Monday May 13, 2013
*For many people there is a debate on if Americans are allowed in Cuba. Most people think we are not. It turns out that we in fact are allowed into the country, we’re just not allowed to spend any money there due to the embargo we have with them. Which is nearly an impossible thing to do and for the most part Americans will just stay out, although there are new laws being passed to let certain groups or people in. One way cruisers can legally get around this obstacle is by getting someone from another country to make the trip with them and be their sponsor, paying for absolutely everything and not being able to take a penny in return. For legal reasons I will not indicate if that was or was not us.
Through our planning of this stop, I hadn’t been too worried about us entering Cuba with an American boat and being of American citizenship. We weren’t making the trip from Miami to Havana where the US Coast Guard would have a watchful eye on us, and from what we’ve heard from other cruisers and general travelers, Cubans themselves are more than happy to have us visiting and traveling through their country. I didn’t know much about what to expect from entering the country, just that a lot of other people claimed the high amount of paperwork was a hassle and the Cubans were sticklers for their guidelines. Knowing this beforehand, I planned to have a full day devoted to checking in, if that’s what was necessary, so that I wouldn’t get impatient when the process wasn’t done in 30 minutes to an hour like it was in the Bahamas and Jamaica. The only time I felt a twinge of anticipation about entering Cuba was when we were 15 miles out and I needed to hail the Guarda Fronteras to alert them we were now in their waters. I wasn’t worried because I thought they would deny entry or because I barely understand or speak Spanish and didn’t know how I’d communicate. I was worried because just before I made my call out on the radio I heard the US Coast Guard talking with a vessel in distress. The call moved to channel 22 alpha, which I am unfortunately, a little too familiar with, but that didn’t keep me from thinking that someone else from the US Coast Guard might be listening to me on 16. I even debated using an English accent to throw them off my track, but I figured if they were close enough to hear me, they probably had me on their radar already and knew I was an American vessel in Cuban waters. Should they give me any trouble, I could always try playing dumb. “What do you mean I’m not supposed to be allowed in Cuba?”
Luckily the US Coast Guard did not break in on my call to the Guarda Fronteras, but there was also silence on the end of the Guarda Fronteras. I figured I’d try again in a few hours once we were closer and went to wake Matt up for his shift. I was only down for about 90 minutes when I was rustled out of bed and told we were just an hour away and could I please try the GF again. After two more calls there was no response from them, but I did have another cruiser who was making their way out of Cienfuegos respond and tell me that they had never gotten a hold of GF on their entry and had just continued on into the bay. I wasn’t about to wait around all day for someone that wasn’t going to answer me, so we did the same. Having gotten a lot of helpful information from this cruiser along with waypoints to the marina, we came through the channel and into the bay. Both of us were very excited and even a little giddy as this is the number one place we wanted to visit on our travels and now we were actually here. Even though there was terra firma in front of me I had to hold my excitement in for the fear that however unlikely it was, I would be just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, getting to my anticipated destination only to be told that it was closed to me. But as we came up on the marina we were guided into a slip and between some of my Spanligh and the help of a fluent American in the slip next to us, we were told that the check in process would start shortly and we’d be able to sit on our boat until the hoards of officials began making their way to us.
In the first step of the process, a young gentleman from one of the departments, immigration most likely, came and took our passports. By this time our translator was gone and my Spanglish wasn’t working on him. He was able to get out the word ‘passport’ which I gladly handed over, and without another word he walked away. We were given no indication on when or even if he’d be back with them and left me wondering for a moment if we’d now become permanent residents of Cuba. Luckily the Harbor Master, who spoke just a little bit of English, was by a few minutes later to confirm that our passports would eventually make their way back to us and then explained as best he could how the rest of the check-in process would go. He also gave a run down of the expenses for what it would cost us to check-in. We needed Visas to get in the country which would cost $50. A $10 stamp for our forms, $10 for the cat, and $20 to customs/immigration. He also explained that we would need to purchase health insurance there for the cost of $3/day since any medical claims could not be sent to the US to collect payment. We told him we’d be happy to pay any medical expenses out of pocket, but he said it was non-negotiable and the money for this would need to be paid upon our departure.
