As a child chasing trout in the soggy Northwest with my grandmother, I learned about fishing and companionship. She taught me how to thread worms on hooks and how to view the world with political precision. Balancing the New York Times on her knees, she’d soak up the latest minutiae of the Watergate scandal while awaiting her prey. “Take that, Tricky Dick!” she’d suddenly bellow, rocking boats a mile away as she reeled in her hapless catch.
During Illinois teen-dom I led my girlfriends on an annual fishing trip to Wisconsin, where we revered nameless gray ponds and their sluggish bass as if they were divinity-kissed Rocky Mountain lakes filled with wily trout. Because our sensibilities were minted in the crucible of Watergate and divorce, we were cynical about the pillars of family and state. We were much more comfortable lionizing one another. We left behind our broken homes, and the clatter of adolescence receded to a dull hum as we created our own rituals. Adventure became a vehicle for independence and escape, and that ever undervalued currency of liberation: fun. Friendship trumped all else. Without knowing it, we were tilling some pretty serious Zen soil.
Fifteen years later, folded up in Seattle’s SeaTac airport on a drizzly predawn morning, negatively wired on fatigue and stress, it occurs to me that ambition has turned my Zen soil to mud. The bolt of clarity that struck in a Sumatran jungle and inspired a new career phase — to ditch desk life and travel the world creating the Adventure Divas television series — had long since faded. On this eve of landing in Cuba, with miles of red tape fluttering in my wake, I think that having fun has never been this hard before, and I wonder: Can adventure be institutionalized?
Shifting anxiously in the departure lounge, I tick through my bring-along list: passport (check), cash (check), attitude adjustment (I’m working on it). Ordinarily the sum total of essentials for any adventure ends here, but this time the list has lengthened considerably to include two cinematographers, a load of 16 mm film, a producer, and a sound person.
As we jog down the gangway, my stomach plummets. Oh my god. I’ve forgotten my fly rod. I’ve kept a rod in my trunk since I was 16, toted it across countless state lines, even continents. To what lapse of character, I ask myself, do I owe a blunder as serious as leaving behind my rod? Wailing over my stupidity, I turn to cinematographer Cheryl Dunn, the crew member I expect to be most simpatico. “Whatever,” she responds, with full-on New Yorker sympathy.
After two connecting flights we finally board the Yak 42 Soviet plane bound for the forbidden isle. The Yak is a chamber of chaos: broken seats, frayed seatbelts. Smoke billows around our legs on takeoff. I forget about the fly rod.
Once we arrive, we wander, immersing ourselves in Havana’s decayed opulence. One evening, over our usual dinner of chicken, beans, and rice, it occurs to me that there is water, water everywhere but I’ve yet to see fish on a menu. Our sound person, Pam, who is a walking encyclopedia, tells me, “When the Soviets evaporated and famine became a real threat here, Fidel tried to offset the cultural bias against eating fish by handing out fish recipes on slips of paper wherever he went. Didn’t work.”
The wheels start turning: If Cubans don’t eat much fish, and don’t sport-fish, then Cuba’s fish have been growing fat for the past three decades! No gringas like me, or Hemingway wannabees, overfishing the waters.
Cheryl, a lanky, dark, and insatiably curious fashion photographer/cinematographer from New York, queries me about my fishing fascination. “What exactly is the attraction?” she says with friendly sarcasm. “The five a.m. call time? The icy waters? The slime?”
At the risk of sounding like a hackneyed spiritual dilettante, I explain rhythm and meter, and angling’s strangely satisfying intellectual netherland. Boldly I wax poetic about the scrumptious pandemonium of the take, how worldly troubles slough away; the honor of tangoing with a primeval creature from another world. She looks at me blankly. “I respect your passion,” she says with a touch of pity, “but I don’t get it.” In most matters we are in sync, but our friendship is definitely still in the circling, sniffing stage.
Cheryl and I soon establish a pattern of occasional escape from the rest of our posse. On these happy adventuras we weave in and out of Havana’s potholed byways admiring the funky pre-revolutionary De Sotos and Edsels that chug through the city. Of our crew, Cheryl best lives the notion that work and play can be one and the same, and this spirit shows in her film. I watch her as she swings her Beaulieu like a maestro, celluloid soaking up the muted colors and gritty textures of Havana’s weathered buildings. She develops instant rapport with her subjects and ends up dancing with them as often as filming them. Cheryl shoots from the hip, literally, and I’m beginning to understand why Vogue magazine voted her New York’s most stylish fashion photographer a few years back (despite the fact that she’s a thrifter who won’t wear anything that costs more than $5). Her style comes from within. The crew stumbles through the tiring yet invigorating cultural dance that comes with hard travel. Some days we are broken down by adversity; then we rebuild into something stronger. Long, sweaty days end with whispered quotes to Cheryl from my Moon Handbook: “Cuba is a sleeper with fresh water lakes and lagoons that almost boil with tarpon, bonefish, snook and bass.”
