Cuba is unlike any place on this planet. It’s hard to know where to start to explain, you can’t explain it. Eventually all of this information will be nicely categorized and labelled. In the meantime I have 3 1/2 months of scribblings and observations in one big random paper. Read on.
One of the wierdest things about sailing in Cuba is the lack of water traffic. Especially when you arrive from the USA. You leave Florida and say goodbye to the jetskies, the parasailers, the charter fishing boats, the 1000’s of sailboats, the powerboats, the colour and the noise and the visual feast. And you sail into Cuban waters that are barren. Cubans are forbidden from owning watercraft (with the exception of licensed fishermen). This is an island and there is NO boat traffic. Sometimes we sailed for 3 or 4 days without seeing a single other boat.
Gifts for Cubans.
By all means, take some. Cubans have nothing yet they will offer you a gift, be it an orange from their garden or a cup of coffee. We had more stuff in our little 27′ sailboat than an entire village. The only word of caution is what to take. They need clothes, shoes, books, medicine (like Tylenol), fishing gear (nothing fancy), dishes, all the basic necessities of life. It’s also nice to have some luxuries. An 89c bottle of nail-polish will be a big hit. Kids need toys but be careful. Some friends took crayons and pencils which seemed like great gifts, but they’re not much use to kids who have no paper. Take them some notebooks. Basic learn to speak english books are really appreciated. So are any magazines. Everybody wanted our baseball hats, and t-shirts with anything Canadian on them. If you’re willing to take a bit more, check out www.kidsea.com, a private nonprofit organization which helps facilitate donations of basic learning supplies to needy schools.
The Concept of Nothing.
You cannot appreciate the true meaning of “having nothing” until you have been to Cuba. Other third world countries have grinding poverty, but there are the occasional glimpses of huge wealth. In those places there is such a visible difference between haves and have nots. In Cuba it is easy, everyone is a have not. We visited a Cuban department store that was a converted gas station, probably all of 600 square feet. They had canned pop, 2 tires, 3 pairs of shoes, a bra, one rack of clothing, a washing machine, a small selection of plates, a counter of miscellaneous car parts….you get the picture. The total goods could have been displayed in 2 tables. And this is a department store.
There are 2 distinct economies in Cuba, the american dollar and the Cuban peso. Theoretically, foreigners a aren’t allowed to use pesos. In practise use them. The current exchange rate is 20 – 22 pses to the dollar. Life in pesos is much cheaper. Cuban coffee in a coffee bar is one peso (yes, we’re wired all the time!). Fruit and vegetable markets operate in pesos only. Supermarkets on the other hand only work in dollars. Local buses are iffy, technically they’re 2 pesos, but can only be used by Cuban nationals. We took one for 2 pesos, the second one was $1 and the third bus wanted $5 per person. With a little screaming, this was reduced to $2, but we didn’t see the cash going into the till.