In Havana I joined a group of carpenters, plumbers and electricians for a game of…
Abdel was stressed.
He hadn’t caught anything in two days and his wife had yelled at him in the morning. “This is my vacation,” he said. He was sarcastic and bitter. “It is also my working mornings, my working evenings and every day I have off from my job. And she just yells at me.”
Abdel is a high school teacher. He holds the equivalent of a master’s degree. He makes $30.00 a month – not enough to feed his family. To compensate he spends every minute of free time among the Havana fishermen of the Malecón, fishing from the cracking sea wall with dozens of other men in the same situation.
You can’t legally sell fish in Cuba unless you have a license. The fishermen along the Malecón all told me that they are fishing to feed their families. They also said a big fish – a 20, 30 or 40 pounder – could get them a dollar a pound at one of the private tourist restaurants. They could also sell to the embassy-based foreigners wealthy enough to have their own cooks.
I met Abdel on my first trip to Cuba in May 2016. On my first day back in 2017 I went looking for him. I found the thin, dark-skinned man trolling the waters along the Malecón opposite El Morro, the lighthouse where Hemingway hunted tarpon back in the day. His eyes were red and he was drenched from a massive wave that had pounded over the sea wall just after sunrise. He gave me a massive, wet bear hug. It was barely noon but I’d brought a bag full of beers from a grubby little store and handed them around to Abdel and the other anglers. Beer is a sure-fire way to make good with a fisherman no matter where you are in the world. Then I sat, chatting with them and watched them at their work.
These men aren’t recreation fishermen. They are essentially hunters and gathers. They don’t fish for fun but to survive. The fishing isn’t easy they will tell you. The tarpon are no more and even the snapper and pompano are hard to come by. Only the wealthiest of Cubans have private fishing boats. Even the smallest boat is out of reach financially for people barely able to feed themselves so they stand along the sea wall. Some of the more intrepid fishermen float out into the bay on planks of wood, on inner tubes or on large chunks of Styrofoam looking for the bigger fish. But the government has outlawed this practice. The fines handed out if caught can be painful.
And then there is the perception – perhaps real enough – that Cuba’s waters are fished out. Cuba still retains the most intact marine ecosystem in the Caribbean. Recent overfishing however has put Cuba’s once-rich coral reefs in jeopardy, adding to the overall situation of food insecurity on the island. One fisherman half-joked that fish are smart enough to avoid Cuban shores. They are out there he told me. “But they stay away. They know Cubans eat everything,” he said. “What choice do we have?” He shrugged and cast a tiny bait fish into the surf.
At night the most creative fishermen gather at the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta to fish with condoms. One night I went down to find them. It was well after dark and a group had gathered. The wind was pounding the surf up the wall, soaking the men. Abdel wasn’t there to tell the crew I was OK. But I’d planned ahead with another bag of beers. And that worked fine.
Fernando, a construction worker pulled out a pocketful of condoms and began blowing them up. I seriously never knew condoms could get that big. But before long they were the size of balloons. He tied them together at the end of his line and dropped them into the tide. His line was nearly 1000 feet long, he told me. The hope was that the condoms and the tide would work together to take his bait out far enough to get one of those big fish the tourist restaurants would buy. Several of these condom contraptions were launched. But no luck. When I left around midnight, no one had caught anything.
I wrote before how Cubans are perhaps the most ingenious people I’ve ever met. Cubans simply do not have access to most of the daily items the majority of the Western world takes for granted. They’ve had to improvise. They’ve had to adapt. In the 40-some countries I’ve visited over the years I have never met a more resourceful group of people. It is a creativity borne of forced frugality and the opposite of our throwaway culture. It is fascinating and inspiring and grossly unjust. Spend an hour with the Havana fishermen of the Malecon and you’ll find a host of heartbreaking personal stories. Again, this isn’t recreational fishing. This is about survival.
These men fished not only with condoms but also with a wide variety of home-made contraptions. Many of them didn’t even have poles. Abdel did. He’d invested half a month’s salary in it several years ago. Was it worth it? I asked. “Yes. Especially at first. It has definitely paid for itself but I get less and less every year,” he said. I asked the fishermen what they needed. The answers ranged from baseball caps to deal with the sun, as well as shirts and raincoats. But everyone agreed that rods and creels were by far what they needed most. The basic tools of a fisherman was really what they wanted when you got down too it.
I visited Abdel, Fernando and the others several more times on this most recent trip. On my last day the wind was blowing so hard and the surf was so big no one was fishing. I found Abdel sitting in a park. “I’m just stressed, man. It doesn’t even make sense to have a job,” he said.
“It is getting to be the same way in America,” I told him. Then I invited him for a few mojitos to numb the pain.
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More shots from the Havana Imagined Photography Tour are here:
Finally, I’m posting portraits of Cubans on my Instagram. The next Havana Imagined Photography Tour is November 3-10, 2018. Only 6 spots available so contact me ASAP if you’re interested.