Knowing full well that we wouldn’t have any CUC (or Cuban convertible pesos) on us to pay the officials for these fees, he said that he could exchange our money for us, but since he was not licensed by the government to do conversions, there was a small extra charge that would apply for this inconvenience, which was an extra 8% as we figured from the math on the scrap paper he was tallying everything up on. We’d heard that normal US to CUC conversions come with about a 12% charge and this was costing us 20%. He knew he had us since we couldn’t walk off the boat and exchange the money ourselves, and what was the chance that we had any CUC on us on arrival? All in all an extra $12 in the mix which I was ok to pay even just for the ease of being able to hand him all the necessary money and have him distribute it appropriately between the officials. From this point we were able to just sit back and wait for them to come to us, since they were delayed and hadn’t yet arrived at the marina. I don’t know if waiting like this would make most people impatient, but we were just happy to have a chance to clean the boat up since even calm passages apparently turn it into a disaster area where we are too lazy to clean up our messes when they’re first made.
We had just settled ourselves into the cockpit with a bottle of ice water to combat the already dizzyingly hot day when the first group of officials came down the dock. There were four of them in total, the doctor, the vet, quarantine and one other that I’m not exactly sure what she did. We filed down the stairs to the salon and after setting up the table I began looking over forms they passed me. Reading through a checklist for the doctor I signed it stating that no one was sick on board that we knew of, and luckily no one had died due to accident or illness on passage. (That Ned guy that’s listed on our crew list? I don’t know who he is, I’ve never heard of him before….) For quarantine I read and signed another list stating that we did not have certain foods on board that we were not supposed to bring in the country, and Matt showed her all of our canned goods as she checked through the dates to make sure they were not expired. I handed the vet Georgie’s paperwork and he verified she was vaccinated and luckily didn’t take take her out of her crate to question why there was a huge bandage around her neck. (We still can’t stop her from scratching a few bug bites she got in the Bahamas and keeps opening the wounds.) They were on and off the boat in 30 minutes and next we just needed customs and immigration to come.
While the first group to come through had a more relaxed apparel of jeans and button down shirts, the two gentlemen from customs and immigration had full military uniforms on and this made me worry that maybe attitudes would match the attire, and they would not be as easy as the last group. The worry was all for naught because they came in with big smiles, firm handshakes, and I think tired to make a couple of jokes because they both burst into laughter, although I could only make out one or two words in the conversation. The man from customs took a look at our crew list, asked for a copy of our passports, stamped a few forms and was on his way. Immigration was there a bit longer and we initially thought it was because our translation skills were so terrible and every time he’d ask us a question we’d need him to repeat it about five times before the point finally came through. Eventually we got through all his papers as well and I expected him to excuse himself like the previous guy. While organizing all our new papers and putting them back in our folder Matt noticed the guy eyeing a bottle of Kraken rum we keep displayed in our galley and
asked mimed if he wanted a taste. The guy shook his head yes and Matt poured him a healthy shot into a glass. It’s quite a strong and flavorful rum so Matt gave him a cold Red Stripe to help wash it down.
We’d heard through the cruising/forum grapevine that it’s common for the Cuban officials to ask for some kind of bribe, maybe a monetary one, or just a cold Coke or a beer. So far no one had asked for anything, and since this guy had been so patient with our lack of his language, we didn’t mind offering a little something up (although I had also freely offered cold water to everyone else that was on before). Right then a cold beer was sounding really good, so Matt and I also served ourselves and sat back down in the salon while the three of us tried to keep cool with beverages in our hands and fans blowing full blast. Trying to have as much of a conversation as we could we found out the guy’s name was Yosani and he had two little kids at home. We tried to ask him how long he had been working in the field and he tried to ask us how long we had been traveling, where we had been, and most importantly, if we had any kids. (You know, I had a feeling I was leaving something behind in Jamaica.) Then he began asking if we had pasta. Pasta? Didn’t we just go over this with quarantine? Seeing that we didn’t understand he held his finger up to his teeth and made a brushing motion. Oh….. Toothpaste! I went into the head and fished out a fresh tube, wondering what to make of the question. Presenting it to him he made the motion of putting it in his briefcase, his way of asking if he could have it. “Si. No problema”, I replied with a smile. This gift may have made him a little more bold because then he started moving around and looking at other things. I had a pair of sunglasses that were laying on top of the nav station and he reached for them to try them on. I was not about to pass those over as a gift as well, but luckily he had picked up my prescription pair and soon found out he didn’t want them anyway.
