We were somewhere 15 miles off the coast of Cuba on Day 3 when the asthma inhaler began to take hold. I remember feeling a bit congested and a little bit high from the albuterol and thought maybe I should burn one of my two covid test to be sure. Suddenly someone announced that the guides were ready and the adrenalin of the hunt took over. That was the worst and best I felt all week after landing two tarpon that day fishing off the Avilla IV for 10 days in July. The nightmare began innocently a year before “the Plaque”. It began with booking an exclusive, “18 anglers to the boat” bucket list trip for Tarpon, Permit and Bonefish, on the most pristine Flats Fishing in the world — “The Garden of the Queens.” This destination has long been forbidden fruit to US anglers for deep political reasons , but who cares about politics when tempted by “tarpon, permit and bonefish that have never seen an angler or artificial fly”. Once you get Cuba in your sites as a destination, the tendency is to push it as far as you can and that’s what I did in my mind and on the tying bench for two years. I’ve never looked at flyfishing as a Humanitarian \ Research opportunity but by day 10 I was fully onboard with the game. Way to much happened on this trip to cover all at once so I divide my CUBA post into the Logistics side and the fishing.
My Passport was overflowing with documents as I anticipated the body search and interrogation entering communist Cuba. My new friend Shiz had prepared me for every normal contingency but this trip was far from that. Never has there been a more organized group leader in my memory, I felt a bit scared just thinking about bringing a Drone into Cuba and really felt pretty naked without one. It dawned on me that I should fear leaving more than entering but I still had the butterflies especially not being able to speak Spanish. I could have used some tutoring from my guides this week who were awesome for the most part, always smiling and nodding in approval no matter what. I realized that the appearance of understanding is way more important than verbal communication. A nod and smile goes a long way unless they put you in a room where you are the only person.
The Taxi from the airport to the Iberstar Park Hotel passed through suburban Cuba. The homeless people in the bay area could learn a lot in the Cuban Suburbs with its organized squalor and open air housing. But, it did look like they had food water and shelter under control for the most part. It probably takes the suburban Cuban a full day to acquire those bare necessities. Add Covid to the mix and you really have a situation that no government , health department or God for that matter can navigate without risks. After waiting two years for a break in the Covid Clouds, we entered Cuba in the perfect storm as the clouds of Omincron Variant BA.5 lay thick in the Cuban air ready to consume the population and all incoming. Insipid is this one, infecting unsuspecting masked and vaccinate humans with cold like symptoms as quickly as two days after exposure. Even those that recovered from Covid weeks ago were at risk with this one. BA.5 has an R-naught factor of 7.
I had visions of Havana that had been planted from early childhood; reading Hemingway’s fish book (The Old man and the Sea). Less and I had only 3 hours in Havana when we got deposited at the Iberostar Park Central hotel in the heart of the city. After dumping our luggage and most of our cash in the hotel we stepped outside looking like wounded snappers ripe for some barracuda to consume. The barkers descended on us like wolves trying to buy American currency or sell us some counterfeit Cigars. Some just tried to steer us to nearby restaurants but we wanted a tour. After wading through the bullshit , we finally negotiated a tour with a guy who spoke great English. We jumped into a Glowbug Red 53 Oldsmobile Convertible for a three hour tour in 2 hours for 20 American bucks each. After negotiating our route with our Driver who looked like Snoop Dog and our tour guide who looked like Vin Diesel. We drove around to see the highlights stopping at the local cigar factory and a Mohito Bar. We lucked out with Snoop and Vin and convinced them to share the real Cuban experience with us which really revolves around getting enough American Dollars to buy there way out of Cuba. We drove past the tourist sites, toured the “rich” neighborhoods, Checked out a Voodoo chicken sacrifice in the River, Smoked Cigars and drank Mohitos with the natives as well as contributed to the “get of of Cuba” fund with our American dollars.. ” I want to be free like you…” Vin confessed after only one Mohito but admitted that he would return to Cuba with lots of US dollars as a “tourist” and party like a pro. Later, our group ate at a small cantina off the main road and feasted on Grilled Octopus and lobsters done several different ways. Great rum too that tasted more like Brandy than Rum. It’s the Sugar and a lot more.
Passing through the gate that once market the Largest Chinatown in Cuba, absent were any signs of Chinese commerce or Chinese people. I saw none. Havana’s Chinatown (known as Barrio Chino de La Habana) is one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Latin America. In 1837, the Chinese were contracted to work the sugar Cane Fields (cough slavery) and lived in the barrio. There were over 100,000 at one time living there. Vin’s explanation of the waning Chinese population in Cuba was that Fidel Castro had a falling out with Taiwan and also Communist China and although trade agreements were made in the 90’s with China, Fidel didn’t want Chinese to own businesses inside Cuba and eventually made life tougher for them and they left for America. I didn’t notice any animosity from the locals towards us and there were very few Asian tourists in the hotel if any other than us . According to Cuban Census, there are somewhere around 114,000 Mixed heritage Chinese living in Cuba which has a population of 11.3 million.
It was a six ho hour bus ride through Cuba to get to the port where the Avilla IV was parked offshore. I think we had the nicest bus in Cuba with great air con and even a semi working bathroom. We each had our own double seat and watching Cuba go by in the window for hours imprinted the country in my memory. Cubans have simple lives and are people who are bound to the land mostly likely because they are multigenerational. For the most part, there is no where else to go because all there family is there. We stopped the bus in the middle of nowhere for bathroom breaks every couple hours. Cuban toilets are squat types, It cost a buck to use them and you need to supply your own toilet paper. I made a new friend as we exchanged nods while we did our business, The partition between the crapper and the urinal was only 3 feet high and you can look around the room to see what’s going on while you are squatting. Cubans are wonderful people – friendly outgoing and eager to help. They are mainly unpolluted by politics and technology and accepting of strangers. Almost all of Cuba is dark when it comes to cell service and internet to outsiders. Even the internet at the hotel was heavily blocked and limited. If you were lucky enough to get a signal, I’m certain you were being monitored or hacked. Verizon and At&T were available in various rare situations. “Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected and most repressive environments for information and communication technologies” according to Freedom House Think Tank.
