May 27, 2004
Visiting a port for the first time means dealing with a mess of mysteries. Some of these mysteries are things you probably want to avoid, like that half-hidden reef in the middle of the entrance channel; this is what charts and cruising guides are for. Other unknowns are less life threatening and the process of solving them can add positively to the excitement and challenge of cruising in faraway places. When we first arrive in a new place we have a number of pragmatic questions. Where's a secure place to land the dinghy? Where can we dispose of our trash, obtain fresh water, maybe even get a hot shower and do our laundry? Are there any grocery or hardware stores nearby? How about a place to make a phone call or connect with the Internet? A good cruising guide should answer a lot of these questions (but it's surprising how many guides don't -- the assumption being that all cruisers stay at full service marinas).
Beyond these rather mundane matters, there are many mysteries that are not explained in cruising guides or travel books. For these, you need local knowledge, obtained either on your own by trial and error, or from someone else who's been there before you. What's the local watering hole of choice? (David's primary concern.) Where is there good ice cream? (Eileen's quest). Are there neighbourhoods you should avoid after dark (or even during the day)? What bus do you take into town and where do you catch it?
Cuba has more mysteries than most places we've visited. Part of this is simply a language issue; we're not fluently bilingual and most Cubans don't speak English. But a big part of the information gap is deliberate. The Cuban government would like to provide answers that result in separating you from as much money as possible during your stay in the country. It's not that they overtly mislead you, they just don't volunteer information that might save you a few dollars. At the marina office in Santiago de Cuba, we asked how to get into town (a five mile trip) and were told they'd call us a taxi for $10 US. With the average monthly salary in Cuba being around $10, we figured the workers at the marina weren't taking too many taxis to get to work. We asked one of the labourers how HE got to work and then joined him at the bus stop that was just around the corner. The fare was 20 centavos, or about one US penny each.
We recently arrived at the Darsena marina in Varadero after a few weeks of remote cruising. We were prepared to have to solve a lot of mysteries. There was absolutely no food on board (Eileen doesn't feel our remaining cans of corned beef qualify as food) so we were due for some major provisioning. We needed to find a cyber cafe since we hadn't checked our e-mail for the better part of a month. We wanted to visit Havana by land and needed to know how to get there and where to stay.
Varadero, with its 12 miles of unbroken sand beach, is the Caribbean's largest resort complex, so we knew we could probably find everything we needed, but not necessarily at prices we could afford. Enter Debbie and Danny Armstrong -- the marina's unofficial ambassadors for foreign boaters. Debbie came over to welcome us at the dock shortly after we had checked in. Within five minutes of meeting her, we had directions to find the cyber cafe used by locals (half the price of the ones in the tourist hotels); a schedule for the bus to Havana and a handful of cards of recommended hotels and restaurants; and a promise to take us grocery shopping the next day.
Debbie and Danny and their dog Lobita are originally from northern Ontario, but they've lived on their 30 foot sloop "La Vida Dulce" at the Darsena marina since January 2001. They love Varadero and enjoy sharing their knowledge of the place with other cruisers. Danny told us, "This is an ideal place for us. We can enjoy the facilities of a full service marina at a fraction of the cost of dockage in North America, but when we want to get away from it all in the heat of the summer, the cays are only a few hours' sail away."
The morning after our arrival in Varadero Debbie took us for a shopping tour of the Santa Marta neighbourhood. The tourist hotels, restaurants, and dollar stores of Varadero are strung out along the Peninsula de Hicacos east of the marina. Santa Marta, where ordinary Cubans live, is south of the marina, across a divided highway and a large vacant field -- about a 15 minute walk. Debbie took us first to the farmers' market, which was surprisingly well stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Everything was priced in pesos. At the going exchange rate, oranges cost the equivalent of two cents US each, green bell peppers were four cents each, and tomatoes were six cents a pound. Eileen went wild and in no time our backpacks were bulging with produce.
David questioned the large watermelon that she loaded into HIS pack. "At eight cents a pound, it's a great deal," she hissed. "Only if you discount the costs of a hernia operation," David countered.
The only item we couldn't find was potatoes. Debbie explained that, for some unknown reason, potatoes weren't permitted to be sold in the public market, perhaps because they were in big demand in the tourist restaurants. She made some discreet inquiries and learned that "Guido" had potatoes. Guido turned out to be a nervous little man who suddenly appeared out of the crowd with a five pound bag of potatoes, took a dollar out of our hands, and just as quickly disappeared. "Put the potatoes in your backpack," Debbie whispered. We furtively complied, worrying what our families back home would think when they saw banner headlines announcing, "Canadian Couple Detained In Cuba For Illegal Trafficking In Potatoes".
Outside the market gates Debbie introduced us to Kiki, who sells pork. We followed Kiki down a side street to where he lives. He cut four thick chops off a side of pork that was laid out on a table on the second floor verandah of his apartment. Kiki is also the source of two dollar bottles of Spanish wine (don't ask how he manages to acquire it; the same wine sells for seven bucks in the dollar stores). Debbie concluded the tour by taking us to her favourite ice cream vendor (one peso, or four cents US, for a cone).
A couple of days after our shopping spree, Debbie and Danny organized a potluck dinner at the marina, something they apparently do every month or so. The marina restaurant let us use its facilities free of charge (in fact, restaurant staff cooked some of the food the cruisers provided). Debbie invited Lucio, a local guitarist friend, to entertain us with his trovas (traditional Cuban ballads and love songs). He stole the hearts of most of the women present. We've been to a lot of potlucks over the years, but this one was special because it wasn't just a bunch of boaters getting together -- we were joined by the marina workers and their families. Instead of talking only about boat repairs and weather forecasts, we spent a good part of the evening learning about life in Cuba. It was a great international party, we made several new friends, and Lucio got a pile of tips.
As we were cleaning up we thanked Debbie and Danny for putting the party together and for all of their other help. They shrugged. "Let me tell you a story about helping out," Danny said. "Last May we had to leave the country in order to renew our visitor's visas. We planned to sail to Florida, pick up a few provisions, and then return. We got three miles out and the mast fell down."
Back at the marina, the sympathetic immigration officer extended their visa deadline and they found an abandoned boat at the docks that had a mast just the right size for their boat. They offered to buy it from the marina and immediately got mired in a bureaucratic morass involving the marina, the local port captain, and the head of customs. No one seemed to be able to make a decision. Finally, the regional port authority told them they were doing it all wrong: they were trying to BUY the mast. Danny laughed, "After three weeks of going nowhere, we wrote a letter simply asking them to GIVE us the mast, and it was delivered to the boat the next day!"
Five of the marina staff then spent a day helping them step and rig the new spar. "We offered to pay for the work," Danny said, "But the workers wouldn't accept anything. They told us, 'You and we are marineros, and marineros help each other out.'"
We're glad Danny and Debbie are continuing that tradition.