No Shoes On The Fishermen

By Douglas Bernon
February 23, 2001
La Esperanza, Cuba
022 46.7 N 083 44.0 W

This fisherman no longer spoke with sounds. Cancer had eaten away his voice box, and the white, gauze pad that covered the hole in his throat was held in position by an ascot-like band that circled his neck. He could whisper a little if he put his hand over the hole, but that hurt. Yet, he made himself clear.

Hopping, strutting, jumping, pirouetting, imitating fish with graceful hand gestures, stretching a seemingly rubber face into the most elastic and precise expressions, he played his entire body like a finely tuned fiddle, a rich but silent orchestral suite that no authorities could control. Fluent in the language of mime and smile, his rich gestures were easy enough to follow, and the intimate, physical attention such listening demands drew us close right away.

He imitated a shark with one wiggling hand on his head, a fin growing out of his skull. Then he placed both hands flat on top of each other and undulated them forward. We knew the fish was swimming fast. Somehow he made it swim faster and faster and grow bigger. Then one hand leaped from his head and made a still larger fin. Then both hands were back together, swimming faster still. We could see that this big shark was a speedster.

Photo of Jose communicating by writing José communicating by writing.

José was the dignified maestro of his little piece of the Malecon, the serpentine seafront walkway and highway that stretches for miles along old Havana's north shore. He fished every day from about 7 to 12, and all the while he conducted people, directed them, swooped down and scooped them up, a giant bird whose wingspan embraced anyone near by. Harold and I met him one day a few weeks ago while our boats were in Havana and we were exploring. After that, we returned to visit José a few times to hang out, to give him and his family some clothes and fishing supplies, and to laugh, chat and receive the cleverest of vocabulary lessons.

The Malecon once must have been a most glorious place. The architecturally extravagant and exuberant homes, set back from the sea by a six-lane, but not particularly crowded, boulevard and an ample walkway and sea wall, are in states of disrepair, the inevitable result of a relentless sea and nearly half a century without maintenance. The Malecon, once home to the wealthy, has not been a priority of the revolution. While there's some renovation under way today, it's a modest effort compared to the hundreds of properties that are crumbling. José was in better shape than many of the buildings behind him.

He arrived at sunup with his three cardboard boxes of supplies: old, small, wooden spools with lightweight monofilament, pieces of squid, newspaper shreds, a couple of knives, and some cardboard box slabs on which to cut fish and which also served as writing pads. He weighted his lines and baited his hooks. Then, with Ballanchine grace, he swirled and twirled several times, swung the line above his head, and sent it far beyond the concrete wall and into the sea.

José told us he's 61 and married, father to four children, aged 7 to 35. For 45 years he'd been a fisherman, sometimes with nets, sometimes with air-tanks, sometimes with spears and lines and hooks. He's poor now, he said, and struggling to feed his family. With an impish twinkle, he told us without words that he knew where gold lay at the bottom of the sea. It's in 45 meters of water, sunk in 1550 on an old galleon. But, he said, he's too old now to dive there, so it will remain a secret he'll keep to himself.

Photo of Jose and Harold José and Harold.

Surrounding José were little boys and a few foreign tourists. A 50-ish Swiss fellow said he was on holiday and liked to spend the morning talking with José and learning how to fish. Two young Spanish men in their twenties watched, fascinated by the simple technology of José's trade and curious as he wrote down words for us on the cardboard, teaching us the vocabulary of the sea: names for the fish and waves and tides and winds.

Two local boys crowded near him, giggling as they imitated us trying our Spanish. Off the breakwall, they dived into the sea, returned, dived again and returned again. Jose bummed cigarettes for them from the Spaniards, who might not have shared them so directly. Some walkers didn't notice his lines and came too close. Jose danced toward them, detouring their steps away from the hard-to-see monofilament.

Among other things, one day Harold brought José some new-old shoes, but they didn't fit. No matter, "Bueno para Muchacho," he whispered and put them in a cardboard box. I gave him a box of fishhooks. He beamed and put them in the box with the shoes. We gave him some soap and writing tablets and pens and food (all things in short supply here), and Harold then produced a reel of monofilament.

Photo of friend Jose José is a friend with whom we wouild cross paths several times in Havana.

José beamed and started to roll some onto a carette, an eight-inch-diameter wooden yo-yo similar to the plastic ones with which we troll behind Ithaka. José stopped every few turns to see if he could have more, not wanting to exceed Harold's generosity, but Harold encouraged him to take it all, and José hopped a little jig. He finished rolling on the new line and then taught us how to tie knots in monofilament. He had us tying practice knots, encouraging us, laughing, making sure we got it right, beaming, kissing his finger tips when we succeeded.

Suddenly he spotted one of Havana's ubiquitous policemen and quickly covered the items in his boxes. José placed one finger to his lips, indicating silence, and then brought it to his eye, suggesting we should be wary, to protect him, not us. We backed off for awhile until José indicated it was all clear.

When we left that day, he again kissed his fingers several times and danced his jig. I found myself feeling a bittersweet melancholy. I wished I could know this talented man more. I wished we could see him again. Little did we know, we would. His victorious spirit was evidence that cancer can steal sound but cannot silence a voice.

