Cuba journal: Day 2 – by Land and by Sea

[Number 2 in a continuing series]

Day 2: Saturday 28 May

Up at 0400 again, this time to meet the bus for the long, slow drive across Cuba to our port.

Traveling east by bus in the misty humid sunrise across the flat agrarian landscape of Cuba. Endless fields, most apparently fallow, fencerows of sticks and wires, rank looking orchards of some kind, pools of standing water, here and there a few houses or a small herd of goats, tough cattle, tracks of red earth off the main highway, modest houses surrounded by bare dirt yards scratched out of the scrub. At the entry to every village a welcome sign identifying the local chapter of the Comité de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR). Every village has one, and every neighborhood in Havana.

Hours pass. The same terrain, much of it seemingly abandoned—patches of trees, the occasional plot of crops, skinny livestock. It’s a vision of a world receding back into the time before the industrial revolution—people traveling in horse-drawn carts. For every tractor we see there are 2 or 3 men grunting behind a plow pulled by an ox. Although there are trucks and the small Soviet-era mini-cars, there are still—half a century later—prehistoric relics of the ancien regime: American Chevys, Buicks, Dodges, and various extinct models, their lumpy bodies rusted and sanded and patched and repainted many times over. Killing time after a few hours on the bus I began counting the cars: almost exactly half the vehicles (not including trucks and horse-carts) were old Americans. The mecánicos must have gradually mastered the ability to refurbish the extinct parts from these behemoths, otherwise God knows how they could still be running. Everywhere—on roadside signs, sides of buildings, bus stops, concrete walls, there are painted images of Che Guevara, Jose Martí, and inspirational slogans about La Revolución.

Cuba is unique – While it shares general features of landscape and culture and ethnicity with the larger Latin America and the Caribbean, it is noticeably different in many ways. The centrality and dominance of the socialist government is of course the most conspicuous, and the associated bizarre time warp sensation of living on an island whose vibrant life and commerce were suddenly arrested in 1959, while the rest of the world continued turning.

From another vantage, as Bill McKibben has noted, Cuba offers a fascinating (if sobering) model of a potential post-oil world. Somehow the country has got back to making do with a (largely) solar powered economy, meaning one based on crops and plant products and powered largely by the force of animals and humans nourished by that captured sunlight. Oxen pulling plows, horses pulling carts, men pedaling covered tricycle taxis in the streets of Havana. People walking the rows of freely turned earth dropping seeds, weaving palm thatch for the roof of a shed. Tending goats in a patch of grass by a culvert as the traffic of Havana goes by. If, suddenly, petroleum and electricity were suddenly to run dry worldwide, many people in rural Cuba would probably hardly notice, whereas it’s hard to think of anywhere in the US that would not be struck with catastrophe.

This is not to say of course that the quasi-medieval Cuban way is better or should be seen as the way forward in a post-petroleum age. Perish the thought. Only that it is possible for formerly technologically advanced people to get by as subsistence farmers, very much as they did centuries ago, though clearly at a heavy cost in labor and comfort. We will of course want high technology powered by solar cells and other renewable sources In our future. But part of the transition will surely involve moving back in some ways toward a simpler life.

And there is more, some of it hard to articulate. While Cuba is poor by most definitions, it is not squalid or desperate. There is an air in the country of dignity in the modest means that are shared by most everyone here. The bleak, hopeless landscapes of refuse—material and human—so common in the “developing” world elsewhere seem absent here, perhaps because the island is so deprived of raw materials  and cash by decades of American embargo and Russian decline that nothing goes to waste. Any scrap of plastic, or paint can, or old hub cap or tire is put to use in whatever capacity it will serve. Reduce, reuse, recycle with a vengeance. So the little shacks and homesteads, generally similar to those elsewhere in the region, have generally an air of tidiness and order about them, of responsibility and even civic pride. Perhaps this is enforced by the CDR’s, I don’t know.  But there is little or no garbage that I see.  Even in the city.

The long bus ride brings us to a small seaside town, Jucaro, on the south coast where we board the boat for the long slow steam out to our destination in the Jardines de la Reina. Ham sandwiches and a Cuban Cerveza on board. The engine humming hypnotically over the tropic blue sea. Watching flying fishes—pez voladores in the more elegant Spanish version—skitter out from our bow wake, crossing impossible distances in the clear air.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at a group of houseboat-like barges and small buildings on stilts nestled in a mangrove slough and tie up alongside the biggest one to unload. In addition to the four in our scientific team, there are an Italian couple and an Irish couple on dive holiday and a bunch of English and Argentinian flyfishermen. The day is still and sweltering, mosquitos thick. After stowing our gear and changing into field clothes we motor around the mangroves and dive into the frightfully hot water among the trees. The familiar scene of turtlegrass channels and pulsing upside-down jellyfish dotting the bottom, mangrove prop roots hung with sponges and fruit-like clusters of orange tunicates, snappers and minnows and various small fishes haunting the dim recesses among the roots. My first sight of the Indo-Pacific lionfish that invaded the Caribbean only a few years ago and is rapidly taking over (John tells me that it is now the dominant fish on reefs offshore of North Carolina).

As the boat approaches the Tortuga barge . . . could it be? Our hosts are waiting with a tray of mojitos. I could get used to this fast. An excellent fish dinner, then a little unpacking. Standing on the back deck later, looking out at the stars, I spy a cayman floating in the water. Back in the small room we crash gratefully.

Tomorrow: The Octopus Cave

Back to:

Day 1 – Arrival in Havana

Forward to:

Day 3 – The Octopus Cave
Day 4 – Pipin Reef

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