Cuban province with the least to interest tourists ... It's all sort of off the beaten track."
"Just our kind of place," David said. Eileen didn't look convinced.
A few days ago, we sailed to Puerto de Maniti with another Canadian boat, "Varuna 1". Bob and Viviane on "Varuna 1" asked why we wanted to go there. "We have a mission," we said. We added that we had heard that the larger town of Maniti is a short train ride from the port, and that you could buy fresh produce in the town's market.
"Sounds good," Viviane agreed, "we could use some more fruit and vegetables."
It turned out that the charms of Puerto de Maniti had not been exaggerated. It's a dusty little place that's seen better days. Sugar used to be shipped from its big commercial dock, but the refinery in Maniti is now closed and there's nothing to ship. It's not exactly a hive of activity. We were clearly the most interesting things to appear in Puerto de Maniti for quite some time. People were very friendly and very curious. Walking through the town's main square we met Maggi, who had studied English at university. Maggi doesn't get a lot of opportunities to practise her English. She walked with us to the train station, talking non-stop. She invited us for coffee in her home the following morning. We casually mentioned THE BOX.
"No problem," she assured us, "I know the school principal quite well. He follows all the rules quite closely, but if you bring me the supplies, I'll see that the school gets them. It's okay for Cubans to give gifts to other Cubans."
The train to the town of Maniti looked like it was a hundred years old; we later found out that it actually IS a hundred years old. The engineer seemed to be particularly proud of his whistle and blew it frequently as the train wheezed and growled and rattled the ten miles into town. The fare was 50 centavos, or two cents US. David commented, "People back home would pay a lot more to look at something like this in a museum."
It wasn't a great shopping day in Maniti. All they had to sell in the public market were bananas, the world's smallest cloves of garlic, and the world's smallest green peppers. We bought some of everything. At the equivalent of about a penny each, the bananas were the most expensive items (they were also delicious).
After five minutes our shopping spree was over and we had five hours to kill before the train returned to the port. We had lunch at a small cafe (very bad, but very cheap), followed by a couple of draft beer each at a local bar (also pretty bad, but cheap). Bob decided he needed a haircut, so we found a woman who had a barber's chair set up on her front porch. She gave him a decent cut for five pesos (20 cents US). Then it was snack time: soft ice cream cones in the public square for two cents each. By the time we walked back to the train station, we figured we had experienced just about every major attraction in Manati.
The next morning, we debated how to get the school supplies past the sentries at the dinghy dock. THE BOX looked rather conspicuous and wasn't exactly easy to carry; if it was inspected it would be pretty difficult to explain why we felt the need to sightsee with a dozen calculators, several packs of paper, and a few hundred pens. We emptied the contents of THE BOX into our two backpacks and went ashore. The guards smiled and waved us through the gate.
Maggi lives in a small house with her ten year old son and her father, Oswald, who is retired from the military. Oswald served us excellent Cuban coffee in tiny cups. Maggi seemed very pleased with the school supplies we had brought; figuring out the instructions for the calculators will be a true test of her English skills.
We felt pretty good when we returned to the boat. Eileen said, "The kids got their school supplies and we won't feel guilty the next time we see Cindy and Doug. Plus Viviane got her bananas and Bob got a haircut. What more could you ask?"
David looked under the saloon table. "You forgot that we still have THE BOX. But you know, after two years, I'm getting used to the damn thing."