Gabby and Danh were sitting on a bench carved from a giant bodi log that washed onto the beach of their community in a recent hurricane. Like other storm debris, this one had been repurposed by one of the local artisans. Gabby and Danh had taken to hanging out here so much lately that people had dubbed it the kissing bench. Not that anyone had been kissed there, at least not yet! Gabby and Danh looked a little like the old Mutt and Jeff characters. Where he was short and stout, like his Polynesian ancestors, Gabby was tall and willowy, with dark hair and coal black eyes. She stretched her long body out to capture as many of the sun’s early morning rays as possible.
“Oh, hey. S’posed to ask if you want to come to Pipo’s birthday party on Friday. It’s his eightieth, so Mom and Tía Maria are fixing all traditional stuff,” Gabby said. “For sure” Danh exclaimed. “I mean if it’s cool with you and all.”
Gabby tried to respond nonchalantly. “Whatever, it’s nice to have somebody my age around, you know.”
They spent the next few minutes sitting in silence, something they often did. At first these pauses felt awkward, but lately Gabby had realized that they were special moments—sharing the natural beauty of this place they were so lucky to call home.
Their reverie was interrupted by the arrival of Pipo, Gabby’s grandfather, out for his morning walk. He rarely missed a day and always wore the same outfit—a perfectly pressed guayabera shirt, linen slacks, and his trademark Panama hat. He stopped when he saw them.
“Why are you niños not in school?” He demanded. Gabby blushed and tried to explain to him, for the hundredth time, that it was not like the old days when sitting in a classroom was the only place you could learn. Gabby and her friends learned everywhere.
When she had finally finished her explanation, Pipo shook his head in bewilderment. “Come walk with me, nieta.”
Gabby gave Danh a quick look and got up. “So, see you Friday, here in the park.” “It’s a date,” he replied, hopping off the bench. When he realized what he had said he stammered quickly, “Gotta fly.” With that, he jumped on his hoverboard and zipped off. She watched him disappear. A voice in her head was shrieking: A date? Is that really what he had said? She wasn’t sure if she was confused, excited, or both. She was so distracted, she didn’t even notice that Pipo had continued his walk without her.
She ran to catch up and took his hand as they walked toward the shore. Pipo began to reminisce.“You know, Gabriela, we use to live right here on this very spot. Our home wasn’t fancy, but it had been in our family for seven generations, ever since our people first came here to fish. It was not an easy life. Your family helped to build a tiny fishing village into a thriving community.
“Then came the summer of the great storms. Six hurricanes in less than three months. It seemed like we spent all our time getting ready for a storm or cleaning up after one; sometimes doing both at the same time. The last storm, the biggest one of all, hit right here. The entire village washed away. Destruido. Your abuela cried and cried for days.”
Over the years, life after the storms had developed into a predictable pattern. First came the clean-up, sometimes taking weeks or months, then the insurance companies and the government would help them rebuild. But this time the insurance companies didn’t come. They said there had been too many storms and they were out of money. The state’s catastrophe fund was empty, and there were no funds available from the federal government. For the first time, the residents didn’t know how they were going to rebuild. That’s when Tía Maria came home. She had been working up north as an urban planner. Under her leadership, a group of homeowners approached the city with a bold plan. In exchange for assistance in building new homes, the citizens would turn over their land along the shore. Everyone agreed that the old ways weren’t going to work anymore, especially as the sea levels continued to rise and the warmer ocean waters spawned more violent storms.
Still, there weren’t many in local government who could imagine how this joint private/public partnership would work. After months of negotiations, the officials learned what Gabby’s family had long known; you don’t argue with Tía Maria. And that was how Bahía del Paraíso was born.
First, they had scraped the site of the old village clean. What remained of the buildings that had once crowded the coast were bulldozed over. They recycled much of the old building materials into functional art; sculptures, benches, and play areas, which now dotted the community. Where there had been concrete, mangroves were planted. All the area along the shore was given back to the bay.
Every new building was elevated to avoid damage from floods. They used smartbricks with carbon nanofibers to build walls that could withstand a category 5 hurricane. Gabby wasn’t sure she totally understood how the walls worked, but she knew she felt safe and secure in her bedroom, even when the big winds were blowing. Tía Maria also insisted the community be environmentally sustainable. They got their energy form solar and wind power. They built an advanced rainwater collection and recycling system that was used to irrigate the community gardens.
Soon, the water in the bay was cleaner than it had been in over a hundred years. With a little help from local marine biologists, it had been easy to re-establish the oyster and scallop beds and bring back the fish and shrimp populations. The return of the seafood harvests was a reminder of what had brought many of Gabby and Danh’s ancestors to this coast originally. Pipo stopped walking. Gabby knew they had reached his favorite spot on the beach. Just fifty yards offshore, an enormous, brightly-colored sea dragon rose out of the water. The dragon’s scales were made from ceramic tiles, salvaged from Pipo’s old home. The tiles had been brought all the way from Cuba by Gabby’s ancestors.
“You know Gabriella, everything in our new village is so incredible. Our lives have never been better. But we must not forget those who brought us to this place.” Gabby agreed it was pretty neat that something from her family’s past was now part of her future. What was even cooler to a thirteen-year-old was the fact that some industrious volunteers had rigged the dragon up to use gas from the community’s biodigesters to breathe real fire. Of course, Tía Maria only allowed them to use it for special occasions.
Gabby knew there was a good chance they would light the dragon for Pipo’s birthday party. She imagined the scene. The dragon that represented her family, breathing fire under a star-filled sky, moonlight reflecting off the water. That might just be the perfect time and place for a first kiss.