I’m thinking of invoking Robbie Burns as patron of this trip, pharmacy because our best-laid plans are going seriously awry.
All the mangrove sites I want to go to are protected areas, contagion 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.
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.
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?
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.