We approached the Cuban coastline and sailed past Guantanamo Bay as the sun rose out from sea behind us. American voices sounded on the VHF and we found a note on the Navionics chart “Cuban territory illegally occupied by USA” as we poured our coffee and made the mandatory call to the Cuban Guarda Frontera announcing our arrival.
Santiago de Cuba, our first port of call, is a huge well protected bay with an old fort rising majestically on a hill to starboard as we entered and to port Granma Island, covered in dilapidated brightly painted houses and small streets overflowing with vegetation.
The first cubans to greet us were fisherman sitting on tyres or surfboards dangling their fishing lines in the water, asking for some of our flippers.
As we neared the marina, several officials in white shirts and smart trousers lined themselves up on the pier wall to receive us, hand us our welcome pack (a mojito and cigar) and teach us our first salsa moves…Not quite. Instead they took our papers, a doctor took the vital signs and temperature of every crew member, and handed us a list of rules before we were allowed to set foot on land.
The next day 2 more officials came onboard to check our food stores and generally inspect the boat. Micha was quizzed about how many iPads we had and what kind of fresh veg was left in our cupboards. The procedure was a lot more relaxed than we’d anticipated, and all the officials were very friendly despite the awkward moment after Micha’d just declared that we had no eggs left only to find the first cupboard the officials looked in was full of them…
After restoring the boat to its ship shape Bristol fashion (not quite), we headed into the city centre. Cuba was the country I’d been looking forward to visiting the most so far on our trip. I wanted to talk to the people, understand their history, listen to their music, ride in the old cars, see the buildings, admire the artwork, taste the rum and smell the cigars. By the time we set foot in the centre, we’d already seen several dozen Chevrolets, horse and carriages and plenty of moustache and cowboy hat combos.
A group of musicians busking on the street corner greeted us as we stepped off the bus, locals poked their heads out of windows and joked with their neighbours as we strolled past. We wandered through the city admiring the brightly painted art deco architecture, the grand old buildings and big open squares (now wifi hotspots, with no internet in people’s homes yet, this is where everyone gathers to go online). We watched children play in the street, bread dough being rolled into buns in the bakery, people queueing outside the pharmacy, fruit carts being rolled along cobbled alleys, hamburguesas being handed out of barred windows, and glimpsed paintings of Che Guevara, American cars and old ladies smoking cigars through open windows.
Plenty of houses were in desperate need of renovation, but their inhabitants appeared cheerful, some even inviting us inside to meet their families. It wasn’t long before we were sold some cucumber sized cigars down an alleyway and my camera was totally full of pictures of cars. Every time we sat down (or before we’d managed to), we were greeted by locals introducing themselves and telling us their life stories.
As the sun began to set, more musicians seeped out of the woodwork and were spotted practicing behind half closed doors, in parks, or could been seen carrying instruments through the streets. I grabbed Micha’s hand and dragged him after a guy carrying a huge double bass.
We followed him to the main square where he sat down amongst a big brass orchestra gathering to perform a free live concert. They started with the national anthem, to which all other members of the park stood up.
When our stomachs started growling for something other than Cuba libres, we wandered into a small street side restaurant with 6 tables and a bar. I was pleased to find we were followed in by a guy carrying a violin case, who later opened it and began to play, but not before shaking hands with everyone in the room. He was accompanied by a guitarist, and together they launched into a rendition of yesterday by the Beatles with a salsa beat before turning their hands and voices to Bueno Vista Social Club. Probably the two most popular bands in Cuba.
As the night grew darker, the music grew louder, and the salsa dancing more intense, with partners flinging each other across the room in various establishments throughout the city. We took to the streets once more, as music flowed around every corner, from big street concerts with stages and lights to intimate roof top venues. Everywhere feet were tapping and hips were swaying. We ended the night admiring an elderly gentleman strutting his stuff in front of a stage, using his walking stick as a dancing prop. He later used this same stick to attack Micha as he shouted what sounded like spanish for “Get up and dance! Why aren’t you dancing?!”