Cocteles y Cocodrilos de Cuba: a tiki bar story

Miguel Alvarez del Toro Field Station


20.95° N, 76.95° W

Meanwhile, somewhere further down the food chain…

I’m 200 miles southeast of Miami and yet a world removed. There are no internet cafes in the Monte Cabaniguan. No cell phone towers. No people. Not really. Not intentionally. The two-way radio we have for communicating with the distant village of Las Tunas hasn’t worked in days. ¡Coño!, as they say. Had outside civilization shat the bed, I wouldn’t’ve been the wiser. Our only communication beyond this beach is with an offshore fishing vessel, El Maldito. The Little Damned One. Our cook, Santiago, takes his skiff every afternoon out to sea to visit with los malditos, bartering for their fresh catch, giving the fishermen in return: rum, rabbit flesh and cheap Chinese cigarettes. Unfiltered. They trade information. Santiago wants the box score of the Yankees game. Hypothetically… had there been an emergency at the field station, had a shark or flamingo flock tore off with my leg in the thick of night, Old Man Santiago would have taken his sleepy skiff to los malditos, asking them to radio for help. Tune-in Las Tunas!, help!, por favor. Has anyone seen Señor Hombre de Nada’s leg? Is there a doctor in Las Tunas? Are there prayers to spare for this suddenly one-legged gringo? Nope. No prayers, Professor Roberto says to my hypothetical. They are atheists. Faithful only to the party. No one will prayer for you, Roberto clarifies. When I ask Professor Roberto how the radio broke, he shrugs, es Cuba. His colleague, a gorilla in khakis, the equally prestigious Professor Alonso, nods, si, es Cuba. It is a common theme. Cuba is the way it is because Cuba. Why are the Havana streetlights not on after dusk? Es Cuba. Why is the American Embassy being attacked by sonic thumps in the night? Es Cuba. Some things work. Most things don’t. But we still have rum. And so tonight, we drink. Es Cuba, after all. 

Miguel Alvarez del Toro Field Station

Tonight is my last night in the Monte Cabaniguan wilderness. Tomorrow, I return to Havana. It will be a long journey. A morning of motor-boating up-river through the mangrove jungle. Then noonday tanking through the wetlands on a fat-tired tractor. Then an afternoon on the back of a flatbed truck, west, far enough to catch a camel-humped soviet bus, el camello, into the city. Then tomorrow’s tomorrow is a flea-jump over the Florida Straits to Miami by propeller plane. But tonight, we drink. In the most remote tiki bar in the Caribbean, we drink.

Saludos los bichos!, I say, raising my glass. The glass is empty, but immediately splashed with half an ounce of dark spiced rum. Alonso, who’s half borracho’d himself, cannot stop laughing at any attempt I make at Spanish. Los bichos!, Alonso hollers in his gravely old man voice. Salud!, he says. Alonso, I say to him. Heh?, the professor grunts. Alonso, I say again. Que que?, he asks. I speak in a low conspiratorial whisper, me cago en los bichos. Ha!, he laughs, he coughs and he might be having a heart attack. Todos los bichos!, I clarify by waving a hand at the sky, all of them. Professor Alonso appears to be pulling through his cardiac arrest, but he is shielding his eyes with a meaty forearm, as if protecting himself from the image of me shitting on all the mosquitos. Every one of them. Alonso pounds the table and his heart attack has passed. Dios mío, Victorito, Alonso says with a smile, taking off his thick eye glasses to rub his eyes. 

We’re in one of two palm-thatched buildings which comprises the field station. The dining room consists of bone-dry wooden tables, warped by the salt and wind and the occasional high water when a rain-bloated Jobabo River collides with the high tides of the Gulf of Guacanayabo. We live on a sliver of sandy spit in the river delta. Around us is nothing but mangrove and cacti. I’ve explored sparingly. You cannot walk more than a hundred yards any which way without running into a lagoon or a crocodile, or suffer from scarcity of shade under a vengeful sun. One of the rabbits got loose under my watch and I chased him for all of thirty seconds before a wall of cactus pricks pointed me back from whence I came. These are harsh conditions. We cannot even work through midday. We wake before dawn and eat as many crackers with butter and cured meat as we can, drinking coffee as we depart to whichever site we’re studying. We’d return shy of midday. We’d hydrate, lunch on rice and beans and fried plantain and more coffee, before napping until mid-afternoon. We’d then return to the field for as long as there is light. With the night comes relief. As long as the sea breeze is blowing, the nights can be cool and peaceful. If the breeze fades, los bichos descend. The mosquitos are Legion. Lord of the Flies, Monsieur Beel-Zebub, is working air traffic control. Nights in the dormitory, the other palm-thatched building on the beach, are itchy and restless. Under mosquito nets, I sleep. Tormented with fever-dreams fueled by the DEET sprayed on my skin, I sleep. Fortunately, I am more exhausted than itchy. And so, fitfully, I sleep.  

