I felt a shock on learning that Diana Nyad would make an attempt to swim across the Florida Straits. I recalled the days in 1994, when my neighborhood of San Leopoldo was swarming with people building improvised rafts on which to launch themselves into the sea. I especially remember one group that left, during that period in which the Cuban authorities stopped preventing illegal departures. A craft armed with pieces of wood, plastic tanks serving as floats, the image of the Virgin of Charity, and a patched flag that no longer knew to which nation it belonged. But the most striking thing turned out to be that on that flimsy raft were only the elderly. There was a very black lady with a colorful straw hat, a flowered dress and a smile, thanking in both Spanish and English the boys who helped her to set sail. I never knew if that rickety expedition made it to its destination, if all those seniors disposed to start again got the opportunity.
Seventeen years later, I hear the news that an American wants to try the same route, but this time protected by divers, a pair of kayaks and even a medical team. Her laudable intention was to highlight the closeness between the Island and its neighbor to the north, to help reconcile both shores. But the Straits of Florida is also part of our national cemetery, the graveyard where lie thousands of our compatriots. The omission by the athlete of such an important characteristic did not appeal to me. Nor the fact that with her nautical feat she would highlight the twentieth anniversary of a most exclusive club, the Hemingway Marina, where a Cuban, even today, cannot board a vessel and may not enter — on his own — such a beautiful landing. I would have preferred that the Gulf currents would be swum by someone who knew the pain sheltered in these waters and who would dedicate their gesture to the “unknown rafter” who died in the mouth of so many possible sharks.
When I learned, on Tuesday, that after a 29-hour effort the swimmer was unable to achieve her objective, my superstitions were confirmed. There are certain spaces, I thought, that need more than strokes or sports records to seem less sad. State television said succinctly that “insurmountable obstacles had emerged, among them winds of more than 12 miles per hour.” I can imagine Diana fighting against the waves, the sun gaining strength overheard, the intensely salty sea flowing into her mouth. I am going to go further and fantasize about the inexplicable detail of a straw hat, the colorful sombrero of woman who passed close to her, making her think herself delirious in the middle of the Florida Straits.
9 August 2011