On the Heels of Hemingway


The trash-filled shore

I’d never seen a shark butchered before, and I wasn’t particularly sure I wanted to see it then.

A man with cigar-sized digits hacked at its lifeless head with a black blade the length of my forearm. Blood and sea water oozed out of its mouth as he cut into its flesh, pooling on the cracked cement floor in a crimson puddle at the butcher’s feet. They’d caught the fish with a hook already stuck in its jaw and he was doing his darndest to remove it. It took over 20 minutes.

Even in death, the shark was a worthy adversary.

SPortnoy_20160125_9987-A hook, already stuck in the shark's mouth when they caught it gave the butcher a run for his money

A hook, already stuck in the shark’s mouth when they caught it, gave the butcher a run for his money

We stood in a small, open air shack belonging to a fishing co-op in Cuba situated along the Cojimar River at the edge of a small town by the same name.  Fishermen smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit, watched as one of their own went to town on the shark.

The ocean was a few hundred yards away on the other side of an unfortunate strip of land buried in trash. The Cubans were embarrassed by it, but it’d gotten so bad that to clear it would require dump trucks and a landfill and no one had the money for that. There was mention of a Canadian company partnering with the co-op to clean up what would otherwise be a lovely stretch of shore, but I couldn’t get a read on whether that was real or just a fantasy.


One strip of the large marina where the fisherman docked their boats

It was late morning on a Tuesday and the marina was pretty sleepy by the time we arrived. A man scraped the hull of a ship in dry-dock while others played dominoes. Most of the men had returned from their fishing runs hours before and dozens of vintage wooden boats filled the slips. Like their cousins, the vintage automobiles in Havana, they were held together with bubblegum and baling wire but none of them had the glorious veneers of the country’s classic cars. The Caribbean weather and salt water had not been kind.

It’s said that Cojimar inspired Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, a story about an aging Cuban fisherman who battles with a giant marlin off the coast of Florida. Looking at the bloodied shark head, the story seemed reasonable. To the left of the co-op, around the curve of the coastline, a nondescript multi-story building stood facing the bay.  The bar at its base, I was told, Hemingway used to frequent.


Dominoes popular in the city was just as popular in sleepy Cojimar

Our merry band of photographers wandered around the property for a couple of hours, enjoying the change of pace from our exploration of Havana’s frenetic streets and the sun which had hidden during most of our trip. I walked through rows of colorful, broken down storage units, which became my photographic muses for most of my visit. I liked playing with the bold colors, textures and graphics of the buildings to create images a little different from my norm.

I hung out with a wayward crab and watched as two men methodically baited six-inch hooks—a quarter inch thick and the length of my hand—in preparation for the next outing. The size of the hooks and the heavy roped wire attached to them, were a testament to the sheer power of the big fish they battled.

Did you know that fisherman hunt sharks and swordfish at night? (A little fishing trivia for you should you ever need it.)  But not on that evening, a full moon would keep them from going out on the black water. Apparently, the fish are frightened by the moonlight reflecting off the hooks.

As a land lubber, it was hard for me to imagine a shark being frightened of anything, but I took his word for it.


Two fisherman sort out a net to get it ready for their next trip


Two fisherman preparing large hooks with bait in preparation for their next jaunt


For added security, the fisherman ties the hooked bait onto the chain

Click this link for more posts about my Cuban adventure

*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.

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NEXT:  Cuba’s Colorful Streets and Happy Souls


Categories: Cuba, Culture

89 replies »

  1. AMAZING. This is one of the first blogs I’ve read since I’m new to this whole world. Incredible pictures! This sounds like an amazing trip. I hope one day I can reach this level (maybe once I upgrade from film cameras haha).

  2. Wow, Cuba really is a fascinating place. It seems that time goes slower there, as if it wanted to be gentler with Cubans. Awesome pictures, made me want to go there asap.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I kept looking at his toes trying to figure out how he wore closed shoes. I almost asked, but besides the fact I don’t speak Spanish ( I could have asked our guide to translate) I thought it might be an uncomfortable question for him.

  3. we say we love, but does anyone know what it means? For if we truly loved someone then we wouldn’t let them know. We would hide it. For with love always comes a broken heart, and you don’t want to break the hear of the one you love

  4. Amazing post and amazing pics especially!!!…apart from this, can u tell me how long it took you to get famous on WordPress if you don’t mind. (Just is you don’t Mind Susan). I started my site before 2 days and I know it takes effort. Hope you didn’t mind this. And the pics were amazing!

  5. Susan~ How long ago was this trip to Cuba? The pictures are very illustrative. This piece allures the curious.
    I’ll have to be sure to wait to take my son to Cuba until he is an adult. Terri fed of Sharks!

  6. I felt as though I was standing beside you in the shack watching. Your opening sentence totally drew me in, nice job!
    I couldn’t imagine fishing for shark in daylight, but in the dark…seems utterly terrifying.

  7. I’ve been following your blog for a while now Susan, and find you have developed a wonderful style in your writing that makes us want to read more and more of what you see and hear. I have always enjoyed your photography but now love the detail shots that you are including with each post. In other words a sheer delight to come to each time you post

  8. Love your pictures, Susan.. i guess you enjoy your trip..
    I recently shared a few pictures when I went to Quebec, pero I have a story similar like yours from Panamá… hope to share them soon. 🙂

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