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cuba « Last Stands

Posts Tagged ‘cuba’

Driving taxis or cutting hair

June 14th, 2009

This morning there was time once more to walk the Malécon, the seawall promenade that borders the city, past the fishermen, the patriotic statues, the 16th-century forts guarding the entrance to the harbour.

Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.

KENNEDY WARNE
Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.


I stopped to snap a picture of one of the most ludicrous sights in Havana: the building which houses the “US Interests Section.” Clearly, given the mutual acrimony, the US does not have an embassy in Cuba; what it has instead is a presence in its former embassy building, now home to the Swiss embassy. In 2006, USINT staff took it into their heads to install an electronic billboard to display anti-Castro messages. Among them was a George Burns quotation, “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.”

Castro responded by erecting a forest of flagpoles flying black flags in front of the building (which was referred to as the ‘imperialist lair’) so that the messages could not be read. Such is the level of tit for tat that exists between the two ideological rivals. In my opinion the USINT would do better to airdrop a few million DVDs of the movie Antz.

'So tell me, Che, was this Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)

KENNEDY WARNE
'So tell me, Che, was this the Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)


And so to Bimini.

Closure of a kind

June 13th, 2009

We reached Guanahacabibes National Park, the nail of the finger of land that points towards Mexico, by mid morning. The hutia (a type of rodent) endemic to this area had already retreated into their burrows to escape the burning sun, but iguana were basking on the expanse of coral rubble through which the road had been cut.

Basking iguana.

KENNEDY WARNE
Basking iguana.


Frangipani, ice plant and cactus gave hints of green to this otherwise grey, rocky place. Where the road took us more inland we passed through semideciduous forest. Osmani, the local guide, told me to stop at a place where the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, can be found. We listened for its whistling call and then spotted one on the highest twig of a tree. This charming little bird lays eggs that are smaller than coffee beans.

Near the end of the peninsula we paused at a scene of destruction. Hurricane Ivan—‘Ivan the Terrible’—swept across this region in 2004, killing entire forests of mangroves and leaving nothing but bleached stumps. We climbed into the brittle branches of the dead trees and scanned a brackish-water lagoon. Turtles popped their heads out of the water, and hawks flew overhead.

Hurricane Ivan left a trail of desolation among the mangroves of Guanahacabibes.

KENNEDY WARNE
Hurricane Ivan left a trail of desolation among the mangroves of Guanahacabibes.


Osmani suddenly pointed to a dark shape that had just broken the surface: an American crocodile, at last. Binoculars brought its lumpy head and serrated back into view. Wavelets rippled against its scales and eyes as it floated there, every inch the patient predator. There was no way to get closer, so with this glimpse of the uppermost 5 percent of a solitary reptile my Cuban croc quest achieved closure.

Perhaps I would have been better off to have used Humboldt’s approach. Lacking time to go to the marshes, he paid for two crocodiles to be brought to him in Havana. “They were captured with great difficulty and arrived on mules with their snouts muzzled and bound,” Humboldt wrote. “They were lively and ferocious. In order to observe them we let them loose in a great hall, and from high pieces of furniture watched them attack large dogs.”

I called it a day and headed back to Havana.

Glimpses of Cuba

June 12th, 2009

I’m not seeing as many mangroves as I’d like, but I’m covering a lot of Cuban ground, and loving it.

There is much that I find unique about Cuba. The mix of transportation modes, for a start: horse carts and buggies everywhere (they have their own special lane beside the interstate), three-wheeled “bicitaxis” in the towns, bullock carts in the country, Cuba’s famous 1950s American cars, still going strong, motorcycles with sidecars (including the Czechoslovakian Jawa, which I used to get laughed at for riding in New Zealand 35 years ago) and hordes of bicycles, often with two people aboard. (Two-up protocol is for the passenger to sit side-saddle on the carrier or bar, holding a sun umbrella to shade both riders.)

I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.

KENNEDY WARNE
I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.


