My name has drawn some amused smiles from residents of Playa Larga, in the Bay of Pigs. It was JFK who approved the Bay of Pigs invasion—fiasco would be a better word—in which 1300 CIA-trained Cuban expatriates stormed the beaches here in 1961 and were trounced by Castro’s troops.
The Bay of Pigs forms one boundary of the vast wetland area of the Zapata Peninsula, on Cuba’s southern coast. I have come here with Juan Carlos, a nature guide who knows the Cuban mangroves well. I met him in an unusual way. I was looking at the Zapata Peninsula on Google Earth, clicking on the handful of mangrove photographs that had been linked to the area, and noticed that one of them had an email address instead of a title. Clever marketing, I thought, and shot off an email. Juan Carlos replied, we met in Havana and set up a road trip to a few mangrove hotspots.
For this first leg we took the main highway out of Havana, known as the Autopista, stopping off at a river called Hatiguanico to look for crocodiles. Cuba has three species: the native Cuban crocodile, the larger American crocodile and the caiman. Hatiguanico has a population of the Cuban crocodile.
With some difficulty (this is an understatement—everything in Cuba is difficult) we found a boat driver and spent a couple of hours looking for large reptiles. The Cuban crocodile often excavates a burrow under the roots of mangroves. We waited at a location where the driver had seen a crocodile in its burrow recently, but heavy rains had raised the river level, and neither burrow nor croc was visible.
We kept motoring downriver, stopping from time to time to eat hicaco berries, a sweet black-skinned fruit with a large stone in the centre. We passed a tree where a dozen turkey vultures were drying their wings, and saw the endemic green woodpecker and Cuban parrot, but these sightings were scant compensation: I had my heart set on crocs.
The best we could manage on the reptile front was freshwater turtles sunning themselves on the prop roots of red mangroves. They slid off and plopped into the water whenever we got close—a reflex no doubt partly induced by hunting pressure.
Thunderclouds were laying down a booming artillery as we returned to the launch site, but fortunately we dodged the afternoon deluge. The day hadn’t yielded much, but it was good to be in the Cuban mangroves at last. When nature is the quarry, you had better have a large reservoir of patience and stoicism. I sometimes think of myself as the Thomas Edison of nature observers. Edison, so the story goes, was asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed in a thousand attempts to make a light bulb. He replied that he had succeeded in finding a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.
In point of fact, I did have a crocodile encounter today—as dinner. There is a croc farm at Playa Larga, and crocodile meat is cheap and popular here. Marieta, the woman whose house I’m staying at, served deliciously fried strips of crocodile accompanied by the classic Cuban potaje de frijoles negros (black bean soup) and fried green bananas. Nevertheless, I prefer my crocs in the swamp rather than on the plate.
In Playa Larga I started thinking about a companion blog called “A Mangrove a Day: 365 Things to Do with Mangroves.” The medicinal and antiseptic properties of Rhizophora, the red mangrove, are widely known among mangrove communities. Marieta said that her mother had recently visited the doctor with kidney troubles. The doctor recommended drinking a decoction of red mangrove bark. Marieta described peeling the bark and letting it infuse in a jug of water overnight. “When the water turns pink, you drink,” she said. Apparently it did the trick.
A completely different use for mangrove water is employed by homeowners in Playa Larga: they soak timberwork such as window shutters in a Rhizophora water bath to darken and bring out the grain. By using a mangrove primer they save on varnish. Furniture is treated in the same way, and so are boat sails. The mangrove tannins are said to make the sails last longer, and to make the boat less visible when its owner is engaged in illegal fishing! I even heard that locals make an alcoholic drink from Rhizophora tannin and mangrove honey.
When I was in Porto Segura, Brazil, I learned that the clay pots in which the fish stew known as moqueca is cooked and brought bubbling to the table are steeped in Rhizophora water to darken and strengthen them.
There must be dozens of other unexpected uses. I will keep eyes and ears open for them.