A world so different from our own.

It’s Wednesday morning and sunrise has yet to appear in the eastern sky as I begin this post. I was awake a few hours ago and was drawn by the night sky, ablaze with stars and the sweep of the milky way sweeping gracefully from horizon to horizon.

Even in the larger cities here on the south coast of Cuba there is very little artificial light at night to hamper night vision. Here in the most rural areas the night is very dark with almost no artificial light anywhere, save a handful of dim specsfrom modest homes dotting the shore line. As a result, the sky is literally ablaze with billions of stars.

This display wasn’t that obvious last evening as a half moon was high in the sky and so bright that it cast shadows down below on Pandora. However, once the moon set and my eyes had several hours to adjust to the darkness (read: I was asleep), I was astounded by the night sky, so full of stars that the number seemed limitless.

At home in CT we often marvel at the night sky, so clear compared to when we lived near New York City but that is nothing compared to the utter darkness of rural Cuba where dark is REALLY dark.

Yesterday we raised anchor in Chivirico and headed the 50 miles west to Maria del Portillo, a rural fishing village. There is a small settlement on shore near this perfectly protected half mile round harbor along with several government operated hotels about a mile away. The bottom is soft mud and sand with good holding and there is easily room for dozens of boats. However, today we share the anchorage with a single other boat, a small 30’ double ended sloop, Luna from Norway that is the home of Lars who has sailed her solo around the world for the last dozen years.

Lars is also working his way west and as there are only a hand full of anchorages on this coast, we have found ourselves sharing harbors with him for the last few weeks, first in Santiago then Chivirico and now here in Maria del Portillo.

The winds have been very light lately making for some hot temperatures and the water is in the high 80s, almost too hot for swimming.   In the evenings when we anchor it has been uncomfortably hot and sticky and made worse as we have had to rig mosquito netting in the cockpit and screens down below making things more uncomfortable.   Lars has told us that these days of very light winds are unusual and that the trades, blowing from the east will likely reappear soon and cool things down a bit. I spoke with Chris Parker, the weather router today, and he agreed and offered hope that perhaps we may see some wind for sailing west in a few days.

We had Lars over for dinner last night and enjoyed hearing about his life, so very different from our own. He’s an interesting guy and the simplicity of his life and boat has a certain allure compared to the complexity of managing Pandora with her many systems, where something always seems to be in need of repair and I won’t even talk about the complexities of our land home.   As we compared notes, it was interesting to learn that what we pay for health insurance is equal to his total monthly budget.   And, let me tell you, our health insurance premium, as ridiculous as that is, is a modest fraction of our total monthly outlay.

Lars was quick to point out that being a citizen of a socialist country makes his vagabond lifestyle possible as he doesn’t have to worry about funding his “retirement” when he is older. Interesting.

I guess it is the utter simplicity of the life that Lars lives as well as the lives of the villagers we have seen along the way that is the most startling contrast to our own. I can’t say that I’d particularly like to trade the luxuries of Pandora and our land home there is a certain appeal to” simple”, a word that in no way has a place in the life we live.

And simple, is certainly a word that seems to describe how people live in rural Cuba.   Outside of the cities the primary mode of local transportation is horse drawn.However their is beauty in simplicity as this local swimming hole and park with specatular mountains in the distance illustrates.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are livestock everywhere including goats, turkeys (I guess this is a turkey) and a constant background sounds of cocks crowing, day and night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVillage homes are simple and neatly kept and usually have a garden nearby. This family is growing bananas, sugarcane and simple green vegetables.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd, there is perhaps no greater contrast to Pandora than this simple “boat”, an inner tube employed by a local fisherman. He paddled around the lagoon all day casting a net to catch fish less than two inches long and carefully picked his catch from the net and put in the “live well” milk crate floating next to him. I don’t know if that was his ultimate catch or if he used them as bait for larger quarry.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Cuba there are two worlds. That of the locals and the other occupied by tourists who stay at government run resorts that are simple by our standards. These cater to foreigners, mainly from Canada and Europe who visit Cuba, often for the entire winter season. The government even has a separate currency, the CUC, pronounced “cook”, for tourists, valued at about $.85 to the US dollar. The locals trade in Pesos valued at 25 to the CUC.   The Peso is used at the markets and for goods sold to locals at government shops.

Brenda and I visited one of the local hotels for lunch the other day. To get there we had to walk up a very steep road leading from the village to the top of the mountain where the hotel is. The view of the harbor and nearby mountains was spectacular. That’s Pandora in the upper right.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rooms, and there were only about 20, were located around a center courtyard with a pool. It was a lovely spot. We paid a flat rate of $12 CUC each for lunch and for that flat fee we were able to order anything and in any quantity from the menu. Brenda had grilled chicken with a sweet relish and I had grilled fish along with a number of other side dishes.Lunch was actually an add-on for us as our primary reason for visiting the hotel was to access the Internet at their single public terminal. At most all government facilities you can purchase time on their computers for $2 CUC per hour and the speeds are pretty good. I understand that this service runs through an under-sea cable that was strung from Venezuela a few years ago.

We will spend a few days here before continuing west and we are hopeful that better wind will fill in as we leave the shelter of the high mountains of western Cuba.

As I have mentioned, when we move from harbor to harbor, the Guarda Frontera wants to keep track of your movements and about an hour after we anchored yesterday we were visited by a nice young man, delivered to our boat by a local fisherman, who wanted to check our papers and passports. His visit took about 45 minutes, mostly because we had trouble communicating given our utter lack of Spanish and his lack of English. Thank goodness that we had an English/Spanish phrase book to fall back on although it only got so far.It was interesting to hear what sort of information he was looking for, beyond the obvious about our last port of call and where we were going next. Along with checking our passports, he needed to know the height of our mast, depth of our keel, beam and such esoteric information such as what the fuel capacity of our dink was and how much water we had on board.   And, all of this information was carefully recorded in a well-thumbed notebook while the fisherman patiently waited behind Pandora.

You can’t imagine how hot he looked in his uniform and heavy boots but he was good natured, never the less.   As we parted Brenda and I were left with a complete lack of clarity about what happens next and if he had to return to Pandora before we head for our next port.

However, we decided that when we are ready to leave we will just go and hope for the best and marveled, once again, about just how different this world is from the one we inhabit. And, if it turns out that we have done the wrong thing, we can say, with complete honesty, that we didn’t understand.

This is indeed a very different world and I expect that when we return to our lives in CT that we will look at things a bit differently now that we have been at least on the outskirts of a world so foreign to our own.

We came to Cuba expecting to see a world that will soon change as sanctions are lifted by the U.S. but as we experience this country first hand I am beginning to believe that change will come slowly to the rural areas, a world so different from our own and truly a sight to behold.

Cuba is a remarkable country, so different from anything that we have even known and we are blessed to be able to experience it aboard Pandora.

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