THE GREEK PROFESSOR is getting to be a pain in the ass. He says he's in Havana lecturing on the predominance of the female figure in excavated Minoan art. The archaeological record, he says, suggests that Minoan society was a matriarchy, an idea that appeals to his feminist Cuban colleagues. He smiles through his beard and looks around the hotel coffee shop. We don't trust him. The night we arrived, he checked into the room next door, and he's been monitoring our every move. Now he doesn't want to talk about art, he wants to talk about our plans. Sea kayaking? How interesting. Where, exactly? The north coast. Show me the map. I don't want to show him the map. I want him to bug off. I want him to quit calling our room day and night, an uncanny five minutes after we return to it. It's starting to feel like a setup.
"So, my adventurous American friends," the professor says, "what have you discovered?"
I want to say: That a '55 Chevy Bel Air can run beautifully with a Russian Lada motor and a Toyota transmission. That the women of Cuba, unbombarded by media images of skinny blondes, don't hate their bodies. (The reigning fashion among females of all ages and shapes is a Lycra catsuit, preferably with vertical stripes.) That a box of Montecristo No. 4s costs $25 on the street.
Instead I say, "We've discovered that we're nuts."
My old friend and paddling partner Adam Duerk and I have come here to do what we believe no one else has done: kayak a long stretch of the Cuban coast. We also want to see what Communism in the Americas looks like at the beginning of the third millennium. For the kayaking, we've chosen an archipelago of pristine mangrove-and-sand cays along the north shore. It's a coastline Hemingway wrote about in Islands in the Stream. We've brought two exquisitely built collapsible Klepper kayaks and 20 boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The dinners are backup; we've heard that in the ultraclear water on the Gulf Stream side of the island you can free-dive and pick out lobsters like deli sandwiches.
What we don't have yet is permission. After months of faxing various agencies of the Cuban government and receiving no reply, and talking on the phone with officials who were enthusiastic, voluble, and completely unable to give an answer, I called the Cuban embassy in Toronto. The woman at the tourism desk was succinct. "If you row past the boundary of the resort you will be detained."
"I'm not going to any resort," I said.
"If you don't go to a resort you will be detained."
"You mean I have to go to a resort or I will be detained?"
"You misunderstand. If you take your boats outside a resort—"
"Don't say it!" I pleaded. I thanked her and hung up.
We bought plane tickets. I figured nothing takes the place of face-to-face personal charm, especially when the face belongs to George Washington or Andrew Jackson. There are some 3,100 nautical miles of Cuban coastline. There are hundreds of fishing villages, scores of port towns, thousands of reasonable officials. If all else failed, we'd sneak. Both Adam and I had years of experience slipping our kayaks onto tightly regulated rivers in the American Southwest. How tough could Cuba be?