West Indies

Fishing Boats on Havana Bay from Habana Vieja

Habana Vieja
and the Little Farter

My quest to find the Pedorrera begins in Havana's historic heart.

Above: Fishing boats at the mouth of the Havana Bay in Habana Vieja, viewed from the Malecon esplanade. Castillo de Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, an imposing fortress, helped to guard Havana against pirates and invading nations since 1589.

Ever since I first opened James Bond’s guide to the West Indies at age twelve, I wanted to see one for myself—a Pedorrera: Cuba’s mysterious and dazzling Little Farter.  I’ve just arrived in Havana, and rented an apartment in Havana’s historic, bustling quarter, Habana Vieja.

The airport taxi driver looks at me, says, “I haven’t seen a lot of Americans.”

“Well,” I respond.  “The airplane was empty.”  I show him the eerie photos I had taken of the interior of the flight from Atlanta to Havana.  “None of these people are U.S. citizens,” I tell him. “Just me,” I say, pointing to the bald heads several rows ahead of me, “Canadians!”  

I point to some heads several rows ahead of them.  “These people here spoke Spanish, but not English. I think they are Cubans!”

“So, how did you get here as a U.S. citizen?  It is very difficult, no?” he asks, weaving around a mess of old 1950’s Chevrolet Bel Airs, Moskvitch 2141’s from the 1980’s and Polski Fiats from the 1970s.

“Actually, it is no problem at all.  It is beyond easy to get here.”

“But, June 16?” he says, hitting his fist on the steering wheel.  “After June 16, tourism from the United States went like this.”  He whistles while his hand goes downward, like describing a Black Tuesday stock market.

Rooftop view of Habana Vieja

My rooftop view of Habana Vieja at sunset, facing east toward Havana Bay and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña.

He explains that after President Trump’s June 16 speech, in which he reversed the Obama era diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba, American tourism instantly decreased by at least eighty percent.

“That was the intent,” I explain, “but not much actually really changed.  Most of the Obama era laws are still there.  It’s about the fear, the confusion!”

He nods in understanding.

“You know the disease ebola?” I ask.  “As soon as it hit, tourism tanked in places like South Africa or Egypt, even though they were thousands of miles away from the outbreak!”

When I was a boy, my dad took me to the border between West Germany and East Germany.  There was a tall fence near the road, and beyond that, a field of bare soil.  That was the minefield, the final surprise for any East German who made it this close to the border.

When my dad picked up some rocks from the side of the road and started throwing them at the minefield, we could see the soldiers in a tall gray tower on the East German side, about half a mile away, turning their attention on us, studying us from their scopes.

That experience probably had some impact on my lifelong seething hatred for the idea of being told that I cannot go somewhere.  Of somebody putting up fences and blocking me out.

When Obama correctly began the process of formalizing relations with Cuba, I was thrilled, because I knew that the time for normalizing relations was long overdue.  The détente scratched a life-long political itch.  But it was only when Trump reversed the détente that the minefield was laid out in front of me, and I knew, now is the time to go!  Now is the time to jump the fence, now is the time to pursue my little farter in Cuba.

Restored colonial courtyard in Habana Vieja.

Restored colonial courtyard in Habana Vieja.

Trump did change laws to limit how Americans can visit Cuba, notably, he killed the most important visa, which allowed Americans to visit Cuba as tourists: the people-to-people visa. The move allowed a strict version of tour-guide based travel, but eliminated independent, bed-and-breakfast style travel.

This move allowed the kind of big- air-conditioned tour bus travel that kept American tourists limited to a fictional version of Cuba—a Cuba of bad communist cigars, bad communist rum, cobwebbed memorials to Ernest Hemingway and a happy whitewashing of Fidel Castro’s decades of horrific atrocities.  

My intention is to travel exactly the way the Trump Administration didn’t want me to travel, alone, without a net, defying the intent, proving their state department threats were all fart and no turd. 

Observation, without a net, is a keen way to separate myself from the Cuba described by Americans purely as a tool for their own polarizing politics.  When I hear two Americans discussing Cuba, it’s as if they are frozen in time, cut off and isolated for years from answers that are better raised on the street.

