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The Grateful Talk About the Light

Taking photos of boats in Cuba requires a bit of strategy and even more luck. As you may have already surmised, boats are a closely guarded resource in a country where defection is at best a much discouraged act. Nonetheless, I was determined to capture some boat hull images when I went to Cuba earlier this year. Where better to go than Cojimar, where Ernest Hemingway often docked his 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, during the twenty years that he lived in Cuba?

Given the logistical issues of renting a car in Cuba, I hired a driver for what ended up being a half day to take me to marinas both just east and west of Havana, and as expected, it was the eastern marina in Cojimar that yielded the most interesting boats with the best textures, and to which we ultimately gained the best access.

First, however, was getting the transportation. My hotel connected me with Gabriel, a local driver who would take me where I wanted to go. When we each introduced ourselves, he said, "Like Michelle Obama! You'll be my Michelle Obama and I'll be your angel, Gabriel."

We chatted on the 20 minute drive to Cojimar, each of us trying our best with our nonnative languages. His much more practiced English far surpassed my less frequently used Spanish, but we still managed, encouraging and prompting each other along the way. Gabriel explained that he was learning English on his own with textbooks that he purchased, and was determined to be fluent in several languages to help with his current job and to better position himself for potential opportunities in the island's hospitality industry. He often studied while in his car while waiting to be hired -- that is, when he wasn't catching a quick nap to help him get through a 24+ hour work day.

Gabriel noted that the he lived near Cojimar and was familiar with the boatyard where we were headed. Entry might be difficult given the security at the site, but he would do his best to explain our purpose and to negotiate our way behind the tall and rusty chain link fence. Gabriel proved worthy of his name as he spoke with the men at the gate, cueing me to show examples of my artwork on my phone to illustrate his argument. Deal struck, we gained access to the boats within, accompanied by Hanki, who worked at the boatyard and walked us around the site.

The boatyard at Cojimar was unlike any that I'd seen, with boats strewn about in an array of states, from fully restored to varying degrees of decrepitude, and no shortage of 'texture' to be found on the hulls within. Taking photos of the boats was often complicated by their position on the ground (and my poor decision to wear a sundress) rather than up on stands, but it was fantastic to hear Hanki give brief histories of some of the boats. One vessel lay on the ground in halves, having been bisected in an accident (fortunately no injuries), with each piece several feet apart. Remnants of another from a failed defection attempt lay outside the gates, more readily seen as a cautionary example.

Hanki was happy to show us still another carcass of a boat (above) that lay outside of the fenced in boatyard, oddly abandoned in a slightly wooded area just down the dirt road. This boat had the distinction of being made of cement (!), with framed-out spaces in front and back to accommodate coolers for either the day's catch or refreshment - or both. Dead fronds fell on it from above while new vegetation grew from within.

As Hanki walked us back to the entrance of the site, another man emerged from one of the low buildings within to proudly show us the freshly extricated jaws from a shark caught earlier that morning, still wet and red with blood. Sensing in me an endlessly interested audience, the man went back inside to retrieve a treasured book about Hemingway's time in Cojimar, carefully protected in a plastic bag, but still bearing occasional scribbles on some pages from his curious children.

Pictured at top is "Habana", taken at the boatyard in Cojimar. Habana is the bisected vessel also pictured in situ in the second photograph.


“Man can never be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns us with the same light that warms us. The sun has spots (stains). The ungrateful only talk about the spots (stains). The grateful talk about the light.”

― José Martí, La Edad de Oro



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