Cuba: Old(ish) men and the sea

By Ruaridh Nicoll

In Cuba, Ruaridh Nicoll follows the path of Ernest Hemingway and discovers that his course is not for the fainthearted.

Game fishing still brings tourists to Havana, just as it once attracted Ernest Hemingway. Photo / Thinkstock
Game fishing still brings tourists to Havana, just as it once attracted Ernest Hemingway. Photo / Thinkstock

The Audaz, small and sleek, hung on the edge of a huge wave then plummeted. From the top of the bridge the movement was so vertiginous that I worried about whimpering, but at least I could see it coming, cling to the nearest handhold and watch the bow bury itself in the hollow below. From the back, beside the fighting chair, they could see nothing and there were cries.

It was the first day of the annual Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Competition and I was trying to keep down the previous evening's dinner.

The Havana skyline lay hot, weary and distant across the angry sea.

Hemingway would not have approved if I had thrown up.

No, he would have written: "Nicoll was a Jock. Nicoll puked. Some Jock."

A few pages later, I would have been killed.

He offers a hard path, old Papa, even if you plan to veer away before that moment with the shotgun. By the end of two weeks, I would have scarred hands, molten sunburn and enough mosquito bites to frighten those beside the pool into thinking I had the pox.

You can't escape the writer in Havana.

Take the Ambos Mundos, a corner hotel in the old town. Havana life spills across its tiled ground floor. Hemingway lived here from 1932 to 1939, finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls.

His room, 511, is now a shrine. Or there is El Floridita, with Hemingway's signature under the signs that read, "Mi daiquiri en el Floridita".

Or La Bodeguita del Medio, where the barman claims the writer invented the mojito, Cuba's infamous mix of white rum, sugar and mint.

I discuss Hemingway while drinking rum at the home of Omar Cardoso, a Cuban artist. He tells me Hemingway would be unlikely to love El Floridita now, with its daiquiris costing a (comparatively) exorbitant $12.

"If Hemingway had been asked to pay that, he would have shot himself sooner," he says.

It was wondering about Hemingway that led to me being thrown about on the edge of the Gulf stream. I dropped down from the flying bridge, the ladder bucking beneath my hands.

I ask a fellow fisherman the time.

"Nine thirty," he replies without looking at his watch, his next beer unopened in his hand.

We're an hour and a half into an eight-hour day, despite our having lived several lifetimes on this boat already.

Later in the long day, I had been considering giving up and dying when I heard shouts of "Marlin! Marlin!" and watched as the bill of a big fish struck at one of the lures, watched and felt time stop.

Mr Nine Thirty stumbled into the fighting chair as the reel screamed and the iridescent fish ran through the water only to rise from the white-capped sea and dance on its tail, before sinking back in.

On the English Rose, the Virgin Atlantic 747 I flew in on, I had eschewed the films, taken the proffered brandy, and settled down to reread Papa.

An American teacher I know tells me students have no longer heard of him, and I can see why. He's not ageing well, with his constant use of racist slang.

His obsession with the battle of man against the big boys of nature seems increasingly out of time.

Yet to really feel for Cuba, to discover Havana, it does no harm to draw on him.

Modern Havana is a city on the edge of the abyss. Propped up by Venezuela's oil, and desperately searching for a "Vietnamese solution" - a communist government, but with liberal economics - it's a place where nobody knows what might happen next.

"You have to imagine you are in a surrealist play," one of the country's greatest dancers told me.

For the traveller, that has its advantages (you wouldn't want to live like a Cuban). Many of Hemingway's greatest loves - boxing, cockfighting, drinking, sex - are as raw as they were 50 years ago.

It depends what your poison is. These days - a little tragically - mine is fishing.

A mid-1900s photo of Ernest Hemingway, second from right, in Cuba. Photo / AP

I set off for the Zapata swamp, down the motorway, past the women selling black-market cheese, past the monuments to the victory against Cuban-Americans at the Bay of Pigs, and along a road made of crushed coral.

Salt flats on either side are coloured by the wicked pink of flamingos. Egrets ignore the hawks and somewhere out there, I'm told, is the world's smallest bird, the bee hummingbird.

Hemingway may have had fisherman Gregorio Fuentes as his model for the old man. I, it turns out, have Felipe Rodriguez, who runs the fishing in the swamp. He is a sunburned man with a tough gaze but a warm smile.

"I like to talk," he says, though he will remain quiet for long periods, judging my mood.

He punts me across Las Salinas, salt flats protected from the Caribbean by a ring of mangroves. In the vast sea lake, the water is only a foot or so deep, the many islands sunbaked.

The fishing requires skill: I have to spot the bow wave created by a school of bonefish - small, powerful creatures - and cast the fly in front of them, stripping it back through the water, stopping and waiting, watching the fish turn, then stripping it in again, until - thump - the fly disappears, the rod bends and the reel sings.

This is the opposite to the big game fishing I was watching north of Havana, where the skill resides with the boat's captain, as he runs the edge of the Gulf stream looking for the tell-tale signs of big fish - birds feeding on the scraps left by a billfish going wild among a shoal of mullet, for example. There, the fisherman's only job is to haul the beast in.

At the end of the day, the hotel on Playa Larga was as simple as was bearable. Mosquitoes hunted in the dark guest cabins, strange crabs climbed the walls and an English lawyer, one of a visiting party of fishermen, lost his mind and attacked the security guard. He was dragged off to hospital before Virgin Atlantic flew him home.

Next day I travelled deep into the swamp proper with Rodriguez, following the river Negra, a dark stream that ran powerfully through the mangroves. Now with an outboard, he ran the skiff fast and skilfully between the overhanging branches.

When we stopped I could hear crocodiles slipping into the water. A storm passed overhead. The stream began to boil with feeding tarpon, jumping as I hooked them.

In a watery dell, I fished with a popper, a coned hook that slurps as it is dragged across the surface. The tarpon love it, which is excellent because the take recreates Jaws. A tarpon emerges from the black water and the popper disappears, only to emerge again in the fish's mouth as it leaps for the air.

Hemingway would approve for I reached the pier bitten and burnt, hands blistered and bleeding.

After 15 years of increasing tourism in Cuba, the numbers have dropped in recent years, horrifying the authorities.

Tourists - the beach crowd - are realising that the great cry of "see it before it changes" is growing tired and that there are other, cheaper, places where the food is better. Cuba now has to offer something else.

What it offers is a surreal extravaganza, where danger is illusory and the looking is often enough.

Trips can range from healthy - birdwatching, fishing, rock climbing - to morally suspect - cockfighting, boxing - to degenerate.

The doorman of one hotel stopped me as I left.

"I want you to think of this hotel as home," he told me, before suggesting a variety of pastimes only the most debauched would consider risking beyond their own threshold.

After two weeks, I returned to the English Rose. The stewardess handed me a glass of champagne.

A couple sitting in front of me had visited for the first time and hadn't much liked it: "The food was terrible, it was filthy and we didn't know where to go."

Poison would have dripped from Hemingway's pen.

"The Limeys didn't try hard enough," he would have written.

"The Limeys had given up. Some Limeys."

Then they would have been killed.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Chile flies from Auckland to Havana via Santiago.

Further information: United Travel has a range of itineraries for touring Cuba.

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