30 minutes in the Life is live and this month I am going to do something different. For the most part 30 minutes is about the photographs we take. Every so often, I will take photographs that I know just have to have a story. This month the photographs captured my imagination. While the photographs are based on a true event, the story is purely mine.
On a public beach in South Florida, the sun has drawn out many folk to catch some rays of sunshine. Beach umbrellas and cabana’s litter the beach. The day is gorgeous, while a little breezy. I stand at the foot of the sand looking for my story.
Peering down the beach, I do not see what I am looking for. I am about to give and go home. One last look. I head a little further onto the sand and suddenly I see, nestled among the umbrella’s, cabana’s and sun tanning folk, is exactly what I am looking for.
On the waters edge lies a rusted, crudely welded panel boat with a story to tell. A story of hopes and dreams. When I saw this boat, and heard what had happened, I knew there had to be more to this rusty boat.
Back in 1959, Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, and over the next couple of years relations with the United States rapidly deteriorated. History will tell that under Castro rule electricity was brought to the coutryside, literacy levels were raised and the healthcare system was improved. However, on the opposite spectrum history tells us that there was a move to close down opposition newspapers, stifle future elections and jail opposing political members. On January 3, 1961 the US Embassy closed its doors in Cuba and diplomatic relations were severed. All private businesses were confiscated by the Castro Government. Life remained at a standstill in this tiny island. Nothing changed, and by all accounts and conversations I have had with family of Cubans life did not improve. Even today, I am told, people still stand in long lines to buy bread and to get their milk rations.
Some of you will know that I am a South African living in the USA. We did the immigration story legally, going through all the right channels and waiting for approval etc etc. However, as a foreigner, I know what it was like the day we left. I remember the sadness, the fears, the knowledge that there was a huge possibility that we may not see family again. That everything that was familiar would now be gone. That we did not know what would happen when we reached the other side. Our story has been a good one so far, but in so many ways I can relate to the story I am trying to piece together.
I have never traveled to Cuba, I have no idea what the living is like on this island, but I know poverty. I know what it is like to be without. I have traveled through African countries that have been destroyed by war. I have seen and heard the stories from people living there. So I have to wonder what life is like in Cuba, that makes people want to build a boat, climb aboard, and put their lives at risk, all for a better future. Perhaps the words on the side of this boat describe the feeling of the 9 on board – “Miserables”.
Somewhere in the recent past, a plan fell into place. Travel with me for a while, use your imagination, feel the fear, feel the heartbeats pounding, feel the ebb and flow of the tides as the boat slowly inches forward.
In silent whispers in the night 9 committed souls make a decision that they pray will change their lives. Each is sworn to silence. Don’t tell a soul. Don’t share with your family. Don’t even tell your best friend. Secrets that cannot be shared, fears that cannot be voiced. Trust no one, except the 9. 9 committed souls, all in………come what may!
I wonder what it was like. Did anyone tell their family their plans? Or did they decide not to share anything? If they told their families, were their families encouraging, were they fearful. What were the fears? Did their story get out?
In secret they began gathering materials. In secret they began to weld the materials together. In secret they forged an opportunity. Can you imagine what that must be like…building a boat in secret? A boat that is not too small yet not too big either, about one and a half times the size of an average dining room table. Add a truck engine inside the boat with a shift stick. How do you hide a boat that size? How do you launch a boat that size? Can 9 do this?
Messages passed in fear, meetings that were sporadic. A boat they continued to build. A hope and a dream for a better future. A name painted on the side of a boat “Americano 2015”. A dream in writing. On the top of the boat the words “OK” are painted in red. Last but not least they tie a blue rubber wrist band that says “I love Coral Springs” Their destination is set. Finally the boat is ready.
The day dawns. This is it! How do you say goodbye to those you love… My breath catches at the thought. Did they visit their family that day? Did they get to say their goodbyes? Did they hug their loved ones, knowing that they may never see them again? Were there tears in their eyes? Did they tell the family their plans?
Moments of staring at your loved ones and wondering whether you would look upon their faces again. Would you kiss your mother? Would you hug your father? Would you cradle your sisters baby in your arms? You are leaving behind the bonds that have tied you together. I am sure a deep sorrow existed in each of the 9 for the loss that would take place. Yet I am sure, there is a spark of hope for the potential future that they may find.
Imagine that they are now ready to begin their journey. How did they move the boat to the water’s edge? Gut feeling says that they moved the boat in the dead of night . What were they thinking? I can hear their rapid heartbeats in my mind. I can feel the breath that is held. What if they got caught? What if….what if….
