Islands in the Stream
The Pilar sits far from the sea under a steel shed that blocks the unforgiving sun and tropical rains. Still, her wood hull and house are exposed to this Caribbean island's heat and stifling humidity, which are slowly claiming this famous craft. Her days of chasing billfish and German U-boats are memories held only in dusty books; her captain hasn't walked these decks or taken the wheel except in ghostly form since the revolution. A revolution that now anchors this country firmly in the past, slowly pulling her under the waves of progress.
We had come to fish, but history and curiosity beckoned us to spend a few days in Havana, exploring the narrow streets of the old city and witnessing the plight of a people locked in a forgotten era. If you looked hard enough, the facades of buildings that saw the best of times are still evident, only they are sometimes scattered on the street below as time and weather take a toll. One looks at what was, imagining what could be with sadness for this place and its people.
Our visit to a local school showed that even under these conditions, smiles are there on the innocent, unaware of the weight the future will ask them to carry. Our donations bring only the chance to make it through this day, leaving the rest to fate. We can do little under the current regime except smile and carry a message home. We can share their story and offer compassion, but real change is up to the smiling faces of these young Cubans.
To be fair, young entrepreneurs are scattered throughout the population, piloting vintage cars through the narrow streets, leading walking tours, sharing a glimpse of Cuban life with eager tourists, or selling their art to passersby. Most have a "side hustle" and wear several hats to make enough to get through to the next day. In these Cubans, you can see hope, but it is with eyes on a distant shore. If not for family, they would have left long ago, but for now, they dream while waiting in line for food and gas.
At dinner one evening, our host, a psychologist making more money as a cafe manager, said of his people, "When you look into the eyes of Cubans, hope is missing. They only see today and not a future."
Dr. Johnny shared his award-winning Mojitos and political insight, plus offered ham sandwiches for the 7-hour bus ride the next day that would take us to a port city on the south-central coast, where we boarded the Avalon Fleet 1. The 6-hour cruise to our evening anchorage slowly washed the sadness away as we prepared our gear and watched the sunset light up the sky in a brilliant flame.
We settled into a routine of rising early for a simple breakfast before heading out to explore the Garden of the Queen, an archipelago of mangrove-covered keys and coral reefs. Tarpon and Bonefish seemed plentiful on the first day, making the transition from humanitarian to angler complete. We shared stories over meals of lobster, fish, and local dishes. Evenings were spent in conversations on deck or in the airconditioned salon. We compared Cuba to other destinations and agreed we found it to be relatively pristine by comparison. The fish population seemed strong, and the water was beautifully clear. Over the week, friendships were forged, and many memories were made as six days flew by like the speeding Permit I landed on the third day, missing my Grand Slam to a tarpon tangled in the mangroves. Soon, our floating home was back in port, and we boarded the bus to the Havana Airport and our flights home.
As I write this brief account of our trip to Cuba, it is still hard to describe how the experience affected me. I've seen poverty in other countries and even here at home, but the plight of the Cuban people is different, and frankly, it's hard to understand. Cuba lies 80 miles from Key West but is 70 years in the past, with little hope for the future reflected in the eyes of its people. A people that I found to be welcoming and proud but tied to an idea that has failed. I'm looking forward to returning next year, more prepared for the experience, both on land and at sea.
Notes and observations.
Cuba suffered a significant die-off of coral this past year as water temps reached over 100 degrees in some areas. The coral is rebounding, but it will take decades to fully recover. Water temps have returned to normal at this time.
Invasive Lionfish were observed during lunch one day, showing that Cuba is not immune from outside influences.
There is a significant die-off of Mangroves in the archipelago attributed to a parasite. Information on this parasite seems questionable. A more likely cause is the daming of Cuba's river, reducing the amount of freshwater entering the estuaries. While Mangroves survive in saltwater, they need the freshwater and nutrients provided by mainland rivers.