I would carry two pairs of shorts, four shirts, a light cotton sweater, a zip-loc bag of assorted toiletries, and a pair of flip-flops.  I was traveling feather light and fully reliant on Cuba’s burgeoning service-sector free market.  

I rented an apartment on the fourth floor of a four-story building.  A perilously narrow staircase, with the top step being a four-story fall into an alley, leads to the roof of the building. Here, there is an old wire chair, and a clothesline.

It’s roasting hot up here, and I can smell that most lovely scent of the Caribbean.  Briny and flowery, which I associate with the Bahamas, ironic in this historic center of Havana. More like Lisbon, Palermo or Marrakech.

Antique Taxi on the Malecón

The antique taxis are everpresent in Cuba, but they are particularly concentrated on the Malecón, where you can see dozens of models of 1940's and 1950's within minutes.

Looking out from this 360-degree view, I see apartment after apartment, built on top of each other.  In some places, parts of buildings appear to have collapsed, and are unoccupied except by cats and pigeons.  I see derelict structures labelled in chiseled stone with words like “Commerce Bank,” hints of yesterday’s western capital. Painted pink and white, cerulean, or emerald, these weathered surfaces reveal decades of pastels beneath – banana yellow, robin’s egg blue, watermelon. 

It’s a style that exists nowhere else in the West Indies.  Habana Vieja’s architecture – Moorish, Colonial, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Soviet, is a rainbows and sunshine way to describe the city’s turbulent five-hundred-year history.

Once in the alley, I begin my walk, but I’m diverted by a game being played by barefooted boys between the age of seven and sixteen.  One boy, perhaps age fourteen and wearing a girl’s t-shirt several sizes too small, holds a small leather ball.  He is sweating, eyeing his surroundings. 

Seven and eight-year-old boys are hiding behind concrete planters or wedged behind the decorative columns of the alleyway buildings.  A taller and older boy makes his presence known, as he gets up to run for cover, but the sweating boy quickly takes notice, peels his arm back, swings, hitting the boy squarely in the face.

This tagging of the boy means he must stand face-to-wall.  All the boys who had been hiding now emerge, and one is awarded the ball.  His job is to throw it as hard as he can at the boy who had just been tagged.  In this case, the boy misses, which means the face-to-wall boy is now free. 

This boy, wearing Nike shoes, swim trunks and a gold chain, is the first to grab the ball which failed to strike him, and he wastes no time in wailing it on the easiest prey.  His strike is swift, mean and precise, and so goes the game of Pies Quitos.

When the boys stop to rest, they circle around their single spectator, debating whether I am Russian or Canadian.  I tell them neither, that I am actually from Oregon, which the older boys recognize as being near Seattle.  They apologize about the terrible wildfires in nearby California.  

I tell them about our own fires in Oregon, how some days, the air was too smoky to go outside.  “But tell me about Irma?” I say, referring to the record-setting Hurricane which ravaged the Greater Antilles and left parts of Havana in three-feet of water.

“We know how to survive!” the oldest boy says, taking the leather ball and prodding the others to start playing again.  You can say that again.  Without resources, Cuba is a model in hurricane management, before, during and after hurricanes. 

A hurricane can whip through Cuba, shaking its crumbling infrastructure to the bone.  But every neighborhood has complex hurricane evacuation procedures, and even children are trained at an early age to help rebuild. Hurricane mortality here is the lowest in the Caribbean, and it takes mere weeks for a city like Havana to recover from dystopian flooding and damage.

I watch the kids for a few more minutes, now imagining them during Hurricane Irma.

Schoolchildren play the game of Pañoleta in Havana, Cuba

Schoolchildren play the game of Pañoleta, the neckerchief game, while their teacher watches. Pañoleta features complex rules which invites taunting, creative psych-outs, prisoner exchanges and harrowing spills on the concrete. The European version of this game is called Steal the Bacon.

Without nearby grassy parks in the dense city, Habanero kids invent variations of games such as baseball that fit within the strict confines of a narrow alley. 

As access to global culture has increased, a singular love for baseball has become muddied, even though many times, older Cubans will wag their finger at me, insisting happily that Cubans only play baseball.  Children are rewriting the rules of the new games they are learning about from around the globe as their isolation diminishes.  They are retrofitting sports like basketball and soccer to fit inside the small spaces of Havana streets. 