They are out at sea. Did they know what the tides would bring? Had they studied the storm patterns? How did they plot their course? In a speed boat it is estimated to take approximately 12 hours. I have read enough articles to understand that the “boats” that are built could quickly become deathtraps. From Cuba to Key West is around the area of 90 miles. From Cuba to Miami it is closer to 300 miles. When you get into your boat with no propeller system, just a driving mechanism, you are subject to the whims of the ocean, it currents and the wind. The currents, by all accounts, are very strong. If you are unable to steer your “boat” then you are unable to define how far you are going or where exactly you may be.
What preparation did they make for turbulent seas. Did they have ropes available to tie themselves in if the storms got to difficult to handle?
Looking at the boat there was very little cover. So the 9 would be open to all the elements, sea water and sun, a deadly combination for burning and dehydration. Rain, lightening, and cold would also impact them. I have to wonder if they packed tarpaulin to cover and protect themselves?
I try to estimate how many days they were at sea. Had they packed enough food and water for 9 people? Did they take into account that they may drift at the whim of the rolling seas? I have read articles of severe dehydration, men stepping off their raft into the water never to be seen again and men hallucinating of seeing sea horses and at times land. Recently in May after being caught in very rough sea, 6 Cuban refugees made it ashore in Hollywood. After 5 days out in the ocean they were severely dehydrated. I think about how long my 9 were out at sea.
It appears the boat might have had a leak. Can you imagine being in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and you suddenly see water seeping through your boat. They appear to have done the best they could and plug the area with a strip of t-shirt. It probably slowed the seepage down but did not stop it.
How rough was the ocean? Did the waves crash into the inside of the boat. Did the seaweed fill the boat with the crashing waves, or did this happen as the boat limped to shore, empty and abandoned.
Around just one short mile off land, with visibility of the beach, the US Coast Guard picked up the refugees from their boat after a Good Samaritan reported them floating at sea. I looked again at the brief video footage I had seen shortly after I took photos of the boat. It looks like there were 8 men and 1 woman in the Americano 2015 boat. They all looked reasonably good. All were reported healthy. Some of the men tried to slip away from the rescue boat, knowing the wet feet, dry land rule. If they are picked up at sea, they will be returned to their port of origin. If their feet touch soil, they will be allowed to remain. How heartbreaking it must have been for them, to have got so far, and no further.
These 9 souls, will in time be returned to Cuba. A shattered dream. A lost hope. My heart goes out to them. To be so desperate to put their lives in the hands of the elements to search for new beginnings, only to have them thwarted just one mile from their final destination.
But what does the future look like for them when they arrive back in Cuba? What will happen with the authorities? For many of us we will continue to speculate. For those on the beach, life goes on. There is a story to tell by those who saw the rescue go down. For others, the sun will come out, the umbrella’s will go up, and the day will begin. There may just be a rusty boat in the middle of your beach.
“The sea is endless when you are in a rowboat.”
~ Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel
Thank you for joining me for this month’s 30 minutes. This is a circle blog. Please take time to visit my friend, Cindy of image421 | photography by Cindy Cavanagh – Sydney Lifestyle photographer, and see what she has for you this month. Keep following the circle to see what the other photographers have shared this month.
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What an amazing story Sharleen! Wonderful images too. I loved your post. 🙂
Thank you Karen.
Sharleen, these are wonderful!! Love everything about this!
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Thank you Stacey.
Wow Sharleen… this was an incredibly moving post! I always love your narratives mixed with your images. I grew up in Florida, and some of my friends were children of Cuban refugees. I’ve heard their harrowing stories full of bravery and danger… this post was really well done!
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Thank you Colleen. It felt good to look at it from a humanitarian point of view. I know that there are all sorts of legalities that should be followed but it really resonated deep in my soul the depths that folk will go to make changes in their lives.
Wow, what an interesting post and amazing images…you certainly tell moving stories with your images ! 🙂
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Thank you Hayley – if it moved you then I achieved what I hoped it would do,
You articulated the story from the perspective of the freedom seeking Cuban so well, it brought tears to my eyes. Very well done my friend and the photos are amazing!!
Thank you Diana, and thank you for sharing your stories with me. You gave me a greater depth from which to work.
so beautiful! love the boat images, so much texture!
Thank you Alec. It was very interesting to see sitting there on the beach.
Sharleen, you’ve outdone yourself this month! Fabulous detail captured in your images and your words moved me to tears. Just wonderful.
Thank you so much Charlotte. I can’t begin to imagine how those folk felt.