Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

HAVANA HAS NO PATIENCE for nightfall. Dusk sweeps over it like the shadow of a wing and it's dark. We tell the Greek professor we're going to our room to have another look at our nautical charts and head straight out the front door. There are few streetlights in Havana. People stream in the close darkness of the narrow streets, lit occasionally by the passing of a rumbling Studebaker or a finned and sharklike Pontiac. We walk past block after block of colonial stone buildings with 12-foot doorways and elaborate lintels, grillwork balconies, and shuttered, glassless windows. Even at night you can see the weathered lack of paint, the laundry ghosting the ironwork. But it doesn't feel like squalor; it feels like the unresigned and dignified demise of an antebellum manor house. Maybe that's because, unlike Mexico, where we've just been, we haven't yet seen a child who looks malnourished or unhealthy.

We turn down Obispo Street, restored to its colonial-era splendor. Throngs of Germans and Canadians stroll the swept cobbles beneath replica gas lamps. Policemen stand on every corner. We head toward the thrum and trumpet call of a loud bolero and enter the Lluvia de Oro bar just as the six-man combo breaks into a loud rendition of "Chan Chan," the song made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club album.

We drink tall mojitos, juleps made with lime juice, rum, and crushed mint. Through the iron bars of a big window we can see well-dressed Cubans dancing on the sidewalk. Adam nods to the music. He isn't good at being stalled out. He's tall, athletic, an instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School, and a director of Outward Bound's sea-kayaking base in Baja. He's always on the move. When I ask him why he didn't bring a journal on the trip, he says, "The unexamined life is the only life worth living."

Adam, who's 30, sports a flattop, goatee, and earring. He looks like a Generation X version of Dirk Pitt, U.S. Commando. Given the current anti-Yankee climate in the wake of the Elián Gonzáles mess, I suppose it's to be expected that the Cuban government would give us the full bureaucratic treatment.

"So, what do you want to do?" I say, stirring the ice in my mojito.


"Me too."

"I don't relish spending time in a Cuban jail."

"Why not?"

"Food probably sucks."

Back at the hotel, we commandeer the computer at the front desk and bang out a detailed proposal for a sea-kayak expedition along the north coast, complete with photocopied charts with circles and arrows. The next morning we deliver it to a surprised Commodore Escrich, who promises he will send it directly to the Minister of Tourism. We think we know what that means: weeks, maybe months, of "analysis." So we buy a box of cigars and take the night train east to Santa Clara, a large town in the center of the country that will put us within an hour's drive of our takeoff point at Caibarién.

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