By this point we had all finished our beers and were running out of conversation. I motioned to the papers and questioned, “Esta bien? Algo mas?” He just smiled and nodded. I don’t know why I thought it would help any more, but I moved to English. “Are we finished? Can we leave the boat?” He smiled and said yes but made no motion to leave. Huh. How do you politely ask a person who does not speak your language to leave your boat so that you in turn can leave as well? Matt and I may have only been going on 4-5 hours of sleep each, but we were ready to go explore town. So we sat there for a few more minutes making polite conversation in which I tried to drop hints often that we’d like to leave the boat. Matt may have thought I was being rude (and maybe I was), but my social etiquette begins to break down with less than six hours of sleep and I can’t be held liable for the results. It was when I was seriously debating telling Matt that he could talk to the guy for however long he felt like while I lied down for a nap, when we heard a group of footsteps outside. It was the Guarda Fronteras coming to do a search of the boat. No wonder Yosani wasn’t leaving, we weren’t actually done yet! Now I really did feel like an ass for dropping all those hints, although at least they all came out with a smile while I was saying them.
I don’t know why I had forgotten about this part of checking in to Cuba, or maybe I thought we were just lucky enough to escape it. Maybe I had tried blocking it from my mind since we had heard so many horror stories about this process. An account in our Nigel Calder guide where a boat was ripped apart down to the floorboards and the owner had to spend 6 hours putting it back together, to even our friends on Tamarisk, where they were swabbing seaweed stuck to the boat and testing to see if it was drugs. I was glad I had a beer in me at this point otherwise I didn’t know how I was going to handle this invasion on our boat. First came….the drug sniffing dogs. Two little cocker spaniels that happily wagged their tails as they bound down the steps and began sniffing around. As much as I wanted to give in to my normal response to bend down and scratch the dogs behind their ears I refrained from touching them as they did their job. The only thing they seemed interested in was Georgie or places she had been lounging around the boat, and once it was apparent we were not hiding drugs they were ushered off back on to land. The manual search followed and I waited for the boat to start getting torn apart piece by piece. The head of the Guarda Fronteras was there supervising and we offered him our last cold Red Stripe as he oversaw everyone else do their work (there were now 4 officials on our boat). I don’t know if it was the kind offer of the beer or Yosani telling him we were good people and to go easy on us, but search was the easiest thing possible. The man conducting it opened a bag that we store extra toilet paper and paper towel in, rifled though my clothes without actually pulling them out of my bag, and pulled out an eye glass case and asked what purpose it served. (“Por mi ojos.” “Ohhh. Si.”)
Taking less time than we thought imaginable, the search was over and the last necessary papers were signed and stamped. All the gentleman aboard shook our hands as they all made their way out of Serendipity. Our passports were returned (without a stamp), Visas placed inside, and we were told to enjoy our time in the country. We were checked in, legal, and free to go.** The excitement I had been holding down all morning was finally burst to the top. Cuba was not closed to me. It was wide, wide open.
Matt’s just as dumbfounded and giddy as I am that we actually made it here.
** Yes, as my friend Ron put it, this is the longest way possible to say ‘Hey American cruisers, guess what? You can get into Cuba!’. But I promise there were people that wanted to know the details, hence, the extremely long winded post on an otherwise mundane topic.