Today, it's weeks later. We're anchored far from Havana, off a beautiful isolated island near the reef, and we're meeting other fishermen. I think of José. I see his same undaunted spirit in a group of young, skin-diving fisherman from a small village near here. I won't mention their names or their town's name, or even show their photographs clearly, in order to protect them.

Photo of Douglas with lobster catch Douglas and dinner.

Their very industriousness, entrepreneurial drive, and exquisite self-sufficiency, renders them criminals in the eyes of this government. Each day they defy the law, risk the confiscation of their catch, and the loss of their spears, their masks, there snorkels and their makeshift but essential raft. They even risk imprisonment for the offense, fishing for profit, a concept they mime for us with one wrist grasping the other as a manacle.

As they explain it, the government grants fishing permits for personal fishing only, and also grants commercial fishing licenses. But for the latter, it also sets the price for what's bought and requires the catch be sold directly and only to the state co-op. No competition means low prices and payment only in pesos, which provides little incentive for competitive, young men to play by the rules.

Our friends Diane and Harold had met these men the previous winter, and spent five weeks anchored here. They returned this year with the amazing gift of five sets of used wetsuits that they'd bought for a few dollars each in a Florida thrift store. Their gift was one of warmth and safety, and was received by these boys with tearful gratitude.

Photo of rafts made from scraps These rafts are fashioned from scraps and provide several families with their livelihoods.

Every day that the north wind isn't too severe, for that makes the water turbulent and fish-sighting difficult, these men, in their twenties and thirties, set off well before dawn. They walk four kilometers from their hillside village down to the coast, uncover their rafts, which they've concealed in the mangroves, load their small lunch of rice, fried fish, oranges and bananas, and secure their gear to their rickety vessels. Their rafts are made of wood slats over tractor inner tubes, and they row them another four kilometers out to the reef on which they like to dive.

Sometimes they anchor the raft and everyone dives, which is a little risky as there's no one on watch for the Guarda Frontera. Most times one man stays onboard to watch the horizon, while the two, three or four others dive and shoot, bringing their catch back to the raft for safekeeping. All muscle and elegance, these guys swim all day before repeating their homeward trek.

Photo of flippers and masks Tools of the trade. The boys give their flippers and masks hard use.

Their physically exhausting commute can be three hours each way, but for them it's worth it. They can sell or trade the fish for vegetables and eggs and meat in their village, and sell or trade fish and lobster to the cruising boats that come by. One day they showed us their haul of 29 lobsters and more than a dozen large fish, including two hogfish that were easily three feet long and 15 pounds. All were shot by the boys with pole spears or rusty spear guns while they were swimming with flippers that are stitched and riveted, while they peered through masks that are often taped together. Not everyone has a snorkel, but they all can dive deep and well.

Photo of cleaning fish on the raft The boys clean fish on the raft.

These fishermen are perpetually wary. Sometimes they stop at our boats for coffee or to eat their lunch and to share their bounty, but before they do, they camouflage their raft on the island. Then they either swim out to our boats or we pick them up in our dinghies. One man always stays on the alert for the Guarda. A number of months ago, one fellow was caught on the evening return trip, had to dump the day's catch and, worse, had the precious raft confiscated. Rafts are always suspect, not only because they allow people to earn a living not shared with the state, but also because they're potential exit vehicles.

For more than a week, we dive with the guys every day. They teach me to spearfish, a thrilling new experience. Lobsters are the easiest to shoot. They conceal themselves by backing into coral crevices and sand caves, but their long tentacles betray them. However, if you miss with your first spear, they can also scoot backward into their holes, homes they sometimes share with sharp-toothed moray eels. When they do move across open water, lobsters are not too fast, and I can still manage to catch up with a few of them.

Conch is even easier to catch. They move a little slower than glaciers. Fish remain more of a challenge, and while I hit a couple with my pole spear, I've got nothing to brag about. However, I regularly spear enough lobster that we have lobster omelets, lobster sandwiches, lobster cocktails, lobster salad, lobster bisque, boiled lobster, broiled lobster, sautéed lobster, and curried lobster.

Because this is not a heavily harvested area and they're in great abundance, even rank amateurs can succeed. Some of these monster-sized, pincerless prehistoric, mini-rhinos had tails that yielded two pounds of meat.

Photo of rowing home on raft Rowing home.

For a city-boy, there's something downright satisfying and manly about killing your own dinner. Bernadette says its my latent "hunter-gatherer instinct" and that soon I'll probably want to join a men's drumming group and wear critter pelts to formal affairs. Damn straight! Just point me.

Sometimes we join the guys on their rafts; other times we tow their rafts behind our dinghies, giving us all a far larger area to cover. Whoever was on the raft would give me directions as if I were motoring. "Doo-car, escardia! Doo-car , derachio! Doo-car, mas rapido!"

During all our time spent together, the boys talk with us about their lives, their hopes, their ambitions, and of the beauty of their world out on the reef. As they rowed ashore that last night, I thought of how unfathomable our world of sailing freely, of oceangoing boats, of comparatively outrageous wealth and leisure must be to them. With all these men, we'd established connections and friendships. We'd opened our worlds to each other. We'd broken bread together and shared our dreams. Tomorrow, we'll weigh anchor, move from behind the protection of the island, thread our way through the bordering reefs, and set sail into blue water for Cuban landfalls to the west. We will leave reluctantly, and we will leave richer.