As I approach Havana Bay, my anticipation of seeing the ocean grows, but I cannot help to notice that as I get closer to the traditional heart of Habana Vieja, the amount of scaffolding and fresh coats of paint intensifies.  Habana Vieja is in a state of reconstruction.

As I veer through the city, I see the Convento de Santa Clara and the Plaza Vieja and the Catedral de San Cristobal.  Layers and layers of human history and architectural beauty. 

Certain cities pop up in discussions about the most beautiful city in the Americas.  Quebec City, New York, San Francisco, Quito, Cusco, Cartagena, Bogota, Granada, San Miguel de Allenda. 

One thing Havana has in common with these cities is geography.  Habana Vieja was once a walled peninsula, sticking out in the Bay of Havana, The walls are gone, but the old quarter juts out into the emerald bay, with views of protective forts on the other side. 

Pound for pound, does any other city in the Americas have such an intensity of historical beauty packed into its streets?  Such vibrant colors? I cannot help to think that this city of two-million will be the most beautiful city in our hemisphere.  You often here this: Go see Havana before it changes forever.  But, I see it the opposite way.  To see Habana Vieja now is to imagine Havana as the most beautiful city of the Americas.

Moped in Habana Vieja

Marigold and maya blue paint adorn typical apartments in a Habana Vieja alley. The urban layout of Habana Vieja was never updated to accomodate modern transportation, so the alleys are narrow, pedestrian-friendly, and almost always shaded from the sun.

For all my life, I have been a believer in the heritage of the world, both natural and manmade, and so when I learned about UNESCO as a teenager, I became entranced by this entity, backed by the governments of the world, with a mission to identify the world’s most precious places, largely as a path to their permanent protection. To learn about the places that UNESCO was designating was to open a map of the world and peer into world history, connecting it to the future.

While I loved learning about UNESCO World Heritage sites that were close to home, I always felt a certain pride in knowing that some of the most spectacular sites, like Old Havana and its Fortification System were within spitting distance of my own country.

Becoming a UNESCO site comes with a responsibility.  UNESCO lays out these responsibilities to the city, “to ensure the proper repair and conservation of the built fabric of Old Havana that is in disrepair due to decay, chronic neglect and the elements.”

One last street and that Caribbean scent again.  I am on the Malecón, the five-mile seawall-road-esplanade, which wraps around Havana’s coast and serves as the de facto outdoor space for Habaneros.  Even though Habana Vieja is densely populated, the Malecón is never too far away. Solitary anglers cast their homemade lines into the water, Habaneros hold hands or let their toddlers run in circles, or chitchat with foreign tourists.

Inside the city, it’s easy to see why Habana Vieja was chosen as a UNESCO site, but it’s the historic city center and its Fortification System. It’s from the Malecón that you can see why the fortification system equals the city itself as a world heritage site – the whole entrance to the bay is lined with huge structures and massive cannons. 

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Alleyway in Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Cobblestone streets

For three centuries, Havana was a sort of center of commerce between the new world and the old world. It held a massive shipbuilding center, and was a stopover for gold-laden ships en-route to the Spanish motherland.  It was, as you can see from the Malecón, impenetrable.

A French Pirate had easily plundered Habana Vieja in 1555, burning the place to the ground on his way out.  That’s a compelling incentive to fortify.

Those fortifications protected the city, for the most part, for the next two hundred years. In 1762, the city was defended by nine ships-of-line, fresh from Spain, and eleven-thousand soldiers and sailors. Two immense fortifications stood at the entrance to the bay. In case these fortifications were breached, a boom chain could be raised from the sea, blocking entry by any ship.

Spain was at war with England, and taking Havana was considered an essential part of victory for the English. 20,000 soldiers and sailors, twenty-three ships-of-line and an assortment of bomb vessels, cutters, frigates and sloops sieged Havana and then executed an amphibious assault of the city.

By the time the British captured Havana, they had captured one-fifth of the entire Spanish naval fleet as well as vast sums of Spanish wealth.

