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CUBA FOCUS with the Gulf of Mexico, where water temperatures off Florida's west coast bubble into the '80s in summer. The landscape was far from pristine, strewn with crumbling buildings- --a world washed with neglect. Even long stretches of road seemed to be forgotten, where white dust followed cars from another era. Homes along the seawalls needed paint and repairs. They stood out against the golf-course-fine grass of the marina which was studded with palm tress and Old Man and the Sea artwork. I paddled through the sea which was free of cigarette boats and swarms of Wave Runners. I shared the water with wooden boats and fishermen who bobbed on truck-tire inner tubes draped in netting. The lack of traffic created a liquid tranqUility. There was nothing but the red bow of my kayak, surrounded by water that shimmered like the sides of a bull mahi-mahi. Near the coast it was hard to gauge the water's depth since coral and rocks seemed to poke through the waves. My double-bladed paddle dipped in front of an endless horizon. It was so quiet that my typical cadence was interrupted by stops to sip water and revel in the bright sky and lack of company. The afternoon breeze began to wake the waves and they bumped a little harder against the bottom of my boat. I stroked into the soft waves and held the flat wood blade in the water. I wanted to paddle further and further. To test the inland waters. To see it all. But to pull this trip off, I'd had to settle for only three nights on the island. And I'd blown precious time dragging my boat around looking for a place to launch. As I worked back toward the seawall near the marina, I spotted a young man on the concrete. He stood near his bike and stared out toward my 13-foot craft. He did not wave. He did not smile. His bike fell by his feet and he stepped closer to the seawall's edge. Then he dove in. He swam from the shallows toward the open water. And as my mind fought to rationalize his strokes, I recognized the pained expression on his cold face. I remembered the look from the men I'd met near Cojimar a few years ago. It was not one of a bather-rather that of a desperate man. He was swimming, and swimming with conviction, in my direction. Even as I paddled away, he veered toward me. He had said not a word and didn't have to. When he finally gave up and headed back to shore, he stood, hands at his side. I had done what I set out to do. I had finally paddled in Cuba. But I knew I would not return to these soothing waters until the face of a lone swimmer could share the smile this coastline brought me. It would be a good place to paddle another day-when strangers wouldn't leap off of cl iffs to swim toward my freedom. • - C ___d_l_Q_c_u _r__I_ _b u_ 'o_i_ic_ Po_d in_ _b_ Ecotourism is in its infancy in Cuba and most travel agents--both in the US and on the island-seem confused by travelers who wish to kayak. There were a couple of sit-on-top kayaks for hire at the Hemingway Marina, but nothing as up-to-date as what you'd rent in the States. Bringing a folding boat is your best bet, just make sure you practice in all types of water before you leave. Since the airlines are striving to be tourist friendly, odds are you can bring in more than your allotted weight. Count on watching a few people unpack their luggage for customs officials. And you can pretty much expeႀ䊉 your aluminum frame and plastic boat ribs to attract attention. If questioned or detained, refer to your boat as a canoe. Hopefully, this will also lead officials to envision your boat as a o is_eo ly_o_o_ t__Q st_s_. __ very tippy craft-ႀ䊉e that even the most die-hard emigrant would pass up. Remember that Cuba is dollar-hungry. Entry officials may decide to hold your boat (and in that case, you may have to kiss it good-bye), or charge you an extra per-pound rate to release it back into your custody. From Havana, you can easily get to the Hemingway Marina, where personnel are accustomed to American boats. You will draw the least number of stares here. The beautiful beaches of Varadero are the destination of many tourists, but the crystal clear waters along the northern coast feel less resortish. )

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