April 2011

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Keko, the Cuban Buddha

Greg casting for bonefish in the shallows. Photos by David Lansing.

It is funny about fishing. There are days when the conditions are perfect—the proper tides, no wind, the fish easy to spot—and yet you catch nothing. The ocean just goes quiet and there’s nothing you can do about it. The good guides, like Keko, take fishing as personally as we do and on those days when nothing happens they feel as if they have let you down, as if, for some reason, it was their fault that the fish did not come.

“I am sorry, my friend,” Keko will say when we get back to the Avalon, sheepishly looking down as he mops up the salt water that has slopped into the skiff.

Then I will put my hand on his shoulder and tell him, no, he has nothing to be sorry for, that the day was as beautiful as any day we have ever fished and just to be out on the water and see the osprey diving and the turtles rising to the surface next to the boat was as fine as it could be and it was just bad luck that we could not find the fish. Certainly they were out there somewhere, just not where we looked.

And then there are days like yesterday.

It is a mystery how the guides know where to go every morning. I have talked to Keko about it and he has told me about the tide going in or out, about the clouds in the sky and whether the wind is coming from the south or the north, but it is still a mystery. It is just that they have spent so many years out here in the mangroves and islands of the Jardines de la Reina that they can tell you, almost to the day, when the tarpon migration has begun and where the schools of very large bonefish, many over five pounds, are running, and where the permit are sucking on small crabs on the sandy bottom. It is a mystery, a wonderful, wonderful mystery and I would give anything to speak the language of the Jardines the way they do.

Last night at dinner, Idelvis, who we call Elvis, told us that there would be winds in the morning but it would be calm by noon so it was best if went diving first and then fishing mid-morning. Because of an ear problem I do not dive so I slept in a bit, enjoying the morning and my solitude on the boat, reading a bit and drinking my coffee. Around eleven, everyone else came back to the boat. They were excited from their dive. They’d seen many lemon sharks and large rays and some cubera snappers that they said were easily over a hundred pounds.

Keko, the Cuban Buddha, poling in the shallows.

But now, just as Elvis had predicted, the winds had died and we were all anxious to go out fishing. Again Greg and I were the first to be ready and we commandeered Keko and were off while the others were still scrambling to find their gear and change out of their wetsuits. Every day fishing is different. Sometimes you might run along the shoreline that ends in the point with the lighthouse and sometimes you zig and zag through the mangroves looking for a particular backwater, but this morning we went out past the reef into the deep water that is almost the dense color of India ink, and ran south, parallel to the shore, for almost twenty minutes. Suddenly Keko slowed the skiff and pointed the boat towards the shore, killing the engine once he saw the turtle grass beneath us. The water here was no more than two feet deep.

As he started to pole the skiff in the shallow water, Greg pulled his bonefish rod out of the holder on the side of the boat, but Keko told him to wait. He poled for a good ten or fifteen minutes, us just sitting in the boat looking closely out over the water through our polarized glasses, hoping to pick up the dark shapes of bones or see their silver fins roiling in the water. We saw nothing.

Then Keko stopped and dug the long black fiberglass pole into the sandy bottom, latching it with a short rope to the boat to keep us from drifting. “Okay, my friend, you get out,” he said to Greg. Greg looked at me and I shrugged. Neither one of us had any idea what Keko was up to. Greg slipped on his wading shoes and put his fly-box in his pant pocket and got out of the skiff carrying his #7 rod in one hand and the end of the line in the other. Keko told him exactly where to go, moving him three feet this way and two feet that way until he had him right where he wanted him. Then he told me to get up on the front of the boat and cast directly in front of me. “Short cast. No long. Five meters all.” Then he turned his attention to Greg and told him to cast to his left, “Long cast…maybe fifteen meters.”

Neither one of us could see any bones but we did what Keko asked us to do. “More longer,” Keko told Greg and he tossed his fly a little bit further and almost immediately hooked up. “Very good!” Keko said. “Big bone!”

Usually in a situation like this the other person would stop casting for fear of fouling their line with the running bone, but Keko told me to cast again and when I did, I hooked up as well. We both had bones on the line, running in opposite directions, the line singing and us playfully admonishing the other to stay out of our way. Greg brought his in first and, as Keko had said, it was a good-sized bone, at least five pounds. Mine was just as big. For the next two hours we stayed in the same place, both of us fishing at the same time, which is always a joy, and in the end, Greg caught eight bonefish and I brought in six. We had lost just as many. We were both so exhausted from the constant casting that when it was over we just sat in the boat breathing heavily and drinking cold Cristals and not talking. Keko was laughing at us. “Good fishing?” he asked rhetorically. “The most amazing fishing ever,” Greg said. And he was right.

