Tuesday 25 April 2017

Visas bloody Visas, Havana, Friends, on-board Technology and Next Steps (Wednesday 19th April)

I started writing this on Saturday 14th April but it may not get posted until much later due to the sudden unavailability of the internet cards one needs to buy to get access to the internet.

Today has been one of the less enjoyable days here. It’s been the second successive day I have spent trying to extend my Cuban Visa. On arrival one is issued with a Visa which is valid for 30 days and which can be renewed for a further 30 days. My initial Visa expires on Monday and so I had set out early on Friday morning to renew it. As far as I could tell having read several tourist web sites the process is rather cumbersome requiring the purchase of special stamps from a bank which one then has to take to the Immigration Office along with Passport, travel insurance and details of one’s itinerary. They all warned it would take a long time. I had found what I thought was the address of the Immigration office but suddenly remembered it was Good Friday and then established that Friday and Monday were National holidays here in Cuba like many other places – the likelihood of the office being open seemed remote. I therefore changed decided to visit the Port Customs/Immigration office at the entrance to the Marina in the hope they could shed some light on the process. Fortunately another Yachty, Peter, was good enough to lend me his bike because it was quite a trek to the Port Office.

It turned out that the address I had was no longer valid and I got some rather vague directions from the local chap who was not sure whether the office would be open or not. I decided to go in search of it because it would at least be one step forward to locate the office whether closed or open. The local chap also told me there was no need to buy a stamp from the bank because the Immigration Office would undertake the whole process. Encouraging, or so I thought at the time.

Back at Peter’s boat, he offered me the loan of his bike once more which turned out to be an absolute blessing. On arriving in the area to which I had been directed there was no sign of the Office. Fortunately I stumbled across a government official of some sort who knew where it was and gave my directions (in Spanish of course which I did not understand but I got the general drift). After another half an hour of peddling, 2 Policemen and various locals later I finally found the Office. It was closed but I was told it would be open in the morning.

I headed back to the Marina and returned Peter’s bike did a few small jobs on the boat and went out with Dave and Kimberly for a meal in the nearby town. It was our second visit to the simple restaurant there. The food was very simple but extremely cheap. The three of us ate for less than £10. After that we watched one of the films that Laurent had given me in Cayo Largo – Babel. Good but heavy going.

Today  (Saturday 16th) I was up early at 0700 and got a taxi to the Immigration Office and arrived at 0830. Despite the early hour there was a long que already, I took a seat and settled down for the wait. After a while I noticed that the other people already had stamps with their documents. After a period of indecision I decided I best go and get one. It turned out that there was a bank only five minutes’ walk away so I should be back fairly soon.

Ha, ha. I was in the que in the Bank for nearly two and a half hours. There were only two counters staffed (it was a Saturday) and the first to Customers appeared to be conducting business transactions because they both took more than 30 minutes to conduct their business with stacks of paper going back and forth interspersed with resounding stamps. At last one of them finished and the lengthy que of ordinary customers gradually began to move. Finally, it was my turn. I explained I needed to buy a stamp to renew my Visa. The young man spoke some English and asked how many I wanted. I had not the faintest idea. After talking to a colleague, he asked me if I was sure I needed a stamp! Oh heck! I remember reading somewhere that the cost of the stamp was 25 CUC PESO and eventually I left having purchased 25 CUC’s worth of stamps. The only way I would know for sure whether I needed the stamps would be once back at the Immigration Office. By now it was 1100. I was back at the Office by 1110 only to be told that it was now closed but would be open again on Monday. By now I was thoroughly fed up. I walked back to the Marina and spent an equally fruitless afternoon trying to make up mosquito nets for the hatches and companion way. After two hours with the netting, elastic and needle and thread I manage to construct a completely useless net and gave up on the whole project.

Dave had come round to ask if I would like to go into Havana again with him and Kimberly but I was too knackered and hacked off and so declined.

It seems that rather too much of my stay here has been given over to battling with bureaucracy. Over previous days I had spent numerous hours trying to apply for a VISA for the USA. I only found out some weeks ago that because I was travelling on a private boat I was not covered by the ESTA which I had got before leaving Spain. Stopping off in Florida would be useful both from a passage planning perspective and in order to provision the boat fully. It was not to be however. The combination of the very unreliable internet connections and the painful VISA application form meant I had spent many hours on the process. Having at last completed the form I could request an appointment. And guess what – the earliest appointment available was August 17th! No stopover in Florida for me.

The above aside the stay here has been most enjoyable.