The town centres are architecturally gorgeous, with their fluted columns and ornate plasterwork, open courtyards and shady arcades. The contrasts are everywhere profound. In Remedios, on one side of a walled street a cluster of people bought ham by the slice from a hole-in-the-wall butcher while on the other I stepped into the airy atrium of a stately home with spiral timber staircase and chandelier, antique furniture and Catholic statuary. Down the street, in a bodega (store) with next to nothing on its shelves, people bought cooking oil, scooped out from a drum, raw sugar and bread rolls. I rounded a corner and saw two boys walking along, cradling their pet pigeons in their hands. (At least, I hope they were pets and not lunch.)

Here I am always conscious of—and, I guess, looking for—the difference between what is on the surface and what lies beneath. A British businessman I met in Havana said Cuba is like The Truman Show. Nothing is as it seems. The man mixing mojitos behind the bar in a nightclub is probably a staid government employee by day, unable to make enough in his regular job to support his family. I stayed in Havana with a former nuclear engineer who found himself out of a job when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s hopes for nuclear power evaporated. He earns a living by renting a room—a common revenue source in Cuba. But you need a government licence to earn money this way (or any way). I was told the licence costs $300 a month. Rooms rent for $20 to $30 a night, so you need to count on 10 guests a month to break even. The government smothers entrepreneurial activity by a spiderweb of laws and levies—de Tockqueville’s “network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way.”

Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.

KENNEDY WARNE
Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.


Cuba may be a bastion of socialism, but it is full of closet capitalists. Everyone is looking for a way to make a peso—or a “CUC,” the currency Castro introduced in 1994. Beside the autopista, men on horseback or on foot sell blocks of homemade cheese and guava paste, ready to fade into the forest if the police should drive by. There is very little street food in Cuba cities for the same reason—you need a licence to sell anything. It’s not just the fact of paying for the privilege that inhibits would-be entrepreneurs. It’s the act of making yourself visible to the authorities in the process. Visibility = risk, and the government uses this queasy undercurrent of uncertainty to foster compliance.

I had a small insight into herd timidity when the power went off in the casa where I was staying in Ciego de Avela, about 400 km east of Havana. No problem, I thought. I would go to a café in the town, buy a glass of cold mango juice, find a power point and type my blog post in style. Ah. Not so fast. I tried a couple of places, using sign language to point at my laptop and a power point. I managed to pick up some words that sounded like “consume” and “electricity” and much shaking of the head. It was not possible. Consumption of electricity was apparently verboten.

I found Juan Carlos, who was still making phone calls, and he explained the mindset. A gringo asking for electricity is an unusual request. Unusual requests are inherently risky. Suppose the police or military should show up. Questions would be asked. In a regime like this it is best not to invite questions.

Here are some more glimpses of Cuba . . .

Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

Bicitaxis in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bicitaxis in Remedios.

A gracious interior in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
A gracious interior in Remedios.

Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

KENNEDY WARNE
My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

KENNEDY WARNE
Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

Travels with Mr Burns

June 11th, 2009

I’m thinking of invoking Robbie Burns as patron of this trip, because our best-laid plans are going seriously awry.

All the mangrove sites I want to go to are protected areas, and many are off the tourist map. To visit these areas requires inside knowledge, friends in the relevant management offices, permission (or at least a nod and a wink) from the military and a large dose of luck. My guide, Juan Carlos, is on the phone incessantly, trying to keep the wheels of the itinerary greased and turning.

Despite his best efforts, Juan Carlos keeps getting the message: "Access denied."

KENNEDY WARNE
Despite his best efforts, Juan Carlos keeps getting the message: 'Access denied.'


Today one of the wheels fell off. The manager of the Rio Maximo mangrove area has been called away suddenly to Havana. In his absence, we cannot coordinate the various layers of permission and cooperation necessary to make the visit possible.

This is a pity, because at Rio Maximo there are flocks of flamingos which number in the tens of thousands. So many flamingos, I’ve been told, that their reflection colours the clouds pink. Reaching the mangroves would have entailed chest-deep crossings of croc-infested channels, so naturally I’m disappointed about that, too.

Juan Carlos has activated back-up plans, trying to arrange alternative mangrove experiences during my remaining few days in Cuba. I’m particularly keen to see crocodiles, which though not unique to Cuba are well represented in the mangroves here.

We travelled to Cayo Coco, a beach resort (some would say tourist ghetto) off the north coast, in the hope of securing permission to visit a crocodile habitat in the vicinity.

