Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Avoid the Rocks

*Note: The author has changed some names and/or locations to protect those individuals residing in Cuba.

Emilio (R) smokes a cigarette after a day spent hunting octopus.

“You’ve gone snorkeling before, right?”

Yes, I had gone snorkeling before: as a child, in swimming pools and backwoods ponds, and as an adult, in still reef waters where you might as well be sleeping on a cushion of air. I had not, however, been snorkeling in Mariel. On this day, my cousin Emilio and I would join two family friends in the Cuban seaside town, on a mission to hunt octopus which would later be sold for ceviche on Cuba’s ever-expanding black market. In a nation where the average state salary often rings in at around 250 pesos-a-month (about $10), enterprising Cubans have found a raft of ways to support their households. Some skim off the profits of state-run stores, others run illegal taxis (boteros) and still others sell illegal lobster - or in our case, octopus - to visiting tourists and Cubans alike.

We arrived at the point of embarkation about noon, making our way down a winding and rather desolate dirt road that skirted alongside Mariel’s rocky coastline. Tall weeds danced in the breeze on either side of Emilio’s Muskovitch as the clouds above continued to dissipate following the previous night's rainstorm. We lurched to a rather abrupt halt outside a small house that sat no more than ten yards from the waters of the Caribbean Ocean. Lazaro and his 22-year-old son Danilo, friends of my Cuban family, had invited us on the hunt and greeted us with a couple of cold Bucaneros (Cuba’s answer to Budweiser) as we stepped out of the car.

Now, at this point I feel I should describe my rather unimpressive nautical abilities. I grew up in rural Connecticut. Yes, it’s true that I lived near the shores of the Long Island Sound but, the sound’s frigid waters aren’t exactly what you’d call “inviting” and I never bothered swimming in it all that often. I can swim but I’m no Greg Louganis (yes I realize he’s more of a diver than a swimmer). As we donned our flippers and goggles, I did everything possible to hide my fear. The fact is, octopi live in rocky waters, where they can hide amid holes in the sea-floor. Last night’s thunderstorm had left the ocean in a very turbulent state. As a result, I couldn’t help but imagine my skinny body being slammed into razor sharp corals by rogue waves. I asked Emilio about how far out we’d have to swim in order to find our prey. “No more than a few hundred meters” came Emilio’s reply. Great.

Our equipment was about as simple as it gets. A coat hanger fashioned into a hook, complete with wooden handle would be used to poke around in whatever holes we came across on the sea-floor. The idea was to snag an octopus with this thing and then race up to the surface before running out of air. At that point, our prey would be attached to a long line of hooks bobbing on the surface thanks to several empty soda bottles. One of us would tow the line in behind the hunters.

Photo: Lazaro stands beside a pile of fresh octopus. In the foreground rests the makeshift hook used to hunt the creatures.

The swim out to the hunting grounds was arduous to say the least. Struggling against the current, I sapped my strength after the first 15 minutes, at which point, Emilio asked if I needed to go back. That’s when the “machismo” kicked in. “Of course not. Why, are you tired?” I was a bit worried these guys would mistake me for a “mariquita,” a Cuban term roughly translating to “sissy.” Emilio cocked his head as if to say “oh, OK, sorry about that” and sped off ahead of me. After what seemed like an entire day of swimming, we had arrived at our target area. I turned around and noticed the town of Mariel had become so tiny in the distance that I could no longer make out individual figures strolling along the shoreline. No boat. No life jacket. Nothing. I was experiencing a rather odd sort of jubilant terror.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the four of us took turns diving to the sea-floor. My first attempts were feeble to say the least but finally, after the fourth or fifth attempt, I broke the surface with an octopus wrapped firmly around my hand. Emilio grabbed, disemboweled and hooked it to our towline in one fell swoop. We had brought up well over a dozen octopi and the sky seemed to be changing rather rapidly. With that, we made the decision to head back to dry land.

Getting back to shore was full of its own hazards. Although we were swimming with the current - and thus exerting less energy - the remnant waves kicked up from the previous night’s thunderstorm would pick me up and slam me down at regular intervals, leaving my face mere inches from the rocky seabed. As if that weren’t enough, I had to be mindful of my heading. Emilio had stressed the importance of staying right behind Danilo, who knew the exact route necessary to take in order to avoid a wide variety of submerged obstacles. The closer to shore I got, the closer my nose came to the rocks beneath me with each passing wave until finally, I was able to extend by arms and grab hold of terra-firma. As I righted myself in the rolling surf I caught a glimpse of Danilo’s wife, seated on the family patio. Beside her sat several cold Bucaneros. My Bucaneros. I’ll be damned if I hadn’t earned them.

Photo: After the hunt, Danilo washes the salt water off his body as Emilio looks on.

That evening, as the temperature dropped into the mid-seventies and the sun disappeared below the horizon, four men sat together gutting octopus bodies while sharing stories of conquered women and terrific hangovers. Tired and hungry from the hunt, we decided against selling our bounty, opting to coat it in salt and citrus juice for our own consumption. The following day would involve even more swimming, this time in search of conch, and I’d need to pack in the calories if I wanted to conquer the waves. God forbid these guys should think I was a mariquita.


Dave said...

Yeah, I have to say, I'd be the biggest mariquita out there ... Actually, that's completely untrue. I'd just drown.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to consider that in Cuba (an island), it is prohibited for citizens to purchase lobster. Great piece of writing on octopus wrangling!

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