A CUBAN ABCD - AZURE BEACHES, CORAL, DOCUMENTATION

Oh and mangroves. Millions of them. They are the short trees with roots
above the ground that thrive in salty water, so when a sand bank or
coastline gets near the surface, a mangrove gets there carried I guess on
the feet of sea birds, and puts down roots. These collect more sand around
them, it seeds more mangrove trees, and voila - a new island with tangled
mangrove roots for fish and lobsters and mosquitoes to hide in. Christian is
26 and a salt
water
fly fishing fanatic. This is fly fishing in the shallows for very difficult
to catch and totally inedible fish (they aren't called bone fish for
nothing).
A man thing. If fishing was about
catching fish it would be called catching. So Christian
fly fishes morning and evening and once at midday on a sand spit miles from
anywhere he hooked a huge bone fish - which snapped his line.
Ultimate frustration (well not quite ultimate I suppose - but close). But we
did catch (on a different rod) a 15Kg (30 lb)
Snapper as Intrepid
was coming into a narrow reef entrance.

There are coral reefs all along this exposed north coast so to get to shore
we have to find a reef entrance and navigate through it with large breaking
waves on either side, watching for
isolated uncharted bits of coral - and this time hauling in a large fish.
However snappers here can have ciguetera nerve poison in them which is fatal
to
humans in 7% of cases. Luckily the Guarda who approved our 'Dispachio'
(permit to cruise - we have to sign into and out of each place) was on a
local fishing boat who helped us fillet out any vulnerable parts and we ate
a small part the first day to check it, then steamed with sauce (Day2),
marinaded BBQ  (Day 3), Curried (Day 4), Fish and Chips (Day 5),
Snapperburger (Day 6).......

Because we have to sign out, I am becoming the wake up call of choice for
the Guarda along this coast - we have to get permission to leave and they
(usually) refuse to do this the day before, so I have to dinghy in at first
light (about 07.30) wake up the Guarda, and get him to sign our exit, before
we can leave about 0830 or 9. Luckily for their sleep Intrepid is the only
tourist boat anywhere here. One night we found a dive camp for (foreign)
tourists. 30 thatched rooms (about half full) around a central dining room -
it was on an island and offered about 20 dive sites on the reef. Rooms were
$59 single, $74 double incl breakfast. We had 'Mohitos' (rum and mint) at
the bar, some people were just there for the solitude. Next day at Los
Arroyos in the gathering dusk, the Guarda insisted I dinghy him out to
Intrepid in a 25 knot wind so he got well and truly soaked, and I made him
take his boots off before he
searched Intrepid, then the same again next morning at 07.30. The village is
pretty basic with the Guarda post controlling the dock and fuel, and as we
walked up the only street, the electricity was off, but the chicken ration
had arrived so in the 2 ration posts crowds of people were waiting by
torchlight for their 1 pound of frozen chicken/month to be crudely divided,
and their
ration books signed. Today a nasty gale is lashing us and we are sheltering
in La Lena - a narrow channel between 2 mangrove islands, 5 miles from the
nearest house waiting for the
right time to dash round Cabo St Antonio where the Gulf Stream rushes north
between Cuba and Mexico
and meets the 30 knot winds from the north east in 3000 metres of water just
2 miles offshore, creating large waves.

Friday: the best forecast we are going to get - not brilliant but we have
waited 2 days doing boat maintenance in 25 knot winds, so sail into the
waves then round the Cape straight into the east wind and waves. We could
tack and tack and tack ....but we motor through for 20 hours to do 120 miles
to Isla Juventud arriving just as its getting light then negotiate the
shallow entrance (6 feet - same
as Intrepid) with shouts and waves from the dockmaster to guide us away from
a shallow patch created by the latest hurricane to hit Cuba.

Fidel Castro was imprisoned on this island in 1955, and it still has
something of an exiled nature - 80 miles from the mainland. But the diving
is rated excellent, and the marina and nearby hotel were constructed by the
Hilton Group then confiscated after the revolution............and by the
look of it the marina hasn't been maintained since. I diced with death
connecting
Intrepid to the electricity (pushing bare wires into live terminals), then
walked the mile to the Hotel Colony for cocktails as the sun set behind palm
trees - brilliant. They have renovated very nicely 15 seafront bungalows
($34 single, $62 double incl breakfast), but only 3 were occupied. 1 of them
by 2 men who are married to each other - Rudi (German) and Tommy (Kiwi).
Rudi is in the German Embassy and they have been partners for some years,
but to gain partner benefits they had to get legally married  - which they
did. Tommy keeps house, Rudi is the breadwinner, both great guys, very happy
together.

