Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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The Sound of The Sleeping Sea

Once, when I was a small child, I pressed my ear to my sleeping mother’s belly, I remember. I listened to her inner world. The murmur of rivers running inside her, the screeching of doors, the eruption of miniature volcanoes, the distant cry of a whale. Thus, I was drifting away in my sleep, my ear pressed to her body, my head rhythmically capsizing a bit with every exhaling of her breath. 

They are longing for freedom. As we all do. A total and simple state of weightlessness, like kites high above the world, detached from their strings, lost in the upper corners of the atmosphere, long forgotten by the kids who made them, who knew they would never find them again.

Thus, they float. In small illuminated vessels, pushed by the winds, carried by the waives, as if the sea herself has heaved them up overnight. A tiny subculture outside the rest of the world, outside the confinements of your familiar city, outside the buildings where you work, where you live, and where you die.

We were anchored out in the bay, far from all other boats. There was music coming from the radio. Familiar old songs I was hearing from the first time. More people showed up on dinghies and climbed aboard. The sun did its usual trick and gloriously left the scene provoking much admiration and delight among all. The night fell. We ate and drank and talked and laughed. Someone remembered his childhood aliens. Someone else revealed a secret about this uninhabited phantom-island, not far from here, that is still Spanish territory as a result of some ancient agreement, but nobody knows. A woman’s voice on the VHF radio announced that there were reports of  ‘a man in the water’ and the coastguard was looking for him. Over.

Kids went to bed first, then I curled up next to Maya in the aft cabin under the deck. I heard goodbyes as some people left; I heard dinghies detaching themselves from the boat and disappearing; I heard the people who stayed still talking and laughing. We were ten left on the boat, the music still playing, the VHF woman still desperately searching for her man in the water. Then all was silent. The sea was sleeping beneath us.

The sea was sleeping beneath me. I pressed my ear to her belly. I listened to her inner world. The murmur of rivers running inside her, the screeching of doors, the eruption of miniature volcanoes, the distant cry of a whale. Thus, I was drifting away in my sleep, my head rhythmically capsizing a bit with every exhaling of her breath. 

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Boat Punk Video reportage by Anne-Cécile Genre

Weekly Photo Challenge 

 

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The Arrival of Fata Morgana

Here she comes, graceful and languorous like a figure skating matron, gliding slowly on her enormous white-and-blue skates, as if floating above the water, barely touching it. We are standing on the pier expecting her, all four of us, looking flabbergasted as if a spaceship has just landed and we are the only witnesses to a luminous miracle. The afternoon sun setting behind us transforms everything into gold. The water in the little harbor is no longer water but flaming lava, the big fishing boats perched on the opposite shore are no longer rusty but gilded and shiny, yet we don’t see them. We only see Fata Morgana and the halo that surrounds her. She is indeed a beautiful vision, but unlike a mirage, she is real and so close now, we can finally touch her.

We help tying the lines to the dock. Instead of suspicious green Martians, out of the boat hops our broker Vanessa smiling and hands us the keys. She is all yours now, congratulations!

When adopting an exotic creature, you have to approach it with caution. You have to face it, let it smell you, tame it bit by bit. Only then, only after you know the creature and it knows you, it is truly yours. But at first, you have no clue what to do with it, so you just stay at a safe distance and look at it. And it looks at you. And this is important, the getting used to one another, the getting to know one another, and it is a long process. And even after years surprises are to be expected. Same with boats.

‘Taming’ is an act too often neglected. It means to establish ties. To us, the boat is still nothing more than a boat who is just like a hundred thousand other boats. To the boat, we are nothing more than a family like a hundred thousand other families. But if we tame the boat, then we shall need each other. To us, she will be unique in all the world. To her, we shall be unique in all the world . . .

After Fata Morgana arrives at the 3D Boatyard in Key West on April 1, she is lifted out of the water, like a sedated exotic creature, by a funny looking remote-control crane, transported, and gently placed atop four wooden crates with sandbags in a corner of the yard between two other boats. We slowly start exploring her as we have no clue what to do first. We need to domesticate her. To tame her.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana

Note:

with inspirations from: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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Fata Morgana

Author’s note

The following legend was born because of a boat.

We named our boat Fata Morgana, but almost no one, appears to know what a ‘Fata Morgana’ is… It has nothing to do with neither fat women nor Arab women called Fatima, but rather with fairies, water spirits, and optical phenomena. Fata Morgana was also the name of another boat which a friend of ours built in the seventies somewhere on the shores of the Black Sea. Years later, this same friend took us sailing for the first time and with tender love and nostalgia in his voice, he would recount fantastic adventures aboard his Fata Morgana. His dream was to cruise the water-world. It became our dream. We are here now, at the edge of this new way of life, thanks to his contagious, incurable vision, his Fata Morgana. Our boat’s name and in fact our adventure are homage to him.

The legend of Fata Morgana

Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope (1880) (altered)

Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope (1880)
(altered: Morgana-me)

In medieval times, at the remote other side of the Earth at the antipodes, dwelled nine magical sisters. Nine blessed womb-burdens of the Isles of Apples, daughters of the king of Avallach. At dawn and at dusk they appeared floating inside the waves and lured the unwary to their death. The most beautiful and powerful of the nine was the seductive megalomaniacal sorceress, La Fata Morgana, La maîtresse des fées de la mer salée.

One April morning, between six and seven o’clock, the air calm and ambrosial, the sea peculiarly eerie, a dark schooner, like a bad omen, appeared on the north-western horizon. A crazy alcoholic pirate, Barba Roja, was the captain of the sinister vessel. He had lost one leg and one eye in horrific circumstances, but had two bellybuttons, the second of which, an inch above the first and a bit to the left, he had acquired during a mutiny when he was only sixteen and got stabbed in the stomach. Barba Roja had innumerable children in each port of each land his gloomy ship has visited and many poor women, struck by devastating love for him, have drowned themselves after his gloomy ship has left.

