travel

The Mojito Coast (Part 2)

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An expedition to the flats is predicated on teamwork, and success is often dependent on your guide. He poles you gondola-fashion, and also acts as your bird-dog: Yoandry had exceptional eyesight, and put us onto plenty of fish. It’s a constant process of hide and seek, and you need to be an opportunist par excellence. Gliding through this lonely terrain is an impressive experience. Shoals of mullet mill and swirl: herons stalk the margins, ignoring you like wine waiters; there are arthritic mangrove clusters, mysterious finger channels, strand-lines of sugary sand where spume bowls along like tumbleweed. At times, outer Mangrovia can seem eerie, a tangled seascape by JG Ballard. When the sun shines, it enjoys a severe beauty.

Description: When the sun shines, it enjoys a severe beauty.

When the sun shines, it enjoys a severe beauty.

We were dogged by a cold front, which made the going tough. One morning over at Playa Judío (Jew Beach seems a strange place name. I agree), the skies suddenly turned livid, and warm rain began slicing across the cays. It was just the sort of weather you might appreciate for a Highland spate river, hut entirely unwelcome here. As it cleared, however, the hay began thronging with honks embarking on their Happy Hour. Everywhere, fins were slitting the surface like scissored silk. Although the bottom was claggy — I felt I was wading on crème brûlée — for the rest of the morning we took fish after fish, as they fed hard on crablets and shrimp. This was our best session, yet by the afternoon the place was as bare of bones as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. It’s an intense, unpredictable business — es la pesca.

Description: It was just the sort of weather you might appreciate for a Highland spate river, hut entirely unwelcome here.

It was just the sort of weather you might appreciate for a Highland spate river, hut entirely unwelcome here.

After a long day on the Hats, you’re ready to stand fully clothed under your shower (watch those controls!) to sluice off the brine, sunscreen and fish slime - then it’s time to Dial M for Mojito. There’s a lively little bar serving good, simple cocktails at less than two quid a pop, and it’s amazing how a Mojito will slip down the exhausted angler’s throat like light ale. The wine is probably best avoided. When it comes to catering, I wonder if the government doesn’t operate a Counter Tourism Unit: the food here is bland and occasionally resembles roadkill. You’d think they could rustle up a jar of honey or some seafood. The highlight of dinner was rummaging for dessert in the Nestlé freezer — all Communist countries seem to make delicious ice cream.

Description: It’s time to Dial M for Mojito

It’s time to Dial M for Mojito

When first I visited Cuba — during the ‘Special Period’ following the collapse of the Soviet empire — there were drastic shortages. People wore banana-leaf sandals, used Chinese toothpaste for washing, and it’s said that in the absence of any cheese the pizza stalls were improvising with melted condoms. I’m no Sugarcane Romantic, but thin seem a little better now. Unlike the segregated tourist resorts in Cayo Coco, La Casona is open to the locals, and they drop by for rum and Populares (cheap cigarettes allegedly made from the sweepings of tobacco-factory floors). But the average wage is still something like US$20 a month, so it wasn’t as liberal as it sounds when their government announced recently that all citizens were flow free to buy their own real estate. That the official newspaper Granma is popular because it’s cheaper than lavatory paper says much about the current regime, along with journalism in general.

Description: Unlike the segregated tourist resorts in Cayo Coco, La Casona is open to the locals, and they drop by for rum and Populares

Unlike the segregated tourist resorts in Cayo Coco, La Casona is open to the locals, and they drop by for rum and Populares

 

There’s virtually no nightlife for the visitor to Brasil. It’s a world away from the fleshpots of (he capital, with its pulsating music scene and spandex-clad mulattas shimmying like reef fish through the gloom. There’s no hustling, unless you count the large lady with her bucket of mangoes. or that chap at the payphone with a hawk on his shoulder. One evening, the guides turned up for a meal and a singsong, but we were spared the previous year’s fiesta which included stand-up comedy from the local schoolmaster, and some amateur cabaret during which I was involved in a magic trick that conjured up a large foam phallus (I was later persuaded to perform my punk-era pogo-stick dance). Sometimes it’s a relief just to slump quietly on a bar stool and sip Bacardi with your son and heir.

