Tuesday 12 April, Cuba day 7: In trouble with authorities again, due to an illegal drone fight; second road trip to visit Hemingway’s Cuban residence, Santa Maria beaches, and Matanzas; then search for nightlife in Havana.
With no wind in the marina this morning, I fly the drone to do our usual aerial capture of Cloudy Bay in her new surroundings. As I land it back on deck, a Cuban guy from a neighboring boat warns me to be very careful because drones are illegal in Cuba. Well, that’s no surprise really, is it? As usual, my principal MO is asking for forgiveness, rather than permission!
10 minutes later, there is a knock on the hull. It’s the dock master and he looks distressed. He asks if I just flew a drone, then tells me what I already know and continues to say that he must now report me to the police. I try to persuade him that it was simply to get a photo of our boat in his beautiful marina. But he insists, he “has no choice” but to report us. Under the Cuban regime this is classic behavior.
Like many things here, it reminds Oana of Romania during communism, where everyone was hardwired to “tell” the authorities anything and everything that they see, hear, or suspect. Because if they don’t, they themselves would be in trouble for withholding information that could be vital national security, or such-like. And Oana’s family, with her father being a doctor in the army, certainly had more eyes and ears on them than most.
Now our current situation demands that we raise our alertness to action-stations! Luckily, we still have the drone that crashed into the sea 2 years ago (we had sent it to DJI for repair, but it needed all new electronics which cost more than the drone was worth). So, we dig it out and get it ready for a confiscation, whilst hiding the good one I just flew.
Within minutes there is another louder knock on the hull. This time it is a uniformed senior police officer along with his entourage, plus several marina staff. There must be at least 10 people lined up by the boat. Clearly, we have caused quite a stir! We get the expected barrage of questions and tellings-off, including that the drone will be confiscated. Using our best innocent faces, we profusely apologise (well, Oana does, in Spanish) and request that we get it back when we depart. But no, the officer makes if clear it will be confiscated for good, no getting it back.
We then use the argument that when we checked-in we were asked about every possible piece of equipment (GPSs, radios, sat phones, computers and even bicycles) yet drones were never mentioned. This triggered a lot of discussion and some phone calls. Then finally their HQ concedes. The verdict: the drone should be sealed, with stamps across the seal, and will be checked again when we depart. So after 20 minutes of negotiation, we get to keep our defuncted drone for another rainy moment 😊. In case I forget to mention later: they did ask to see the sealed drone when we departed. And the poor dock master later sincerely apologized for what had happened, like it was his fault! Ha, these Cubans; even when the situation demands them to be assertive, their underlying generous and pleasant nature shines through, even if just in body language.
Well, that was our drama for the day. Now we depart for another day trip in the car.
First, we head to the southeast corner of Havana to visit Finca Vigia, the house where Ernest Hemingway had lived whenever he visited Cuba. Like his house in Key West, this house has also been perfectly preserved, almost as he left it before his unfortunate death. Perched up on a hill, with terrace and gardens over-looking central Havana in the distance, he had certainly picked a beautiful spot to both view and visit his loved city.
We are not allowed into the house, but it is a single-story building and all the windows and doors are open for a very clear view of the inside from the surrounding veranda. And we really enjoyed what we saw. Unlike the Key West house which looked very clean and slightly staged, this house you could really feel like he just left it yesterday. In addition to the decorations, all the little things were still in place and totally original. For instance, the hundreds of books on the extensive bookshelves still have little marker notes sticking out of them, no doubt marking passages that he wanted to later refer to. By today’s standard the furnishings were relatively simple, but also quite special for the period. And the list of VIPs who had visited Hemingway and slept here was very impressive.
Also impressive is the preservation of Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat. They have hauled it up here into the garden and have it presented under a protective open-sided roof structure. For me this was obviously a highlight not just because Hemingway loved his deep-sea fishing, but because this classic wooden motorboat which can be seen in so many pictures and photos of Hemingway, looks to be in perfect condition sitting there next to the swimming pool and tennis court, just like it is ready to be launched for a new season in the water.
From Hemingway’s house we head north around Havana’s ring-road which, like the A4 highway yesterday, is a wide and impressive 6-lane dual carriageway clearly build for more lucrative times that Cuba never actually reached. Then onto the coast road heading east. After just 8km we arrive to Playa Santa Maria. Here are beautiful dune-backed beaches where the Havanan’s come during the weekend. There are a few hotels here, but certainly not up to western tourist standard. Again, they remind us of the communist hotels at the Romanian seaside. Given the lawns and the extensive road layout, it looks like they planned a huge seaside resort here, but only a few buildings were ever constructed. The beach itself is impressive. White sand with turquoise sea looking north into the straits of Florida. As good as any resort beach in the world. Near to the dune walk throughs there are a few people enjoying it on sunbeds, but otherwise it’s fairly empty.
In the area behind the dunes, where the few hotels are, there are several restaurants. This area is known for good lobster which we cannot resist trying, along with a plate of prawns. It was not the best, but considering the price of just a few dollars (equivalent) it was very good value.
From Santa Maria we continue our journey east, heading for the city of Matanzas. Along the coast road we pass oil well heads with nodding donkeys (oil pumps), drilling rigs, and processing plants. Coming from our careers in the upstream oil and gas industry, we had heard Cuba had a little oil production, but this operation actually looked quite impressive. Then we realize all the drilling rigs are Chinese, along with nearby camps of Chinese workers. No doubt they have stepped into the vacuum left where western oil companies are not allowed to tread. What is not so impressive is a huge oil-fired power station whose enormous chimney is seen belching out copious quantities of thick black smoke and we were glad when we are passed and upwind of it.
After the rather industrial scenery of the Cuban oil-patch, the road continued through very pretty cattle farmland, with the occasional rustic cowboy seen on horseback or a mule. Then on into Matanzas city, which is situated around a large bay with a couple of oil-tankers anchored. The online images of Matanzas highlight it as the city of bridges, and we have a joking expectation of a Cuban Venice. There are indeed several bridges that go over rivers within the town, but visually we could see neither beauty nor anything of interest in this rather grubby town, and it’s certainly no Venice! So after refilling the car, we high-tail it back to Havana. We had considered continuing east to see the resort beaches of Varadero but that would have meant driving back in the dark which after yesterday’s experience is a no-no.
In the evening we again headed out from the marina with the mission to experience some night life in Havana. We easily parked near the edge of the old town and wandered through, visiting several haunts in search of good atmosphere and live Cuban music. But in general, it was very quiet and the few places that looked pleasant didn’t have any music. Finally, we found a cocktail bar called Van Van where there was group of Cuban musicians and we settled in for a cocktail or 2. The music was fine, but the musicians had been playing since early afternoon and it showed. The were yawning and completely lacking in energy. Poor them.
Our next stop was to the so-called famous jazz club, La Zorra y le Cuervo. But as mentioned in previous blogs, despite their stated opening times of 10pm to 2am, we found them already closing at just a few minutes after midnight. So that concluded our search and we headed back to the boat, wondering if we had been looking in the right place. We will try again in a couple of days.
Tomorrow we are out in the car again. This time southeast along the A1 highway, across the country and onto the south coast to visit Cienfuegos and Trinidad.