Havana was returned to Spain a year later, but the defeat only meant Spain would fortify the city even more; line the bay with even larger stone fortifications.

The next morning, I wake knowing I have to get started on my search for the Pedorrera.  Havana, being all concrete and stone, isn’t necessarily the first place to look for birds.  But one place in particular caught my eye as having some good potential. 

A taxi driver – “no, my car is Chinese,” he had explained, reminding me of the economic absurdity of it.  “Our number one trading partner!”, dropped me off at Hotel Nacional, a large, sprawling hotel with commanding views of the Caribbean and the Malecón.

I had used Google Earth to find a place in Havana with lots of dense foliage and green space.  Hotel Nacional had it all in a compact space.  Ornamental gardens and big, sprawling trees and clumps of straggly bushes.

I walk through the ornate lobby of the hotel, avoiding eye contact with the bartenders, waiters and security guards, and when I make it to the gardens, I open up my tripod and mount the telephoto lens.  The Pedorrera is not rare, and it ranges throughout Cuba, so I might as well start looking for it now.

If I were with a guide or a local with birding knowledge, I would likely have much better luck at finding the Pedorrera.  But even in Oregon, where I have a much more intimate knowledge of where my local common birds are, I might only see certain ones once or twice a year. If a Cuban visited me in Oregon and asked me to find a Swainson’s Thrush or a Red Crossbill, I would have to tell him that while these birds are common within a two hour drive of home, our chances of finding one would be virtually zero.

When you have never seen a certain bird before, you can read about its habit, and look at a thousand pictures of the type of tree it’s sitting in, or how it sits on a powerline.  You can study the eBird reports, and read dozens of narratives about recent sightings.  But none of that adds up to local knowledge, or repetitive sightings that make future identifications a breeze.

Having birding and naturalist guides, or connecting up with locals who have local knowledge, is essential to birding, and something I do all the time.  But sometimes, I have this need to go it alone, purposely complicating my pursuit for the challenge of being completely without a net.

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Habana Vieja

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is shaped liked a Chinese Throwing Star inside a gated moat. This star fort is the oldest stone fort in the New World, and was a part of the series of fortifications that lined the passage through Havana Bay.

I

had recently seen the documentary Trophy, which chronicles the trophy hunting industry in Africa.  Seeing these hunters, who are guided through luxurious gated grounds and literally prodded up to their prey by a staff of dozens, shoot a trapped animal at close range.  Everything is done for them.  They do not track the animal, they do not learn about the animal, they do not understand the habitat they are trampling through or the human culture that thrives in that environment.

In one scene, a trophy hunter shoots and kills his crocodile at point blank range in a specially designed water pit just for that purpose.  As soon as he shoots the crocodile, a guide slips a cold beer into his hand.  Trophy hunters are lazy and dim, their game is no sport.

While working with guides and locals is a superior way to find birds, independence has its merits, for one, to constantly separate ourselves from the hunter, and to remind ourselves that finding birds is about education, naturalism, the outdoors, conservation, and engaging directly with local people.

Near a tiki-themed bar on the property, I find a large tree with wide leaves.  I look up and find several birds.  One catches my attention: bright red eye, distinctive black, brown and white markings.  A bright yellow patch on its chest.

It's a Red-legged Thrush, a bird I had known since I was five years old from nearby Bahamas.  While this bird is the same species as the one I know from the islands to the north, it looks very different.  For one, that bright tuft of yellow is completely absent on the Bahamian birds.  

This difference is exciting for me to see, because it is indicative of the way that island birding offers up essential natural lessons.

This Red-legged Thrush is the Cuban race (Turdus plumbeus rubripes), which means it has been isolated long enough from its relatives that it has evolved features it can call its own.  This shows how islands have been great generators of new species throughout history.  Colonization and subsequent isolation create diversity.

Playing Cuban Music in Habana Vieja

Buskers play Son Cubano standards for tourists near the Plaza de Armes square.

But small islands also tend to be diversity deserts; this is an essential component of island biogeography.  The West Indies is a massive region, containing thousands of islands, and yet my guidebook of bird species contains only some 550 species.  Compare that to nearby Belize, with 600 species, or nearby Panama, with 980, both just fractions of the size of the West Indies.