The legend has it, that all but one of the nine magical sisters, daughters of the king of Avallach, had also fallen in love with the pirate, and slowly, one by one, consumed by passion and unbearable sadness, faded away like puffs of mist or like shadows above the surface of the sea. Dissipating from the head down, only their transparent feet slightly visible, they walked slowly to the edge of the land where grey humid rocks meet the fury of the sea, never to be seen again. Only gentle footsteps upon the sands have been noticed afterwards by fishermen every now and then. Of course, Fata Morgana was the one who did not fall for the guy and therefore did not disappear. Plus, the villainess got so furious with Barba Roja because of this situation with her sisters, that only proper revenge could probably calm the small tornado that had gathered around her body disturbing everything in a ten mile radius.

No one, even I who have invented this legend, remembers exactly what happened to Barba Roja when he finally met Fata Morgana, but it is known that for the first time in his lonely life he felt the desire to recite poetry facing the setting sun, small yellow flowers blossoming on his wooden leg. On the following morning, his sinister schooner and all its crew, captain included, vanished, replaced by an unusual vision of an otherworldly object, resembling an inverted phantom-ship ever-changing in its appearance, hovering in the sky. This optical phenomenon: a ghostly mirage or a glorious illusion of a great upside-down schooner with black sails would often appear after that day (and still does sometimes) in calm weather before the eyes of melancholic sailors who would have staked their lives upon its reality. “Fata Morgana”, they would whisper, their hearts full of tender sorrow, nostalgia, and inexplicable love.

Some interesting-looking links to writings on Fata Morgana (most of them I still have not had the time to read, by I will)

1. wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fata_Morgana_(mirage)

2. Vanishing Tricks of a Goddess by Imorgen Rhia Herrad

http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.geocities.com/magnorth_writing/ournonfictionimogen.html&date=2009-10-26+02:06:09

3. Le Folklore breton et les romans arthuriens

http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/abpo_0003-391x_1949_num_56_2_1888

4. Vita Merlin, Gaufridi de Monemuta/ The Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1973

http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/merlini.html

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Axis Mundi. Our Mandala House

After weeks of creating the intricate pattern of a sand mandala, as a meditation on impermanence, the sand is brushed together and placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.

Today I have disturbed all the spiders in our house. Some got their long legs twisted beyond repair while I was reaching for the farthest corners. (Stumbling cripples, so fragile they are.)

The world’s point of beginning: a connection between Heaven and Earth where the four compass directions converge, a place that is sacred above all: our house, has been disturbed.

We are leaving our house forever. The house where a bird once entered trough the open window two years ago, frantically flapping her wings, terrified, creating commotion for a brief minute before finding the open window again. The house where, four years ago, we placed the two rocks we found at the two ends of the continent: one white and perfectly oval like a dinosaur egg from a beach somewhere near Halifax, the other black-red, scorched by the belly of the under-earth, we found somewhere in California. The house where Maya, purple, was born, nine years ago. The house where my father came after so many years and stayed for a night. Is no longer our house.

One by one, every object disappeared. Every object we have so carefully placed in its place. Other people are having dinner at our table tonight. Maybe mashed potatoes or soup made out of snails. Kids I have never met are sitting on our couch watching a film on our TV tonight. A man and a woman who were born in Alger will make love in our bed tonight and the night after.

Tonight, I am sad, so sad. I never thought it would be so painful all this leaving thing. Leaving everything almost, except a few clothes, a few books, a few board games, and a photo camera.

From now on, we will live on a boat, and the boat will be our new mandala.

The boat we named: Fata Morgana.

rock

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Johnny and the Birds

On wet mornings when people are still sleeping in their beds in their bedrooms breathing rhythmically slowly approaching the end of their nightmares, only birds scavenge the city. Birds don’t waste their lives lost in dreams as much as humans do. They even sleep with only one eye open.

An absent-minded bird is standing at the edge of an empty street looking undecided, his three pink fingers clutching the cold concrete.

One.

And then more birds start to arrive marching in military formation to inaudible commands: Left, Left, Left Right Left!, carrying the blades of their beaks like pink bayonets, oblivious to the vacuum of the empty city.

They take their post up on a strategic wall, their silk uniforms emanating nuclear white light. Balancing on one leg, one eye locked towards the imaginary slaughterfield, they wait.

Three.

As more birds join the ranks of the bird army each minute appearing out of nowhere like puffs of breath on a cold mirror, the anxiety swells.

One Hundred and Nine.

Suddenly, an old man on a bicycle gracefully skimming between the impenetrable green and the wide-open unprotected grey glides in like a ghost. From all directions, alarmed, the birds lift their weightless bloodless bodies pirouetting through the air like puffy clouds chased by winds and gather around the man on the bicycle.

Oh my God!, they have been expecting him, I just realised! They knew where and when, and they knew why (or so they thought) the man was arriving. All this marching and waiting and gathering has been meticulously planned many days in advance. The arrival has been inevitable.

Again suddenly, the man stops in the midst of white feathers and pink beaks. His name is Johnny, but the birds don’t know that. All they know is that Johnny has been arriving on his bicycle every early morning for the past four years gently throwing dog food in the air.

When Johnny goes away the birds become disoriented. The air is void again. The city awakens, the birds disappear. Only scattered droppings remain.

Are you a good guy, Johnny? White feathery hair.

One soldier is going to be missing tomorrow, only his feet to be found.

He has been the bravest but also a bit foolish.

His flesh tastes just like chicken, so he won’t  be remembered.

One Hundred and Eight.

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