By Danny Adcock
'No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine'
John Donne, Meditation 17, 1624
Though I find them fascinating I have visited only seven islands in my lifetime: the North and South Islands of New Zealand, Scolt Head island off the North Norfolk coast, Canvey Island in Essex (which I have to admit was when I got on the wrong bus), Cuba itself, and two islands off its Atlantic shoreline.
When you think of the island of Cuba, what comes to mind? I imagine it is Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the missile crisis of 1962; followed, maybe, by Ernest Hemingway and his classic story of a Cuban fisherman The Old Man and the Sea, which won him both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Many people have no idea where Cuba actually is – something I discovered before a recent trip there – let alone know anything about its culture or landscape. When you suggest it is in the Caribbean you are likely to get anything from an astounded ‘Is it?’ to a ‘No, it’s near… er…’ In fact it is the largest of the Caribbean islands, and lies less than a hundred miles below Key West, the southernmost point of continental USA.
Made up of the main island itself, and several archipelagos, Cuba straddles the Gulf Stream like a cowboy on a mustang, with the Caribbean Sea on one rein and the mighty Atlantic on the other. It is increasingly a tourist destination for Europeans and Canadians, amongst others, most of whom visit for the emerald-blue of the seas, the rum cocktails, and the sun. Cuba has existed in magnificent isolation from its giant neighbour due to the rigorously enforced trade and economic embargo imposed by the US following the overthrew of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the inception of communism as its political system, and the infamous missile crisis – supposedly the nearest the world has come to nuclear armageddon. Still unflinchingly communist today, there has been a recent thaw in relations, though when I visited early last year the very idea of such a detente was unheard of amongst ordinary Cubans.
Cuba’s culture has been heavily influenced by the US, though in theory they have been as separate as egg white is from egg yolk over the last fifty years, and there areplenty of other ingredients to throw into the cake tin of the island’s culture. The Spanish ruled for four hundred years, and before their conquest an indigenous population existed, though they were so utterly devastated by colonisation as to have little influence following it. Under Spanish rule the slave trade brought Africans to Cuba and, as anywhere that Africans have colonised, whether under duress or not, their influence on the surrounding landscape and culture has been been both positive and enduring. The political regime since 1959 has meant close ties with other communist countries such as Russia, and latterly China, and then there are her near-neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America, making it clear Cuba and her culture have a wonderfully random mix of ingredients.
You cannot discuss Cuban culture without mentioning American author Ernest Hemingway. Born in the last year of the nineteenth century, Hemingway’s defining work, The Old Man and the Sea, is set in Cuba and the waters of the Gulf Stream, the great current which wells North into the Atlantic in an overload of literary emotion. One of the seminal literary works of the twentieth century, The Old Man and the Sea deals with life and death, man and nature, age and youth, in Hemingway’s classic, characteristically clipped, to-the-point style. He lived life like a character from his books, and his books reciprocated this: injured in a mortar blast while an ambulance driver for the Italian Army in the First World War, two plane crashes, car crashes, four wives, big-game hunting, fishing the Gulf Stream on his boat the Pilar, and awarded the Bronze Star by the US in the Second World War for his bravery as a war correspondent. His suicide in 1961 would suggest his life was far more complex than one of his novels though, and certainly his relationship with Cuba was, of course, complex and patterned. When the revolution came he claimed to have a good relationship with the new communist regime, but left for the last time in 1960. Foreign-owned property was to be nationalised not long after. Maybe he would have returned but for his suicide the following year. Suffering from chronic illness as well as depression, he was sixty one. Tragically, his father, brother Leicester, and sister Ursula also took their own lives.
I met Hector working as a tour guide in a hotel in Cayo Coco. As genuinely friendly as most of the Cubans I met he spoke excellent English, as many Cubans do. Cuba has a 99.9 percent literacy rate which, incidentally, is higher than our own. Hector spent a long time enthusiastically explaining to me about the upcoming elections in the one-party-state. He was extremely knowledgeable about Cuba’s wildlife, pointing out the Cuban emerald hummingbirds that I’d seen zipping around the hotel’s grounds, and the red-faced turkey vultures in their black cassocked-garb, like members of the clergy rising that little bit closer to heaven on the thermals. As to the revolution, he was planning on taking his son down to the Bay of Pigs to show him the scene of the attempted CIA-led counter-revolution of 1961; the revolution was still alive for him. Maybe. Or maybe he was just towing-the-party-line. Certainly he didn’t mention the Cuban Special Period when depression and famine followed the loss of aid after the break up of close ally the Soviet Union in 1989; the long queues for ordinary foodstuffs; the heavy-handed police; the corruption; the death in 2012 of hunger-striker Wilman Villar Mendoza, detained during a peaceful protest. The situation is extremely complex, and I cannot begin to pretend to understand it after only two weeks there, but I do know that in Havana people on the streets were not so complimentary towards the regime led first by Fidel Castro, and currently by his brother Raul.
