By Dan Frasier
There is a specific vibration that runs up your line, through your rod, into your veins and directly to your core when a tarpon in preparing a leap.
It’s not unlike the sensation I’d get when I worked for an electrician and would grab a live wire. It’s scary and a little confusing, and ultimately portends that your synapses are about to light up like the light show from a thunderhead; leaving you with a palpating heart and shortness of breath.
As I sat down; relinquishing the bow after riding the lightening an hour into our first day in Cuba, I had to physically concentrate on bringing myself back to earth. The ringing in my ears played out a steady chorus of, “Don’t ever forget one detail from this trip.” In the ensuing months I’ve had the opportunity to recount my trip to countless people. Anglers and non-anglers alike are infatuated with the mystery of Cuba. So I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the experience. As is true with all trips I embark on, what stands out are the faces. The people I meet and their stories become the landmarks defining my winding journey through the time spent in a new place. Their stories become threads braided nicely together with mine; building what eventually becomes the tale of my trip. Because it is those very faces that define my experience, I’d like to introduce you to people that constitute what Cuba was for me.
“I called because you’re one of the few people I know that can leave in a hurry.”
Bob tells me. “I’ve had an emergency cancellation so there is a spot on my trip to Cuba open, but it’s for 10 days and leaves next week. Are you in?”
Ground-breaking angler, renowned painter and highly-regarded author, Bob is one of the coolest people I know. We’ve been friends for a few years now and have fished together a number of times. One thing I’ve learned is that you are far wiser to say “Yes” if Bob asks you to do something than “No.” So I bought tickets to Ft. Lauderdale, where we were to meet, and started packing.
I met Bob and a four others at their gate at FLL. We strolled to a special section of the airport and after fifty minutes on a twin engine Cessna, we were on the ground in Havana.
Elena was our tour guide for the day we spent exploring Havana. An extremely bright mother of two, Elena was charged with showing us the finer points of Cuban life. Careers in Cuba are not selected. They are assigned. At the end of High School, all the students are tested and ranked. The highest ranking student gets to pick from the list of needed majors for that year as defined by Castro and the boys. From there on, the student will study their selected major and then be assigned a career in that field. Every Cuban citizen is paid the same wage, about $10 US a month. However, people serving the tourist crowd will be able to receive tips. So Elena, whose father worked as a doctor for $10 a month for his entire life, did what all of the most promising minds in Cuba do. She chose a major of German because it set her up to work in tourism where she is now a guide. For about 6 hours Elena showed the group New and Central Havana. We saw museums dedicated to the revolution, toured the cigar factory, saw replicas of missiles from the crisis, the engine of the U2 spy plane that was shot down in Cuban waters and sites where practitioners of Santeria perform animal sacrifice. And then Elena put everyone but Bob and me in a cab and sent them to the hotel. She took us to see Old Havana and “how Cubans really live,” where we met others.
Old Havana is simple to describe. Imagine narrow streets of the most beautiful super-wealthy Spanish architecture mansions money could buy in the late 1800’s. Now house 13 families in each of those mansions, turn off the running water in 1967 and do no maintenance since 1959. There, easy. I didn’t get the good fortune to meet this woman, but her striking image peering out of the hole in a makeshift doorway shook me. This was originally the long, tile-lined archway into the massive grand courtyard of one of those mansions. Half the of long arching hallway has been consumed with a rough wall and door to create a little more sleeping square footage for the families living inside the mansion.
As we entered past the woman peering out of the doorway we were introduced to Jorge. He’s 72 years old and lives in a tiny closet with a cot. He illegally took that space, illegally trading out of his issued apartment to illegally allow a family with children to illegally have enough space for their family. So he lives in a room the size of a closet on a cot. His days are spent sitting on a bucket in the courtyard where the 1920’s fountain hasn’t run in 50 years and the stone floor is all busted up. Or down at one of the restaurants run by the government for seniors where he plays dominoes between getting his meals.
One day later and 450 Km south, I’m in the tiny port town of Jucaro. If you want to see security, go to a port in Cuba.
Believe me, Cuba does not take lightly putting 7 Cubans on an ocean-going vessel and allowing them to leave for open water. Anyway, I’m standing on a pier looking at a moderate-sized ocean going boat with the motors running. Our names are being called one at a time by one of the scariest human beings I’ve ever seen. Chiseled from stone, scarred faced and gravel voiced; he does his best to pronounce our American names correctly. He calls for me, “Donny El” is how it sounds and I hop aboard. The man with the clipboard walks directly to me, which he hadn’t done to anyone else, and peers down at all 6 foot 1 of me. My heart tries to make a run for it from my chest. He smiles at me and says, “I’m Daniel TOO!” and gives me a huge hug. Daniel would ride the rest of the way with us to the house boat situated in the Jardines de la Reina. From Jucaro we made a two-hour (50 mile) run to the pristine island chain that is nearly identical in topography to the Keys. There we would home base out of the mothership and fish the flats for next seven days.
