Monday, May 21, 2012

The South Coast Part 1 - Broke but not poor

You like to see Monkeys? came the question in halting English. Pat and I were in our dinghy returning from a wonderful snorkeling trip on the ocean side reefs south of Cayo Campos in the Archipelago de los Canerros when we spied a small battered wooden runabout with two men aboard. At first we dismissed them as local fishermen, but as we drew closer together I noticed that the runabout was equipped with an outboard motor.

In the Bahamas or in the US, it would have been perfectly normal to encounter a small boat equipped with an outboard motor, but this was Cuba and outboards are as rare as hen’s teeth. I became concerned as the runabout turned and the two men aboard began frantically waving their arms at us. For a brief moment a flash of fear spread across my chest as I played through scenarios of being mugged by pirates in a deserted anchorage, and then by equally disturbing images of being interrogated under white hot lights by over zealous Cuban Guarda Frontera officers protecting their shores from Imperialist invaders.

Meekly Pat and I waved back and I slowly headed our dinghy towards the approaching runabout. As they drew closer we saw that the two men aboard looked more like the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway then they did pirates or Guarda officers. Sporting ragged shorts that might have at one time been swimming trunks and bare chested, both were deeply tanned from the relentless sun. I let out a silent sigh of relief when I realized that they were smiling and the arm waving was merely a friendly gesture in the enthusiastic Cuban style.

After the Monkey question, we were asked if we spoke Spanish and when I replied “un poco” (a little), I was rewarded with a machine gun burst of Cuban Spanish that rapidly overloaded my fledgling linguistic neurons. Slowly with a lot of gesturing and requests to repeat from both sides, we established that the two men were the custodians of the monkeys on Cayo Campos and they had seen us enter the reef and anchor in the shallows inside the reef apron. Since they did not get a lot of visitors they came out to invite us to visit their compound and to see the monkeys. When they saw that no one was aboard, they decided to make the best use of their gas and check the fish traps that they had set on the reef apron, which was why I originally thought they were out hunting for us. From this awkward first meeting Pat and I were about have one of the most memorable experiences of our 6 month visit to Cuba.

Cayo Campos is a 4 mile by 1 mile lump of coral surrounded by reefs in the Archipelago de los Carnerros.  Located about 25 miles east of the southern tip of Isla de la Juventud or in English, The Isle of Youth, the Archipelago is a string of islands which extends for 75 miles to the east. Forming a boundary between the relatively shallow waters of the Golfo de Batabano and 1000+ fathoms of the Caribbean Sea, the archipelago is one of the best cruising grounds in all of Cuba. The water is crystal clear and the beaches and reefs are clean and unblemished by the garbage and floating detritus that seems to accompany civilization. Cruisers who are both adventurous and hardy come from all over the world to sample the pristine beauty of the region, and for those who are really in the know, they also come to visit the Cangrejero monkeys.

Originating in Asia, the monkeys of Cayo Campos are one of two troops found in the Archipelogo de los Carnneros. The other troop is a different species and is found on Cayo Cantillies a further 30 miles to the east. On Cayo Campos the troop is mostly wild and members are left to roam freely about the 4 square miles of scrub brush and mangroves. How the monkeys came to be on the island is a bit of a mystery. The official line is that they were cargo on a freighter that was shipwrecked in a storm and the original monkeys were survivors that made it to shore and settled. The survivors bred and subsequently there have been two generations of new additions and the population today is in the hundreds. As part of a nature preserve program in the Archipelago, the Cuban government has established a feeding station and placed a permanent staff of four on the island to attend to the well being of the troop.

The less official and highly speculative explanation is that the monkeys of Cayo Campos and the genetically different group on Cayo Cantillies, are there as part of a secret Cuban research program to create agents for biological warfare. We were offered little evidence to support either story, although we did find it surprising that in a country where the basic necessities for human life can be elusive, that the government would appoint custodians who were charged with a twice daily feeding the monkeys with specially formulated high nutrition pellets laced with anti-biotic and anti-parasitic drugs. In the end the how and why the monkeys are there, is far less important to the cruiser then the fact that they and especially their keepers are simply there.