The Ends of the Day

As we made our way back to Avalon I, we came across Fletch and Nick wading in the shallows. Their guide, Jimmi, was fishing with Nick and Fletch was maybe a hundred or so feet in front of them fishing by himself. It is a thing of beauty to watch Fletch fish, particularly when he is out of the boat and standing in knee-deep water throwing a line sixty or seventy feet. There is an ease in his body and a natural rhythm to his movements that you see in any natural athlete no matter the sport. When he is standing on the nose of a skiff fly-fishing he can sometimes look awkward and stiff, but when he is by himself in the water he is as natural a fisherman as a white egret. Sometimes when I am with him and I am also standing in the shallows fishing, maybe only fifty feet away, I will stop and watch him the way one would stop and watch a great basketball player if they were shooting hoops by themselves on a school-yard lot.

When Jimmi saw us slowly passing by he got on the skiff’s 2-way and had a garbled conversation with Keko. Even if you know Spanish well it is almost impossible to tell what the guides say to each other over the 2-way radios. Maybe they speak in code or perhaps they just have their own separate language, like twin babies. I do not know. I just know no one else can understand them.

Fletch and Nick with the lobster Jimmi caught. Photo by David Lansing.

After the conversation, Jimmi went running back down the beach, away from us, and Fletch and Nick waded over to our boat. We gave them a hand and they climbed in. Nick said that while he and Jimmi were fishing together a large lobster had scooted by next to their feet and Jimmi had reached down and grabbed it and then stashed it somewhere in the shallows weighted down by some stones. That is why he’d gone running back down the beach. To retrieve the lobster.

We told them how Greg and I had each caught a single bonefish, how they were good size, as good as you could wish for on your first day in the Jardines, and Nick, who had never been saltwater fly-fishing before, told us how he’d hooked a couple of bonefish himself but hadn’t been able to land them. Still, he didn’t seem the least bit upset about it. I think he was happy just to be here fishing with us and to have seen the fish and to have been able to properly get several of them to take the fly. We had only been in the Jardines for a few hours and we had the entire week ahead of us so it was not important whether you caught anything or not today. That would come. For now it was enough just to be out on the water with the fish running and the sun slowly setting off on the horizon.

Fletch had actually caught two bonefish fishing by himself. He’d also seen many tarpon and had hooked three of them but, because of nerves, had held the rod too high and not put the end down on the water as you have to do when the tarpon jump and had lost them. Like Nick, he wasn’t upset about losing the fish either. It was an extraordinary afternoon, the weather as good as one could hope for with almost no wind and there was no need to worry about losing a few fish. It was not important.

Once Fletch and Nick were in the boat with their rods, we pushed off from the shallows and motored along the beach until we saw Jimmi. He waded out to us and handed the lobster he’d caught to Nick. It was a good-sized lobster, missing its antennas, perhaps when Jimmi had caught it or perhaps from the way he’d trapped it afterwards. We motored back to Jimmi’s skiff and Fletch and Nick and Jimmi got out and then, just as the sun was disappearing into the ocean, we all headed back to Avalon I.

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Fishing the Jardines

Greg brings in a bonefish just before sunset. Photo by David Lansing.

By the time we anchored Saturday afternoon it was close to four o’clock. That doesn’t leave much time for fishing, but there is just something about that first day on the water—the crispness of the air, the golden color of the light, the song of waves slapping the boat—that makes you want to get out there and toss a fly even if you don’t catch anything.

I’d asked Keko, the Saltwater Fly-fishing Buddha God, to rig my gear for bonefishing while we were still traveling out to the Jardines de la Reina. He’d tested the line and put on a new leader and tightened the drag. He asked for my box of flies and I gave them to him, silently remonstrating myself for not getting new flies for this trip or at least sharpening the hooks of my old ones. There is nothing worse than hooking into a fish and then loosing them before they get to the boat because the hook is dull or the line frayed.

