Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Cuba to The Abacos - Two different worlds only a few miles apart!

Huevos, huevos, uh huevos? Pat and I ran around the stalls at the Sunday market in Santa Marta like demented chickens whispering the Spanish word for eggs in hushed conspiratorial tones. We were greeted by the merchants with reactions ranging from shoulder shrugging indifference to amused curiosity to total confusion.  After all why would a fruit seller have eggs? But we asked anyway because in Cuba one finds that goods are not always sold by the expected merchants. In other provisioning forays we found very good quality Chinese soy sauce at the service station, cheese at the bakery and eventually eggs at the local snack bar.

We were unsuccessful in our quest for eggs that morning, as the last tray was being sold by the time we had figured out where they were being sold that day. Obviously eggs were in scarce supply, not necessarily because they were not being produced, but because the egg sellers had chosen to go elsewhere that morning. On the other hand foods such as pineapples, mangos and beets were plentiful and cheap. The concept of the 100 mile diet is gaining some traction in North America and elsewhere as a way of healthy eating; with limited storage facilities and less than ideal distribution systems in Cuba the 100 mile diet is probably more like the 20 mile diet. Eating local is not a fad, it is a way of life and the Cubans have learned to make do with what is at hand that day.

For Pat and me learning to shop for food in Cuba was sort of like learning to sail our boat in the early days. We knew basically what needed to be done, and we knew technically how to do it, but the execution left a lot to be desired. We are amazed however at how much meaningful communication can take place with a vocabulary that is limited to a handful of words, most of which were nouns or verb infinitives. It probably speaks volumes for the Cubans and their desire to accommodate, than it did for our critically inadequate language skills, but in the end we were able to re-fill our fridge and freezer with all sorts of goodies as we prepared for our exit from Cuba.

Pat found herself being led into a secret warehouse where she was offered 10lb bags of black market potatoes for $1, when other cruisers were shut out of the highly sought after tuber. Potatoes are a rarity because the local production is reserved for the resort hotels that cater to the “all inclusive” crowd. Perhaps it was her smile, her natural charm or perhaps it was the confidently uttered “pappas” that ruled the day, but she proved that where there is a will there is a way to get the job done! We even found our coveted eggs a few days later at, of all places an egg stall where they were being sold for $1.80 per 30 egg tray.

In Cuba there are two parallel economies. One is the convertible peso or hard currency economy, and the other is the Cuban peso or monada  nacional economy. As foreigners we are almost always charged for goods and services in hard currency and usually we are expected to shop at hard currency establishments, the one exception being the procurement of food. While there are ample opportunities to buy imported food stuffs in hard currency, there is no prohibition for a foreigner to shop in local markets and pay for their purchases in national pesos. Indeed it is important to ask specifically in what currency items are priced,  as a few unscrupulous merchants will try and trick a foreigner into paying 1 CUC (convertible peso) when the actual price is only 1 MN (monada national peso) 25MN = 1CUC

Most agricultural food items in Cuba are priced in Cuban Pesos with a few notable exceptions such as cooking oil, coffee and butter. Items that are priced in national pesos are by Canadian standards amazingly cheap. We were able to score bargains such as 5 pounds of onions for $1.00 and a gallon container of organic cherry tomatoes for $.30.  We weren’t able to determine if the prices actually reflected the cost of production, but I doubt that even a socialist would sell goods at a loss.

We were able to fill our larder with the essential meats, eggs, fresh veggies and bread for 2 weeks of cruising for less than $20. On the other hand we also bought some beer, rum, soft drinks, potato chips and coffee at a hard currency shop and managed to spend an additional $90 for the frills. In short if you are prepared to go Cuban, you can eat very inexpensively, but the moment you try to be “first world”, the dollar signs start to spin pretty quickly, although not as quickly as they might back home. For example top quality coffee is $ 7 per pound, Rum is between $3 and $8 per quart and honey is $3 for 500 gms.

The month flew by as our departure date, timed to coincide with the full moon approached. Our objective on this trip was to scout out the country and to see if it was worthy of further exploration. And the answer is a resounding yes. Plans are already hatching to spend an even longer period of time in Cuba next season with the objective of refining our language skills and discovering other parts of the country.

Our route back to the Bahamas will be a non traditional one, as our plan is to depart Varadero in the morning and make a land fall on the Cay Sal bank the same evening. While the 65 mile trip will technically put us back in the Bahamas, the Cay Sal Bank is a patch of shallow water fringed by small cays near the very center of the triangle formed by Cuba, Florida and Andros Island. It is definitely the path less taken, but Pat and I are beginning to stretch our explorer reflexes and we are anxious to apply our newly found multi-day voyage skills. The pics that accompany this posting are a visual treat for an area that very few people see.

Enjoy and have a great week. I know that I will


Addendum: We arrived back in the Bahamas after a 36 hour cruise up the Gulf Stream from the Cay Sal Banks. The winds were coming from ENE instead of the forecast E, so we ended up pinching as high as possible along the Florida coast for most of the night. It is truly a growth experience to sail past the mouth of Miami Harbour at 4:00AM surrounded by multiple inbound cruise ships, and dodging departing tankers and container ships. Our Class B AIS system earned its keep that night as we were both able to hail, and be hailed by ships to sort out the various collision avoidance maneuvers. I would definitely not leave home without it!

Once we were back in the Abacos, we were in familiar territory and the heightened senses of passage making, rapidly dulled to the laconic pace of the live aboard warm climate cruiser. The days ran together, and the anchorages, although each different, blended into a composite of sun, sea and fishing. The notable events of the summer were as always about the people. We reunited with our long time cruising friends Bob and Mary Ann from Queen Angel, and we met and spent some quality time with the crews of Eagle, Aroha and Kennel Up.

A broken tooth forced us to cut our stay in the Abaco short. Even though the nurse in Grand Cay provided me with pain killers and anti-biotics which controlled the symptoms, the thought of more eye watering pain was enough motivation to force a reluctant retreat. Despite the pain however, I managed to keep diving and practicing my new found swimming skills. It was a personal milestone this year, that I can actually jump into the water with a a snorkel and spear and go hunting fish. The water wings and supplementary flotation devices of the past, are now gone! The training wheels are off and next season will be even better.

I am writing the addendum from our kitchen in Vero Beach. The stock market has crashed yet again, London is burning and the world appears to be going collectively mad. Even though I won’t buy a newspaper, and we don’t watch the news, the hew and cry is loud enough to penetrate our sensory defenses. I am longing for the solitude and the truly “ignorance is bliss” life aboard.

We have been back in the USA for about 2 weeks and it is a little odd to be wandering around 3 floors and driving everywhere, but when in Rome….. Threepenny Opera will be hauled out at the end of August for a bottom painting and since it is hurricane season in Florida, we may well leave her on the hard until November. In the meantime, we will be looking for land projects and activities to keep us busy…..maybe a road trip….hmmmmmm?

Have a great week, I know I will.


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Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Beautiful pictures! Cuba and the Bahamas sound amazing and we really hope to be there soon, but not soon enough! The world is going crazy. =)

Carol & Helmut said...

Great story telling and wonderful photos as always, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Personally, I find the picture of Addison holding his kill disgusting at a time when world fisheries are being depleted. It's time to stop gloating over killing aninals. Sustainable fishing is the only answer. Stop encoraging sport fishing and let local fisherfolk who need the livlihood do the fishing. Claiming you only kill what you eat is a valid excuse if you need to live off the land. It doessn't appear this applies to Addison.

Pat & Addison said...

Some people really need to get a life!