Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THAT NIGHT BEFORE I sleep I imagine we are paddling out from a sandy beach. The boats are red and the water is clear and green. Inches below us, we can see purple sea fans, black anemones, the translucent green shadows of schooled fish flashing to silver as they turn. The sun is hot, the trade wind is rising. I can feel it on the back of my neck.

I think about the vacuum cleaner salesman Wormold in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. He is recruited by the British Secret Service, and he proceeds to make up all of his Cuban intelligence reports. He invents a host of paid informants. It's a lot easier that way. Soon his reports are given terrible credence by the police and spy agencies of several nations, and people are murdered as a result.

I wonder about the meaning of our expedition. I wonder if, at this point, imagining it might be just as fruitful as the real thing. The story seems to have become the act of trying to get on the water. What if we never actually get there? I can make it up: "Adam flips the heavy tuna into his cockpit and pries out the hook. The cay just to the west must be Cayo Nansanillo, for I remember the clump of cedars and the sweet spring marked on the map by the old soldier..."

As I drift to sleep I conjure the vast country just 90 miles across the strait to the north. The United States has lost so much that Cuba still has. I see it everywhere on the faces of Cuban children: a kind of secure sense of self, an innocence. Yet from this small room in Fernando's house the freedom of the United States seems wild, intoxicating. Nobody writes me a ticket for laughing on the train. A few years ago I rode a horse from my doorstep in southern Colorado all the way to Wyoming, and nobody asked for my papers. There will be a time, soon, when Cuba is like that, when its mountains and thousands of miles of wild coastline will be open to adventure. Castro will be dead then, the embargo lifted, and, I fear, much of the country's strange charm washed away in a tide of commercialism from the north.

Before we leave Cuba, Fernando takes us fishing. He drives us to his father's cabin in a muddy hamlet carved out of the mangrove called Playa Francisco. He stops at the whitewashed Guarda station and buys our permits. The three of us wade out into the warm water, up to our waists. We bait weighted hand lines with shrimp and whip them over our heads. The sun is straight in our faces. The sand fleas are terrible. Across the slick-calm water a few fishing skiffs move slowly. Beyond them are the dark shapes of the cays.

I get a tug on my line, and then another, and I'm hauling in, hand over hand. The fish is fighting hard. I pull him in and lift out an eight-inch triggerfish.

"Hey, Pedro!" Fernando whoops. He's smoking a Montecristo and he looks happy, in his element. "El Viejo y el Mar!" The Old Man and the Sea.

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