Back to the Island

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Watching the sun set from the Hotel El Colony, Island of Youth, Cuba. (Mark Peyton) 

By Mark M. Peyton

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home. You can’t go back to a place and find that it has, over time, remained the same. You change, and the people there change. We were hoping that would not be the case as we landed in Nueva Gerona.

Nueva Gerona is on the Isla de la Juventud or, in English, The Island of Youth. The island wasn’t always called that. Over the course of history this small Caribbean island has had a number of colorful names.

In 1494 on his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sailed along the southern coast of Cuba as far as this little island, which he named La Evangelista. Sailors soon renamed the island the Isla de Cotorras, (Island of Parrots), and today there is still one of the largest nesting colonies of a subspecies of the Amazon parrot (Amazona l. leucocephala).

In time it became known as Treasure Island because pirate ships stopped at the island to recruit crew members from the prison colony located on the Island, hide in the many coves of its shoreline and, according to rumor, bury their loot. It was by this name that Robert Louis Stevenson used it as the backdrop to his novel by the same name.

James Matthew Barrie also utilized the island as the backdrop in his fantasy about a little boy who didn’t want to grow up … yep, we traveled to Neverland.

Tall, stately Caribbean pines (Pinus caribaea) are common on the island, and as the romance of the pirate age faded, lumbering became the island’s major industry and the name was changed to the Island of Pines. Along with lumbering there is a marble quarry and extensive cultivation.

The island also supports more than parrots. Juventud is home to the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer), the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) and a number of cool birds, including the small, aggressive tody (Todus multicolor), the Cuban trogon (Pritelus temnurus) and the extremely rare Cuban sandhill crane (Grus canadensis nesiotes).

The Island of Youth, named for 30 or so abandoned communist youth “finishing” schools, is part of Cuba. In 2010 biologists, engineers, a psychologist and a medical doctor nervously took the 30-minute flight on the aged, twin-engine Russian plane from Havana to Nueva Gerona to carry out a humanitarian mission to aid the people of Cuba. Since the embargo established by President Kennedy in 1962, a humanitarian mission is one of the few ways U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba.

The mission was in response to a series of four devastating hurricanes that struck Cuba over a three-month period in fall 2008. The mission itself came about when a group of us were sitting in a motel room in Wisconsin drinking beer after an all-day meeting of The North American Crane Working Group. I asked Felipe how the people on the island were coping with the aftermath of the storms. Felipe is Dr. Felipe Chavez Ramirez, one of the premiere crane biologists in the world. He conducts research in Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Mexico, the U.S. and at various places in Cuba.

On the Island of Youth is an ecological reserve dedicated primarily to the protection of the Cuban parrot, but it is also home to about 30 percent of all of the Cuban sandhill cranes remaining in the wild. Workers at the reserve live in La Victoria, a small rural community located an hour away from the airport in Nueva Gerona.

Felipe stated that the island and the community of La Victoria were devastated. He also indicated that because of political, geographic and economic issues, this would be the last area where the Cuban government would focus its reconstructive efforts and that the folks of La Victoria were more or less on their own.

I lamented the fact that the embargo prevented American charities and churches from helping as they were doing in Haiti and on other islands. Felipe said, “Church groups can go to Cuba!” That was enough for me, and on the spot I volunteered the First Presbyterian Church of Gothenburg’s assistance. Mark Czaplewski, a biologist with the Central Platte Natural Resource District, leaned over and said, “I’m Catholic, but I’ll go along if it’s all right with your church!” I said, “Sure!”

A little more was required than my simply saying, “Sure.” First I had to ask the church if they would sponsor a mission to Cuba. The church was willing; however, getting permission from the other entity (no, not my wife) was a little harder. To go to Cuba we had to have permission from the United States Department of Treasury! To make a long, painful and frustrating story short, I submitted our application for a license to travel to Cuba in December 2008 and received permission in March 2010!

In November, Mark; Jerry Kenny, executive director of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program; Bridget Baron, a psychologist and director of outreach and communications for the Platte River Program; Luis Ramirez, a graduate student from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Dr. Carol Skinner, M.D., from Gothenburg and Devin Brundage, an electrical engineer with the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, and I spent six days on the Island of Youth working with the people who lived there.

