In the land of Fidel and Raul, a recent trip to Cuba

Travel always has a way of making me feel simultaneously appalled and enamored of my ignorance.  Appalled in the sense that the sheer tonnage of what I do not know anything about can feel overwhelming, and enamored, because all that really means in the end is that I get to enjoy the learning of whatever I can reach of it between this moment and the one in which I eventually die.  My first clue that this trip really was going to be something different came when I called the Cubana Air office in Nassau to book the flights.  “Hello?”, said the lady who picked up the telephone.  I gave her my name, told her the dates I wanted to fly, and it was as simple as that;  she put me on the list.  No credit card deposit, no passport numbers, no “how many checked bags”,  just a nice “see you this Friday” and goodbye.  Honestly it was kind of heartwarming.  Just a few days later boarding the aircraft, a twin engine prop plane the likes of which I hadn’t been on since I think a flight out of Finland what now seems like a lifetime ago, it was more of the same: we chose our own seating, some buckled up and others didn’t, I left my backpack on the seat next to me, and it was all just no big deal.  I could get used to this, I thought.  We flew pretty much right over the Lodge while crossing Andros, and at an altitude far greater than that of the Otter I am used to seeing it from.  So I couldn’t help but for a moment think again about the relativity of perspective, not so much in terms of velocity (although the entire flight to Havana would take an hour and twenty minutes, the exact amount of time it takes me to jog eight measly miles down on the island every other day) but in terms of perspective in the broader sense.  I was looking down at the immense and intricate spread of coastline, canals, and tidal ponds that I spend most of my days guiding clients through now, but from this altitude it was very easy to see the whole of the thing; whereas from the poling platform of a flats skiff, it is just as easy to get lost.  This sort of thing always makes me think of the tiny creatures all around us every day which are possessed of extremely limited mobility and hardly any field of vision, like the ants, or the dust mites in our pillows.  But of course thinking in cosmologic terms, we are hardly any different.  This is hardly an original observation, but it holds my attention sometimes nonetheless, often to a degree that is annoying.  It can be quite easy to envy the ants when one is lost in the effort of trying to manage all the minutia of daily life like getting fed, and paying the bills, while at the same time preoccupied with electron valences on one end and the expansion of the universe as a whole on the other.  But, as usual, I digress.  Arriving at the airport in Havana I went through all the usual processes and lines to get in, but somehow this only took around five or so minutes, and then walked out to the curb to find my good friend Colin waiting there for me with an enormous smile plastered across his amiable face.  I’d not seen the Captain, as I call him, in several years.  In fact not since a particular back-country exploration he had done with me and Tweed down in Patagonia, which we all remember quite fondly but which from the curb there in Cuba seemed a million or so miles away.  He looked good though, all two meters   of him, and before I knew it we were stuffed into a rental car and careening our way through the streets of Havana with his good friend Mario the domino master.  The Captain has been coming down to Cuba in his off season and while not engaged in other far flung travels for the last fourteen years or so, and Mario was born here, although he now splits his time between Cuba and the United States.    It is hard not to have the first thing you notice in Havana be the cars.  Up in the states, or for that matter just about anywhere else in the world, when you see a 57’ Chevy driving down the road you slow down and take a good long look.  But Havana!  Havana is just chock full of these sorts of cars!  Chevy’s, Fords, Chryslers, the whole catalogue in fact, all of them manufactured in the 50’s and not so much “restored” as “spotlessly maintained”.  At least half the cars on the streets, and really the majority of the taxis, are what we would generally call museum pieces in my homeland.  Our first stop then, just to take it easy and settle in a bit, was the house of a couple I now call Tío y Tía (Uncle, and Aunt), in whose upstairs guest bedroom I would sleep the majority of my nights in the new country.  Super nice people, and accommodating in a way that we normally only expect from close family, hence the natural transition into nomenclature that corresponds.  Their house is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods sort of between downtown and the district where high ranking government officials tend to live, and only seven or so blocks from the seashore, which I walked to frequently in the mornings.  One senses rather immediately in pretty much all areas of Havana that there really is no danger to watch out for.  Petty theft occurs, and as such most of the homes have gates and fences, perhaps even with some barbed-wire at the top, but in terms of actual robberies, or violence, crime is practically non-existent.  In fact, for all that the government in Cuba could be considered perhaps quite a bit more intrusive than in places like the US, I have to say that I probably saw less than ten percent as many armed police officers throughout my stay there than I would have in a comparable American city over the same period of time, and one percent of what I always see in western Europe.  I actually didn’t even end up carrying my passport around with me, or any form of identification whatsoever, the majority of my stay.  Not something you can really get away with in Argentina, or hell, even back up home for that matter.  And on that note, I’ll go through sort of a disclaimer here:  I’m going to try and avoid going into the whole question of analysis and judgment concerning how the Cuban governmental system works, or doesn’t work, and what all of that might mean in terms of the communism vs. capitalism question.  For one thing, I am far too ignorant of the history of how it all went down in Cuba to even make any educated guesses about how the revolution and development of Castro’s government might have happened for the better of the worse; and for another, my sample size even in the first-hand experience of visiting for a week is of course far too small.  While it seems true one has the opportunity to get much deeper into the culture of Cuba in the space of a week than in just about any other place I have been, that still doesn’t constitute a platform from which to start opining, at least not for me these days.  So I’ll record my first hand observations in terms of what I actually saw, heard, and experienced, of course in a subjective sense (there’s no such thing as objective observation anyway, not even in physics) but without the addition of judgment.  One of the first things I noticed about my experience in terms of the culture in Cuba itself was how lucky I was to be with Colin.  