Greg is even more conscientious about his equipment than I am and he was also ready to go the minute Eric, the Avalon’s captain, turned off the engines, so the two of us partnered up and gathered our bone rods and a single tarpon rod along with our fly boxes and tack gear and climbed into Keko’s Dolphin skiff, waving to the others on the stern of the boat as they scrambled looking for rods and hats and cameras. I like being the first away that first afternoon. There is no advantage to it; fly-fishing is about skill but it is also about luck and it was quite possible that we’d be the first to toss a fly at a bonefish and the last to catch one. You could never tell. Still, just the thought of being the first ones on the water and knowing that, even if only for 15 or 20 minutes, we had all of the Jardines to ourselves was invigorating.

I have been here before. Many times. Still, it is always as if it were for the first time. You can always remember the feel of flying through the shallow water of the mangroves in the skiff and the smell of saltwater spray and the beauty of watching a blue heron rise up out of the shallows and gracefully fly next to the skiff for three or four minutes before veering back into the shelter of the mangroves, but those are just memories. It’s like remembering Christmas three years ago. You can almost certainly do it, but it is not the same as when you are there and you are living it. And that’s the way Greg and I felt. We were there in the moment.

Neither one of us spoke. I was sitting towards the rear of the skiff next to Keko and Greg was sitting up front in the jump seat and he might turn his head back towards me as an osprey dove into the water, just to make sure I’d seen it, and I would nod and smile and he would smile back and there was no need for words about what we had just seen or how we felt about it.

While the first afternoon of fishing is always the most lovely, it is not always the most successful. There is the fear when Keko spots the first school of approaching bonefish and tells you to cast “eleven o’clock, fifteen meters…more right, more right, my friend” that you will only get the line out ten meters or you will throw the fly on top of the bonefish, spooking them, or worse yet, you will have forgotten how to bring the line back behind your head smoothly and easily, waiting for the line to load, and instead you will rush it, lofting the fly up into the air where it will puddle and drop straight down like a snowflake just feet in front of you.

This is what you fear and you fear it for good reason because no matter how good a fly-fisherman you are and how easily you made this same cast the last time you were in the Jardines, that was then and this is now and your muscle memory seems to have forgotten everything it learned before and it betrays you in ways you could not imagine. And then it is up to Keko to be patient and calm you down and help you get back in to your rhythm.

“My friend…listen to me…tranquilo. Tranquilo. Try again.”

And it does get better. But it takes awhile. And meanwhile you’ve scared away the largest school of bonefish you’ve ever seen in your life and not come close to casting properly at several others that swam by oblivious of your attempts to present them with a suitable fly and now the sun is just holding up over the horizon waiting for you to do something, to catch that first bone, so all of you can call it a day.

And then it happened. Quickly, unexpectedly. Keko spotted a bonefish 15 or 20 meters to the left of the boat, towards shore, and Greg had to cast as far as he possibly could, into the wind that was blowing lightly off from the islands, and he stripped the line and there it was, the hit, and Keko was yelling, “Bonefish! Big one!” and the fish ran and Greg took his hand off the reel and let the line go out, badly afraid that the fish would wrap the line around the coral or just snap it off, but reminding himself to keep his pole up, pointed at the fish at it ran, turning him around when he was taking out too much line, quickly reeling in when the bone tried to catch his breath, letting it run again, far, far, farther, until he was sure that he’d run out of line, and just then the bone stopping and Greg able to reel in as fast as he could, the tip of the rod high, and then it was at the boat and Keko was lifting it up and into Greg’s hand.

Our first catch.

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Three years ago when we came to Cuba, we asked our guides what we could bring them if we came back the following year. Their answer: Baseball equipment. All the guides had kids who played baseball, but, they told us, it was very, very hard to buy the equipment in the little towns where they lived. I mean, they couldn’t just go down to the local sporting goods store and get their kid a mitt or a bat because, well, there were no sporting goods stores.

So the next year, Chris Fletcher bought a bunch of baseball equipment and we split it up amongst three of us and hauled it over there in duffel bags and handed it out at the end of the trip. That was great. But when we saw the looks on the faces of the other staff members of the boat who also had kids and hadn’t gotten a Yankee cap or a brand-new baseball, well, we kind of felt bad about it.

This year, Mr. Fletcher, who is surely one of the most generous and caring individuals I’ve ever met in my life, again organized Operation: Cuban Béisbol. A few weeks ago he called me up and asked if I’d mind taking some of the equipment over and so I stopped by his house and looked at all the new gear that he had spread across his pool table. There were a dozen gloves, two dozen baseball caps (evenly split between the Yankees and Boston), half a dozen metal bats, and three batting helmets. It was amazing. I managed to jam two of the bats into my plastic fishing rod carrier and filled a duffel bag with a box of baseballs, a couple of gloves, and half of the hats. Fletch filled another duffel with equipment and then recruited another member of our group, Greg Geiser, to carry the rest.

