Hanging out in Havana
‘Do you want a piece of toast?’ I joked to the man next to me on deck, as the ship manoeuvred into Havana harbour. The man in question was John Lenahan, comedian and magician whose cv in the ship’s daily programme revealed that he was also the voice of the toaster in comedy sci fi series Red Dwarf. I was a huge fan of the series in the days when I had a tv but it was slightly surreal circumstance to be having a conversation with the man who played the role of an over-ambitious kitchen device. Cruising life is full of contrasts, both afloat and ashore.
I had heard much but knew virtually nothing about Cuba: Fidel Castro, cigars, music, revolutions and rationing, American classic cars and mojitos. I’m not much of a city person (remember I was deeply unimpressed by San Francisco last year) but old Havana is extraordinary, a place of crumbling grandeur, decay and beauty, with wide leafy squares and glorious colonial architecture alongside narrow cobbled streets, roofless buildings still lived in, lines of drab washing on crumbling pillared balconies. We teamed up with friends from the ship for the traditional classic car ride around town, drank mojitos on a shady roof terrace bar and listened to music on street corners.
In Cuba we had to take our passports ashore, carry a visa and queue for security checks when leaving the ship. An American cruise ship was moored on the next berth, so there was a large passenger terminal with all the official gates and uniforms. (All American cruise ships are large compared to the 200m long ship-shaped Sapphire; ‘Oh my gaad, you came all the way from England in that!‘ they say. This was not the time to remind them that people also happily sail across the Atlantic in tiny yachts). This was a culture shock; we’d got used to being the only ship in town, a swan amongst scruffy cargo ship ducks in small container ports. We were used to walking ashore with no formalities; in most of the mainland Latin American countries we strolled down the gangway onto a quayside to be welcomed by a smiling official and an anxious team from the tourist office who, desperate for more cruise ship visits, had arranged for local dancers and musicians to welcome us in. The cruise terminal was often nothing more than a souvenir market or shopping centre (in Cartagena, Colombia, it was a small but charming zoo and wildlife park). We’ve had no bag searches, only occasionally passed a security gate and required no paperwork except our cruise card to check on and off the ship. In Trujillo, Honduras, ours was the only ship anchored in the bay and we were tendered ashore to a small jetty by a quayside full of empty buildings. A few of us took a trip to a diving pontoon anchored offshore in the shallow waters of Starfish Bay where I learned to snorkel for the first time, and then our group enjoyed the hospitality of a tiny beach bar on a deserted shore. We were the only customers. ‘How many cruise ships visit?’ we asked. Our guide shrugged: ‘One a month, sometimes more but sometimes nothing for months. We could do with more.’
From Cuba onwards we’ve been back in the busy world of over-developed resorts, multiple cruise ships and swarming passengers, busy beaches and high prices. Ocho Rios in Jamaica was colourful, noisy and aggressively commercial (7 dollars for a beach chair, 5 dollars for a beer). A brief stop in Barbados was spent honing my new found snorkelling skills. So far, the most memorable places have been the unexpected ones and now we are heading east again, with only a few more ports to go. By the time I get home we will have visited 24 ports in 19 countries over 66 days and I’ll have delivered 40 art lessons to my stalwart group of passengers. I won’t reveal how many mojitos I’ve enjoyed! We’ve begun the long Atlantic crossing and there is a big swell running – time to break out the seasick tablets again. Next blog post will be about life on board ship, just so that you don’t get the idea it’s all fun, fun, fun!