The next morning Pat and I awoke after a restless sleep to gray skies and light rain showers. The anchorage was very rolly, which accounted for our less than perfect sleep and for a brief time we considered staying aboard and skipping the shore visit. In the end however I was not motivated to exit the reef in the surging conditions so we were stuck until the weather improved; consequently we decided to brave the short but likely very wet trip to shore. At the appointed hour of 8:30 we approached the rickety dock in front of the monkey keepers house in our dinghy and were greeted by our hosts for the day, Felix and Dariel.

The two of them were part of a normally four man team assigned to look after the monkeys, but one of their members was away on a course and the other was back home on Isla de la Juventud because of an abscessed tooth. There are two teams and each team is posted to the island for a period of 4 weeks and during their stay they are completely isolated except for visits from fishermen and a few passing cruisers. All supplies must be brought in when they begin their rotation which means a fairly simple and limited diet as there is no electricity except for a single 75 watt solar panel used to recharge a battery that powers a single 12 volt fluorescent light and a small AM radio. Given the very limited power supply, refrigeration on the island was out of the question. Dried foods such as beans and rice, supplemented by whatever could be coaxed out of the sea was the diet for the month.

After touring the facilities on the island, which consisted of a single 4 room building that housed the sleeping quarters, kitchen, common room and privy, Pat and I headed out for a walk on some of the trails that criss-crossed the island, with the hopes of observing the monkeys in the wild. As luck would have it however the gray skies unloaded and we turned back to the keepers house in a driving rain with no monkey sightings to report. Felix met us and invited us to stay for lunch and wait for the afternoon Monkey feeding where we would be certain to see at least a few members of the troop.

As we discussed the possibilities of lunch and monkey sightings several small fishing boats tied up to the dock. The fishermen, one of whom was Felix’s neighbour back on Isla de la Juventud, often used the monkey keeper’s dock as a place to tie up and rest when they were not tending to business. In a matter of minutes the invitation to lunch turned into an impromptu pot luck with Pat volunteering to make rice and beans and the fishing crews pitching in fish and lobster. To provide their contribution, the fishermen started to dig out a pair of battered wooden oars and prepare their dinghy for a trip out to the reef. Thinking that they were heading out to the reef to pull a trap and fetch a few lobsters I offered the use of our outboard equipped dinghy as it was easily ¾ of a mile each way.

In a flash, three burly guys in wet suits jumped into my dinghy and headed exactly in the opposite direction from the reef and disappeared around the corner. Hoping that I hadn’t committed some linguistic faux pas and inadvertently given my dinghy away, I looked at Felix who began to laugh when he saw the expression on my face. Apparently lobsters prefer shallow, calmer water and are found closer to shore rather than out on the more turbulent reef apron. The big males hide on the reef, but the smaller more tasty ones are nicely herded up in “apartamentos” (lobster shelters made up of scrap metal, old pallets and bits of plastic tarp) that the fishermen have thoughtfully built in the turtle grass beds on the sheltered side of the cayo. Felix said the three guys were just going to get the lobsters the easy way and that I needn’t worry about my dinghy.

About 20 minutes later the dinghy rounded the end of the cayo and I immediately noticed that it was riding very low in the water and the three amigos in wet suits were kneeling on the tubes with one leg dragging in the water. I had been having a problem with one of the inflation valves and I started to feel guilty that I had sent them off without providing a foot pump to keep the boat inflated. As they approached the dock however, I could see that the problem was not with the tubes but rather the fact that my dinghy was absolutely full to overflowing with lobster. I figured that in about 10 minutes the three guys had loaded about 300 lbs of lobsters into my little Walker Bay. When combined with their weight and the 100 lbs of outboard motor, my 500 lb capacity dinghy was loaded with over 1000lbs. It was a miracle that it still floated!

Lunch was magnificent, everything was hot, fresh and tasty, and despite the simple one dish, one utensil table settings, the company and camaraderie made it one of the best meals we have had in Cuba. We learned that Felix was a trained surgical nurse who had decided that working out doors was more to his liking. Dariel had a daughter who was in medical school and Duarte, the leader of the three amigos who caught lunch, owned his own boat and kept his 30 year old single cylinder Yanmar diesel running with “Cuban ingenuity” and a little prayer. We gained more insight into the lives of the average Cuban over lunch than we had in the previous 3 months.

After lunch, Felix suggested that I move Threepenny Opera closer to their dock so that we would have a more comfortable anchorage. When I replied that I would love to, but that I didn’t have any charts to maneuver across the sand bars, Felix flashed another of his dazzling smiles and offered to show us the way before the arrival of the monkeys for the afternoon feeding. Perhaps it was the contentedness of lunch or perhaps it was peering into the drizzle across to the rolling and pitching mast of Threepenny Opera, but either way I decided to take the plunge and move the boat rather than risk another sleepless night on the reef.