Victorito with a preserved crocodile egg

With no nearby cities, or towns, with this lack of light pollution, the stars above are unrivaled. Humbling. We’re a speck of humanity, humanity is a speck of life on Earth, Earth is a speck in the cosmos. Nothing really matters, yet… everything matters. We’ve only a flicker of a moment. It all matters. The white sands of our beach glow from dusk until dawn, reflecting the heavens above. And that driftwood washed ashore? I’ll be damned if it don’t look like a crocodile right now. These damn dinosaurs on the brain. As they should be. The American Crocodile can be found anywhere between Northern Peru and South Florida, but nowhere is the density as high or the population as many as the undeveloped soft underbelly of Cuba, particularly the Monte Cabaniguan Wildlife Refuge. I am in Cuba on a scientific visa, sponsored by the Universidad de Habana, to study these oversized reptiles. Now is not the mating or the nesting season, but there is much science to be had. I’ve dug and built a control site to monitor crocodile nesting. And I’ve spent days excavating vacated crocodile nests. It’s a subtle dig, done by hand, to carefully remove the fragile egg shells left behind by the latest generation. The shells look like ruined ping-pong balls. Those which are torn in half, represent crocodiles who hatched. Shells which are merely deflated, represent crocodiles never meant to be. We collect the data, we do the math. This is science. Welcome to herpetology. It was during one of these careful digs, my arm elbow-deep into the soil, when I withdrew a handful of sand cherry-topped with a tarantula. 

Fuck. Fuck! Fuck, I said, dropping the hairy spider as I leapt six-feet backwards. The Cubans around me burst into laughter at my reaction. ¡Coño!, I exclaimed, pointing at the fucking spider and they laughed harder. I giggled some. Herpetology with a side of arachnophobia. 

A frightened Tarantula posing on Vic’s hat

Tonight, after a dinner of fried fish and plantains, more moros y cristanos (black beans & rice), we went out into the lagoons, using our lights to seek the reflective eyes of crocodiles in the dark. We had a good haul, snagging baby crocs to be studied and later returned. Throughout, Alonso would take out the rum and we’d toast to our captives. Saludos a los hermosos bebés. Tomorrow, as I head back to Havana, the team will repeat the cycle of weighing and measuring and cataloguing our babies before returning the little creepers to the lagoons we found them in. This is science. Rum-drunk science, yes, but science nevertheless. 

After our return to the field station, we had Buccanero cervesas with the crew and a late snack of tostones. Eventually, the crowd whittled down to just the herpetologist professors and me. Kindly abuelito Roberto is the only one of us fluent in both languages. Alonso and I mostly grunt at each other. Roberto explains Alonso is not a religious man, but very spiritual. Homo sapiens once lived with a necessary fear of man-eaters, Roberto translates Alonso’s diatribe. There was fear, there was respect, there was a connection between ancient man and monster. There was spiritualism. Today, ¡Coño! Today, man has spiritual connection with cars. Alonso laughs dangerously. It is funny to him. Both the car and the crocodile kill a man equally gruesome, equally dangerous, turning man in to meat. Carne, Alonso says. Ashes to ashes, man to meat. The crocodile does not have the teeth for biting through flesh & bone. The crocodile must tear his prey apart. Much like the vehicle collision tears man apart. Alonso fills my cup with rum, and his own. Roberto is drinking his cafecito. Roberto explains Alonso’s continued dialogue, to be eaten by this ageless monster is poetic. To die as an old man is not. Alonso’s eyes gaze upon his rum, mind focused on mortality. 95,000,000 years ago, crocodiles as we commonly know them began to exist. Mankind, fully functional homo sapiens, has been around for under 200,000 years. 200,000 years! Crocodiles are 475 times older than us. Crocodiles are as old as the mountains. Alonso wonders, will we, mankind, see as many as another 2,000 years? It has been 100 years since the first world war. It has been 1,000 years since the first crusade. It has been 2,000 years since Christ. Could humans survive another 2,000? If I am a betting man, I say to Roberto, I’d take the under. Roberto explains to Alonso who nods at my statement, agreeably. He finishes his rum. I do likewise, in solidarity. Alonso haphazardly splashes more into our cups. We’re in our twilight, Roberto translates. Roberto does not say if Alonso is speaking for himself or humanity in general, but it soon becomes clear. If we do our job, Roberto says as Alonso looks over his shoulder at the moonlit waters beyond our beach. If we do our job, crocodiles will live on beyond us. As they should. If we fail, the crocodiles will fall with the impending doom of the Anthropocene. To Alonso, the extinction of man is imminent. The question becomes, who do we bring down with us?