Description:  Brasil at night is a world away from the fleshpots of (he capital, with its pulsating music scene and spandex-clad mulattas shimmying like reef fish through the gloom.

Brasil at night is a world away from the fleshpots of (he capital, with its pulsating music scene and spandex-clad mulattas shimmying like reef fish through the gloom.

Back in 1963, JFK laid in a supply of 1,500 Upmann cigars, before slapping his embargo on Cuba. The day Obama finally lifts it, Raúl Castro will no longer have a Yanqui bogeyman to blame for all his nation’s hardships. On the whole, Americans don’t visit: but there is one who still looms large in Cuban folklore, and the Romano archipelago was one of his happiest hunting founds. Hemingway patrolled the area during World War II ostensibly searching for U-boats (it was a handy pretext for getting fuel for his marlin cruiser); he never engaged the enemy, bur did shoot himself in the knee whilst trying to inscribe his initials with bullets on a shark’s head. He liked the manatee paella hereabouts (those were the days). The area is graphically described in his posthumously published Islands in the Stream, a manuscript he cannibalized to create The Old Man and the Sea; I’ve long relished his letter maintaining, ‘All the symbolism that people say is shit… The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man.’ In exasperation at all his fishing, his wife once castrated all 57 of Don Ernesto’s pet cats whilst he was away. Papa presented his Marlin Tournament cup in 1960 to Fidel himself, and his teammate Che, but felt the contest had been rigged. Perish the thought.

Description: Back in 1963, JFK laid in a supply of 1,500 Upmann cigars, before slapping his embargo on Cuba.

Back in 1963, JFK laid in a supply of 1,500 Upmann cigars, before slapping his embargo on Cuba.

There may be no billfish in the shallows we explored, but you do sometimes encounter a couple of species as formidable as any big game from the Gulf Stream. The tarpon – and aerobatic member of the herring clan – can grow as large as a man, and if you hook one on your fly rod you will have your own personal Missile Crisis. I have been lucky enough to take dozens in the past, but they are migratory and this time we only saw a couple. However, we did enjoy brisk sport with barracuda. This much maligned predator lurks in lagoons and watery lay-bys, where slower fish are terminated with extreme prejudice. Barry the Bad ‘Cuda sports hellacious dentition, and strikes like chain lightning. He will take a fly, but is also partial to spinning lures chugged across the surface. In his second day, James hooked a serious unit weighing more than 30lb, and needed the guide’s help to hoist aboard after 20 minutes of slam-dunking combat. Cuba is big on species variety: despite the adverse conditions, we never suffered a blank day.

Description: However, we did enjoy brisk sport with barracuda.

However, we did enjoy brisk sport with barracuda.

My only disappointment was the scarcity of that most sought-after species of the Holy Flats Trinity, the elusive permit, Trachinotus falcatus, a radiant, dome-headed denizen of the deeps that sometimes feeds inshore but is exasperatingly difficult to fool with an artificial ‘fly’. It tends to spurn your overtures like an expensive blonde. Permit hunting is feast or famine: the previous year, I hooked four in one morning, landing two (for me, an unprecedented feat of piscicapture). This time, they simply would not oblige. Yoandry did pole us down one flat where there were several skulking about – one looked to be in the 20lb class – but they stubbornly ignored every crab pattern we tried. I’ve heard of anglers trying for a decade before landing a permit; it is the sort of fish tat haunts your dreams.

We decided to rack up a few numbers on our last day by casting streamers into channels and ‘honey holes’ for snappers and jacks, in a zone nicknamed the Cojones de Don Kiko. But it was really the bonefish we had come for, and there was just time for a final wade down a long spit of pale sand which had previously been kind to us. I opened up with a nice seven-pounder, followed by three more. By now, though, James had hit his stride, and he soon outfished me. To his coeval Yoandry’s delight, the insolent youth began to heckle me each time he set the steel and his rod arched: ‘What’s the matter – don’t you want one too?’

The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. So it goes.

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