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A Matter of Choice -

June 17, 2004

The wasn't much for sale in this Cuban department store

Leaving Cuba was easy by Cuban standards. We notified the dock master at Varadero's Darsena marina the day before that we wanted to depart at 1400 hours and the appropriate officials (and dog) showed up right on time. It took only a few minutes for them to determine we weren't leaving with any Cubans on board and to sign our exit papers. Now all we had to worry about was entering the US.

Thirty-six hours and two hundred fifty miles later -- at two o'clock in the morning -- we followed the lighted buoys into Lake Worth inlet. Having bounced across the Straits of Florida in brisk winds and lumpy seas, we were happy to drop the anchor in flat water just inside the entrance channel. At 0900 we took the dinghy to shore and walked two blocks to the Palm Beach US Customs and Border Patrol office, looking a little rumpled but otherwise not too worse for the wear. With the Bush administration recently tightening restrictions against yachts (American AND foreign) visiting Cuba, we weren't sure we'd be welcomed with open arms.

The dour officer at the counter asked, "What was your last port?"

David answered nervously, "Varadero, Cuba."

The officer didn't miss a beat. "Do you have any cigars on board?"

David relaxed. "No, sir, we don't smoke."

"How about any communists?"

Eileen jumped in. "I don't think we know you well enough to be discussing our politics," she deadpanned. David elbowed her and replied, "What she means to say, officer, is no."

"Well, okay then," he said and he stamped our passports. We were officially back in the USA.

Before we left Varadero, we had asked our Canadian friends Debbie and Danny on the little sloop "La Vida Dulce" what it was like when they visited North America. They've been based at the Darsena marina since January 2001 and make occasional trips to Florida to reprovision and renew their Cuban visitor's visas (see our May 27th entry, "Helping Out"). Debbie's response surprised us. "I always can't wait to get back here. There's so much stuff everyone is trying to sell you in the States; it's overwhelming."

Eileen was thinking about the single can of creamed corn left in our galley locker and about our brief foray into the Cuban underground to purchase a contraband bag of potatoes. "I wouldn't mind being a bit overwhelmed," she said.

It's hard to buy things in Cuba because there's not much for sale. One typical window display we encountered in downtown Santiago de Cuba contained a bicycle tire and inner tube, a bottle of mineral oil, several tacky ceramic figurines, and a couple of bottles of shampoo. Not great selection, but everything was priced in pesos and was reasonably affordable (at the equivalent of around US$2.70, the tire was the most expensive item). To buy just about anything else meant a trip next door to a dollar store. On display there were washing machines, CD players, television sets, and much more. Most of the Cubans that were crowded inside were looking, not shopping, however. With an average salary the equivalent of ten dollars a month, not many of them could afford to wheel out a six hundred dollar refrigerator.

Within hours of arriving back in Florida we were hemorrhaging money again

A couple of hours after we had checked in with Customs, we anchored at the north end of Lake Worth, a short dinghy ride and walk to a busy shopping plaza. We walked the aisles of a giant supermarket, staring at all the stuff on the shelves (much of it not food). There were a lot of tough decisions to make, like which of eight different kinds of bagels to buy; and whether we wanted whole, low fat, or no fat cottage cheese (small or large curds) -- all of which were sold under four different brand names. Sweet bell peppers came in every colour of the rainbow and there were watermelons that weren't red inside. Eileen examined the orange juice. "Do you want some pulp, no pulp, or extra pulp? Fresh-squeezed or from concentrate? Added calcium? Organic or non-organic?"

David started feeling panicky and bolted towards the check out counters. "Let's just grab enough stuff for the next couple of days," he suggested.

The bill came to around a hundred bucks. When we had first arrived in Cuba, we had changed 20 dollars into pesos and hadn't spent them all by the time we had left. But then again, in Cuba we didn't see any orange bell peppers or yellow-fleshed watermelons. We didn't know what we were missing; we thought finding a bag of potatoes was a big deal.

David & Eileen