Caya Coco is reached by crossing a 26 km causeway. Building it must have been a enormous earthmoving exercise. Like any such enterprise in Cuba, construction was framed as a patriotic opportunity. A billboard shows a smiling Fidel exhorting workers to “stack rocks without looking ahead”—an apt metaphor for the country, when you think about it.

The causeway to Cayo Coco with its message to workers: "Here you must stack rocks without looking ahead."

KENNEDY WARNE
The causeway to Cayo Coco with its message to workers: 'Here you must stack rocks without looking ahead.'


There must be more political messages per kilometre of roadway in Cuba than anywhere on earth. I photographed some and jotted down others. “Country or death.” “Always fighting.” “Country before everything.” Or this gem—“Revolution is not to lie, and not to violate ethical principles.” Really?

My favourite was a billboard showing a long line of leafcutter ants, with the slogan “We’re working. How about you?” When a regime can compare its people favourably to insects, and get away with it, you have to admit it knows a thing or two about thought control.

I few days after seeing this billboard I came across a quotation from 19th-century French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville that seemed written for the occasion:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

“Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

“The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

“Timid and industrious animals.” Leafcutter ants, perhaps?

Calienes town proclaims proudly that the revolution is always going forward. But at what pace?

KENNEDY WARNE
Calienes town proclaims proudly that the revolution is always going forward. But at what pace?


We were starting to feel like ants ourselves. We spent a witheringly hot afternoon traipsing from one office to another, directed hither and yon by minions, and ended up talking to a scientist who said he wished he could help, but, really, this sort of visit needs to be arranged three months in advance. Well, I had tried that route—I applied for an official visitor’s permit in February—but was told the application would take six months to consider.

Late in the evening, Juan Carlos thought he had a green light for a visit to a croc area on the south coast. He had arranged the permission, a 4WD vehicle for access and a boat to negotiate the mangrove channels. But when he checked the following morning, he learned that recent heavy rains had turned the track into a quagmire. A park worker had been marooned in the mangrove area for three days, unable to get out.

There’s nothing for it: we will drive 500 km to the western extremity of the country, where Juan Carlos has good friends in the Guanahacabibes National Park, and where there is a high probability of a croc sighting.

Vámanos!

To the bat cave

June 10th, 2009

We travelled from the Zapata Peninsula, on the south coast, to a little place called Cayo Caguanes, on the north. The target was bats. There is a fishing bat that takes its prey from pools in the mangroves here, and we hoped to see it in action.

Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.

KENNEDY WARNE
Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.


Before we looked for that bat, however, Juan Carlos had another species to show me: the butterfly bat, said to be the world’s smallest. He knew of a cave where millions of these bats roosted. Each evening they stream out of only a couple of exits for a night of feeding on insects.

An hour-long, bone-jarring ride in a trailer towed by a smoke-belching Russian tractor brought us to a guard house in the mangroves. (Initially I thought the strong military presence in mangroves on the north coast was to discourage Cubans from attempting to launch boats in the direction of, say, Miami, but Juan Carlos told me that access to all Cuba’s mangrove reserves is controlled by the military.

While the guards lounged in the watchtower—high enough to be out of mosquito range—we followed faint trails into the bush, searching for the cave entrance. It had been a while since both Juan Carlos (an avid speleologist) and the local guide had been here, so it took a while to find the place. It was coming on to dusk, but there was still enough light to identify various bird and tree species, including one locally known as the “tourist tree,” because its bark looks just like the peeling skin of a sunburnt Caucasian.

With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.

KENNEDY WARNE
With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.


Once we located the entrance we climbed down into the limestone cavern and crawled to one of the holes where the bats emerge. I stuck my head into the opening and was amazed. The sound of millions of tiny wings was like a fan on full speed. It felt like a fan, too—a steady breeze against my skin. The cave was pitch black, but I knew that the bats were flying past me: I could feel the rush of air and the occasional touch of a velvet wing on my face. I was astonished that no bat collided with me, though I guess to a bat my head looked like a large hot globe, easily avoided.

After half an hour the evening bat commute seemed to be waning, so we retraced our steps. The forest was dark now, and fireflies were out. Juan Carlos found one on a blade of grass and caught it to show me. I had never seen one up close. I expected something resembling a fly, but in fact these ones were sizable beetles. The two green light-emitting organs are situated on either side of the front end of the abdomen.

