Never swim alone. It’s one of my most certain rules and I was breaking it. Not that the body of water looked ominous. The waves, such as they were, were no impediment to walking in the water. And it was shallow enough to walk out hundreds of yards to a point where I could finally bend down to swim. Still no one was on the beach at Playa Larga, not even the young man who had sold me the rights to a faded, cracked plastic chaise the day before. (This is a beach for Cubans not tourists to judge by the quality of the accommodations.) The never-swim-alone rule acknowledges a lifetime of surprises bodies of water have dragged me into.
Playa Larga, on the Caribbean side of Cuba, is not far from Playa Girón where the invasion of the Bay of Pigs played out. The father of one of our guides, a hero of the 26th of July Movement, died flying a B-26 bomber to attack a CIA-sponsored transport ship. Father and son never met.
My fellow birders and I were there because of its proximity to the Zapata swamp and other wildlife preserves. It seems birding sites and the history of the Cuban revolution have a lot of land in common. We traveled to the UNESCO protected areas in Viñales Valley in the Pinar del Rio region, one of the more fertile parts of Cuba according to the socialist billboard proclamations. Tobacco is grown here using traditional methods, to wit oxen and hand picking of leaves. Our intrepid bus driver maneuvered our Chinese tour bus along Soviet built now washed out roads that ran straight up limestone outcroppings called mogotes. Che headquartered here during the missile crisis. Caves carved by the San Diego River allowed for the hiding of weapons and personnel. We had some fine sightings of endemic birds, such as the Cuban Solitaire and Cuban Trogon.
I don’t remember much about the invasion and the subsequent missile crisis even though I was, as a junior in high school, of an age to be aware. Being in Cuba revealed my ignorance. When I got home I checked Wikipedia’s article on the invasion.
I recommend listening to all 17 minutes of President John Kennedy’s 22 October 1962 radio address on the buildup of arms in Cuba. It’s always touching to hear his flat “a”s; but it is also remarkable how rich and precise his language was, how complex and rapidly delivered his ideas were. Kennedy was 13 months from an assassin’s bullet. Now that day I remember down to the sturdy, blond wood of the high school library table on which I rested my head to cry on hearing the unbelievable news over the public announcement system.
Before we left Havana for our journey to the countryside, the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, stopped by to see the Castro brothers and the newly re-elected but not yet sworn in president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. She and we were both staying at the Hotel Nacional, the home-away-from home designed by McKim, Mead and White for a long list of celebrities and out the only luxury hotel on our itinerary. Chavez was staying in a Cuban hospital, his home-away-from home, following repeated surgeries for cancer. Venezuela provides subsidized oil to Cuba in exchange for medical services both in Venezuela and in Cuba.
The day we flew out of Havana, the country removed the requirement of an exit permit for Cubans to travel abroad. An Economist article in describing the new policy, features a blogger Yoani Sánchez, who doubted she’d be included in the new liberty because of her outspokenness. Reading a few of her blog entries is a reminder that tourists had better not generalize about other cultures from the mores of their own!
Also I won’t speculate as to why so many people stand along to roads hoping for a ride or why about half of the vehicles on the roads are home-made buggies drawn by small, high stepping horses. Or how productive the young man with two oxen, a sled, and a barrel were at hauling water. You can look at the photos. You’ll see houses have electrical power and TV antennas. We were told every Cuban has a refrigerator, a washing machine and a TV.
But I’ve wandered away from the salty turquoise water in the cove at the top of the Bay of Pigs where I bobbed around while giving a few people time to gather on the beach and rent lounge chairs. Needless to say, I survived my encounter with the Bay of Pigs. I’ve put some 23 birds endemic to Cuba on my bird list and pay more attention to news about Cuba.