“What,” Cheryl asks, pausing from writing in her journal, “is a snook?”
Weary after weeks of filming, I pull rank and, pleading crew respite, steer our road trip off course to Lake ZaZa. Cheryl tosses me a knowing look.
The lodge we find has a Khrushchev-does-the-Caribbean kind of flair. Within an hour Cheryl has struck up a friendship and is behind the bar learning how to make mojitos (rum, sugar, yerba buena, lime, and more rum). I surreptitiously lobby her. “Listen to this,” I say, “‘Americans fishing home waters apparently catch, on average, only one bass every two days of fishing. During those same two days a bass fisherman at Lake ZaZa might expect to catch one hundred bass of incredible quality. There’s a good chance that a world record bass exists in Cuba.”’
“Okay,” she agrees with a smile, “I’ll go fishing—but I’m just going to watch.” Wired like a kid at Christmas, I wake up at 4:30 the following morning. “Cheryl,” I whisper, and shake her, “the eagle has landed.” We tiptoe past our sleeping colleagues. I put on my best Hemingway swagger, call up five weeks of intensive Spanish and — on a tip from last night’s bartender — I go in search of a man named Cheo.
Cheo is old, weather-worn, and his gait conveys a blend of resignation and dignity. The romantic in me calls up the image of Hemingway’s Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea even though it turns out Cheo has a boat with a motor (not a skiff with a sail) and a rod (not a long line), and, most notably, he is fishing for a living (not living for a fish). Like Santiago, Cheo speaks not a word of English.
As dawn breaks, we motor out for the morning bite. Pink skies. Calm waters. Mimed promises of bigguns. Though I knew my fly-fishing brethren would abhor what was to be my near blood-bait fall from grace, I still am not prepared for the massive lure that will take the place of my usual tiny nymph. Cheo dangles an eight-inch-long, obscenely pink and very barbed rubber worm in front of our faces. Cheryl blanches. The effete fly fisher in me is horrified — but my inner angler, bred on midwestern bass and candy-striped Mepps, screams out in carnal joy: These Fish Must Be Enormous!
I start casting.
Cheryl finesses her cameras like a musician before the big performance, then stops, as if she’s received a signal from some cosmic conductor.
The sun breaches the horizon and the water gently laps against the boat. Time is metered by the reel’s muted clicks. We do not comment, or joke, or even look at one another. And it is in this companionable quiet that the cards of friendship definitively shuffle into place. It is one thing to know you can work together, and entirely another to know you can be silent together.
Strangely, I feel as if the whole trip—the hitchhiking, the relentless heat, the camaraderie, the interviews—has led up to this moment. Cheryl has reminded me that work and play can be one and the same, and this time-worn angling ritual has brought me back to myself. The moment hangs in the intangible equity of friendship.
Suddenly, a hit sends my forearm plunging toward the floorboards, and the tenuous moment collapses in on itself. A tank of a fish, but a fighter nonetheless, the pescado I hook has me waltzing around the tiny boat, Cheo following my lead, net in hand. As the battle rages, Cheo manages to light a cigar, and a boatful of loud Italians moves into our honey hole. Cheryl bobs and weaves, filming and giggling. “Yeee haaaw,” she yells from behind her camera.
Cheo seems nonplussed, but my endorphins fire with each and every centimeter of line the fish takes. Chica against fish. A beating sun. The mighty swordfish (well—I mean bass). A duel of passion and nobility, and increasingly, ego. And then, to put it in spare Hemingwayesque prose… I win.
I haul in the glistening large-mouthed bass and am breathless at its size. The fish tops twelve pounds, dwarfing the measly bass of my youth. “Bueno pescadora!” Cheo yells out from one corner of the boat, and Cheryl just keeps repeating with Manhattan awe, “Oh my god. Oh my god.”
On the way back to the lodge, just as the last traces of morning light’s magic veil burn off, Cheryl says “But… it’s not about the fish.”
I smile and respond, “Whatever.”
Hook, Line and Pinker
Wetting a Line in Cuba
"The wheels start turning: If Cubans don't eat much fish, and don't sport-fish, then Cuba's fish have been growing fat for the past three decades! No gringas like me overfishing the waters."
- Cubana Rap
Carilda Olivar Labra
- Santería Priestess
- Exiled Activist
- Trip Guide: Cuba
Practicalities, Packing, & our Fave Books, Flicks, Music
From the Shoots
- cuba: Paradox Found
- india: Holy Cow
- new zealand: Stroppy Sheilas & Mana Wahines
- iran: Behind Closed Cha-dors