An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

Viñales is part of any Cuban tourist itinerary, recommended as a place to enjoy nature, cigars and rural culture and recover from noisy, chaotic Havana. Approximately a three hour drive from the Cuban capital, the straight roads along the “tobacco route” turn into twisty roads through dark forest which suddenly open up into a breathtaking valley. This UNESCO park is known for its limestone karsts or “mogotes” jutting up over the large fields, dotted with palm trees, lush vegetation and tobacco plantations. The town is no stranger to tourists, with a couple main streets filled with restaurants and almost every house containing a sign that it’s a government-endorsed casa particulares where you can rent a room. Just An Innocent Walk Through the Valley My casa was on the edge of the valley, and while my hosts offered to connect me for a guide for a walk or a horseback ride, I looked forward to exploring the area on my own. So I set out the next morning, with a giant bottle of water, following my host’s directions, “the path is behind the tree. Just go straight then when you can’t anymore, turn right!”. I found the path and the valley, walked by patches of trees vibrating from pruning by machete, walked across a sketchy “bridge” of haphazardly placed planks and suddenly, the foliage opened up to the valley. Vast fields, oxen hooked up to wooden ploughs waiting to start their workday and explosions of purple wildflowers caused my jaw to drop and I couldn’t help whispering “wow” to myself. I walked until I could no longer go straight, turned right and jogged past a sweet smelling bush that buzzed with bees. I found a wider dirt road that was flanked with tall bushes on each side so it wasn’t very scenic. Well, until a cowboy trotted by, in a small herd of five horses. “Quires un cabalagata? Hay una piscina natural” (Want a horseback ride? There’s a natural pool), he asked as I tried to avoid the miniature stampede. “No tengo mi ropa de nadar y estoy caminando,” (I don’t have my swimming clothes and I’m walking) I responded, thinking about how warm it suddenly felt, my cheeks flushing. I continued to march down the large dirt road, even though I couldn’t see anything over the tall shrubs. After about ten minutes, I admitted defeat and retreated to try the other path at the intersection, just to run into my cowboy friend again. “Change your mind?” he asked from under his cowboy hat, and I stubbornly said “I’m walking”. So I walked past the horses, tied to trees waiting for tourists, past the office and suddenly I was in the street of the town, lined with casas on each side. I sighed, because I was supposedly to be visiting the valley but it seemed my navigational skills failed me and I didn’t even have a map. So I slunk back where my cowboy friend was now sitting on the steps of the office. “Regresé. Una hora.” (I returned. One hour) I told him, and I told myself that a short ride would get me to oriented so I could continue to explore on my own, and there no other reason I gave into the guy that mysteriously made my heart beat faster. I hopped on “Cuba Libre” and we headed off. He was pretty quiet, punctuating the comfortable silence with occasional names of crops in his limited English. When he tried to take me to the coffee planation tourist stop, I declined, anticipating the awkward part where they’d want me to buy something. I started sharing random travel stories in broken Spanish, about drinking “cat-poo-chino” in Bali, with little indication if I was making sense from my silent tour guide. When we returned to the starting point and I tried to pay him but he refused and asked what I was doing later and offered “sunset, rum and galloping” as an option. “Soy libre. A que hora?” (I am free. At what time?), even though I knew it sounded like trouble. Fireflies & The Milky Way At 5, I returned to the office where I didn’t see Yasmani, so I found a dog to pet until I got covered in a dust cloud generated by a horse that halted in front of me. He hopped off to help me up, then climbed on behind me, kicked the horse into a trot and we headed further up the path to get a second horse. He pulled a plastic bottle of rum out of his gumboot, “Havana Club Especial” he explained with a wink as he...

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

It was Friday night in Havana and since I would need quite a few mojitos before I was confident enough to hit the Cuban dance floor, I decided to start the evening at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). A few years ago, they converted an abandoned cooking oil factory into a mixed use art space filled with unusual photography, film and dance studios, music venues, restaurants and bars. It was an absolute maze… when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner and a whole new section opened up. Exploring the Art Museum with A Local After my initial survey of the area, I decided to break for a $3 baguette to pass time until performances started and I struck up a conversation with the Cuban guy who was behind me in line. He was just starting his first year of university as civil engineering student. Most of his family lived in Washington DC and he was hoping he could join them some day, but in Cuba, you pay for higher education with two years of working for the government then men are obligated to serve a year in the army so it would be a long process. After eating, we decided to wander around together and seeing the museum through his eyes was a completely different experience. He brought me to a short animated film, where a girl continuously failed in her attempts to leave the island where she was marooned. She tried to make a boat out of a bucket but the bucket quickly filled with water and sank. She tried to use two palm trees as stilts in an attempt to call for help but the trees fell over. She tried to climb a flagpole to send a signal but the flag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I interpreted it as a klutzy girl, unlikely to be a finalist on Survivor. He looked me in the eyes and solemnly said, “That’s us. We’re in jail here” referring to the situation of his county, his people. He took me to some of his other favorite spots in the museum. This included a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1950s about all the lies the government told the people, inciting fear of nuclear power, Chinese immigrants taking all the work and praising the strength of the Cuban currency. He took me to his favorite piece… it looked like an amateur photographer spilled a random collection of photos (mostly strange things and naked people) on the table. One photo included a sign of a bar that told people they were free to blaspheme and criticize the government. He said something along the lines of, “if only such a place existed”. Visiting Communist Cuba With Obama easing travel restrictions in Cuba, there were countless articles encouraging Americans to visit to see the country “before it changes” or before it’s ruined by the onset of Americans. Admittedly, I’m guilty of coming for exactly that reason. There’s some evidence of progress, like people hunched over their phones in wifi hotspots around the city and some modern taxis with air conditioning and even mini movie screens to watch music videos, but when people say visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time, it’s absolutely true. The cab driver who picked me up from the airport drove a car from 1956 and commented, “all the tourists say ‘your car is so beautiful’ but I’d trade this car in an instant a modern American one”. The Cubans maintained cars from the 50s and 60s because with the embargo, they had no other option. Now, the cars are UNESCO protected national treasures, often being “Frankensteined” combinations of parts from other cars within the body. Outside Havana, most taxis are horses with carts or bike taxis. It’s inspiring to see how Cuban ingenuity made the best of a bad situation but how long should we let this go on? It’s still a visibly communist country. When I waited in line at the bank to change money, I was entertained by a slide show of photos of Fidel Castro. In Vinales, I went to a disco party in a cave and they interrupted the evening for a 30 minute photo slideshow with songs dedicated to Fidel. Practically speaking, options are limited, even as a tourist. It’s hard to find markets or even places to buy snacks, non-Cubans can only travel with one bus company and Internet access is restricted primarily to controlled hotspots. Products are limited too- the market ran out of big water bottles when I was in Vinales. My Havana tour guide joked...