In the morning we had awoken to the loud cawing of a rooster outside the window of our rented cabana, rousing us early enough to see the sun peak above the gray rocks in the distance. Our night of rest underneath the mosquito nets was dark and peaceful, the sounds of the sleeping world floated through the screens, reminding us of our location and the brilliance in disconnecting, and in listening. Upon dressing and stepping onto the porch overlooking the clothes lines and washing area, our host offered us a full breakfast of eggs, fruit, fresh local coffee, and polite, muddled conversation interspersing Spanish and English, making the understanding of a simple concept a wandering journey through foreign linguistic terrain an adventure in itself. We had just come from the booming seductive streets of Havana to the quiet mountain town of Viñales, and this change was evident most notably in its residents.
After breakfast we stepped outside the rickety red gate and into the street.
“Hello,” we said to the group, “How is everyone today?”
“Fine, thank you for asking,” they said with a cheerful flavor.
We were a part of a walking tour through the smooth mountains of Viñales, Cuba. Our tour was led by Miguelito, a Cuban local, who proudly led tourists through the area he grew up in. The group consisted of three Australian women and one Englishwoman. They were in the middle of a months long journey through the Caribbean, Western America and Mexico. They had just gotten to Cuba a few days prior and were already enjoying their time here.
“Ok everyone, we will be heading this way,” our guide politely began.
We finished our initial greetings and began to walk down the dirt road underneath the shade of the old trees bending lazily in the wind. The red dust settled underneath our feet as we quietly walked along the path, pointing out different plants and animals dotting the mountainside landscape. Straying towards the back of the group, we took our time snapping pictures of vaqueros sitting atop their small horses as they smiled and gave us a polite wave. The sun was warm overhead and the wind quiet in our ears.
“Where are you from?” I asked one of the Australian women.
“From Melbourne but originally from Sydney,” she replied with a smile. She was a large woman. Not obese, but tall, with a rough edge about her inter-playing with a side of sweetness, curiosity, and a self-deprecating humor that quickly made us a part of their group as well as our guide.
“Nice,” I said, “What do you do there?”
“Oh, I'm a farmer actually. But I used to be a day trader on the stock market. I was a big-timer back then. One of the only women to be doing it, yeah, I was one of the boys.”
“Wow, that's really interesting. How did you go from being a day trader to being a farmer?” My girlfriend asked curiously.
“Oh the stress. There was just too much of it yeah. I had a massive heart attack a few years ago. Almost lost my life. You know, I would work all day long then party all night. Those parties they showed in the Wolf of Wall Street movie, they were real. That's how it actually happened. And the drugs were flying just like that as well. It was a crazy time. But my body just kind of gave out. Couldn't do it anymore.”
“That's crazy,” I said with a quiet laugh, “How do you like farming now? Does it suit you better?”
“Oh most definitely. I love it. The days are just as long, but the sleep is a lot better. I'm no longer stressed out as much, even when the crop yields aren't particularly high. It's a much simpler life. But it's also a much better one.” She said with a smile.
To our right we passed a team of bulls pulling a plow through a field of tobacco plants. The farmer was speaking sternly to the bulls in Spanish, curtly guiding them through the turn at the end of the property and pushing them along. The sweat from his brow spilled smoothly into the corners of his sun burnt eyes as he bared his teeth, goading himself to keep up with his obedient animals. The work looked difficult. But the lines next to him were fully sprouted with green tobacco plants ready for picking and drying, and later, for enjoyment. Yes, the work looked difficult, but it also looked rewarding.
“This way everyone,” our guide ushered us up a small path to a clearing where a few huts stood with a perfect view of the mountains bathing under the sun.
We sat down underneath one of the huts and Cuban farmer walked over to us with a basket full of tobacco leaves brandishing a large knife on his hip and wide-brimmed hat on his head. He was a cheerful man as evidenced by the smile he regularly wore on his face.
“Spanish?” He stated as a question.
“No, not really,” the group replied with a shake of the head.
“Ok, ok. No problemo. I speak a little Spanglish. We will be ok. Ok?”
“This is a tobacco farm. I work in the this one here. We plant. We grow. And then we sell.
