Treasure Island

My first taste of the Isle of Youth came on a sticky March Havana night.  At the packed Latinamericano baseball stadium a crucial play-off game was in full swing.  Havana’s Industriales side came out narrow winners but the team from “La Isla” made a greater impression on me.

The outnumbered away fans made all the noise.  Raucous car horns burst eardrums while improvised percussion banged out a ceaseless rhythm.  Dancers in tight lycra gyrated on the roof of the visitors’ dugout.  The Habaneros were put to shame.

I immediately decided to visit the island.  I wasn’t even put off when I learned that the crossing from the mainland was by Soviet hydrofoil that could most graciously be described as vintage.  My ticket called it a “hidrodeslizador”; the passengers called it “La Kometa” - the Comet.  The name was flattering to its speed but it still beat the plodding ferry hands down.

It wasn’t just the exuberance of its sports fans that that had drawn me to the island.  RL Stevenson had used it as the fictional setting for “Treasure Island”, but the treasures that are promoted internationally are its beaches and especially its world-class diving.  Not being much of a diver I went looking for a taste of provincial life.

The island’s hotels were widely dismissed by guide books and visitors alike.  Most tourists opt for private homes.  My host, Alcides, was a man of influence.  He didn’t need to go to the shops (not that there was much to buy in them anyway): anyone with anything to sell came to him and could regularly be seen dangling bananas or chickens over his gate.  Alcides’ house was a typical “casa particular”: on payment of a hefty licence fee, Cubans can rent out spare rooms to foreign visitors.  The scheme has been successful: the Cuban family makes money in hard currency; the visitor gets to experience real Cuban life and eat better food than anything the average restaurant has to offer; the government gets tourist dollars without having to build new hotels.  Everyone’s a winner.

As a guest you always get the best room in the house.  Alcides had rather disconcertingly chosen to decorate mine with pictures of sports cars and page 3 models.  This was a symptom of the Cuban man’s obsession with his “chicas”.  Most  claimed to have one woman at home and two or three (they could never put a precise figure on it) “in the street”.  To me this begged the question of how many men each of these women had, but the Cuban male’s mathematics didn’t want to stretch to that calculation.

Alcides’ friend Manuel had a suitably excessive 1957 Cadillac which could only be started by climbing into the boot.  I recruited him to show me the island.

Manuel had a set tour of the local sights which was fine by me as I had no idea what I wanted to see.  A crocodile farm was more interesting than I expected but a hospital (don’t ask me why we even bothered) was closed.  Most of the time we cruised through pine forests and past the grapefruit plantations for which the island is known.

The aptly-named “El Colony” was where the European divers had settled.  The beach was nice enough, the sea was warm and the guests enthused about the reefs and wrecks.  But it hardly felt like Cuba.  We stopped for a couple of lazy rums and some sea air, chatting to a Norwegian couple who likened the resort to a  German sociological experiment.  Most of the guests would stay for two weeks and never leave the enclave.  How nice it was, the Norwegians said, to come across some Brits, which is not something you often hear in a beach resort.

The island’s best known resident was Fidel Castro, who stayed there for 19 months.  It wasn’t that he got hooked on the grapefruits but because he was held at the high-security pleasure of  Cuba’s former dictator.  Batista had ruled Cuba with an iron grip, selling much of its resources to the United States and tolerating no opposition.  Castro and his companeros – who would go on to be no less tolerant themselves - failed miserably in their first attempt at revolution by storming the Moncada barracks (now the Moncada primary school) in Cuba’s second city, Santiago.  Those who survived the fiasco were taken to the island and held at the Presidio Modela just outside Nuevo Gerona, the island’s capital.

The prison was built at Batista’s behest between 1926 and 1932, modelled on an innovative Illinois penitentiary.  It was closed down by Castro in 1967, presumably for reasons of personal distaste rather than for the reason given, true though it was, which was that conditions in the prison were inhumane.

The prison compound comprises four giant rotundas (eight had been planned but money ran out) with a lower circular dining hall and storeroom in the centre.  They all now stand hauntingly empty.  In front is a more elegant colonial-style building.  There is a famous picture of Fidel and his comrades descending its steps in 1955, naively released as part of a general amnesty  by a faltering Batista desperately in need of public support.

A museum shows the medical wing where the Moncada 12 were held in much greater comfort than the inmates of the rotundas.  Beside each bed is a mugshot of its former occupant.  Fidel’s shows the leader clean-shaven as if to prove the myth that his beard is the source of his power.  The resident guide spouted rehearsed propaganda to us, exaggerating the heroics of the revolutionaries and the cruelties of the old dictatorship.

The rotundas were grimly fascinating. Footsteps echoed loudly around the interiors and shafts of light cut through the disintegrating roofs.  They were five floors high and each floor was divided into 93 perimeter cells.  Though it hardly seemed possible, each cell had been shared by two men.

In the centre of each floor rose a concrete tower.  There were no stairs leading up to these so I assumed that, like the bars from the windows, they had been removed and melted down.  Manuel knew otherwise and led me outside and down an unlit tunnel.  At the end, stairs led up the inside to the top of the turret.  Those guards took no chances.

In a fit of irony, Manuel helped us to break into the prison’s dining hall by shinning over a gate.  The lift had crashed to ground level and the wooden benches and table-tops had been removed and recycled.  I could imagine the clamour of a full dining session but more than 30 years on the silence was eerie.

I arranged a plane ticket to leave the island.  Aerotaxi is Cuba’s answer to a no-frills airline.  Unless, that is, for “frills” you read “thrills”: they fly Soviet-era biplanes with seats for 4 crew and 12 passengers.  It all sounded a bit hair-raising so I checked with the locals to see what they thought.  The unanimous view was that these planes were absolutely safe.  An old plane must be a reliable plane: how could it still be flying if it wasn’t?  Anyway, they said, if the engine fails the plane can simply glide down.  It sounded as though there was more than an outside chance of this actually happening.  I was worried that an “X” - in the shape of a cross on this treasure island - would mark the spot where I ended my final journey.

The island’s air terminal was basic but functional: its baggage carousel was a playground roundabout half inside and half outside the arrivals lounge.  The plane was full, of course.  The passengers who weren’t throwing up sniffed limes to avoid doing so and joked nervously.  A collective sigh of relief greeted our safe landing.  The journeys to and from the Isle of Youth had aged me prematurely, but it had all been an unique travel experience.

Most Cubans call the island by its former name, the Isle of Pines; the Government calls it the Isle of Youth in appreciation of the efforts of the young in maintaining the revolution.  As for me, I call it treasure island but that has nothing to do with the book.

© Nicholas White 2000