“WTF, this dining room seats 30…” was my first reaction when I checked out the chow hall in the Incubator IV. It wasn’t till we were onboard that we learned that we were at full capacity with a Group of 15 divers and 3 more flyfishermen NOT in our group. I didn’t sign up for that a couple years ago, but these were Americans and free from Covid or so I thought. The Avalon IV has 15 guest staterooms and it was being utilized to the MAX. The staff was well trained and courteous which made the situation much more bearable. The rooms air conditioning was Ice cold at times or non existent and strategically vented to blow Cold Covid Laced air on our head in both beds. The beds were 2 inch mattresses on a plywood bases and hard as soft rock. Sleeping in the room was like being interrogated. First you are forced onto a uncomfortable bed and then you are saturated with Loud Noise and Cold Air from a machine directly over your head. I could hear my roommate Les confessing in his sleep. Sleeping was tough at best even with earplugs. The constant humidity changes in the room reeked havoc on my asthma or what I thought was asthma which turned out to be COVID and asthma. The temps in the room would vacillate between 81 degrees and 73 degrees depending on if the door was open or the Air Con was feeling lucky. If I were a fertile chicken egg, I would have hatched that week.
The first bad news came on Day 2 when two divers were told to isolate in there rooms after symptoms and positive Covid Tests. Given that they were Americans and the incubation period is at least 2 days, Its likely they caught Covid at the Airport flying to Cuba. The ship’s doctor had his hands full trying to contain the outbreak. We talked for awhile and he was taking temps on the 30 of us constantly and recording them on his tablet. I peaked at the chart and nobody had temps over 38 degrees C. Higher than 38C is Howdy Covid Time. Temperature checks became a game like Russian roulette. On day three we lost a fly fisherman. The Doc promptly isolated the roommate who tested negative and the ship now had three patients in isolation. It’s easy to convince yourself that wearing a mask 80 percent of the time on the boat somehow protects us but the fact is that all masks came off at the meals where all 30 of us were packed into a room eating at a buffet and fighting for seconds on lobsters. The Doc started releasing people from isolation towards the end of the week with “negative test results”. Les and I thought this pretty odd since we had never seen a person go from positive to negative in less than 5 day. On the other hand all those who came back to the general population were feeling near 100 percent . I think the Doctor was trying like crazy to give us a chance to leave Cuba on time. Imagine being forced to quarantine in Cuba alone for 5 days.
My experience with this strain of Covid makes me think that I had the Omicron sub variant BA.5—the most contagious one so far. It is an new strain that emerged in early July of 2022 and has the ability to reinfect people within weeks of having COVID-19 which suggests previous vaccinations and boosters are ineffective. The main symptoms for BA.5 sub variant are Fever and Sore Throat with occasional abdominal pain and muscle ache, but one in our party lost taste and smell early on. Luckily rates of severe disease remain lower than in previous waves.
As soon as my Cell Phone hit a live american cell phone tower, it went off like a fire alarm. Ten days of messages, news feeds email and fishing reports hit my phone like a rogue wave. At the top of the messages was a newsfeed that the president of the United States had tested positive for Covid. That settled it, we all had to test as soon as we got home. I took a test kit out of my luggage as soon as I was dropped off at home, sat on my porch and performed the 10 minute test. Unfortunately my suspicions were right – Positive for Covid. That evening our entire party of 12 had tested and 10 of the 12 were positive- another souvenir of Cuba. I started testing negative Tuesday evening and followed up on that with 3 more negative tests taken 12 hours apart. Most likely I was infected early in the week with little symptoms and I like to think that fishing everyday helped me recover faster.
In the end, you might think that this was the worst trip I’ve ever been on, but kind of the opposite. We survived the the Kobayashi Maru by getting home on time and recovering in the homeland. We had some of the most unique flats fishing in the world and for most of us, we didn’t even know we were all doomed. The Staff on the boat were phenomenal, always offering to help, friendly and just beautiful people. The three beautiful Cuban woman on the boat took care of our dinning needs like a Michelin Star. No empty glasses, not lobster shells cluttering your plate, always a full plate and a timely desert. After coming off the skiffs in the evening , we were greeted with cool moist towels. Porters would fetch your gear and rods, rinse them off and stow them away for you. Piles of laundry in the rooms would be magically washed and folded on the bed every other day. Next time, ill bring less clothes. Fresh bath towels were folded into little animals on the bed just like on a cruise ship. The Bathrooms had nice showers with hot water and flush toilets although you had to put your toilet paper in the the wastebasket . Thank god for the pack of 48 Dude Wipes I brought for us. .
In the positive testing days that followed our return, we kept in touch with each other and compared notes on our recoveries. I had about 50 test kits at home , and half were about to expire. I decided to test every body fluid and different parts of my nostril just to see if I could pull a negative test knowing I was positive. Spit was positive but sometime negative, Tears were negative. Anything moist in the mouth was positive especial back of throat where you test for strep. But I could consistently get a negative if I swabbed only the dry areas of the nose. You have to get snot on the swab for an accurate test.
I’m writing this from my isolation wing in my house even though I’ve tested negative for three days. I figure it can’t hurt to isolate a couple more days for at least 5. If both of us test negative by then, it’s back to the world I go.