When a Gift Is Not Good

The fisherman fends his dinghy off Forbidden Planet with one hand and waves at our flag excitedly with the other.
“Hola Canada! Me brother, he in Canada, he in Toronto,” says the fisherman holding onto our boat.
“Toronto? We’re from Toronto.”
“Me brother, he say Toronto very good, people very good, but muy fria.”
“Yes it’s very very cold, that’s why we’re here in Cuba. We don’t like the cold.”
We all laugh and look around at the turquoise water we’re floating in. Getting back to business, the fisherman hands over our purchase of 2 lobster tails each the size of a teenagers running shoe and we hand over our half of the deal, a $2 bottle of rum.

The fisherman casts his dinghy off, back to his mother ship. As Colin sheets in the sails we all wave goodbye. It’s a good thing I keep my camera handy so I’m able to snap a photo as our new friend holds up part of their days catch – a large sea turtle, also waving at us.

We continue floating through the blue and as the day fades we anchor in yet another splendid anchorage, just us and the fish. With the last bite of our barbequed lobster the putt putt of a diesel approaching enters the cabin. Poking our heads up we scan the horizon for our nights neighbours. The sun is still above the horizon, so we look forward to sharing drinks and stories with other cruisers. After all, what else is there to do in a deserted anchorage? However there’s no cruising boat, it’s the fishing boat from the afternoon. They launch their dinghy and paddle over.
“Hola Toronto!”
“Hola, que tal?”
“Bien, muy bien.”
It is illegal for Cubans to board foreign boats and even though the anchorage is totally deserted, this is a rule that few if any fisherman would dare break. So I know they’ve not come over for drinks. They’re busy tying up to us and I’m not too sure what to do next.
“Um, do you need something? Can I help you?”
“No no no. Gift. Regalo, para ti,” he beams at me. “For Toronto people.”
With that he reaches down to a bucket at his feet and with a grand flourish pulls out…..a turtle flipper.

“Muy delicioso, muy rico. For you, regalo,” he beams while shoving the large chunk of red meat at me. Now, I’m a city girl. Meat comes on nice little styrofoam trays, all diced and dressed and unidentifiable. It most certainly doesn’t have soft, brown leathery flippers attached to it. And it most certainly should not have waved at me in the recent past.
He thrusts the dripping appendage at me, smiling broadly.
This is one of those moments that I’ve debated about with friends over sanitized dinners back in nice clean Toronto: the clash of cultures. We all agree, when you are in another country, you follow their rules. Part of the travelling experience is to live by the social mores of another culture. In my culture, turtles are pets, not dinner. In my culture presenting a new friend with an 8 lb chunk of flesh, foot still attached is just not done. So here I am in his culture, his country and this is a special gift. I am aware of the food shortage and that this is a gift from someone who owns very little in the way of material posessions. Tempted as I am to run screaming, I cannot.
I grasp the flipper and quell my stomach.
“Muchas gracias, it’s very……large. Colin, can you bring the fish bucket out here? They’ve brought us a gift.”
Appearing in the cockpit with the bucket, Colin looks at the flipper, looks at me and starts laughing.
“OK chef, this one is all yours.”
“Open the emergency bottle of wine. Now. I need it.”
The fisherman and I continue to grin at each other, although my grin is bordering on hysterical. Colin reappears with a bottle of rum as a reciprocal present.
“Gracias y buenos noches, adios,” and they cast off.
“Wait! How do we cook this?” Colin has the presence of mind to ask.
They grab our boat again and go into a discussion of the various methods for cooking turtle. Cooking is one of my favourite topics of conversation and a bonus when I get to do it in Spanish. We pantomime, I learn new words and they get across to me several recipes for turtle steak, turtle stew and turtle soup. This is fun.
With a last reminder to not forget the vinegar, they depart. Colin hands me a large tumbler of wine.
“You look like you need this.”

The moral of the story is that cruising brings all sorts of new experiences. Some of them may drip blood on your feet. Breathe deep and enjoy the moment.

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