The government takes a large percentage and the rest we can sell. Ok? Ok. So. This is a leaf. We cut it here. We use every portion. The leaves, parts of the stem. Everything. No waste. No basura. We take the leaves and hang them to dry. It takes usually four to eight weeks. Then we roll,” he said the last part with a big smile on his face and we all naturally fell into our laughter along with him.
“Here, I show you.”
He placed the brown leaf onto a wooden block and quickly sliced the edges of it off and pushed them aside. Once he had the cut of it correct, he took the leaf in his hand and swiftly began to roll it into a tight bundle. He cut off the ends once more and then it was complete.
“Ok, that's it. You add honey to the end that goes in your mouth and it tastes so good. So good. But it can't be smoked for at least a few weeks more. The longer the better. No humidity though. Much better that way. You see?”
The demonstration had ended with us being quite impressed and with our own bamboo wrap of authentic Cuban cigars in our backpacks. The rest of the group finished up the mojitos that were served to us during the demonstration. We thanked the farmer and gave him a tip for his efforts. He was graceful and grateful with his 'thank-you's.'
The tour marched forward through a coffee farm where we were given demonstrations on how the plants grow, and how the beans are processed. After picking, they are placed into a large, grated basin where they are left to dry underneath the sun. From there they are thrown into the air in order to knock off the remaining shells and left to dry longer. Once complete they are carefully smashed into grounds where they are ready to be made into coffee.
The process seemed so simple to me. The farmers work alongside the sun, shoulder to shoulder, in order to dry them and release the smooth taste they produce. It was easy to see what this land meant to the people working it. It was everything. You could see it in their hands. The way the dirt seemed to creep into every crevice, every scar of sun burnt skin. The way they held the coffee beans in a sacred manner, slowly and softly running their fingers through the ones drying in the heat. And the way they handed me a cup of freshly made coffee sneaking in one last gasp of inhalation, the aroma filling their lungs with the purity of hard work and pride. The taste is hard to describe. Because the taste is ultimately secondary.
After the last stop at the coffee farm we walked down towards the center of Viñales where we parted ways with the group. We said our 'goodbyes' and 'nice to meet you's' to the three Australians and one Englishwoman. They were a nice group to take the tour with and we wished them well on the rest of their journey.
Miguelito told us to follow him back towards our cabana and so we did. The road took us through the center of houses where residents were working on their places- cleaning, cooking, washing, it didn't matter, whatever needed to be done, it was being done. We made our way to a small creek and an old bridge where we walked carefully along the splitting wood. Halfway across I looked down into the water and saw it was swarmed by plastic bottles and bags.
“Plastic is a real problem for the people here in Cuba,” Miguelito said following my gaze.
“I see that. It isn't much different from back home to be honest.”
“Yes, we really don't have a way to get rid of it and so it ends up in places like these. Most of the time.”
“It's a tough situation I can imagine. But I think things are changing.”
“I hope so.”
“Have you lived here all your life Miguelito?”
“Oh yes, I have three children who live here too.”
“Three children? How old are you Miguelito?”
“I am thiry-seven.”
“That's impossible!” I said in disbelief.
“You don't look anywhere near that old! That's crazy!”
Miguelito laughed, “It's the dark skin, preserves the look,” he said with a smile.
“That's amazing. Did you go to school here too?”
“Yes, but I received my Master's degree in Argentina. We have a really good exchange program there where us Cubans may visit there for school and receive a better education. I am studying Environmental Science and hope to be a professor one day. Maybe here in Cuba, so that I may be able to provide for the people here.”
He said this with pride. And I listened with admiration.
Our conversations turned and twisted just as the road we were currently walking on underneath the afternoon heat did. By the time we reached our cabana we were drenched in sweat, ready for a cold water and a nap.
“Thank you Miguelito, that tour was amazing.”
“It was my pleasure amigos,” he said with a smile.
We paid him, shook hands and wished him well. Walking up the steps to our porch there sat two waters on the wooden table between the rocking chairs overlooking the farms and mountains. We sat in silence for a bit, sipping our waters and breathing in the hot air. The land we looked upon was beautiful. And as I always seem to realize when traveling, the people we meet along the way- they tend to be quite beautiful too.