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Photos by David Cogswell
Pulling out of Havana was the hardest thing about Celestyal's Cruise around Cuba. How could it fail to be the highlight of the trip? And yet, the trip was only half over. We had places to go, things to see.
As we pulled away from Havana I joined many others on the decks taking our last, longing looks at Havana before we pulled out of sight of it. It was hard to leave such a place. Havana, I suspect, has broken many hearts.
Because of the timing of our trip, we were among the first Americans to experience Cuba by cruise ship. And we were also among the first Americans who traveled to Cuba since "going to the beach" had seemed to have passed from the "Forbidden" zone to the "OK" zone.
There has always been ambiguity in the interpretation of the rules governing travel under the U.S. embargo of Cuba, but it seems to be the case now that going to the beach is now allowed.
In a Facebook chat conducted by the U.S. State Department, officials confirmed that travel to a beach is not forbidden under the current interpretation of the regulations as long as a full regimen of people to people activities is being fulfilled.
So because of the timing we were going to be among the first Americans who would be legally permitted go to the beach in Cuba and go into the water. We were scheduled to go snorkeling at Maria la Gorda, a beach area on Cuba's west coast.
The place is known almost exclusively as a diving camp. The whole settlement is very basic, consisting of a beach, a hotel, two restaurants, a shop and a dive center. It would not be a likely stop on your itinerary if you were traveling by land. But on a cruise ship encircling Cuba it was a natural place to stop to break up the trip around the western end of the island. And with the diving facility there, it made it a good place to experience something Americans have been unable to do before.
The place is known to have about 20 choice spots for divers. Some in our group were going scuba diving, others were going snorkeling. I was in the latter group.
The ship threw an anchor in the bay and we rode to shore in motorboats that were like water buses holding 50 passengers or so. We disembarked next to a pier and walked up onto a sandy and rocky beach. We waited our turn to go out on a diving boat and then it took us out into the bay to a place known to be great for snorkeling.
We were provided with masks, fins and snorkels and turned loose to scatter through the water like a tribe of amphibious mutants. The water was as about as clear as sea water could be and the underwater world was populated with a great variety of fish of various shapes, sizes, colors and behavior. The sea was only about 20 meters deep there, so you could see the bottom from the surface level.
The underwater landscape was full of fascinating features, with elaborate coral reefs, hills and valleys, caves, sand and gently swaying underwater vegetation. Some silvery gray fish with yellow highlights were highly interactive, as if they were coming up close to introduce themselves. Later I learned that some people feed the fish peas, so I gathered that they were probably looking for food.
Some people who were diving reported seeing a stingray. I didn't see one, but I saw many fascinating, beautiful and/or funny fish that I couldn't identify. I was told that the fish we were seeing included balloon fish, chromis, goatfish, sergeant majors, tangs, trumpet fish and yellowtail snapper, as well as crabs and lobsters.
The water made me feel buoyant, like a cork. It was effortless to float around, difficult to submerge.
We stayed in the water for about an hour and a half, by which time my hands were soggy and I was ready to get out and dry off.
After diving, I got a plate of chicken, beans and rice from one of the food concessions and sat on the beach for a while. As to the people to people aspect of the experience, it certainly was an encounter with local people, and other visitors to the dive center. It was a cross-cultural interaction, and quite fascinating. Here we were in western Cuba where they rarely see North Americans at all, and here we were, a whole lot of us disgorged from a cruise ship and suddenly in their midst. How strange it must be to them.
Someone asked me on Facebook about the reactions we were getting from Cubans, if I was seeing welcoming, confusion, hostility, wonder or what from the local people. I answered pretty much all of the above. I observed a variety of reactions to our presence everywhere we went. Some seemed annoyed at the sudden onslaught of American tourists. Some seemed to hang back skeptically. Some wanted to know us. No one was ever overtly rude. Most were friendly and cordial, or at worst neutral.
It is an exciting experience, watching this national encounter taking place, unfolding right now before our eyes. The change is happening, and we are part of the change.
Maria la Gorda marked the end of our westward progression, and from there we wound around the western end of the island and headed back east. We only had one more stop in Cuba, at Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
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David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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