PHOTO: An offshore view to the west of Cuba. (photo by David Cogswell)
Monday was a day at sea on the Voyager, as we left Havana Harbor and headed for the western skies. The Group IST/Variety Cruises Cuba itinerary curves around the west end of the island, heads south and then eastward along the southern shore.
Starting early Monday morning we had 24 hours at sea until we would arrive at our next landing, the Isla de Juventud (Island of Youth)—the second largest of the 4,000 islands that make up the Cuban archipelago.
Not long after leaving Havana, we ran into some rough water, rough enough that it was imperative to hold onto the handle in the shower with one hand in order to stay on your feet.
On a small ship like the Voyager, which carries 72 passengers, you are much closer to the sea than on a giant ship, and you are more connected to the motion of the sea. Though the water got a bit rough during that stretch, the weather remained clear and beautiful. Monday was the only day of the trip I would call a rough day, and on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it was about 6.
It meant you didn’t have to spend any money on drinks to stagger around like a drunk.
From my cabin, which felt more like a hotel room than a ship cabin, I could see through my two vertically rectangular windows the sun reflected blindingly on the surface of the Caribbean. The two windows next to each other presented a picture image of the sea from the starboard side of the ship, which faced north onto the open sea as we headed west.
One of many preconceptions that shattered for me while actually being in Cuba was the idea that it is a small island. Looking at a map Cuba is certainly small in comparison with the United States. But on a human scale, when you are sailing around it, it is plenty big.
In comparison with other Caribbean islands, Cuba is massive. It is by far the largest island in the Caribbean. The land area of Cuba is a little smaller than that of Pennsylvania. It is larger than many countries, including Ireland, Greece, Austria and Portugal. It has about half the land mass of the United Kingdom and a third that of Japan.
But Cuba’s footprint in the Caribbean is much larger than even its land area would suggest. Cuba is stretched widely from east to west and from north to south, like a giant wad of bubble gum pulled messily across the center of the Caribbean. Its long coastline is so irregular that even though Italy has more than twice the land area of Cuba, Cuba’s shoreline is almost twice as long as Italy’s, according to the World Resources Institute.
It takes a while to travel around it in a small ship. The Voyager’s journey was roughly half way around, departing from Havana and ending at Cienfuegos on the south Coast.
As with a long flight, a day at sea gives you an excuse to take it easy and entertain yourself.
You can do anything you want as long as it is on the ship. Our director, Ned, provided some entertainment in the afternoon by playing a documentary called “Fidel” about you-know-who in the lounge. It was directed by New York-born filmmaker Estela Bravo and shows an essentially sympathetic view of Castro.
We were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints about Cuba throughout the week. Our Cuban guide Vladimir spoke to us at length along the way about virtually anything to do with Cuba as we toured around. He talked about what it is like to live there, how the government works, the history and so forth. It provided an amazing inside view of life in the country so long hidden from Americans. During our day at sea, Vladimir gave a lecture in the lounge titled “Cuba: History and Society.”
The passengers were also given a very different viewpoint with a lecture by Ned, the IST program director, who shared his experiences of growing up in a communist country. Ned grew up in Yugoslavia before it broke up into separate countries after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Having lived in Yugoslavia in his early life and having now worked extensively organizing travel on the ground in Cuba, he was able to bring fascinating insights into what it is like to live and work under a socialist government.
Now a resident of Florence, Ned’s picture of life under Yugoslavian communism was not endearing.
That night was the Captain’s Dinner, which created a festive atmosphere onboard. After dinner, there was music and dancing on the rear deck. The gentle back-and-forth of the waves created an impression of people dancing in formation as they slid back and forth on the rocking deck.
At night we absorbed yet another view of Cuba from a movie that was shown on the TVs in the cabins. "The Lost City," directed by and starring Andy Garcia, with Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray, showed a fascinating picture of life in Cuba at the time of the 1959 revolution.
We rocked and sailed all night and early the next morning the ship became still when we anchored off the coast of Isla de Juventud.
Catch up on the rest of "My Cuban Journey" here:
Part 1: Catching the Winds of Change in Cuba
Part 2: My Cuban Journey Begins
Part 3: My Cuban Journey: Small-Ship Cruising on the Voyager
Part 4: My Cuban Journey: Car Magic
Part 5: My Cuban Journey: Havana Adventure