My first encounter with Cuba was back in 1959 in Princeton. I was 13 and, for about a week, I had a mad crush on Fidel Castro. I wasn’t the only one — we all adored him. It was just three months after Castro had liberated Cuba from Fulgencio Batista. He was invited to Princeton to give a talk, and I remember standing in a throng of spectators on Nassau Street, screaming “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” as if Elvis were passing by.
But then, just as suddenly, our love soured and, for the next 55 years, like most Americans, I encountered Cuba as a series of grisly blips — Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, Elian Gonzalez, Guantanamo Bay (then recently some positives — the film, Buena Vista Social Club, and the signing of first baseman José Abreu by the White Sox).
So, in 1960, Cuba became a black hole, country just 90 miles from Key West, Florida, as large as Pennsylvania with more than 11 million people, for years known for the exploits of Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and wealthy, party-loving Americans.
Now, I’m glad to say, that’s changing. And I have my second mad Cuban crush on the whole country.
I spent almost two weeks in Cuba in January participating in a bird survey sponsored by the Caribbean Conservation Trust which has a special license to conduct Cuban tours in aid of bird conservation.
Fifteen people participated, five from the Princeton area, others from Illinois and Miami. We were a mixed bag of birders, from neophyte to expert. The Princeton crew was in the former group: Susan McCoy Miles, Caren Sturges, Casey and Sam Lambert and myself. Susan is the keenest among us. Before going to her office in the morning (she’s a medical doctor), she tests herself on bird identification in the woods near her house.
Over 380 species of birds have been recorded in Cuba (compared to 900-plus in our 50 states), and our guides were determined to show us every one of them.
We stayed in eight hotels throughout the western half of Cuba. Everyday, we scoured national parks, wetlands, natural preserves, UNESCO-declared biospheres, camping grounds, even an open sewage plant and crocodile farm.
We shuffled onto our bus before sunrise to catch an early morning Cuban grassquit or Zapata wren and staggered to bed at 10 p.m. after a night search through high grass for the Cuban nightjar. That bird eluded us for three long nights until it finally allowed us a glimpse. (I can hear him saying, “I really should show myself. Then this herd of large two-footed mammals would leave me alone.”)
The grassquit, wren and nightjar are among the 28 species endemic to Cuba, meaning they are known only on the island. Endemics include such celebrities as the Cuban trogon, Cuba’s national bird which bears the red, white and blue colors of the flag, — and the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. A Cuban friend, whose family fled in the 1960’s, told me wistfully that, as a kid, he loved seeing the bee hummingbird in his backyard.
Why is Cuba so rich in bird life? For one thing, it’s on the migratory path between North and South America. For another, it has great biodiversity with 6,000-foot peaks, rain and cloud forests, grasslands, fields, lagoons, marshes, mangrove swamps, barrier islands and coastal scrubs.
In addition, and boding well for the future, about 22 percent of Cuba’s land is under some government protection, among the highest percent of any country according to World Commission on Protected Areas.
The mostly protected Zapata Peninsula, with its swamps and other wetlands was particularly lively and we saw 89 bird species in one day. The same day, we had lunch at a beachside eatery, snorkeled among coral reefs, and, later, after a lobster dinner, danced the night away.
In Cuba, everyone dances, so our whole reluctant group boogied and bumped along with our guides, waitresses and the chef. We almost forgot that all we had known about the Zapata Peninsula before this day was as the site of the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.
Beyond the beautiful landscapes and rich bird life, Cuba was full of surprises.
The old American cars really are fantastic and seem to make up half the vehicle population. In the early 1960’s, when the U.S. halted all trade with Cuba, the Cubans had to make do with what they had. The many American cars on the island were assigned to families and individuals who, still today, treasure, coddle, repair and patch these old cars.
A few Buicks, Chevys and Cadillacs, especially in Havana, look pristine. These often serve as taxis for tourists. Most of the old cars are a bit shaky but still move in great numbers on city and country roads. We saw both iconic 1950’s cars, and also Fords, Packards and Mercedes from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Apparently, Toyota and Kia parts keep the old cars running.
Mixed in with the old are newer cars, some familiar such as Peugeots, Hyundais, Fiats and some unfamiliar, Chinese Geelys and Russian Ladas. Everywhere were other common modes of transport: a bike taxi trolling for customers in Havana; a horse-drawn cart pulling up to a gas pump to get air in the wheels; a tractor-pulled wagon serving as a school bus; men riding horseback along the side of the highway.
Another surprise was how many tourists we met – Canadian, Danish, Dutch, English and French. It’s only Americans who are new to Cuba. Canadians and Europeans have been enjoying the sunny beaches, mountain hideaways, coral reefs, delightful weather and all-inclusive resorts for years.
When we stayed at one of these resorts (how many mojitos can you drink in one night?), a group of Canadians discovered we were from the United States and politely said, “Welcome to Cuba.” Then added, “But please don’t ruin it.”
Cubans are charming, cheerful, sophisticated and engaging. We all, at least the women, fell slightly in love with our guides. Yuri Napoles, our good looking, boyish tour guide who can sing every verse of every Beatles song, was full of good stories about Cuba, its terrific healthcare and educational systems, its history and its respect for all kinds of political systems. He laughingly said keeping us in line was like herding cats.
Our fulltime birding guide was Luis M. Diaz, a Ph.D. in herpetology (amphibians and reptiles) from Havana University. His knowledge of birds, bats, lizards and wildlife in general was unbounded and his enthusiasm infectious. We followed him across mountain tops and into swamps and stayed silent and still when he asked. When it came to say goodbye, we gave him a five-minute standing ovation.
Throughout the trip, we had expert local guides who were well educated, serious, insightful and articulate about birds, habitats and conservation. Thanks to one, Osmany, we had the company of a delightful pygmy owl through a half-mile of woods, while the owl and Osmany exchanged pygmy-owl calls.
We rarely talked about systems of government. As familiar as Cubans seem to us and as easy it was to relate to them, they have experienced a very different mindset from much of the rest of the world. Most are very proud of and comfortable with their socialist experiment.
I came away, however, with the feeling that many are ready for a change. For the first thirty years after the Revolution, when the Soviet Union supported Cuba, life was very good for the ordinary Cuban. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, times became very hard and Cuba is just recovering now.
Yuri, our guide, admitted to us that Cubans know very little about business. As proof, at one point someone mentioned the stock market. Yuri asked, “Stock market, what’s that?” Remember, this is the fellow who knows every Beatles song.
So, as I said, my second Cuban crush is in full gear. I plan a return trip soon.
By Mea Kaemmerlen, The Times of Trenton
Mea Kaemmerlen wrote a column entitled ‘Serendipity’ for The Times of Trenton for more than a decade before retiring from the column in 2011.