Our mission had three objectives. First was to restore the electrical power system at the Los Indios Ecological Reserve. The reserve is about eight kilometers from La Victoria. Electricity for the main office, kitchen and storerooms is provided by a set of solar panels. The storms destroyed those panels.

The second objective of the mission was to address the lack of fresh drinking water at the refuge. With the help of the Gothenburg Chapter of Rotary International and their program to develop clean drinking water worldwide we were able to purchase the materials necessary for driving a new water well.

Our last objective was to help with the repair of the individual workers’ homes.

Mark Czaplewski, Devin Brundage and others enjoy a warm evening watching cranes. (Mark Peyton)

In 2010 getting to La Victoria was almost as difficult as turning right at the second star and flying on till morning. We had to first travel to Mexico and then on to Havana. Our Cubana Airlines plane was an aging Russian-made Yak. As the plane fired up, the entire cab filled with smoke! The captain came on the intercom and said… “No worry, this is normal for this plane…” It wasn’t really smoke, it was condensation, and it had something to do with the air conditioner and the hot, humid tropic air…

We made it to Havana and met with the authorized travel agent and received our packet of “papers.” We drove to the Hotel Inglaterra, an elegant hotel built in the 19th century. We had a mojito or two on the veranda and watched Havana’s Saturday night social scene come to life.

Sunday morning, well before sunup, we boarded an even older Russian twin-engine plane for the 30-minute flight to Nueva Gerona. It was then an hour’s drive to La Victoria where our hosts, Pluto and Elba and their neighbor Oscar, had a welcoming meal waiting for us.

Before dinner we walked around the small community. Mark Czaplewski brought along a number of baseballs, and the young boys were amazed that someone they did not know was just giving them baseballs. It didn’t take long before everyone in town knew of our arrival.

Dinner consisted of a roast pig, fresh lobster, deep-fried banana slices (more addictive than McDonald’s French fries) and a starch staple of the island called yuca root (a woody shrub with the scientific name of Manihot esculenta, not the yucca, or soap weed, we have here).

Following dinner we drove the final 10 kilometers to our hotel, the El Colony. This is a beautiful hotel situated right on the beach, miles from anything else! Down the road a kilometer or so is the army/navy base, a scuba diving shop and a two-boat marina.

We spent Monday getting organized. That afternoon we drove down the road to a hill that overlooks a wetland where sandhill cranes come to roost. There we settled in to wait like so many folks do in March along the Platte. The difference being that the temperature was in the 80s with a light breeze.

Three young farmers in the area joined us and offered to provide us with dinner for the same price as the hotel. Without a moment’s hesitation we accepted their invitation and set it up for later in the week.

In addition to our mission work we wanted to experience some of the refuge work.

One task was cutting down pot-bellied palms. These are the trees the Cuban parrots nest in. The problem is that the birds like the palms that are out in the open, but the storms had knocked most of these isolated trees down. So the refuge workers cut trees in the crowded jungle area and dragged them to the open areas where they “replanted” them. Carol insisted she get to “replant” dead trees, and so we did.

Easier said than done. The wood of the palm is amazingly hard, and the only way to cut it was by ax. We all took turns, and we felled six trees. We then cut the tops out of the trees to make them lighter.

The pipe and pump arrived, and once the workers understood what to do, they took over. The refuge director, fresh from the marble quarry, took the 25-pound sledge hammer, the only driving tool we had, stood on a rickety old chair and, even though we all took turns, basically drove that well. We called him El Hammer from that time on. He could wield a sledge!

We finished out the third day by “replanting” the six trees we cut earlier.

Access to and from the refuge, a distance of about eight kilometers, is either by horse-drawn wagons or by foot. While the rest of us road the wagons, Mark and Devin joined a worker and walked. According to Mark and Devin, when converted to English units, the eight-kilometer walk to town is about 30 miles!

We did schedule one “rest” day, and that morning Luis, Devin, Carol and I went down to the marina and joined a group of Brazilians on the scuba boat. Felipe took Jerry, Bridget and Mark to Nueva Gerona, where they toured the prison where Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned awaiting execution by the Batista government before the international community, led by the U.S., successfully lobbied for their release.

