I’d just nodded off and am jolted awake by the incessant thumping of the officer’s fingers pounding the computer keys as he continues to write up our statement. It’s 5am and James and I are still at the police station, having escaped the drugs charges but with the issue of the stolen money still unresolved.


Perhaps I’ve skipped a step here and should begin at the beginning…


We arrive into Santiago de Cuba after 6 days at sea and settle into the Marina Punta Gorda. It’s too late in the day for the officials to clear us in so we await their inspection in the morning. The first to arrive is the doctor, to determine if we, and our vessel, are clean and healthy. He is a short, round man with smiling eyes and informs us that it is mango season in Cuba and compliments us on our strong coffee. He has excellent English and a nephew who is an architect. After we have been declared fit, we lower our yellow quebec flag and are joined by another official. This one is tall, thin, with the distinct look of a serial killer, speaks no English and is dragging a large, slobbering black dog, who weighs 36 kilos. The dog does not like being dragged onto the boat and complains vocally, loudly until he is unceremoniously thrown down the companionway steps to begin his work. He is here to sniff for explosives and, in the process of searching for them, manages to coat every piece of upholstery in a thin layer of smelly dog-breath slime. Nice.


When satisfied that we are not concealing any bombs, the man hefts the dog off and we are joined by a further 3 men and another dog, a small springer spaniel, with claws that click on the woodwork. This is the drugs dog and he sniffs all round the boat, poking his head into a few different cupboards and bilges. The officers seem particularly suspicious of a bottle of make-up remover on my shelf and fire questions at us constantly; referring to James as “master” and me as “lady” at all times. We smile and try to appear good-humoured whilst simultaneously finding the whole thing hysterical. One official asks us for some paper as he solemnly collects a few bits of dirt from one bilge that the dog shows particular interest in. There is much hushed discussion in Spanish and we are informed that they must examine said pile of dirt and will let us know the results. Could master and lady remain on the boat until they come back please?


An hour and a half later they return, sans dog but this time with another official, who seems higher up in the chain. They split the two of us up and again go through each locker in turn; looking in every cupboard, scrutinizing the contents of each drawer and examining every bilge. James is asked many probing questions about how long we’ve had the boat, what crew members we’ve had on board and what we know of the previous owners. This is because the dirt turns out to contain some marijuana leaves and we are now in serious trouble with the authorities and facing a large fine.


However, as we clearly don’t smoke and there is neither tobacco nor papers of any kind in our possession the officials take pity on us, knowing full well that we have only been on the boat for 6 months. They realised that we were not the ones responsible for the presence of the drugs and decide to sympathetically waive the fine and allow us to step off the boat – phew!


We are then greeted by the manager of the marina, a kind man who speaks perfect English and lets us know that he has already completed all the paperwork for us as we were probably tired of the Cuban bureaucracy by this point, the whole process having taken 6 hours. He informs us that we can change US dollars and Euros for CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) in the city centre and we promptly get ourselves together for a little jaunt into town.


We jump into an old car which takes us to the Parque Céspedes. The city of Santiago is just how I had pictured it, full of faded colonial glory, people singing in the street, plucking at guitars on park benches and pictures of Che Guevara at every turn. We meander our way through the streets just looking and marvelling at our good fortune to have come so far. Hungry, we stop for a bite and a beer at a street café overlooking Plaza del Delores. While eating we are entertained by a guy playing Spanish guitar and implored by a struggling artist for a few pesos in exchange for some sketches he has done of me. It all feels comfortable, easy and entirely relaxing after our day of officialdom.


We’re getting ready to leave and James is offered a drink of Cuban sherry. We start chatting and decide not to leave right away, relishing the opportunity to practice our shaky Spanish with some locals. The locals in question are two blokes and a girl, she speaks fairly good English and the guys know a little. We chat and get to know each other a bit, picking up new words along the way with our “Come se dice en Espagnol?”. We laugh a lot and decide to buy some more drinks as the hours slip by and a cool darkness falls in the city after the blistering heat of the day.


Our new friends tell us about places we can visit that are less touristy and plan to teach us how to dance salsa, as the girl is a dance teacher. We all start getting hungry and walk through town searching for a suitable place. We find one but our new friends impress us by saying that it’s too expensive and that they overcharge tourists. Instead, we all pile into a giant old American Pontiac taxi and drive, singing and laughing to a restaurant bar elsewhere. In the bar we eat, we dance, we chat and joke with each other. Our Spanish is improving by the second and the party is in full swing.


Until, that is, that I notice that my camera is missing. I tell this to the others who look shocked and concerned and we all start asking if anyone has seen anything, including the owner. I’m a little drunk and quite upset at this loss, as my overwhelming impression of all Cubans was, so far, that they are the warmest, nicest people. The girl comes to comfort me in the ladies loos and hugs me, telling me how sorry she is for me. Yet it is shortly after this that both she and one of the guys disappear as James and I see that my wallet is now empty of its US dollars, Euros and CUC.


Which is how we end up at the police station, having spent 5 or 6 hours cavorting with our friendly thieves and a further 5 hours explaining it all to the police. Our Spanish knowledge falls down here but we fill in the gaps in our story with a combination of charades and help from strangers. The police take the whole thing incredibly seriously and manage to find out from witnesses who the culprits are as the names we had for them were obviously fakes.


We return to the marina at 6am, me sobbing my little heart out for being such a fool. It is at this point that we are met again by the marina manager, with the expression of a father who’s been up all night worrying. He tries to console me and placate James, offering any help that he can in dealing with phonecalls to the police. Grateful, we collapse into bed and deep, exhausted sleep.


Later the same morning we are awoken by a smiling woman from the “department of vegetal sanity” who giggles at us having had a late night until she learns the whole story. Her reaction is one of soap-opera like drama and she says how sorry she is for us, saying she hopes she can be a friend to us, unlike the false friends of the night before. Indeed, this is echoed by everyone at the marina, as all the officials of the boat searches stop us in turn to ask how we are, expressing how sorry they are and if they can help us. Our faith in Cubankind is boosted again as we are treated like members of their family who’ve had a rough time.


So, not exactly a normal first day for us; but, I must admit, you’d be amazed how quickly you get to grips with a language when giving multiple statements to the policía.