The houseboat was what I would call posh. Air-conditioned rooms, open bar and perfectly attended service made it feel more like a country club than a remote outpost in uninhabited waters. Yaimy (pronounced Jaimie) had ridden with us out to the houseboat, but had still somehow managed to have margaritas ready for us as we unpacked. Everyday she would be ready with drinks and towels as we returned from fishing, and slowly over the evenings we coaxed her into staying up with us. She drank a little rum, taught me dominoes (well… beat me in dominoes) and generally contributed to the festivities. A single mother with a son who spends 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off the boat, life is not easy for Yaimy. She desperately clings to the job of cleaning our laundry and serving us drinks because it means the possibility of tips. Which means she can easily be replaced and replacement would be devastating. Fraternizing with the sports is strictly prohibited, but we insisted and eventually the entire staff was dancing and singing with us.
Alexe is a devout Pentecostal. How do I know that? Because his wife is ugly. Like really really ugly.
Or at least that’s what the other guides told me while he stood there smiling. But they also told me that is OK because he’s Pentecostal and therefore sees peoples’s inner beauty. His wife had taken his two boys to Miami to visit relatives a few years back and never returned. He told me that made him happy, because their life would be better than his and perhaps, someday, he’ll be able to see them in Miami. He’s also the hardest working guide I’ve ever floated with. At one point, he poled us across a massive flat chasing a school of rolling tarpon as fast was we could move. At the end of an epically long and fast pole Alan, my fellow caster, hooked a nice fish and was playing it when Alexe spoke from the platform. In ragged halting breaths he said, “This fish last. My Friends, I am spent.” and he laid down on the platform.
Gregg is a young outdoor enthusiast from Minnesota with a penchant for flyfishing. Energetic, talkative and quick with a laugh. I didn’t know him prior to this trip, but Gregg turned out to be a wonderful person to join on a flats boat. We spent a day grinding it out on the Permit flats together. The first two flats showed us probably 40 permit but we, predictably, came up empty. After lunch our guide took us to the third flat and as we poled along he suddenly shouted, “Tarpon!”. I grabbed a Tarpon rod for Gregg and scanned the water, trying to spot the fish for him, and saw nothing. “I don’t have ‘em.” “There.” Tito said as he pointed the pole at 11 o’clock about 100 feet out. “Nothing!” I said. I have pretty good eyes and had been spotting fish for 3 days, so I was surprised and a little frustrated.
“You see the big dark spot there? That’s 200 tarpon.”
What I thought was a dark spot on the bottom turned out to be a huge school of rolling ‘poon. Gregg loaded up and cast into the dead center of the school. One strip and a tarpon came out of the water like a rocket achieving lift-off and shook the hook. The fly landed on the edge of the school; another couple strips and a second tarpon destroyed the fly and Gregg got tight. As his fish ran Tito yelled, “Get your rod. Double!” So I grabbed my rod, made a long cast in front of the school and was tight to a fish in three strips. Now the real rodeo starts. Two tarpon on, crossing and jumping and going round and round the boat. We ducked and jumped lines, laughed like madmen and eventually landed both fish.
Some of the staff of the boat joined us on our return trip. Along the highway back to Havana they’d be dropped off at the villages where they lived for their two weeks home. Yuhandre was in this group. Don’t guess at his names pronunciation. He told me his mom made it up and no-one in the world had the same name. Anyway, He’d been our chef on the mothership and was now headed home for a few days. Classically trained in the best culinary schools in Cuba, Yuhandre had worked as the head chef at two of the most prestigious hotels in Cuba. Using his clout he’d lobbied for the opportunity to serve tourists directly, again for the tips, and had landed as one of two chefs on our boat. His cooking was spectacular, dominoes game was on point and his personality was amazingly kind and friendly. We because fast friends and still talk (via Facebook) to this day. While waiting for our bus, Yuhandre walked me out of the gated port and into the village of Jucaro to buy me a beer at the local stand. This is the view from the patio as we stand there having what will probably be our last beer together.
These are but a few of the dozens of people I met that make up the high points of my time in Cuba, but they are some that helped define the trip.
Some showed me the important economic and cultural aspects of this very foreign land while others showed me the vast quantities of fish that patrol it’s shorelines. Still others introduced me to the kindness and depth of character available anywhere on this great blue marble. And some were simply an integral part of a ridiculously great time. Oh and yeah, we caught more fish than you can imagine in water more pristine than you’ve ever seen varying in size up to as big as those species are supposed to get. How it’s supposed to be without all those faces running around. But the fishing was only incidental.
Dan Frasier Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!