The cruise back to Port covered calm seas, we crossed the Bay of Pigs and arrived in Zapata as the last rays of orange light settled into the western sky. Another 6 hour boat ride, this one quieter than the first.
I spent a few hours on the top deck with Mike Nelson, in the breeze, socially distant, exceeding 10 feet. He was calm and seemingly unaffected by the quarantine. Mike’s a world traveler with a sound understanding of Latin American countryisms. He told me about the time his family (wife & 2 teenage boys) drove in a Toyota pickup from Bozeman to Argentina. His wife, an Argentine, has been instrumental in Mike’s command of the Spanish language. No one in our angling group could possibly have been better prepared than Mike for the strange odyssey that awaited him in port. His goal of searching for tailing Permit on a Cuban flat had been squelched. This guy didn’t seem to mind, he was living life for the minute, meditating on the top deck when the rest of us fished.
Later that night, after the ship’s crew set anchor we all slept poorly. The boat was rolling a good deal more than we had experienced off of Cayo Largo. With a front moving in seas were restless and the ship was just far enough outside of the harbor to be exposed to the motion of wind and small waves. The ship’s thick braided lines rubbed loudly against her rails as we laid in our cabins. It sounded to me like a slow saw grinding the vessel’s cleats.
On Saturday morning we gathered at the breakfast table, freshly cut pineapple (white, not yet ripe, not yet sweet, the same every morning) canned peaches, freshly cut papaya (perfect, ripe, sweet, juicy) toast, sliced ham and a big bowl of oatmeal with raisins. I ordered eggs, over easy and asked for a cup of Cuban coffee which came from the kitchen, not the brewer in the dining salon. The Cuban coffee was hot, my eggs were cooked perfectly, the room was quieter than usual.
After breakfast, I headed for the main salon to visit the ship’s doctor. Covid testing was required; we all had to have a negative PCR test to disembark. Anxiety filled the air, what was Mike’s test going to read? How would my test come out, was there a correlation between the two?
My test results were negative. The lineup behind me followed suit, everyone on the boat except for Mike had a negative PCR covid document. Mike’s official document read positive.
As we stepped off the ship there was a commissioner from the region’s board of health on the bulkhead ready to receive Mike and deliver him to a quarantine facility about 2 hours outside of Havana. A few days later I received a note from Mike, he’d tested negative after 24 hours in that hospital and returned to Montana 2 days later. In his email he thanked me for sharing concern for his situation, he said he was happy to be at home, and appropriately “what a pain in the ass that was”. While Simbo’s Permit and his huge smile in the photo made my trip, Mike’s response to my note stands as a good reminder that we all can see a silver lining in every experience “Not sure what to make of it all but it was nice to get to know you” he went on to say.
The bus trip to Havana went smoothly, again very little traffic. Occasionally I watched old Chevys and Willys Jeeps, packed with people passing a few horse-drawn carriages scattered along the highway. On arrival we checked into the same Hotel, reached out to Yanier and made plans for the next day.
That afternoon Simbo drifted into a long nap and I stood at the window in our 3rd floor room, watching huge waves break against the wall bordering one of Havana’s main boulevards. The weather would have made it tough to fish, our timing was fortuitous. The buildings surrounding my view of the sea were crumbling, some more than others. One, across the street, had a swimming pool the size of a football field, with an ocean view over a monument that was occupied by half a dozen Cuban teens on skateboards. The pool sits empty, windows in some of the rooms are covered with bed sheets, the 20 story building, painted in a light coral green had very few lights on as dusk turned to night, at 6:30 CL was still sleeping.
After dark we caught a taxi and headed to Old Havana. The driver took us to Floridita, a bar famously regarded as Hemingway’s favorite. Not sure if it was a good choice for dinner, but it seemed a great spot to start. Old Havana after dark feels exotic, the streets are almost deserted even on a Saturday night. The back seat of the 55 Chevy Bel Air was stiff, well worn, customized by years of patchwork repairs. Every cobblestone the old cruiser crossed seemed to vibrate through my spine, not an uncomfortable situation, it just added to the authenticity of the ride. We gave him $20 American, which pleased him.
On arrival at Floridita the doorman looked over us, no enthusiasm or emotion just a nod and a twitch, his eyes rotated to the door. We took his motion as confirmation that we could cross the threshold and enter the vibrant room. There was a 6 foot tall Havana Club martini glass to our right and a 5 piece band in full swing to the left against the wall, the center of attention.
As we entered the warm room it felt cool, a Cuban jazz vibe rolled over us. The lead singer stood before a microphone, shaking maracas while whispering Latin verses along with a guitar player, bass, drummer and a horn. The bars 20 seat rail was full, women in colorful cotton dresses and men in straw hats some sitting, most swaying and dancing to the vibrant music.
There was a small, empty crescent shaped 2 top on a banquette in the middle of the room, our waiter dressed in a white coat with red bow tie motioned for us to sit. The room was full, it’s last open table was ours.
Simbo liked it, I could tell by the twinkle in his eye. Both of us sat on the long red leatherette bench, a group of local couples to his right, 2 tourists like us to my left. We ordered 2 daiquiris without rum. They were served after a few minutes in tall martini glasses, just like the big one near the entrance.
As the band ended their set the lead singer put down his shakers, took off his hat and began to pass it from table to table and it quickly filled with pesos.
Since we were short on Cuban currency I put a $20 American on top of the pile, it didn’t go any further. The fellow smiled, made eye contact and quickly passed the bill off to the drummer.
While we waited for the daiquiris, the guy next to me leaned over, in a strong British accent he asked if we were Americans. I looked at him, checking out the bright soccer shirt, orange shorts and pink Puma’s he was wearing and said “Yes, I’m from New York, my friend’s from Florida”. He looked at me, I looked at him, it was a little awkward. Then he leaned in and in a hushed tone he said “No shit, you stick out like a sore thumb in here”. Wow, that was odd. It must have been the $20 bill that gave us away.
A few minutes went by, uneasy silence. No music, Cuban chatter and laughter filled the room. Then my new friend Gerard leaned over again, this time a little louder and with a big smile he said “So you must be CIA, it’s so fucking obvious they should teach you guys to dress a bit more discreetly”. I chose to ignore him but he kept coming “You know here in Cuba you’re basically guilty until proven innocent, you could turn a corner and step into a jackpot and nobody’s here to help”. Nervously, I took a sip of my virgin daiquiri. He wasn’t done. “You don’t even have an embassy, no way to make a phone call, are you nuts?”
The band started up again, this time with a female lead. The crowd livened up and Floridita was back on track, electric. We stayed until our drinks ran dry. Simbo wanted another, but I was ready to go. After the 3rd song in the set we paid our tab and made way to the door. I think CL was a little bummed, my interest in Havana nightlife had faded, perhaps for the better.