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Cuba Customs

Marina Hemingway, Cuba.

As we sailed into Marina Hemingway we scoped out the scene. Green palm trees. A petrol station with the outline of Cuba plastered on the side. A derelict building – or perhaps just an unfinished project – spray-painted with a portrait of Che. You know the one, with his brow furrowed and his hair flowing out from beneath a military beret.

This would be the first of many, many Che portraits we’d see throughout our trip to Cuba. His image was plastered on everything from water towers to building facades to sidewalks. Portraits of Che are to Cuba what pharmaceutical ads are to America. Evidently Cubans don’t need billboards touting the next cure for male pattern baldness or erectile dysfunction. Why would they? They’ve got Che always looming over them, like a hirsute, virile god sent to inspire machismo and nationalism. And that goes a lot farther than a little white pill.

We sailed into the harbor, and by sail I really mean under sail power, not under motor power which would have been the more appropriate option for navigating a 41-foot boat into an immovable, concrete marina. Our engine had been on the fritz from the outset, causing a five-day delay in our departure from Palm Beach while we waited on a replacement part to arrive. You can bet our captain was furious at the bloody machine that he had just spent so much bloody time trying to fix. “Humans were better off without all this technology,” he would growl at no one in particular.

Fearing the worst, we took down our main sail but left our jib up. Then we ever so cautiously eased into the Marina. Our navigator Toots took the helm and barked orders to hop like a bunny and get the fucking fenders ready, as our engine sputtered in and out of life.

(Toots and the Captain have been buddies for almost thirsty years, ever since a rainy day in 1985 when they bumped into each other diving in the same dumpster. They bonded over boats and a love of repurposing other people’s trash.

Toots for his part is a member of the invitation-only Storm Trysail Club, reserved for “expert offshore sailors who have experienced storm conditions and are capable of commanding a sailing vessel in such conditions,” i.e. when you need to hoist a storm trysail. I would imagine it’s a group of salty old codgers with poor manners and a terrific tolerance for rum Just a hunch.)

Three guards – two men and one woman – awaited us on shore. The men were self-serious and wore green fatigues and greased-back black hair. The woman had also slicked back her hair into a demure bun, and wore a button-down blouse, short skirt, medium black heels, and intricately laced panty hose. After we had tied up and wedged all of our fenders between the hull and the abrasive walls, we invited the Guarda Frontera aboard. The men swung their legs over the safety lines with ease, but the woman gingerly stepped onto the boat, her limbs visibly trembling, as if she thought the vessel might slip out from under her. She admitted that this was her first week on the job and that she was scared of boats. My first thought was that she should probably get another job. My second thought was that this was probably her only option.

The officers made their way down the stairwell into the cabin and crowded in around the table. They took each of our passports and began meticulously copying down all of our details in long hand. Not a digital device in sight. Then they turned to the Captain and asked for all the pertinent information about Madame X: her length, the year she was built, her engine model. They spent even more energy scrutinizing the specs of Madame X’s tender, a little inflatable dinghy, or “dinky” as the officers called it. (Over time we would learn how neurotic the Guarda Frontera can be about “dinkies,” but more on this in a future post.)

Another officer led a drug dog aboard – a sweet little springer spaniel named Dina – and we were all instantly smitten. Dina didn’t find anything interesting on board but she did get a belly rub from each member of the crew.

Everything was going swimmingly until one of the officers – the nasty one who chucked his plastic cigarette wrapper into the water – spotted Toots filming the guards surreptitiously from his iPad that he had positioned on the chart table. In normal life, Toots works as a sailing photographer and videographer, but his documentation of Cuba was primarily for posterity’s sake. For a different visual angle, Toots had asked me to take his camcorder and film the guards from my perch at the top of the stairs. When the officer realized what was going on, Toots nobly took the fall for the both of us.

I tried to convey to the officers that the video was purely a souvenir, for recuerdo. But they insisted on taking Toots ashore for questioning. Marina, the Captain and I waited on the boat patting Dina the drug dog and pondering how we would break Toots out of a Cuban prison. After about ten minutes, Toots emerged with a broad smile. He gave all the officers a hearty handshake and told us it was all a misunderstanding and that he would be happy to delete the files if that would appease them.

Back on board the guards distributed visas stamped with our entry date and we slipped them into our passports. We were told they would be removed when we left the country for good.

After we cleared immigration, we were directed towards our slip, wedged in between boats from the U.S., Sweden, Ireland, and elsewhere. Then the customs agents came aboard, and the mood shifted dramatically. Where the Guarda Frontera officers were severe, the custom agents were downright schmoozy. I think we even poured a few rum drinks. As a show of hospitality, we offered them nips of Whiskey, cans of Coca Cola, and bottles of Aspirin. (The wanton spread of Capitalism!) When one of the agents intimated that he might prefer something a tad more pecuniary, the Captain slapped him jovially on the back and said “You know we would like to but it is against our regulations, you understand.” The only thing missing was a wink and an “old chap.”

Before we left for Cuba, the Captain had promised “no bribes. We have done this too many times!” We were off to a good start.

Next up: Exploring Havana

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