I had already been sold a few sharks teeth by a fisherman we met in Cojimar. They were cheap and easy souvenirs I could take home to my son.
I knew the thrill of receiving a shark’s tooth would be short lived for him. But in the moment it seemed foreign and exciting and there wasn’t must else in the way of souvenirs to buy in Cuba. Shark teeth would have to do. One more present I could check off my list.
We were visiting the village of Cojimar for an hour or so before lunch. It’s a seaside town about 10km from Havana. I had taken photos of boats and dogs and the old men playing dominoes. I scrolled through my photos, killing time until our tour bus left. I liked this place. It was sunny, the people were warm and it’s where Hemingway docked his boat and found the inspiration to write “The Old Man and the Sea”. It was a neat and tidy Instagrammable spot on my trip to Cuba. If only I had a wi-fi connection.
In small villages, word travels fast and suddenly; there was a lot of excitement on the dock. Men dropped their tools and walked to the concrete hut where boats fresh off the sea dock to unload their catch. Anticipation grew with each man who gathered. This surprised me as surely they catch fish everyday and at some point, it must become old hat. But the excitement was palpable and I tried to stake out a spot in good light as the boat pulled up with the mysterious catch. That’s when I saw it. They had a shark in tow.
I watched them drag this thick-skinned beast, still alive, out of the water and onto the broken concrete floor. They pushed us back at first, and then drew us closer to see the racks of teeth and pose for photos. When all the photos were taken, they flipped him onto his back, exposing his vulnerable white belly, spotted with patches of mildew and soft pink flesh. It all seemed very surreal, witnessing this literal underbelly.
The man who had sold me the shark teeth was there; he was filleting the shark right before us. The first thing he cut off was the fin. Blood and guts spilled out. I don’t know who was more excited really, the fishermen or the photographers. We caught the action from every angle, and then filtered out as the shark was dismembered and there was nothing much left of him to photograph.
As we left, I reached in my pocket and felt the teeth I’d bought an hour ago. I pressed them into my fingertips, to the point they nearly punctured my skin.
I didn’t really want those teeth anymore.
“You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”
Cojimar is a small fishing village east of Havana, Cuba. It is here that Hemingway kept his boat “Pilar” anchored. Cojimar and one of it’s resident fishermen also provided the inspiration for Hemingway’s novel, “The Old Man and the Sea”.