What Hector did have was a genuine love for the landscape, the wildlife and the history of his country, regardless of his attitude to the politics of the revolution. And while his concern for his children revolved around what would happen if they ever got the internet, rather than whether the ten hours a day they were spending on it was excessive, they are essentially the same concerns parents the world over have. As well as making the best of themselves, Hector wanted his children to see and understand their country, their history and their landscape; an admirable ambition which many other countries would do well to aspire to.
Though Hemingway’s place in Cuba’s cultural landscape is assured, as an angler myself, and inveterate Hemingway fan, I wanted to see the man himself, to walk the walk, fish the fish, and follow him through the islands in the stream. I wanted to see, experience and understand Cuba’s landscape and culture for myself. Hector, with a swipe of my credit card – there are some nods to capitalism even in the backwaters of Cuba – arranged it all for me, and the next morning a bus took me across a causeway, past a statue of the great man himself, from Cayo Coco to the neighbouring Cayo Guillermo.
These days the Cayos – an archipelago stretched along Cuba’s Atlantic shore that on the map looks like a lazy croc warming itself in the sun – are a tourist haven, as well as a protected national park called the Jardines del Rey: the Gardens of the King. Hotels line the beaches, cut out of what was previously a pristine, uninhabited wilderness which I have heard some refer to, ungraciously, as a mosquito-infested swamp. No Cubans live there. They are brought in daily to work in the hotels from a town on the mainland. Roman-straight roads lead from one hotel to the next, lined on either side with impenetrable-looking forest, and mangroves. In Hemingway’s day probably the only people to see this place would have been fishermen, but today tourism has brought the same things to this landscape as it does to any: people, jobs, roads, traffic, pollution.
The bus dropped me at a dock lined with big, powerful-looking fishing boats where I met Michael who was to crew on the boat taking me out. He had the neck of a bull, the forearms of a badger, a laconic smile and a skull-wobbling backslap. Within minutes I was on board, the engine gunned, Michael cast off, and up on the flying bridge the captain steered us out to sea. We cruised around for several hours, following the twin-tailed frigate birds hunting the same thing as ourselves only with a better, birds-eye view. I caught some fish, and I genuinely felt close to the man himself, especially when we stopped for lunch. Anchored behind a rocky outcrop, under the hot Cuban sun, surrounded by the absinthe-green waters of the gulf stream, Michael filleted the dorado I had caught and its blood ran red across the deck, and through the scuppers back to the sea whence it came. Then he went below, cooked it, and we ate it together – the hot, firm flesh of the fish washed down with cold, local, Bucanero beer. It is not too far-fetched to imagine Hemingway himself, aboard his beloved Pilar, doing exactly this, maybe even in this exact place; and while my excitement was genuine, I realised this wasn’t the true Cuban landscape; this was the landscape of the tourist, and Michael wasn’t here because he could be, he was here because he had to be, though his hard work and friendliness is my outstanding memory of that day.
Foreign landscapes can be hard to interpret, though they may only be a county away rather than a whole ocean. I live near the Fens in East Anglia, and it was difficult to understand their uniqueness, or their isolation when I first encountered them. They were as foreign to me as are the Alps, though they are as different from the Alps as it is conceivable for a landscape to be. Driving through them I couldn’t see past the fog-enshrouded drains and dykes, couldn’t get a handle on the people living in these god-forsaken backwaters. I had moved from Essex and was used to being in London within forty minutes. But the Fens are a glorious example of a misunderstood landscape; a landscape of stunning contrasts between the artifice of man, and the wilful genuineness of nature, with a population of fiercely independent people whose attachment to the land is deep and essential. In a way I had felt closer to the Cuban landscape before I encountered it than I had the Fenland one. It is difficult to explore a new landscape without comparing it to a familiar one, but it is valuable to try and look on new landscapes as impartially as possible, at least at first, and through Hemingway, Che and the revolution, Cuba had been alive in my imagination before I saw it. Preconceived ideas can often lead to both inaccurate and injudicious opinions. Fishing the Gulf Stream may have given me a sense of Hemingway the man, but of the Cuban cultural landscape it revealed nothing.
