Cruising near Cuba

On December 17th, 2014, I was on a cruise ship, sailing to within four miles of the coast of Cuba.Heading to the Windward Passage

I was on a cruise with my mother, my husband and best friend from high school. We just left the Bahamas and were on our way to Ocho Rios Jamaica. I knew the ship would have to travel  through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti to reach Jamaica directly south of Cuba, but I didn’t know how close.

After lunch, while walking laps on the Promenade deck, I thought I saw land. I went to my stateroom to find our latest location, we were close to the Eastern-most tip of Cuba, Punta Maisí.

Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.
Our rickety taxi, a Russian made Lada.

I was familiar with Punta Maisí because it was a place my mother wanted to visit during our trip to Cuba in 2010. Instead we stayed in Baracoa, about 39 miles away. We learned the roads out to the point were really muddy and with potholes large enough to wreck the already battered Lada sedan of our hired driver.

Perhaps now, while cruising along her shores aboard the luxurious MS NOORDAM, we would be able to see the famous lighthouse at Punta Maisí. Her decks providing us with a sturdy platform to view what we couldn’t get to on land.

I spent the day on deck squinting my eyes to see if I could see something I could recognize, I was hoping to see El Yunque – the famous geologic feature in Baracoa that purportedly led Columbus to Cuba’s shores in 1511. Clouds draped the coastline. I imagined I saw the silhouette of mountains.

If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.
If you squint your eyes you can see land in the distance.

The winter sun was low on the horizon, the fluffy tropical white clouds played tricks with my eyes, but finally as if commanded by my desire to see land, a slight wind picked up and – Land Ho!

My heart filled with pride of seeing my mother’s land, my eyes welled with tears, as if I was seeing a long dead relative, coming back for a brief visit. Cuba!

I continued my laps around the Promenade deck as our ship sailed even closer to Cuba’s shores. Each trip I announced to a clueless, yet curious, fellow passenger who was wondering what land we were passing. “That my friend is the most beautiful island in the world! Cuba!” I was proud of my ancestor’s land, despite her political history, it is a place of amazing natural history and made up of a resilient people.

A tiny white line in the middle of the image - is the lighthouse.
A tiny white line in the middle of the image – is the lighthouse.

The land came closer into view and upon checking our location again, about an hour later, I saw we were only miles off her coast, precisely off Punta Maisí. I squinted some more and thought I saw a lighthouse. I used my Iphone 4s camera to zoom in and steadied my arms on the deck railing. I needed another miracle from the clouds and the wind. My eyes played tricks on me, I thought I could see a small white blip in the distance. I took several images, not really knowing what I was taking a photo of. But on some level, I knew it had to be the lighthouse at Maisí.

IMG_4906_2When I got home after the cruise, I looked at all my photos and did a few searches on Google to determine that yes what I saw was Punta Maisí.

We continued to cruise past Cuba until nightfall. When lights onshore, made me wonder, again, where we were. I wondered if we were near Santiago de Cuba. I thought the lights I saw were from El Morro, the Spanish fort at the mouth of Santiago harbor. But when I looked at our location on the ship’s monitor, we were to the east.

Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.
Nighttime location when I saw lights onshore.

I went back on deck and watched the blinking lights of what I thought would have been the runway at Santiago’s airport, the airport my mother and I flew into back in 2010, an airport slightly east of El Morro. My mind was made up, that was Santiago. Then, I saw more flashing lights, to the west of the “runway” past a dark area. I didn’t remember anything on the other side of Santiago’s harbor mouth. Then it came to me. That must be the mouth of Guantanamo Bay and the lights are from the U.S. naval base. I stood there staring into the darkness, imagining the large natural harbor of that bay, thinking about how one of my great-uncles was killed while trying to swim towards freedom and remembering my visit to the town of Guantanamo, in 2010, the place where my mother was born. Then, I had a vision.

“I can imagine our cruise ship sailing into port here.” I blurted to my husband, stunned by the break in silence.

I learned the next day, December 18th, that my vision may one day be a reality, Obama had announced his plans to reestablish relations with Cuba. A future cruise originating in the U.S., could possibly include Cuba on its itinerary. It will be a fabulous economic opportunity for the people of Cuba and an opportunity for cultural exchange for both Cubans and Americans.

Note: After several months of reading a bunch of articles about travel to Cuba, I read about an entrepreneur from Canada who has already established a cruise around Cuba. Wanna go?!

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