El Chivo Loco

Earlier this week, in an act of brazen dumbfuckery, I leapt from a fiberglass boat into a lagoon to help corral a juvenile cocodrilo. After those actions, Alonso began calling me el Chivo Loco, the crazy goat. Waist deep in lagoon muck, I stood my ground as the slender 5’ junior croc charged me. I had nothing more than a net to keep it from snatching the nose off my face. We captured the cold-blooded hijo de puta and brought him back to the field station where we weighed and measured him to return him the following day. Return him like a toothsome Blockbuster video. At the end of that night, after showers and a dinner of mashed plantains and rabbit stew over rice, Alonso made a toast to his team, grabbing me by the shoulder. The old son of a bitch said of me, todo corazón sin cabeza. Which means “all heart, no pumpkin”. I think. I could be wrong. Alonso beat his chest and the Cuban crew cheered, raising their beer cans to me. ¡El Chivo Loco! I smiled, wishing my dad was alive to see this. See dad? I’m all heart and no pumpkin. Wish you were here. 

El Chivo Loco with the juvenile cocodrilo

When I first arrived, weeks ago, I was greeted by Professor Alonso, Bienvenido a la casa de la yuca. Welcome to the house of the cassava, welcome to this faraway place. He checked my passport and conferred with Professor Roberto. Victor Neverman?, Alonso asked Roberto. Si, Victor. Hombre de Nada, Roberto explained my surname. Si, bienvenido, Victorito, Alonso nodded and gave me a patronizing pat on the head. He clearly had his doubts. Little did he know I would come to be known as El Chivo Loco, the greatest iguana hunter of the Rio Jobabo, not to mention a pretty good crocodile wrangler. 

Tonight, the kettle is whistling as Old Man Santiago is heating more water for coffee over the wood-fired stove. I’m contemplating the place of man in the deep-history of the earth. The spirituality we once had with man-eaters has been replaced with a love for automobiles, according to Alonso. Cuba is full of classic cars from a bygone era, Almendrón. Those old Chevys were built to last. Personas, no. His heavy eyes hint at pain. Too many die as the candle, Roberto interprets. Whiff!, Alonso whistles. He worries about his own slow decay. Misma la Habana. Roberto explains, better to die as you live. Alonso laughs, cena de cocodrilo. I get it. Better to be eaten by the crocodile while fully alive than live life too thin. Esqueleto rumbero!, Alonso laughs. He then teases Roberto about his mother. The kind-eyed academic, Roberto, admits to me his mother has secretly kept the religion she was raised with before the Revolution. For her, if her son were to be eaten by a crocodile, it would be the same as being swallowed by the serpent, corrupted by the devil. Roberto’s mother made her son’s colleague, Alonso, promise her, if Roberto is eaten by a crocodile, Alonso must hunt and kill the monster, extracting all of the stomach contents in order for her to bury her hijo properly. Tonight, Roberto smiles, telling me, my mother does not wish me to be mierda de cocodrilo

Y tu madre?, Alonso asks, nodding his chin in my direction. 

Me auld mum? Ha! Where do you think I got this crazy goat heart from? If I die chasing her dreams of Cuba, she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Saludos a nuestras madres!, Alonso begins a toast as he fills our glasses with rum. Roberto smiles before he translates Alonso’s words. Salud to our mothers, may they outlive us, but not our memory. May they forgive us our sins. And may they forgive us for being their sons. 

Salud. Amen. 

For more drunken philosophical banter with scientists, read about Vic’s time in the Amazon

Sunset from the delta of Rio Jobabo

  1 comment for “Cocteles y Cocodrilos de Cuba: a tiki bar story

  1. Sue
    February 20, 2023 at 9:09 pm

    Salut Ben. Loved loved the flashback to Cuba!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: