Imprints - CF Literary and Arts Magazine

Volume 11

Cuba Sí

The “Simonton Street Regatta”, we call ourselves, work hard all winter getting seven boats ready for the grand race to Cuba. By pure luck (more like a miracle), I am going with them. My visa arrives the day before we set sail.

The third day of March 1979, our spirits flying high as the main sails, we glide out of Key West harbor with the excitement and merriment of a New Year's Eve party. People go from dancing on the decks and tooting horns to lobbing red, white, and blue water balloons from boat to boat as we reach for the open sea.

This trip is my dream come true — a sailing adventure with the opportunity to visit a foreign country! Yet, tales of our neighbor Fidel Castro, fill me with doubt and a bit of worry. Besides, I know very little about Cuban culture or their laws. A few hours later, as America and the sun disappear on the horizon, some of my fear and uneasiness slip away with them.

Sailing long into the night with the brisk southeasterly breeze filling “Gentle Mistress” sails — pushing us, graceful as flying fish across the Florida Straits into the Gulf of Mexico, a mesmerizing peace settles over me as I sit watching the multitude of stars glittering in the vast sky like a jeweler's display of diamonds on black velvet. Somewhere close to dawn, sitting at the helm in a sleepless daze, I snap to attention when an excited shout from Steve on “Zephros” comes over the VHF radio, “Land Ho! I see land up ahead.” Jumping to my feet, I have goosebumps when I, too, see a dark hump appear out of the fading night like an eerie sea creature.

After getting our bearings, one of the captains of the regatta discovers we have wandered off course and missed Havana. Our first day in Cuban waters is spent doggedly sailing thirty miles upwind. Sailing along the stunning coastline with its rolling, green hills and desolate, pristine white beaches sloping down to meet the turquoise sea, I pretend I'm Robinson Crusoe.

The day wears on, and the sun stretches far into the western sky when we approach a filmy, brown-gray smog yawing out to sea. An ominous gray Cuban gunboat appears out of the haze, speedily bearing down on our little entourage. A somber looking officer, armed with more than water balloons, yells across the water, “Follow us, we take you to the marina at the far end of the city.”

Soberly sailing past the timeworn fort of El Moro, I am awestruck by the architectural beauty of Havana with its pinched and crowded skyline strung together with an odd blend of modern and ancient buildings. After a while the Cuban gunboat leads our parade of sailing vessels and shaggy American sailors down a long, narrow, brackish canal. The gunboat slows to a crawl as we pass a massive military base to our left where an impressive battalion of young soldiers are diligently doing calisthenics, their glistening muscles rippling across their bare chests and biceps. A sudden gust of wind comes as if from nowhere, snapping our limp American flags to attention, puffing up our red, white, and blue symbols of freedom along with our sense of patriotism.

At the Barlavento Marina, a sea of black and brown faces stare strangely at us as if beholding an odd catch from the sea. One old, weathered fisherman says, “My people have not seen tourists, especially Americans since the Revolution. Our country’s ports have been closed for nearly twenty years, until just a few months ago.”

My friend Joey speaks fluent Spanish. He magically melds in with these warm, friendly people. Tagging along with him, I am privileged to step into the real world of Cuba. His amazing knack for instantly getting to know people gets us invited to a variety of homes, such as Jacque and Liza’s. This young French couple are school teachers and have been here for the past three years. They openly share how they are part of Castro’s elitist group. Jacque tells us, “Castro lavishes luxury on any one who has something of value to offer his country. Educators and Russians are high on his list.” He goes on to say, “Our privileged life entitles us to shop at state-owned commissaries where we buy meat, poultry, coffee, sugar, fresh vegetables, and fruit as often as we like.” Then he reveals, “Common citizens exist on ration cards that are doled out once a month. Their markets are as bare and empty as are their purses.” Later, one young mother laments, “ Coffee is one of our major crops. Do we get any? No! None!” Suddenly, this explains the crowd of Cubans hovering around the docks every day, longingly watch us fix our coffee, gasping when we throw away the grounds after each use.

One woman sadly informs us, "What you throw into the canal each day would be used by us for at least two weeks." Forbidden by the officials to share with our new friends, we are at least more discreet in our "American ways."

Not understanding the rules of etiquette can also be quite embarrassing, such as the harsh reprimand a few girls from the boat "Trifid" receive after entering a posh hotel in short shorts. Even more serious, a few people on another boat selling black market items such as T-shirts and blue jeans, come dangerously close to getting arrested. Then again, one of the captains is tempted to take on a stow-away, a young man dreaming of freedom.

Joey asks different citizens, "What happens when someone is caught breaking one of Castro's strict laws?" Over and over, they simply shrug their shoulders and reply, "We do not know. . .when someone goes to jail we rarely see or hear from them again."

Sitting alone on the rocky sea wall across the canal, my thoughts crash like the waves at my feet. My heart aches for the people with their strong passion for things always out of their grasp; coffee, sugar, pretty clothes, and shoes (their stores contain mostly Russian fashions, everything black or gray). Oppressed as they are, they still freely show their hospitality with fresh bread and "pescado" (fish). Not understanding Cuba's spoken word and a lot of their ways at first kept my stomach in knots, but their compassion has shown me that the human spirit has its own international language.

Our visas expire Monday, March 13. Tethered to the dock a few extra days due to extremely rough seas and a strong head wind, I suddenly understand; just as a sailor must respect the forces of nature in order to survive, so must a traveler respect the customs, culture and laws of the country in which one travels. Finally, the weather clears enough to set sail. The Cuban official stamping my passport for departure asks in broken English, "You come back to visit?" I answer, "Cuba, Sí!"

Cuba Sí


Cindy Arnold