Poco a Poco

Ernest Hemingway Fishing Base, Cojímar, Havana, Cuba 

This work was exhibited at the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba in Havana in April of 2017.

I had only read Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea about 20 times before coming to Cuba and could recite every detail of the battle between the old man and colossal fish that nearly kills him. In the small town of Cojímar where this dazing story takes place, live the real fishermen of Cuba. Walking through the town and down a hill along the shoreline, you come to a chain-linked fence which marks the perimeter of the Ernest Hemingway Fishing Base.

The first time I made the journey I was greeted at the gate by Daniel, who was ironically leaning against the wall with a painted image of Hemingway and Fidel Castro (Daniel looks like Hemingway’s long lost twin.) I laughed at the plainly mirror image of the two of them and asked to take his photo. From then on, Daniel was my guide into the world of the Cojímar fishermen.

The almost 400 men that shape this community have devoted their lives to fishing. “We don’t sleep here but we live here,” they told me as I inquired about how much time they put into their work. They spend anywhere from six to twelve hours a day out at sea, often departing the base at 10:00 pm to take advantage of the greater possibility of catching fish at night. When they aren’t at sea, they’re on land in the base doing every bit of preparation to get them back out- fixing the boat, untangling lines, cleaning nets, etc.

Although they manage to do their jobs in crews of three or four, the entirety of the base works together. They all identify as fishermen, but like every other Cuban, have other jobs too. A few are the resident mechanics, others carpenters (they build all of their boats by hand), and some butchers who can gut and clean a fish to prepare for selling faster than my camera shutter can go off. Each member of the base contributes in some way other than fishing to keep it running. They are all a family. 

Although it is still considered part of Cojímar and is within 200 yards of the main street, the little fishing base is a world of its own.

I was standing on the bridge that stretches over the river of the base connecting a neighborhood of Cojímar to the rest of the town, shooting down into the carving station. “They caught three big sharks last week,” I heard from behind me. A man who was on his way home from work was watching a few of the fishermen as they packed their boat in preparation for a long night ahead. He proceeded to tell me all about the sharks- what kind they were, how big they were, and the size of the jaws of each of them. Little did he know, I was there that day front and center to the action.

That was an odd moment for me. I realized then that the people of Cojímar don’t actually know the fishermen or anything about the people who they walk over on the bridge every day. There is a disconnect between the lives of the fishermen and those outside of the base. My fishermen, the men that I was coming to know and be accepted by, were seen as some sort of celebrities- people with amazingly intricate and fascinating jobs, which made for a great show. Since the bridge is right above the carving station, where all of the big fish that are brought in are gutted and cleaned, it often accumulates many people from outside the village who stop and watch the fishermen work. Any one of them catching a shark or a handful of Dorados becomes an event to those outside the base. They become a topic of conversation among the people of Cojímar- “Did you see the ones they caught last night?” Little do these people know that the fishermen they idolize and talk about like sports stars are actually the sweetest, most humble and hardworking human beings I have ever encountered. 

After about a week of daily sunrise visits to the base, Daniel began to question if I was crazy. He asked me how many times I was planning on coming. After wiping the look of absolute shock off his face when I told him every day until I leave Cuba, he nodded  his head approvingly and said “Poco a Poco,” a saying the fishermen use to describe the way they work. It also happens to be a name of one of the 200 boats in the base.

The saying literally translates to “little by little” and became my mindset of working on this project. “If you work little by little every day, then eventually you will have so much. That’s why we say it here- we have to remind each other that it takes patience to be a fisherman for a living. You’re not always going to get the big Marlin every day but you can normally catch a few small ones. And a few small ones every day will quickly add up to one big one.”

I had become good friends with three fishermen in specific- Gabriel who was born and raised around the corner from the base, Gilbert who lived up the street from the base with his wife and grandkids, and Ernesto who never spoke but always looked at me with a huge-one-toothed grin. Somewhere among one of our conversations I ended up out at sea on Teté, Gilbert’s boat. Watching what these men do in the base is nothing compared to what they do out at sea. They called it their office. In a ‘short’ time span of six hours I was a spectator of their daily routine- catching sardines as bait along the rocks, throwing out the lines, and floating for a couple of hours eating cheese and guava sandwiches while they watched the line for “a jumper.”

That day we caught six fish- two marlins and four dorados. In doing so, I saw the passion that they have for fishing. They turned into different people from the goofy, unperturbed fishermen I had gotten to know on land. At sea, they were focused, skilled, and professional.

When we were sitting and waiting for a line to hook, Gabriel told me that, for him, being out at sea on the boat is the most tranquil place in the world. He said when he’s there he can forget all of his worries. He can go out and leave all of his problems, his concerns, and stress on land. Like taking a pill or a drug that transports you to another dimension. That’s why he fishes. Sure, he loves the excitement of it. But, for him, nothing compares to the freedom he gets out at sea. 

On my day after day walks through the base, I would think to myself how remarkable it is. The people, the way the community functions, the tiny little casitas with the number and name of the boat they belong to, and all of the clever cats that hang around for the endless scraps of fish- all of it endlessly amazes me. I doubt there is any place like it in the world aesthetically. All around there are signs painted on walls, jerry-rigged contraptions to make the tough work not so tough, and boats littering the land and water. I know for a fact that there is no sense of community like it anywhere in the world.

It’s the type of place that someone would write a song about- a romantic ode to the unique and abstract beauty of the fishing base of Cojímar. “Someone should write a song about it,” I thought one day. I was quick to remind myself that even though no one has written a song about it, there is something better. Hemingway wrote an entire book. 

Among all of the incredible things the fishermen do on a daily basis the most noteworthy by far is the forever-ongoing game of dominos. It takes place daily in a giant blue room that is entirely empty except for the makeshift wooden table and chairs. It almost always comes as a shock to those playing that there has to be a loser- with all of them shouting and accusing the others of cheating over the sound of the dominos shuffling on the table when a game ends. It acts as a background noise to the other sounds of the base. Everyone’s lost and everyone’s won. It’s rare for there to be less than five people there at a time- four playing and one keeping score on a piece of paper that has every score from every one of the million games played there.

On one of my first trips to the base, I was told that fishing is an art. They explained to me that, like I create art with my camera and photographs, they perform an art every day.

I witnessed this that day at sea. When they had a fish on the line the three men came together like a dance. They rhythmically pulled at the line while simultaneously balancing with the waves of the sea. When the fish was in just the right spot, they would pull it up and over the edge of the boat and immediately down under their feet to hold it still. Fishing, in the way that these men do it, is truly an art. It requires tireless practice and precision in each detail of every motion of the boat, the line, their bodies. They reverence it like an art and speak of it that way. In the same way people would go to a gallery and discuss a piece, these men do with the knots in their lines and the fish that they catch.

Inside of this small fishing base of Cojímar, where over 400 men come to work and spend each day, there is a flow of creation and love and community in fishing. It is a place like no other in the world- a special gem within the island of Cuba. It’s their home, an endless place of life. If only they could see how incredibly irreplaceable it is. 

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