The tractor took us back into the mangroves, where we watched a known bat pool for half an hour, flicking a torch on occasionally to light the scene. The bats were making their ghostly flights just above the surface, but not dipping down to feed. As at Hatiguanico, there had been a lot of rain recently, shifting the salinity of the pool towards fresh water, and the thinking was that this had forced the fish towards the sea.

The lumbering batmobile was cranked into life once more, and we jolted home to the pyrotechnics not of fireflies but of an electrical storm that made the clouds glow like mercury lamps.

Bonefishing in Las Salinas

June 10th, 2009

The sun has just risen over the Bay of Pigs, and Juan Carlos and I, accompanied by a local guide named Mario, are driving the mangrove-flanked road from Playa Larga to the Laguna de las Salinas, in Zapata. The road is alive with large white crabs which scatter left and right into the mangroves as we approach. At certain times of year you cannot see the road for crabs, Juan Carlos tells me. There are separate migrations for red and white crabs, both for the adults heading to the sea to breed and for the young crabs making their way shoreward, where they dig their burrows in the sand and live most of their lives out of water.

White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.


The most spectacular migrations are of the red crabs. Sometimes they swarm up the walls of houses and onto the roof. Juan Carlos says he has seen thatched roofs that look like they have been painted red. The red crab’s pincers are sharp enough to puncture a car tyre, he adds. I find this hard to believe, but later, when I encounter a crab with a claw the length of my hand, I can readily see the possibility.

Flamingos, egrets, spoonbills and ibises are feeding in the seagrass beds and mudflats behind the mangroves. In deeper water a hundred or more cormorants paddle round and round a clump of mangroves as if attached to a conveyor belt, dipping their heads underwater to feed, then resuming their frenetic circuit.

The flamingos take flight, running on skinny legs to achieve launch speed, then lifting themselves into the air. They look like flying broomsticks, neck and legs forming a straight line in front of and behind a pair of black-tipped pink wings. Later I see a juvenile, entirely lacking in pink pigment. Like scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills (and no doubt other reddish wading birds), they hatch white, and only assume their ruddy colour after eating large quantities of red crustaceans.

Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.

KENNEDY WARNE
Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.


At the end of the road we climb into a plastic skiff and Mario poles us across the shallow flats. We see a man casting a fly rod and pole over to investigate. He’s a fishing guide, Marco, but he has no client today—summer is the quiet season—and so he is relaxing . . . by fishing. He walks slowly across the flats, casting and retrieving in a relaxed rhythm. Near a clump of mangroves he has a strike, but it is a small needlefish and it breaks off.

He moves to a new area and immediately has a big strike that strips line and gives the rod a nice bend. He works the fish away from the mangrove roots and reels it in. A bonefish, almost translucent, a fighting species highly prized by anglers. The mouth is down-pointing, suggesting a diet of creatures on the seabed. I ask Marco if bonefish mostly eat crabs. He says, “For sure, crabs, but also anything that moves.”

He deftly removes the lure and releases the fish. As we pole away we see him start casting again; a solitary angler in a vast wetland. There are definitely worse ways to spend your days off.

Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.


The crabs are back on the road when we drive back to Playa Larga. We pool suggestions as to why this should be the case. Does the road offer a clear space in which to make territorial or courtship displays? We can’t see any displaying going on, so this seems an unlikely explanation. Is there a particular kind of food on the road—the corpses of crabs that have been squashed by car tyres, perhaps? There is no scavenging that we can see. I conclude that it may just be a factor of density. There are so many crabs here that the natural spacing of the creatures takes them onto the road.

In a clearing in the mangroves, several rows of bee hives stand on coral rocks above the mud. I’m instantly reminded of the exceptional mangrove honey I enjoyed in Bangladesh and Tanzania. Alas, it is not the flowering season for Avicennia, the species from which honey is collected here.

Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.

KENNEDY WARNE
Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.


Clouds of mosquitoes drive us back into the sanctuary of the vehicle. I would like to stay longer in the Zapata wetland, but Juan Carlos and I have an appointment on the north coast with some bats.