From the moment I said OK lets do it, Felix took charge. He deputized Duarte and in minutes Pat and I along with our new crew boarded our now freshly washed dinghy (somebody had rinsed out the lobster bits and weeds while we were having lunch) and motored back out to the Threepenny Opera. The closer we got to the boat, the more obvious it became that moving was the right decision, as a freshening breeze was now generating a pretty healthy 2-3 foot breaking chop on top of the swell over the reef. Once aboard I started the engine when Felix motioned to the wheel and suggested that he drive while he sent Duarte up to the bow to act as a lookout.

Looking across at the choppy water passing over the featureless white sand I agreed to let Felix drive indicating to Pat that she should stay very close by while I went forward to help Duarte with the anchor. It hadn’t occurred to me up to that point, but most Cuban’s haul their anchors by hand, so when I pressed the foot pedal to begin hauling our chain with the windlass Duarte pressed his thumb and first two fingers together and started to kiss his finger tips as he looked up to the sky. Once the anchor was up, Duarte with a big grin on his face pointed toward the direction we needed and Felix who had an even bigger grin on his face slipped the engine in gear and we began to move.

Threepenny Opera is equipped with a full suite of modern marine electronics. There is radar, chart plotter, AIS-B, redundant GPS, redundant electronic compasses, auto-pilot and multiple computer back-ups, but here were two guys, who only hours earlier were ready to row out to catch lunch, driving my boat with only their eyes and experience to guide them. Despite the chop and the drizzle, Duarte pointed and Felix steered us unerringly across the sand bars into a deep but protected anchorage about 100 meters from their dock. When it came time to drop the hook, Duarte genuflected, looked to the sky and pressed the down foot pedal for the windlass and Felix backed on the chain as if they had been on the boat for years. It was a humbling experience.

After the boat was secured we all piled back into the dinghy and headed for shore as we could hear Dariel  banging on a gong to call the monkeys to dinner. As we approached the dock we could see that what looked to me like small bushes from a distance were actually small groups of monkeys huddled close to the ground, stuffing their faces with the food pellets that were being distributed by Dariel. There were hundreds of monkeys, some old and solitary, others younger and many were females carrying their babies. It was an incredible sight for someone who had only ever seen monkeys in pens and cages at various zoos. After about 30 minutes of almost frenzied feeding, the monkeys sated with their evening meal, dispersed and headed back towards the trees.

With only a few tails still visible in the scrub bush, Pat and I prepared to leave and as we walked back towards the dinghy, Felix came running up with a gift for us. To fill his time during his month of the island, he would gather small shells and glue bits together to form sculptures and collages that he would then take back to Isla to sell to the few tourists that came to the area. The pieces that he had were not very large, but each would have been sold for about $2 a very large sum relative to the $15 per month he was paid by the government for his month of monkey keeping. We were touched, and as we rode back to Threepenny Opera in silence, I reflected on the amazing generosity of the people we had met. They had very little to give, yet they were perfectly willing to go out of their way to share what little they had with total strangers. Those who look at Cuba from afar or from behind the gates of a 5 star resort will often comment on how poor the country is, but from this cruisers perspective they may not have a lot of money, but in other ways they are richer than many of us in developed nations have been for a very long time.

We will leave here in the morning to continue our journey down the archipelago before heading north east across open ocean to the city of Cienfuegos. From there we will re supply and start on the last quarter of our circumnavigation of Cuba.

Have a great week, I know I will.
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helmut and carol said...

Wow, another amazing story! Feel like we were there with you. Can't wait for the next installment!

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Wow, what a great post! This is the kinda stuff that makes us anxious to cruise next year! Good people, good food, beautiful places and great adventure!

Love the pictures too!

Going to share your link on our Facebook page ... more of us Americans need a glimpse of Cuba! I hope we can sail there safely some day ... Looks gorgeous!

Goes to show some of the happiest people have the least amount of money! Those guys look like they're having a great time. Not a bad way to earn a living!

Jonathan said...

Truly wonderful post, Addison. Thanks very much. Looking forward to reading about the last quarter of the circumnavigation. Will you be going back this year?