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Gecarcinus ruricola: Or, Our Extended Stay in Cuba

By Hannah Quinn, University of Toronto and Bronwyn Frey, University of Toronto

After a long day of travel and acclimatization to the tropical humidity, Bronwyn and Hannah found themselves suddenly awake at 1:30 am in their room at the Playa Costa Verde resort.

“Do you hear that?”

A scratching, scurrying noise was coming from the far corner near the patio door. Bronwyn turned on a lamp, and they peered into the corner from the safety of their beds. Afraid of rodents, Hannah lept from her one-person cot near the door to the king-sized bed across the room. Bronwyn gingerly shifted the curtains and a few pieces of luggage in search of the source of the noise, but to no avail. Both dismayed and relieved, they giggled about their fear of rats and turned off the light.

Twenty minutes later, the squeaking and scratching roused them again. Damn! Was it munching away at the snacks in their luggage? Hannah called the front desk:

“¿Hola, que tal?”

“Yes, hello, hi, we think there might be a rat in our room. Can someone come and check it out?”

“A rat? Oh no, señora, that’s just not possible.”

“Well… that may well be, but there’s something in our room.”

Claro, I will send someone.”

They waited for 10, 15, 20 minutes and no one came. With the light on, there was silence. They resignedly turned out the light and attempted to sleep. Hannah suggested that Bronwyn put in her earplugs and that she would listen for the resort staff’s arrival. At 2:30 am, a knock on the door.

A Cuban man stood in the doorway. “¿Hay un ‘rat’?”

After letting him in, Hannah quickly jumped back onto the bed. The man circled the room, displacing furniture, lifting tables, and shifting mattresses. Hannah and Bronwyn moved out of his way accordingly, stunned by the confident briskness of his movements.

“No rat, señoras.”

They both sighed.  “I know what I heard,” said Bronwyn.

The man paused. “Maybe it’s a crab.”

Nonplussed, Hannah and Bronwyn looked at each other knowingly. “I heard squeaking,” said Bronwyn.

The man threw open the patio door and stepped outside. Languid nighttime air filled the room, gently blowing the curtains …

“Was it this?!”

The man leapt into the room with no small measure of showmanship. In his right hand, long bony legs writhing and thrashing, was a crab the size of a human head. Bronwyn shrieked and hid her face from the xenomorphic terror. Hannah burst out in laughter. “Oh my god, what is that?!”

“A crab. It’s a crab.”

They laughed; a combination of utter exhaustion and shock gave rise to euphoric cackling. Also laughing, the man explained that this was a land-crab.

The terrestrial Gecarcinus ruricola inhabit much of the Caribbean. With their sharp claws, orange and black colouring, spritely demeanour, and combative stances, they are referred to as “zombie crabs” because they are nocturnal and avoid the sun. Having adapted to life on land, the female crabs return to the sea each summer to lay their eggs. They are a migratory crustacean.

Determined to reach their marine destination, the crabs manoeuvre across, over, and through many obstacles. Scuttling sideways, they traverse the island, interrupting the daily lives of Cubans in a number of ways, including traffic congestions followed by inevitable crustacean carnage and a pungent rotting seafood smell. In 1758, the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus described the crab migration: “every year, an army marches out of the forests towards the sea.”

image beach

(Photo: Footprints on the beach at Dusk at the Playa Costa Verde, May 14, 2018)

A month has waxed and waned since CASCA-Cuba 2018. Surrounded now by fieldnotes and research materials, we reflect on our own southward migration. A mass of anthropologists scuttle sideways, traverse land and sea, and interrupt the daily lives of Cubans in a number of ways. Having adapted to this kind of travel, we meet in distant places to share our work, discuss emerging ideas, and debate ongoing discipline-specific anxieties. Sometimes the claws come out, sometimes our soft insides are moved by the powerful work of friends and colleagues, sometimes we simply retreat to the shade to hide from the sun and the social demands of conference life.

While we have adapted to annual migration to academic conferences, CASCA-Cuba offered us an opportunity to reflect on what we expect from such events. Access to WiFi, PowerPoint, printing, bug spray, and other comforts were often limited. Expectations of regular and safe travel were disrupted when we learned of the tragic Cubana crash that killed over a hundred Cuban nationals, delaying our own return flights. The delayed departures frustrated many and simply prolonged the vacation for others. The impacts of the catastrophe were unevenly distributed.


(Photo: Preparing for a panel hosted by the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography at the Casa Dranguet, May 17th, 2018)

Bronwyn’s first thought upon hearing about the delay was to hoard one-hour internet cards, which had run out during the first, pre-conference sojourn at Playa Costa Verde and were the only means of web connectivity. She bought one in the morning and another that afternoon. When another seven-hour delay was announced, she bought two more again. A miserly coconut crab in times of uncertainty, quietly snagging valuables and tucking them away in her cool, dark purse. Back in Canada, on the train from Pearson airport to downtown Toronto, she counted three unused internet cards in her wallet.

The tragedy and subsequent delays forced us to reflect on a number of questions: What should we do as a group of anthropologists in Cuba, at that moment? What are the impacts and benefits of hosting such a conference in Cuba? How might we mobilize our migratory rituals in fruitful and ethical ways? What kind of disruptions are we causing? We hope that we can inhabit this migrating-feisty-crab-that-disrupts metaphor in productive ways.

Claws up, combative stances, hard exteriors and soft insides, the tenacity to traverse difficult ground, the propensity to adapt to different terrain – these are qualities we can aspire to as anthropologists and as people. Being aware of the limits of our knowledge and experience, and knowing when to take a step out of the sun to listen and learn, is crucial to what we do. We were sure that it was a rat, but as we were told, that was simply not possible. In these moments where we realize we are misinformed and quick to conclude, when we learn something new about ourselves, others, and our situation, we hope that laughter, humility, and enjoyment are the emotions we resort to.

Image-3(Photo: Bronwyn Frey, Hannah Quinn, Janita Van Dyk, and Alex Rewegan standing outside of the Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Santiago de Cuba. May 19th, 2018.


(Photo: Waiting for a motorcycle taxi outside of the Melía Hotel in Santiago de Cuba. May 17th, 2018.)


Carl Linnaeus (1758). “Cancer”. Systema Naturae (10th ed.). Stockholm, Sweden: Laurentius Salvius. Pp. 649–658.

(Photo: Waiting for a motorcycle taxi outside of the Melía Hotel in Santiago de Cuba. May 17th, 2018.)

Photos taken by Hannah Quinn (2018)

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