SANTIAGO DE CUBA
Arriving from the north coast of Haiti, the course to Santiago de Cuba crosses the stretch of sea in front of the American Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, an area that extends for about 8 miles along the coast, at a distance of three miles and where navigation is interdicted.
It was about 2 am when the radar warned us to be at a distance of 4 miles from the "American" coasts of Cuba .
At that point we changed our course so that we would take parallel to the boundary waters of the Naval base, we tuned the sails on the new course, modified the radius of radar guard zone bringing it to 2 miles and returned to cot.
But a few minutes after the radar alarm began playing .
A small boat with flashing blue lights was heading towards us.
It was clear it was the American military vessel, but since we were in Cuban waters we could not understand what they wanted from us.
In fact, once they come to about a quarter of a mile from us, the vessel veered on our own route. In short, they escorted us remaining at the same distance until we crossed the southern limit of the boundary waters of the United States.
Few hours later in Santiago, Gonzalo our Spanish friend who left Dominican Republic few days before us, told us that while approaching Santiago he found himself within the waters of the US Naval Base. It was night and at one point the entire vessel was illuminated from above as a big blow to flash. He was sure it was one drone, one of those airplanes with no crew on board, sent to take a nice picture.
This was our welcome in "American" Cuba.
The harbor of Santiago develops inside the cost for few miles, but the Santiago Marina, the only possible landing place for a not Cuban pleasure vessel, it is right at the beginning of the bay.
We had contacted the Guarda Fronteira on VHF channel 16 about 4 miles from the entrance of the bay to inform them of our arrival, so once inside the Harbor Master of the Marina called us, giving instructions for anchoring and to remain in waiting for a visit on board by the authorities. We anchored few meters away from Cabron, the boat of Gonzalo and Anna.
After a couple of hours, the the harbor master asked via radio if I could go ashore to pick up the authorities for the inspection on board.
Once I reached the pier of the marina, I found a gentleman who introduced himself as the health officer together with a nice lady, the officer in charge of the Guarda Fronteira.
Delivered to the latter passports, crew list (always have multiple copies ready for use) and ship documents, after wearing the white coat of " order ," the health officer climbed into the dinghy and together we returned to the boat.
Once on board and kissed Valentina affectionately as a relative who had not seen for a long time, we sat around the cockpit table to start " health inspection " .
Dr. Nieto Luis Armando Dominguez is a very nice guy, well educated as the rest of the vast majority of Cubans and very cute. He did his doctorate in Canada and , therefore, speaks excellent English, but he had no way to show it off as our Spanish starts to become acceptable .
He had with him a series of questionnaires and forms to fill out, in order to ascertain the state of our health, quality, origin and condition of any supplies on board and most of all make sure that we had health insurance that would cover the eventual medical expenses during our stay. At this request, we pulled out our "Tessera Sanitaria" with a brand new chip that had a great effect so to avoid the compulsory purchase of a local insurance policy for the cost of 10 CUC (convertible peso), equal to 10 US$.
This unique interview took place in a totally relaxed atmosphere, it seemed we were talking with our old family doctor. The questionnaire was alternated with stories of his experiences in Florida when he went to visit his father, who had taken refuge there years before. Or his entrepreneurial projects in restaurant (if anyone is interested in opening a restaurant in Santiago , I have the authorization to provide contact of Dr. Luis), or the shared passion for photography between Vale and his lady, all in front of 5 beers (3 of which he drunk with us plus other 2 he took with him that would have consumed later with his lovely wife toasting to our health) and 2 packages of pistachio.
After completing the inspection, which for completeness of information contemplated also an inspection of our galley fridge and freeze, Dr. Luis asked me to come back to the dock to bring on board the Guarda Fronteira officer.
This second visit was maintained on the same tone of absolute informality and after about half an hour the two officers demanded to be brought back ashore, where a team of 5 soldiers and two dogs was waiting to get on the dinghy for an inspection on board. The short drive from the pier to Angelique II turned into a journey of hope. The poor dinghy almost sunk by the weight of this diverse crew, with small waves generated by strong wind blowing in the harbor that day, started to take on water which turned the military wet and the dogs frightened.
Once on board one of the two dogs was so frightened that he refused to get in the boat to do his job. The second, however very slowly regained tranquility and accompanied by the instructor and us, passed inspection in every cabin, every single closet or drawer.
However, the atmosphere was always very friendly and very gentle.
The return ashore, this time with a favorable wind, was a less tragic leg.
At this point we could take down the yellow flag ( quarantine ) and we were to all intents and purposes finally free to go ashore .
It was Saturday and we need to change some money in the day if we would avoid to remain segregated in the marina until the following Monday, so we asked for a taxi (the marina is about 10 miles from the center of Santiago) to go downtown.