This time we organized the give-away much differently. Instead of waiting until the end of the trip and handing stuff out to each guide, we called everybody up to the second deck and just took all of the equipment out of our duffels and spread it across the teak table.

“This is for all of you,” Fletch said. “The entire staff. You guys figure out how to divide it up.”

It was a brilliant maneuver. The guides, of course, were stoked to see all of the new baseball equipment that they would be bringing back to their sons and daughters at the end of the trip (How great for dad to come home after being out on a fishing boat for a week and walking in the door and not only getting lots of hugs and kisses from his kids but then be able to say, “And look what I brought you!” and give them a new bat or a glove.)

It was fun for us, too. The guides were very appreciative. But so was the rest of the staff, including the only woman on the boat, Suliet, who has a 3-year-old who is just starting to learn to play catch with his dad. One of the boxes of balls Fletch brought were the soft balls for smaller kids and Suliet couldn’t wait to give him one and a Yankees cap. After we’d distributed all of the gear on the table, the guides scooped it up and took it back to the crew quarters and we could see them, through the pass window, excitedly looking everything over and swapping equipment with each other, trying to decide who would get a glove or a batting helmet or a bat. The best part was that there are nine crew members so everyone got both a Yankee and a Boston cap and everyone also got a couple of baseballs.

Later in the day, Suliet came out and personally thanked me for the equipment. I told her I was just a carrier and that Fletch was responsible for the idea and for procuring everything. She was very moved by this. “And what can we do to thank you for this?” she asked me. I told her the only thing we would really love is if they would take pictures of their kids actually using the equipment at home or in a game and e-mail them to us (a few of the staff, including Suliet, have limited web access and e-mail accounts). “I will do this,” Suliet said. “I promise.”

I’m looking forward to getting those photos.

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Well, I told you Greg would come up with another idea on how to find Nancy Jimenez and he did. On the long early morning bus ride to the port down of Jucaro, we were talking with one of the Cuban organizers of our fishing adventure, Antonio, and Greg was telling him all about our futile search for Diego’s friend and wondering what else he could do to find this woman.

“It would be very easy to find her,” Antonio said. “Everything in Cuba is documented—where you live, where you work, where you go to school. You just have to know the right people to get the information.”

So how do I find the right people? Greg asked.

Antonio shrugged. “My father could do it.”

It turns out that Antonio’s father did some very secretive stuff in Cuba for decades. He’s retired now but he used to be a psychiatrist and his job was to analyze Cubans who the government was thinking of training to be spies. “He would do character profiles of spies to see if they would be a good match to work in the U.S. or Europe or wherever.”

How many spies did he end up sending to the States? we asked him.

Antonio shrugged. “Dozens,” he said.

Anyway, Antonio’s dad is retired now but Antonio said he still had all of his connections and knew how to find people in Cuba. With the information Greg had already given him—her name and former address—he thought his dad could find Nancy Jimenez is just a few days. So Greg gave Antonio something like a hundred dollars to give to his dad as a down-payment on doing a little private investigating for him. We’ll see what happens.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that when we first got to Havana late on a Thursday night, Antonio was waiting for us at the airport. He said he had some bad news and some good news. The bad news was that the hotel we had paid for and expected to stay in, the Saratoga, was over-booked and they had had to move us to the Parque Central. The good news was that to make up for this booking mistake, we’d been upgraded to a better boat while fishing. We would be on their newest boat, Avalon I. We’d fished from the Halcon for three years and had always been happy with it. It was an old boat, yes, but very masculine and perfectly suitable (except for the toilets which were always getting blocked). When we didn’t show any outward joy at being assigned to the Avalon I, Antonio said, “My friends, you must trust me. You are going to love this boat.”

Well, Antonio turned out to be right. The Avalon I was a major upgrade. Not only was it newer but it was also much larger. Each of us was given our own stateroom with our own bathroom and shower and there was a wonderful general area on the second deck with wicker chairs and a large teak table where we would take our meals and a bar in the corner where we could mix up our mojitos at the end of the day. We drew straws for the rooms since some had queen beds and others were singles and I got one of the smaller rooms but it didn’t matter. It still seemed luxurious compared to quarters on the Halcon.

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