Not in the sense that I needed another American at my side, but in the sense that if I had not been with him and as such the benefactor of his many years of experience in the country, it never would have occurred to me to simply walk up to any and all situations I encountered and engage myself in them.  We just don’t do that in the states.  And we don’t do it hardly anywhere else, either.  But in Cuba, if you are strolling past a classroom of elementary school kids in the middle of a lesson, and feel like popping in to talk with them and their teachers and see what sort of interesting things are going on, you can!  It’s as simple as that: you just walk in, say hello, and ask them what they are up to.  Next thing you know they are telling you all about it, and the conversation takes a dozen fascinating turns, until you feel like moving on.  Same thing with open residential windows on the street, elderly folks sitting inside them in living rooms watching baseball on the television.  You just walk up, stick your head in the window, watch a minute or so of the game, and the next thing you know you’re discussing philosophy with the grandmother!  The Captain showed me this in a deliberate way over my first few days, and as a result we enjoyed many excellent exchanges in places ranging from government housing offices to tire repair shops to the street corners in between, and the Cubans that we talked to all seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the world, hardly something about which to even comment.  Meanwhile, what few other foreign tourists we saw were for the most part doing what I always have done in the past, walking around and snapping photos, or shopping, or staring into their little lonely planet guidebooks.  The Captain’s been all over the world and tried out this “inside job” technique everywhere he’s gone, but says it is nowhere else he’s been as natural a phenomena as it is here in Cuba, where pretty much everyone is simply sociable, all the time.  But there were other things to see and do as well, and I must say Mario and the Captain intended to show them to me.  We drove all around the city, looking at interesting points like the enormous and intimidating Russian Embassy (pretty much the only intimidating thing I saw on the entire trip), the fort where Che Guevara shot enough prisoners after the revolution was already won that Fidel sort of realized he would need to send him on his way, since that sort of thing, oddly enough, didn’t fit within the new President’s concept for the future of the country, and even a bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a bench in an out of the way park, which was an interesting one to say the least.  The Beatles’ music had at first been “banned” in Cuba, I am told, but then later when their work had kind of come full circle they were embraced.  And when this statue was first christened it had a pair of actual eyeglasses on its face, of the style John Lennon always wore, but those tended to get stolen.  So these days, believe it or not (I do, because I saw it), there is a little elderly gentleman who is paid by the government each day to sit on a park bench just across from the statue, and whenever the odd tourist or local onlooker should appear, he slowly makes his way over, takes the spectacles out of a small case in his shirt pocket, and places them on the statue.  When the visitors leave, he removes, them, and returns to the bench.  I tell you, you really can’t make this shit up.  We drove out of the city quite a ways at one point early in the week as well, through countryside dotted with farms and cows which it is actually illegal to slaughter (long story) and eventually to a mountain range where we visited the island’s first coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti.  Then coming back to the city we attempted a visit to Papa Hemingway’s old place, which was closed for repairs, but I got a peek at Pilar anyway through the fence, and she was what I had mostly come to see.  Papa was of course a boat man, like myself, and it’s a subject which occupies a great deal of my mental energies these days as I consider the attributes of different types of sailing craft and a possible upcoming change of lifestyle that has been waiting in the margins now for far too many years.  Other than the travels and explorations we also did a lot of sitting around on the Tío y Tía’s front porch with their Little dachsund, Cici, which was a wonderful activity in and of itself, and I was startled just a bit one morning to find in the local communist party newspaper, Granma, that there had been reports of bison hastily evacuating Yellowstone, this phenomena thought perhaps to be a sign of the impending eruption of the super-volcano there, which is the only one on earth not currently set beneath an ocean.  It was a short little paragraph, but I told the other sitters on the patio that if in fact the Yellowstone volcano did erupt, that would be the last piece of news ever printed in the government fish-wrapper, or for that matter any other paper in the world.  Later in the week two nights were spent accompanying Mario and his family to a resort on the northern coast a couple of hours east of Havana, and that environment was a stark cultural contrast to everything I had seen elsewhere in the country.  Lots of foreigners, beach chairs, enormous buffets, and all the usual Oceanside tourism scene.  I met some interesting people from other countries, chased a couple of big barracuda with my underwater camera, and had a few good conversations with elder Mexicans about the history of their own country; but apart from that the days there were mostly spent eating.  Then far too quickly it was time for my flight back to Nassau, and I left my final morning from the Tío y Tía’s house being driven to the airport by a retired personal bodyguard of Fidel’s in a mood that told me in no uncertain terms I wasn’t finished with the place, and would be back.  On my next trip I hope to travel most of the island over a period of at least a few months, and hopefully get to know the farmers better, as well as the land herself.  Mario tells me there are villages that no roads reach, where the fields are still plowed with oxen, and perhaps even salmonids in some of the high creeks that spill down from some of the four mountain ranges that scatter across the land.  He says the locals tell him about “truchas” which they say are wonderful to eat, so perhaps it is true?  We’ll find out.  Soon enough.  And in the meantime I am back in the Bahamas, ready to get out with my clients in the flats skiff yet again, and surprised beyond all belief that in my absence I actually won the lodge-wide March Madness Bracket, even though I’ve never seen an entire basketball game in my life.  There was even an envelope full of five dollar bills on the table with my selection sheet to prove it.  Now everyone write me back, and let me know what is going on in your neck of the woods; I’ll be on the water almost every day now until the end of May but look forward to hearing from each and every one of you soon nonetheless.

3 thoughts on “In the land of Fidel and Raul, a recent trip to Cuba

  1. I enjoyed your “voice” in your tales of your journeys! My name is Pam and my Aunt-in-law is Barbara Neuberger and she sent this so me because I never travel but she knows I would love to. Thank you for the great photos and descriptions!