We booked the Stahlratte for our Darien Gap crossing around Christmas-time last year after hearing how quickly spots get filled up. However at that time, we also found out that the ship continued on after South America to travel around the Caribbean Sea up to Cuba. So we thought "How cool would it be to ride our motorcycles around CastroLand?". The answer, of course, is "VERY COOL!". So here we are back on the Stahlratte, sailing less than a day away from Jamaica, ready to deposit our bikes on the shores of Cuba.
One of the first things that greeted us in Cuba
We are headed towards Santiago de Cuba, a port town on the southeast corner of the island. We arrived just after sunrise and Ludwig awakened all the passengers so that we could see land approaching.
Cuban cruise ship :) Shanties lining the shore.
Bikes are unwrapped and anxiously waiting to be off-loaded
We spent most of the morning waiting for the immigration process to unfold, already a familiar procedure with the Cartagena and Jamaica landings. A couple of new wrinkles - a couple of very cute drug-sniffing dogs were brought on board and they went through the entire ship looking for banned substances: cocaine, marijuana, explosives and the highly illegal GPS receivers! Yes, we were told we had to leave our Garmins on board. I think the reasoning is that because the GPS satellites are a US military tool, it could be used to subvert national security? Oh well, Google Maps already did that...
GPS technology was not the only controlled technology, we were told that access to the Internet was also tightly enforced. I guess the Internet did come out of a US DARPA project.
Finally, our bikes get to come out and play
Six motorcycles were let loose onto the pier and we were given instructions on how to make our bikes legal for Cuban roads. First stop: Aduana, to get our import papers sorted out. As we rode from the marina to the city, every single person turned to look at this parade of foreign motorcycles trundling through their town. We felt like celebrities!
We arrived at Aduana late in the afternoon, and although we still had about an hour before the offices closed, we were told to come back in the morning, since they wouldn't have time to process our bikes before closing. Hmrmpf...:(
Everywhere the bikes went, people instantly appeared
While parking our motorcycles in town to look for a currency exchange, our motorcycles gathered quite a crowd. As soon as they discovered that Neda spoke Spanish, they peppered her with questions: "What brand is it?", "Where was it made?", "How many cylinders?", "How fast does it go?", "How much does it cost?".
Little did we know that this would be the script for most of our conversations with Cubans over the next little while. Even I could memorize the answers in Spanish and answer all their questions perfectly. In the next few days, we were told that bikes like ours never make it onto the island and to see one was like seeing a "lion roaming the streets" or seeing a "spacecraft parked in the town square". Wow!
Streets of Santiago
Dominoes is the national sport of Cuba and is taken very seriously.
Raised voices are often heard at a game, for both participants and audience
Streetside game of chess, which although popular, does not elicit as much shouting though...
Hanging out in the Tivoli neighbourhood of Santiago
Swing Batta Batta Swing! Impromptu game at the Escalinata
The Escalinata (steps) at Calle Padre Pico are a well-known feature in Santiago. The street ends abruptly in a set of stairs and then continues in the same direction at the top.
Streets of Santiago at night
A group of bikers come over and check out our rides. One of them asks Neda to rev her engine for them,
they are very impressed that she's riding a bike 3 times larger than the usual motorcycle on the island.
We have done a lot of research about Cuba prior to getting here, because 1) limited access to Internet while on the island, so we won't be able to get information on the fly and 2) very little else to do when you're sailing on a boat for 5 days. We learned a lot about the history of the Revolution and the tough economic times Cubans faced because of their isolation from the Western world. Private enterprise was strictly forbidden until very recently when home owners were allowed to rent out their rooms to tourists offering a cheaper alternative to hotels. These are called Casa Particulares, and we made extensive use of them while on the island. You get to see how Cubans live up close, and if you opt for the meal plan, you also get to sample some delicious home-cooked Cuban dishes!
The next morning at Aduana again. Crowd gathers around our bikes
and Neda, the fluent Spanish-speaker fields the usual questions
I'm so proud of Neda, she's picked up Spanish very quickly, and of all the travelers we've met on the road, she has really benefited the most by being able to interact with the locals to get a good understanding of what life is like in these countries. And as a resource to help with directions, border crossings, etc, she is the MVP in any traveling group.
Finally, we clear customs and to prove it, we get a nifty sticker to put on our bikes
It takes most of the morning to get our bikes imported. I'm very surprised at all the manual input, and I think it's kind of cool that all the forms are on very old, brittle paper, stained coffee-coloured by decades of communist decay. The dot-matrix printers have long since run out of cartridges, so carbon paper is used instead of ink ribbons! So interesting!
Our next step: Transito. We need to get our bikes licensed to ride Cuban roads. It's in another part of town, so we all ride over and even though we get there at lunchtime, we are told that there isn't enough time to process all our bikes and to come back the first thing next morning. Seriously? Much later, in another part of the country, we are told that the Oriental Region of Cuba (where Santiago is located) is well-known for their lackadaisical attitude.
Neda remarks that all of this is very reminiscent of the socialist system that she grew up in back in Croatia. Even though this is inconvenient for us, it does give us more time to explore Santiago a bit more, and I still think all of this antiquated bureaucracy is kind of cool!
"teehee that tickles" - Washing the salt off from our sail across the Caribbean
Again, a crowd gathers and we field the normal questions.
Viva Fidel! Along with state-sponsored propaganda, there are home-grown efforts as well
There's a lot of hanging out in doorways in the neighbourhoods around Cuba
They teach the values of socialism at a very early age
I was drawn to this Cuban bookstore and how the propaganda here radiated such a different vibe from its Western counterparts
One thing I was really looking forward to experiencing in Cuba was the state-organized propaganda, from hand-painted signs, hand-painted pictures of Fidel and Che, stickers promoting the upcoming Primero de Mayo (May 1st) celebrations, hand-painted dates of important events in the Revolution. It seemed to me that paint and human labour was a lot cheaper than manufacturing signs...
Enjoying a Cuban cigar in the park. Although we don't smoke cigars,
we really have to try one to see what all the fuss is about...
These were waiting for us at the Transito office the next morning. Neda is ecstatic!
Throughout our trip on the island, many people would ask if the bikes were ours or if they were rented. We later found out that these red license plates mean the vehicle has been imported. All of the newer cars on the road have red license plates, and almost all of them have been imported by rental car companies, which is why everyone thought our bikes were rented. The first letter also denotes where the vehicle was registered, so people knew we started off in Santiago.
We met Norje, a really nice guy who worked in the inspections lot at Transito
I wasn't expecting a Cuban license plate, so when we got one, Neda and I were both admiring them with pride. We're officially Cuban vehicles and we're ready to roam around the country!