In Cuba there are two different currencies: the CUC with which is accepted in most commercial services open to tourists (hotels, restaurants, supermarkets), but also some services such as telephone or fuels and the Pesos, which is the currency normally used by the Cuban population . The exchange rate between Pesos and CUC and is 20 to 1.
Cuba is experiencing a situation of great economic contradictions, it is like the Country is in midstream and could not decide whether to cross over or go back.
The average salary in Cuba and is 20 CUC per month.
A liter of diesel at the pump costs 1 CUC, a beer in cans at the supermarket costs 0.80 CUC, lunch at an average restaurant in the center or in a private house costs 8/10 CUC, taxi ride from the marina ( very populated area ) to the center costs from 5 to 10 CUC (state owned Taxi is 10 , with the private sector depends on the ability to negotiate), one hour of internet access at the Post offices costs 4.5 CUC, prices absolutely not compatible with an average salary .
But at the same time a liter of diesel on the black market costs 5 pesos, one quarter of the official price ( and it seems that no one diesel at the pump service in Cuba , so much this service should not be submerged ). 2,5 lb of bread costs 6 pesos ( almost a quarter of a CUC). The "Guagua" (a sort of truck) from the marina to the city center costs 0.5 pesos ( one-fortieth of CUC) . A dish in a state owned restaurant, usually chicken and rice costs on average 10 Pesos.
But most of all , a pair of unbranded jeans costs 25 CUC, a pair of Adidas cost 30 CUC and the new generations all dress jeans , polo shirts and Adidas!
Obviously, the state provides the primary needs. Each family, depending on the number of members is entitled to a certain amount each month rice, milk, bread and other basic foods as health care and education .
But everything else, especially for the demanding young Cubans, families have to find their own way!
We arrived down town Santiago mid-afternoon, too late and tired to get around, so we decided to go to the Casa de la Trova, a sort of Cafe where they play constantly live the "trova", a genre of popular music that definitely has a very long tradition in Cuba
Unforgettable Experience. Seated at a table enjoying a ice cold lemonade we listened the "Duos Melodia Cubana" a group composed of two middle-aged woman accompanied by three musicians that introduced us to the traditional “trova”.
Very romantic sounds, beautiful voices , and above all so much style and class.
The two singers , even if they did not wear designer labels, they were so sophisticated in their elegance that would have the same effect in any snob circle of any major European capital.
In the company of our Spanish friends Gonzalo, Anna and Pablo we dedicated the following days, to the discovery of Santiago and its surroundings. We were also joined by Franz and Christine, two Germans on board a vintage Ketch we had already met in Cape Verde and Ricardo a black Hungarian that has crossed the Atlantic with his wife and their three children on a tiny catamaran. He is now based in Jamaica where he does some charter. We met him after his landing in Santiago with a crew of 10 people of different nationalities whom after the ritual on board inspection by the immigration and port authorities (could you visualize the scene of the small catamaran already overloaded by the abundant crew, boarded by a squad of soldiers plus dogs?), moved to an hotel in Santiago, leaving Richard free to enjoy our to accompany.
We were lucky enough to have a beautiful guide to accompany us during our discovery of Santiago: Leidys a girl from Santiago which our friends Gonzalo and Anna had met some days before our arrival.
For transportation from the marina and the center for excursions around the city we have entrusted to Daniel, a former officer of the Cuban army's special forces. Danilo is not a taxi the driver, but a manufacture . Manufacturer of automobiles, machines, anything having to do with the mechanics. Normally it is his son to drive the old Chevy with a Russian diesel engine. But unfortunately few days before our arrival the child was fined by the police and his driving licence was confiscated for 40 days, so Dad had to replace Danilo .
A very special man who not only drove as around for a bargain price, but Danilo has made himself available to help us out with any of our needs. From finding the eggs, apparently disappeared from the market of Santiago, to save on fuel ...... , to solve some technical problems on board and so it goes.
Santiago de Cuba is the rival city of Havana as far as literature, music and politics are concerned and is considered the 'cradle' of the revolution as it has played a central role in the overthrow of the Batista regime. It is the second largest city and unlike the other towns of the island, it has a distinctive Caribbean flavor due to the presence of French landowners and Haitians who settled there in the nineteenth century. In the city you will find the island's oldest palaces and museums, including the Casa de Diego Velázquez and the Museo Municipal Bacardi. The town overlooks the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and many homes have wrought iron balconies, arched windows and narrow stairs outside. The Cementerio Santa Iphigenia, where our friend Leidys work as guide, is the final resting place of many famous revolutionaries, including José Martí, whose embalmed body is on display.