As Carol, Luis, Devin and I boarded the boat, we were asked if we wanted chicken or lobster for lunch. Well, duh! Fresh lobster, of course. On the way we met up with the fishing boat, so lunch consisted of some fresh fish along with the lobster.

At the dive site Luis, who was a newly certified scuba diver, and I jumped in with the Brazilians and enjoyed the reef. Carol and Devin snorkeled above us. The four of us then headed back while the Brazilians stayed to do more diving.

At the hotel we joined with the others and headed out to the “Three Guys” house. Once again we had roast pig, more fresh lobster (no losing weight on this trip), more deep-fried banana slices and yuca root. We brought along some cold beer, which for the Cubans is a real treat as most don’t have refrigerators.

When it came time to pay, we told them the hotel charged $12 per person, or $96 for the group. They were shocked. The average pay per month for a worker in Cuba is $22! They couldn’t conceive of paying half a month’s pay for dinner! Embarrassed, they suggested instead a more reasonable price of $5 each. We said, NO and handed them $120, or $15 per person for the meal. I don’t think I’ve ever been kissed so many times…

On our last day we took supplies to the various workers’ homes. Getting materials in Cuba is difficult at best, and sadly we were not able to get all the things they needed. But what we were able to provide for them was deeply appreciated.

Early the next morning we headed back in Havana. We were able to do some sightseeing and finish the trip with the Hemmingway Mojito Crawl. Earnest Hemmingway spent a lot of time in Havana, and he liked his drink. According to the story, he would make his way around the area having a drink in each location. He also looked a great deal like Jerry Kenny. People were doing double takes as we made our way along the “Crawl,” and before the night ended, people were asking to have their pictures taken with Jerry.

The most often asked question from the folks at La Victoria was, “When are you coming back?” My question in return was, “If we come back, what do you need?” The answer … a tractor!

Once again I contacted the Department of Treasury, and we received permission to make two additional trips back to La Victoria. In May five of us, Carol, Mark C., Devin, Felipe and I, flew back to Cuba. The rules have eased somewhat, and this time we flew American Airlines direct from Miami to Havana. No more planes full of smoke.

The purpose of this trip with a smaller group was to shop for and purchase a tractor. Over the past year we had taken in donations from the North American Crane Working Group, Rotary, a number of businesses in Gothenburg, Headwater’s Corporation and a number of other individuals. We were able to collect enough money to purchase a well-used tractor.

In addition, we got to spend a day with the people from La Victoria, and fortunately Mr. Wolfe was wrong because we felt completely at home with good friends.

The Viñales Valley as seen from the motel room. (Mark Peyton) 

After purchasing the tractor, we flew back to the Havana, where we boarded a bus and made our way to Pinar del Rio and the town of Viñales. We met other workers at other refuges and villages. This area was not in as much need as La Victoria as it is both a major tourist area and the area of Cuba where the best tobacco is grown. Needless to say, most of the hurricane damage had been repaired.

It was easy to see why the area was a tourist draw as it was beautiful (and the cigars were excellent!). We then traveled another three hours to the westernmost tip of Cuba and stayed at another very isolated hotel (Maria la Gorda … or, in English, Fat Mary’s) and met more wonderful people who again fed us like kings!

Cuba is changing. More and more individuals are leaving government employment and starting their own businesses, whether it be farming like the three young men in La Victoria, catering as our good friend Oscar is doing or in opening small restaurants in their homes.

While deeply proud of their Cuban heritage and of the “Revolution,” the majority of the people we met were very welcoming to a bunch of Yankees, and most are looking forward to the day in which the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. is one that is more open and friendly. We look forward to that day as well!

We left the island once again and headed home. Carol was on call, Devin had his son’s baseball games to attend, Mark C. had a lake aeration system to install and I had a yard service to catch up on… I don’t know if you can or can’t go home again, but I do know that once you get there, life returns to normal fairly quickly. Sitting on the mower I couldn’t help but think that my mower cost more than the tractor and how frugal, simple and meager their lives are compared to mine. I also couldn’t help but think about our next trip to La Victoria in October, and I caught myself humming Leon Russell’s song, “Back to the Island”:

Listen to the nightbird cry
Watch the sunset die
Well I hope you understand
I just had to go back to the island

 

 

For more about the First Presbyterian Church of Gothenburg and the missions it supports, visit www.fpcgothenburg.org.

 

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