One of the principles of the theory of Island Biogeography is that there is a species-to-area curve.  Large islands have larger habitats, which helps reduce the chance of extinction, and they also have more habitats for immigrants to populate. 

In the end, all islands tend to produce an equilibrium between the force of extinction and the force of immigration, in which larger islands, and islands near large continents, tend to settle with similarly large amounts of biodiversity, while smaller islands tend to have similarly low levels of diversity.

The West Indies is a region of many small islands, and only a few large islands, which helps to explain the generally low diversity. 

I was lucky enough to spend many days birding with one of the Caribbean’s top birders.  When Woody and I bird the Abaco Islands, we are often seeing the birds, and other animals of Cuba.  Many of the species in the Bahamian woodlands have names like Cuban Pewee, Cuban Parrot and Cuban Emerald – they are all just immigrants from the larger island nearby.

Although there are only 550 birds in the entire West Indies, Cuba has 370, and the theory of Island Biogeography helps to explain this.  Cuba’s main island (106,000 square kilometers) is the seventeenth largest island in the world in a list that includes Australia and Greenland.  Compare that to the second largest island in the Caribbean, nearby Puerto Rico (9,100 square kilometers), the 81st largest island in the world.

Large islands are generators of diversity and generators of unique species.  It is reasonable to consider that much of the Caribbean’s biodiversity was seeded from Cuba.  That it’s size makes it a generator of life.

Street art in Habana Vieja, Cuba

Alley walls tell many stories, in street art and paint.

Nevertheless, I have not found my Pedorrera, and I can feel eyes behind my back, and, even a whisper between security guards: El Americano con la cámara.

The Hotel Nacional became the center of international news this year as the primary site of what the Trump Administration claimed were sonic ray gun attacks on U.S. spies and U.S. state department employees, as well as Canadian officials.  The revelation that U.S. government employees were reporting incidents of nausea, concussion and hearing loss compelled the Trump Administration to pull out much of its embassy staff from Cuba.

I was suspicious of the Trump Administration’s fishy story.  Two months later: Cuba had launched a massive investigation with a team of 2,000 to find the source of the attacks and came up empty-handed.  The U.S. Government refuses to assist in the investigation.  Nothing is discovered, only that the brains of the victims, all of whom have more or less recovered (one diplomat now wears a hearing aid), showed abnormalities.  These abnormalities helped shift the consensus farther away from sonic ray guns, and more towards some type of low-grade poison.

Who did it, then?  If the person or group responsible for the actions was sophisticated enough to follow out with these attacks, they were sophisticated enough to know how these attacks would further fray U.S.-Cuban relations.
Who has the most to lose from increased U.S.-Cuba relations? 

In my opinion, there are four groups who would most gain from a continued U.S.-Cuba Embargo.

My initial guess was rogue Cuban military officials, but I’ve started to reject that view as a lone wolf or rogue agency just doesn’t have a real incentive, or even the means, to carry out what appears to be a fairly orchestrated attack. 

Jardin Botanico Nacional near Havana, Cuba

The Jardin Botanico Nacional, near Havana, Cuba, is undervisited, and the trees of the Soviet-era greenhouses have outgrown their greenhouses. A perfect place to look for the Pedorrera.

I

nstead, I’ve grown fond of the theory that Putin would be most likely to capitalize on Trump’s tensions with Havana, using a sophisticated non-deadly psychosomatic poison to instantly cure the threat of losing their stake in Cuba to its natural trading partner ninety-miles away.

This theory works better each month, as we see Putin continue to make inroads with Havana, using the vacuum to his advantage.  And just a few days ago, we discovered that a U.S. diplomat in Uzbekistan reported identical conditions to those reported by the American and Canadian diplomats in Havana.

With a small list of birds and no Pedorrera, I pack up my gear and exit the hotel, the security guards talking on radios as I leave.  Instead of hailing a taxi from the hotel, I opt to exit the grounds and bird my way down the decrepit streets.  I already know my chances of finding the Pedorrera are dimming.  I need to widen the net.  I turn around just once.  Nope, no senior citizen with a moustache, a Fidel cap and a Microwave dish blaster sneaking behind me. 