Christian confirmed the excellent diving on Sunday (wall dives to die for)
while Nicky and I took the staff bus into Nueva Gerona ($10 return) the main
town. We were down to our last sad vegetable, so we grabbed the chance to
provision at the farmers market - tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes (about
5-10 pesos/lb - 26 pesos = $1 = 55p) and pork chops at 16 pesos/lb - but I
am not
sure how accurate his scales were! Prices seemed higher than when we were in
Cuba in 2002, when vegetables were more like 2-3 pesos/lb. No problem for
us, but when your monthly wage is 260 pesos, difficult. But then of course
they have the ration......

In town we met Ramiro (who speaks no English) and got into total immersion
Spanish - so next day we returned and Ramiro took us on his brother's horse
drawn carriage to the Praesidio Modelo (Model Prison) where Fidel Castro and
the other Monchado rebels were imprisoned after their first unsuccessful
coup against Batista in 1955. The prison was built in 1926 modelled after La
Jolliot prison in Illinois. 4 huge grim circular buildings each 4 stories
high with 100 cells/storey around the circumference of a circle and a guard
tower in the middle of the circle with machine gun enclosures able to see
(and fire) into each cell. Each cell 8 feet long by 4 wide held 2
prisoners -  and surprisingly, electricity and en suite facilities, wash
basin and toilet. But Castro and his gang were given special privileges and
were instead held in the prison hospital - 30 people in one long ward,
rather nice actually. What was going on I don't know but Castro (a young
looking 26) clearly had friends and was released 18 months later as a result
of pressure from within and outside Cuba. He was exiled, trained again in
Mexico and returned for a 2nd (successful) attempt. Many of the rebels
imprisoned with Castro then are now senior members of his party/government
including Raul his brother who runs the army. Cubans worry a lot about
what happens when
Castro dies - many fear civil war between different factions (the foreign
minister and economics minister are the 2 top faction leaders) - let alone a
return of the Cuban Americans from USA to claim 'their' property. The taxi
on the way back ran out of petrol so the driver lit a cigarette then poured
his reserve from a plastic jar into the tank holding his face (and
cigarette) over the hole to check the level. He did it again as an encore -
by this time we had got quite fast at exiting the car...

In return we invited Ramiro and friends to Intrepid the next day - and ran
into rules. We were maintaining the aft toilet (as one does on boats -
cruising is really boat maintenance in exotic places) when we heard an
altercation at the security gate. Ramiro, Maria his wife had
arrived - but Cubans are not allowed on boats or even into ports (unless
they are fishermen who get special privileges). The Chief of Port was in a
real quandary - I had just succeeded in getting them onto Intrepid when...a
further 6 Cuban friends arrived. By this time the Chief was having kittens,
but
finally (no bribes) we were able to show them Intrepid and give them
sandwiches and beer all in 5 minutes (well 15 actually) then finished the
toilet and took them to Hotel Colony where we paid $3 admission (includes 2
beers) for each Cuban to be allowed in, and they spent a lovely day being
capitalist tourists, lounging on the beach and throwing beer cans around
(which we then picked up), and finally we push-started the 1952 Chevvy they
had come in
to get them back to town.

James arrived on 22nd after a 24 hour flight, and we went out on the dive
boat on 24th for James to have 2 very good dives, and on Christmas Day we
anchored 400 metres off to get away from biting things - and 2 lobsters were
delivered in the afternoon from a passing dive boat, and we managed a multi
nationality party in the Hotel with Christmas Cake. Jame's dive buddy Dean
manages and part owns a diamond mine in South Africa - fascinating
discussion of polygraphs to detect theft, and the legal battles over
diamonds. Janet and Ben came early on Boxing Day from UK so Intrepid is full
of people, and we played Cranium the new Game of the Year. New Year in Key
Largo about 120 miles east of here.