Dave and Kimberly have more or less adopted me and the three of us have spent a lot of time together. So far we have been into Havana twice and on both occasions we did a mixture of the classic tourist locations and also the ‘real’ Havana where the locals live and go about their business. Old Havana has been restored to its former glory but the restoration process elsewhere is proceeding at a far slower pace. Outside Old Havana one is in a third world city with crumbling buildings and streets strewn with rubble. In some streets nearly every other doorway seems to house a little enterprise of some sort – some just selling bric a brac, others more established shops and services including nail salons. Some of them are squeezed into doorways of only a few square feet, others are in stairwells disappearing into the crumbling building above. The people are for the most part cheerful despite the very considerable hardships of day to day life. Rationing is still a fact of live in Cuba and therefore most ordinary people have to make do with very spartan supplies of basic goods at subsidised prices which, if they can afford it, they can top up at market prices at the numerous independent retailers that have sprung up in recent years.

Crossing into restored Old Havana, one crosses from the third world into what could be a Rome or a Paris or any other historic city centre in Europe. Of course the specific architecture is unique but the general feeling of the place the same. There are posh shops numerous bars and restaurants and the historic sites to admire. One of the landmarks on the edge of old Havana is El Floridita Cocktail Bar made famous by Hemingway who frequented it during his Cuban period. They do make very good cocktails, especially the ‘Daiquiri’ and on the two occasions we were there they had excellent life music too. As well as drinking in famous bars we visited the equally famous Ice Cream parlour, Cappolia and the Chocolate factory XXXX. Of course we had to sample the goods at both.

Havana is packed with of all sorts of classic America cars from Chevy’s to Buicks and everything in between. Some are in almost mint condition but most are unsurprisingly showing their age. There must be a lot of ingenuous mechanics in Havana. Nearly all seem to operate as Taxis of one sort or another and sometimes it feels like almost every Cuban is associated with a Taxi when one is repeatedly asked, “Taxi Sir?”

Tomorrow we’re off to the world-famous Tropicana Club to see a show.

Last week I got to know my immediate neighbour, a fascinating Frenchman, Phillipe. He too was sailing single-handed on a similar sized but modern boat. He’s an ex computer programmer turned Personal Development teacher. The night before he left we all (me, Phillipe, Dave and Kimberly) went out for a meal in the cheap restaurant in the local town – Jaimanitas and then back to his boat where we yarned and drank rum for a few hours. It was a most enjoyable evening – one of those special ones which encapsulate the comradeship of the cruising life. Phillipe is heading up the Eastern Seaboard of the US as far as Boston and will then cross back to France via the Azores in June so there is a chance we may meet up again there.
Oh and I finally got my Visa extended on Monday after hours of yet more queing!

On Saturday I met Daniel and Anna a Brazilian/Scottish couple from their boat Noomi. They have been cruising for the last couple of years and will be heading up the Eastern seaboard too when the weather allows. We shared a bottle of wine and stories on Arctic Smoke and had a very pleasant evening.

I’m planning on leaving round about the 20th if the weather co-operates. Agustin, Port Officer for the Ocean Cruising Club in Gran Canaria, is by complete coincidence flying in to Havana on the 17th for work (he’s an Aeroplane Engineer) and we’re meeting up on the 19th. It’s proved to be most fortuitous that he’s coming because the main Tablet I use for detailed coastal navigation with Navionics software, failed in Cayo Levisa. That itself was a replacement that my son Vincent brought over to Jamaica. Agustin is therefore bringing two replacements with him which with my existing fall back tablet will mean I’ll have three which should be enough to get me home.

Yesterday (Tuesday 18th) I had another day out in Havana with Daniel and Anna from Noomi. We took local buses into town which though crowded were extremely good value – just a few pence each to cover the 10 or so miles into town. We visited the Art Museum – a bit too modern for my taste – had a good lunch and just explored the city on foot.

The winds have been blowing from the East/North East pretty hard for most of the time since arriving here and I could really do with them going South East before I leave. Headwinds against the North East flowing Gulf stream would make for a very uncomfortable and slow passage. The talk on the grapevine amongst the yachties is that the winds are forecast to go South East towards the end of week which would be good for me. My likely route now that Florida is out will be to Bimini about 250 miles which with fair winds would be a 2-day passage. From there to West End on Grand Bahama, about 60 miles, a 1 day trip and then on to Bermuda, about 800 miles which should take between 5 to 10 days depending on the winds. Weather permitting, I’ll only be making short stops in the Bahamas because I’m due to pick up Tom in Bermuda for the onward passage to the Azores.

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