The next morning, I hail a taxi near the Capitolio building.  The taxi driver is a soft-spoken thirty-year old, with nerdy glasses.  I like him instantly for his quiet demeanor and his slow driving.

He tells me that his favorite music is ‘American music,’ and he plays several tracks of light rap, Michael Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Dire Straits and other British bands.

A Hübner's Glad-eye in the Jardin Botanico Nacional gardens.

A Hübner's Glad-eye (Calisto herophile) in the Jardin Botanico Nacional gardens. If you're interested in my butterlies, I keep a butterfly list.

He shows me a picture of a young, thin elegant woman, looks at me, says proudly of his wife, “She is ten years younger than me.”

As we drive through the different neighborhoods of Havana, he tells stories about the neighborhoods of different friends and taxi-drivers.  When we pass his neighborhood, he gets excited and tells me, “this is my street!”

“Can you show me where you live?” I ask.

He gives me a sideways look.  I say, “Let’s do it!”

He turns onto his street.

This is a different Havana than Habana Vieja.  Farther out from the urban center, there’s more legroom.  Palm trees and even hardwoods stick out of the small spaces between simple duplex-style homes.

I can’t help to compare this quieter neighborhood to the living spaces in Habana Vieja.  On several occasions, walking in the alleys at night, I peered in to people’s gated, but open apartments, often finding somebody asleep right there in front of me, their tv flickering in a hundred square-foot space.  Living spaces were often lit by a single bulb or fluorescent lamp in deep, dark cavernous spaces, the illumination just barely reflecting off damp plumbing pipes or broken concrete two or three stories up.

He shows me his home; clean, simple, small, happy-looking.  He pulls out his gigantic phone, shows me more photos of his wife.

“What do you around here, when you’re not driving?” I ask.

“We have cats!” he says.

Twelve miles out from Havana, he drops me off at the Jardin Nacional Botanico.  This sprawling, dilapidated botanical garden was designed to feature plants and trees of regions around the world.

Underfunded, undervisited and overgrown, the 1,500-acre garden makes a compelling place to look for the Pedorrera.  It’s still early in the morning; I am the only one here save for a handful of gardeners.

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird in Parque Botanico Nacional, near Havana, Cuba.

A Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii) at Jardin Botanico Nacional.

Iwalk out into the exotic forest, passing by a series of greenhouses that were built in the mid-1980’s; imagine Soviet modernism from the height of the arms race, now rusted, worn-out, trees growing through the ceiling.

I sit under a tree, scanning the canopy, enjoying the dozen butterfly species that pass through the tangle of wildflowers around my feet. 

Finally, I start to sense a mixed flock moving above me – several small birds of various species, moving through the forest with the common goal of security and mixed skillsets.  Among these, I find a small group of female Red-legged Honeycreepers, one the most beautiful birds of Latin America, often used by artists and educators as a symbol of global jungle diversity.  To see this bird so far north, just 90 miles from Florida, is a joy, as to me it has always been symbolic of Isthmus lowlands.

I see two men with tall rain boots and no shirts studying a tree.  I wonder about what they might be looking at, and a few minutes later, I approach them. 

Something in the tree is crying, wailing out like a dying primate.

Snake eats frog in Parque Botanico Nacional near Havana, Cuba.

A frog cries out with a desparate scream at the Parque Botanico Nacional.

"What is it, I ask?  Aves? Bird?”

“Aves?” they say, looking at each other as if I’ve given them the answer. 

“Where is it?” I ask, pulling out my green laser pointer and showing them how to use it.

They circle an area in the tree, but none of us can see through the darkness, as the animal continues to cry.

I set up my tripod and affix the telephoto lens.  I tell the men to keep the laser pointer pointed at the area where the sound is coming from.

Slowly, I focus on the green dot, and then we look at the image.  It’s a frog, still alive, a slow death by snake.

The island biogeography laws that apply to birds in Cuba also applies to reptiles.  There are many snakes here, just as their many snakes out there, in the world, reptilian and otherwise.

Still, no Pedorrera.  It’s time to widen the net once again.

 

Read the next chapter: Sancti Spiritus and the Psychedelic Flyer

I created a handpainted map of Cuba for these notes.