The sun and I have never really been friends.
Like a lot of people whose ancestry goes back to the British Isles, my skin tone can be described not just as white, but as 'pasty', 'chalk-like', 'pallid', and even 'frog-belly'. I've been known to burn if the brightness is too high on my television - when I watched Lawrence of Arabia in high-definition for the first time, I had to apply Solarcaine afterwards.
When I was 17, my family went to Hawaii, where I got 2nd degree sunburn while snorkeling, and then sunstroke while standing in line at Jermaine's Too-Good-to-Miss Luau. Never in my life have I tanned; my skin appears to be a binary set with two conditions, pale or burned.
At yet, here I am with Audrey in Cuba, enjoying a second honeymoon in honour of our 25th anniversary last December. There is no time for such an excursion (or even a big party) at that time of year, but when the opportunity presented itself in February, I leapt at the chance to get away, just the two of us, during spring break.
There were some other options to be sure; seeing some shows in Vegas, snowmobiling in Revelstoke, shopping in Seattle. But it's been a long and tiring winter in many respects, and the prices of the all-inclusive resort vacations have an undeniable allure.
In Varadero, we knew we could make a point of doing as much nothing as possible for 6 whole days, a welcome respite from our day-to-day schedules and obligations. Sure, there would be an excursion to Havana, and some local souvenir shopping, but other than that, we could enjoy an unregimented lifestyle for almost a week. Despite this though, we didn't have a real beach day until Thursday.
After lunch, we slathered on sunscreen, put on our swimsuits, threw our books into a bag and made our way to the beach. The resort residences are comprised of 11 two-story buildings, each with about 30 rooms, arranged in a circle, with the main hotel building at one end, the pool and swim-up bar in the middle, and beach access at the other end.
I have a tremendous dislike for the sensation of anything between my toes, so walking to the beach in my flip-flops was a trial in and of itself. Once I reached the beach and felt the warm, white sand seep in under the edges of my feet, my distemper quieted significantly.
The resort has a number of palapas (beach shelters) so we didn't need to bring an umbrella. We arranged two lounge chairs to take advantage of the shade, and sat down to read. Despite being a bit under the weather, the moment I laid my head against the back of the chair I felt 80% of my residual tension leave my body, as if it had been exorcised.
It was 29 or 30 degrees Celsius, with no clouds to speak of and probably 60-70% humidity, but we were in the shade and there was a strong, warm breeze crossing the shore, so we were immensely comfortable. A yellow flag was up, meaning that same breeze made sailing unadvisable, and the beach was not at all busy. Two pelicans swooped by, just over the surface of the water, and I briefly wondered what brought them to a place where there were no fish.
My restless night caught up to me, and I put my book down to doze, still just as comfortable as I'd ever been in my own home. When I awoke, a trip into the waters of the Atlantic was overdue, so I took off the t-shirt I'd been wearing and the two of us made our way perhaps 30 m from our palapa to the shoreline.
Removing the shirt may sound normal enough to you, but it felt strangely momentous to me. In addition to fearing the burn that accompanied almost every previous exposure of my torso to any degree of solar radiation, there is the self-consciousness of being a pale, amorphous blob in public view. But looking around, I noted that I was neither the chalkiest, nor fattest, nor oldest, nor hairiest man on the beach (although, to be fair, I probably would have made the podium for palest). Besides that, the moment I stood up, the thin, fast-drying shirt I had worn felt too warm, too constraining, too inhibiting, so I shucked it off, prompting a raised eyebrow from Audrey.
She knows that textiles are my preferred means of protection from my old nemesis the Sun, but I assured her the amount of SPF 60 lotion we had applied would be sufficient.
The sand was hot upon the soles of my feet (which are ridiculously tender) and the sun warm upon my shoulders, but the constant breeze sustained my comfort all the way to the water's edge. The first wave of salty water to hit our feet felt cool, but was warmer even by the time we were thigh deep. Walking out perhaps 50 meters, the water was still only waist deep in places, but shoulder high in others. We bobbed in the surf, laughing and gasping at the occasional wave that caught us by surprise.
The surf was just powerful enough to make us cautious about our footing on our return to shore, but with no rocks and only a few shells around, a fall would not have been catastrophic by any means. Emerging from the blue-green waters, the sun dried half the moisture from our bodies before we even got back to our chairs and towels.
The shade had migrated during our dip, so now my legs were laying in direct sunlight, but, strangely, I let them remain, knowing they would dry faster, and because it felt good, which was a novelty to me. I lay back in my chair, contented, comfortable, relaxed, and looked at my lovely wife as the sun crept up my body. I wondered why I felt so good when it hit me.
I wasn't afraid.
At outdoor events, I move from shade to shade like a vampire, broad-brimmed hat or umbrella at the ready. If I am playing a game of badminton at Rundle's Mission, I am keenly aware of the time, and limit myself accordingly, and even then I am rarely comfortable, and can never shake a certain degree of apprehension.
Here I lay in the tropics, with the sun warming me and my skin practically drinking it in, outdoors with my shirt off for the longest time since I was perhaps 12 years old. I couldn't tell you if my lack of fear stemmed more from complacency, fatalism, ignorance or confidence, and it didn't matter.
On a white sand beach at the edge of the Caribbean, next to warm waters that somehow touch the place of my birth in Newfoundland as well as two polar icecaps, I feel like I have made peace with a lifelong adversary.
On a resort that keeps us sheltered and fed with almost no need for thought on our part, my wife and I have become more like the people we were when we met, half our lives ago - optimistic, carefree.
The ocean is wholly different, but I can't help but think of Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption:
I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
His hope is mine, as is my joy at being with my very best friend in a place with no cares or worries, soothed by healing waters, warmed by the sun.