Hector recommended I visit the mainland town of Ciego de Avila, and arranged for Joel to ferry me round in his taxi for the day. He obviously wasn’t used to tourists like me because he seemed bemused at the some of the things I wanted to stop and look at. To leave the Cayos you cross a seventeen mile causeway, and then negotiate the police checkpoint regulating the flow of people on and off the islands like a sluice gate. Once we had crossed the causeway I began to both see, and understand, a little more of the island. Long, dusty, pockmarked roads with here and there a few anorexic-looking cattle, were mainly lined with fields of sugar-cane. Whole seas of it stretched to the horizon like great green swells rolling inexorably along under a sky smoke-stained from the pre-harvest burning. Sugar cane has been the staple of the Cuban economy since the eighteenth century, though during the Special Period agriculture was forced to diversify. Before the revolution foreign, mainly American, companies made fortunes from it and, as in many countries, it has been a symbol of economic inequality. Ciego de Avila turned out to be strangely similar, in a way, to my local town of King’s Lynn in Norfolk. I realised this very quickly though it was far from any pre-conceived ideas I had about the place. The weather, language and architecture may have been different, but this small, very Cuban town, was nonetheless a town very much in the same vein as a provincial town in England. People had the same hopes and fears for themselves and their children; and while the poverty of the populace in King’s Lynn may not be comparable to that of the Cubans, it remains relatively poor when compared with the affluent East Anglia as a whole.
Hemingway, and even Guevara, pale into insignificance when compared with the influence upon Cuban culture that Jose Marti has exerted. In 1895, at the age of forty-two, he was killed in the first action of Cuba’s third war of independence. Freedom for Cuba was his life’s work, and he had been planning the war since he formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892, while exiled from his homeland by the Spanish. Born in Havana to Spanish parents in 1853, Marti dedicated his life to Cuban freedom from a young age. At just seventeen he was sentenced to six years hard labour for his opposition to Spanish rule, and though this was commuted to six months at the intervention of his parents, he was exiled to Spain. By this stage in his life he was already a prolific writer: his drama Abdala was published in the first edition of newspaper La Patria Libre. He is now regarded as one of the great Spanish-language poets, but he is so much more to Cuban culture. He is the name on everyone’s lips, the statue in every square; teacher, philosopher, father of the revolutionary movement, and one of the most oft-quoted Spanish-language writers of all time. He was a man of liberty and freedom for all Cubans: ‘A Cuban,’ he argued, ‘is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black.’
Consciously or subconsciously we compare landscapes. From the taxi I witnessed poverty and toil that I never had before, that I could not imagine in my own landscape, though it is closer than some are prepared to admit. From a flora and fauna aspect the Cuban landscape is a radical change to my natural habitat, and it seemed in the face of their hardship that the Cuban’s landscape may not have mattered to them in the way ours does. It did not take long for me to see the truth of the matter though: their landscape, their culture, and their history is bound up with their lives as tightly as hay in a bale. From Marti to Guevara, from revolution against the Spanish to revolution against Batista and corporate America, and now a hopeful hint of detente, their landscape is as much a part of them as it is a resource or an industry.
We are fortunate to be able to experience our own landscape in ways some less fortunate than ourselves cannot, and we are also in the enviable position of being able to experience landscapes other than our own. It behoves us to understand the cultures and landscapes we visit so that, ultimately, we may respect them and their residents, as well as enjoy them. As tourists we run a fine line between beneficence and maleficence, particularly in wealth-poor culture-rich countries. We all know those who sit poolside day after day; those whose closest experience of local culture is at arms length – usually the arm of the waiter or waitress handing them a cocktail; those who holiday in Spain, but drink in English bars and eat fish and chips from the English fish and chip shop.
Why should we be concerned with the people, the culture and the landscape of a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic? One which has a political system the theoretical polar opposite of our own? Because other cultures matter, and cultural diversity matters. If we show no interest in other cultures then our own will suffer, because it relies on others as much as they rely on ours. Every culture, no matter how different from our own, has a value both intrinsic and extrinsic; it is as important to itself as it is to others.
When people first left the cradle of Africa it was to seek new sources of food, new places to live, but also new experiences: culture breeds culture. Without dissemination comes isolation, and with isolation can come discrimination, bigotry and injustice. We have a cultural, and more importantly a humanistic obligation to experience, understand, and interact with other people and their lives. It is a tribute to the Cubans that they have assimilated nutrients from whatever varying strands they have been able, and their culture has continued to thrive as a result. Our approaching general election is being fought partly on the argument that we, as a country, should become more isolationist. This in a world where conflict and economic disparity, which our foreign policy has arguably gone some way to causing, is increasingly disseminating cultures further and wider. We would do well to take a page out of Cuba’s cultural bible, open our hearts and minds, and let Jose Marti’s words on equality ring loud and long in our ears.
Danny Adcock lives not far from the North Norfolk coast, where he likes to spend as much time as possible either fishing, walking the dog or lazing around in one of the many pubs. When he's not fishing he keeps bees, and enjoys photography and writing. He has had several articles published on Caught By The River.