HAVANA TIMES – The Paso Malo Canal was always a border between real life and holidays for me. The journey used to begin 32 kms before, and the excitement would grow as we passed the coconut palms and coastal she-oaks planted along the side of the highway. The marshy Faro de Maya lagoons and the boat run aground on the coast, the Damuji River, all gave a certain mystical air to the adventure. Then came the Oasis Hotel, the “Welcome to Varadero” sign, the Marina Darsena Varadero, the old airport; but we felt like the real fun only began once we crossed over the draw bridge, as we called it.
We only saw the bridge raised once. A sailboat was sailing down the canal and its mast was taller than the road. As we waited, my childish mind combined this sight of engineering with catastrophic ideas of accidents and the bridge caving in, of Caribbean pirates and walled cities, of incredible worlds that needed to be conquered.
Just like my imagination, everything flowed a lot easier back then: you didn’t need to set out and forget about the reality you left behind at home. We weren’t aware of everything our parents had to do to for us to take with us a pot of yellow rice with calamari that we used to eat in plastic plates in the shade of the bridge. There weren’t so many tourists and hotels. Likewise, the difference between Cubans wasn’t so huge like it is now.
Many decades later, watching the Cuban flag flutter on one side and children diving into the water, I think about how the duty of becoming an adult is a painful experience. I suddenly force myself to remember that I’m on holiday. That I’m here with my daughter. That I’ve already crossed the border [of the two Cuba’s]. That I can give myself the luxury of seeing everything in Varadero’s colors.
That’s when I discover a woman sitting on a bucket, fishing alone, with her fishing line, waiting for the fish to bite. I dare to break the silence. She lets me take some photos. I also ask some questions.
“My name is Caridad,” she answers. “Sometimes I catch something, yes. I don’t do it because I need to, but rather to keep myself entertained. I come at 5 PM and I leave before nightfall. I used to come with a friend up until last week, who has been fishing for many years; but she’s fractured her arm. Old age, just imagine. Although she’s younger than me, she’s only 70.”
Caridad picks up the fishing line. The piece of squid that she’s using as bait is still intact on the hook. She asks me to move aside a little so she can throw it back in. The plastic bag makes this typical sound, the parabola, and it falls more than half-way into the canal.
“How old do you think I am?” she asks, but she doesn’t give me time to answer her. She’s already turned 82.
A few minutes of silence follow. I observe the wrinkles on her face, her firm hand, her calm attitude of an 80-year-old woman who is teaching us a life lesson: she enjoys a little bit of a holiday every day. On the opposite shore, a family seems to be doing the same thing, in the water up to their waist. A girl jumps from the bridge, this time. A cat comes out of the underbrush meowing. We don’t have any food to feed it, only affection. My daughter strokes it first, her hand on the feline’s fur. The feeling of touch, an instinctive sensation.
Caridad tells me that she has always lived on 14th Street, that she has four children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. One of her daughters will come later to pick her up. The simple breeze that blows take away my desire to ask her what her childhood memories of Varadero are. If tourism benefitted her family. If some of them have emigrated.
“I’ll talk to her another day,” I repeat to myself. “Today, is a day of rest.”
The flag flutters on this side of the bridge. At the police control check, a bus of workers is stopped. They’ve just finished their shift at the hotels here. There will be a bag and backpack check, I guess. I don’t want to think about the passengers’ stress. I don’t want to think about why they have to “hustle” things and then take them out hidden. I tell myself that for them, the bridge over Paso Malo Canal is also a border, but they are happier as they move away from Varadero.
Everything is relative. There is still a cat meowing with hunger at my daughter’s feet.