Cuba is a lanky cowboy named Jesus sitting a donkey in a baseball diamond. Toes dragging the blanched dirt, tending his goats. Cuba is a rope of tobacco spit flat-landing the dust as we whiz by in the cherry red, 56 Dodge. Bellowing diesel smoke. It’s Victor’s twinkle behind his big mirrored sunglasses as he pulls out to pass a column of Suzuki’s. It’s the soft rain in the cane fields under a purple sky. It’s a tin of fresh, warm milk passed to you from a farmer with an expectant smile. Empty market shelves. Skinny horses. Muddied single track into the jungle. Rubied cocks fighting in the yard. Kids riding endless bike wheelies with no front wheels. Open arms and wide grins. Sombreroed, shirtless man standing the oxen cart driving down the road. Cuba is a land of apparent contrasts, but once they’re understood, expected. It’s soberingly poor, and there is not a stitch of trash to be found, perhaps because most garbage is still a resource. There is communist propaganda everywhere and nearly everyone confides in you that the government is an oppressive yoke. Dilapidated baseball stadium, crisp white baselines and perfect grass. They have very little and yet offer you everything. With so spartan an existence, no one told them they shouldn’t be happy. In the yard, at the bus stop, on the street corners Cubans are talking to, shaking hands with, and patting the backs of each other. They’re engaged with their families and friends. There is no digital insulation. We were told in nearly every place crime was of little to no concern. Cuba is fleshed out in unusual facts. It’s a federal crime with 10 year sentence and a $10,000 fine to hit a cow with a car. Marijuanna possession confers a 30 year sentence. To use the internet it’s dollar an hour for wifi in the town square. There is no other wifi. GPSs are banned. Surgeons make far less than internists. They ride donkeys in the south, horses in the north. It snows on Pico Turquino, Cuba’s clouded, rainforest peak at 6476 feet. Fidel requested no ceremony for his passing. Hurricanes are a way of life and Cuba hosts some of the most environmentally pristine natural refuges in the world.
But we didn’t know Cuba yet.
We had waited about 4 days for weather hiding from the unusually constant 30-40 knot northerlies south of Ragged Cay, perhaps the most appropriately named island in the Bahamas. Ravaged by time, distance and Irma, Ragged dangles off the southern chain of the Ragged Cays just 60 or so miles north of eastern Cuba. It’s the only inhabited island in all of the Jumentos and the Ragged Cays. Some 60 souls eek out a quiet existence in this version of paradisical deliverance. But that’s a different story.
Finally we were delivered a forecast for wind dropping into the 20s and seas down to 2 meters for several hours. After hours of preparation, a fantastic dinner and a little nap, we performed an instrument-only escape under a full zenith moon. We sailed off the hook and leaned Ibis on her side as we flew south over the crystal, moonlit flats towards the Two Brothers rocks and across the wild Old Bahamas Channel towards Puerto De Vita.
Sunrise found distant tendrils of morning cooking smoke rising from the green hills of Cuba. Our crew scattered about the cockpit passing the binoculars in anticipation of the deeply unknown. We sailed into the mouth of the harbor and fired the engine for the first time.
Reawakening my nascent Spanish on the radio we worked through arrangements for the port physician to clear us at the boat, then immigration, agriculture and customs with a through search from a couple of mangy hounds. Finally cleared after a couple of hours we ran up our single stared Cuban flag and stared at each other a bit incredulous.
Puerto de Vita, despite being a deep, major port, complete with coast guard and military is quiet. It’s not set up to entertain the visitor. In fact, nothing in Cuba is. Cuba entertains itself and Cuba would be glad to have you come along, but Cuba is busy doing Cuba. What ever happens in Cuba only happens when it’s good and ready. Noting there was plenty of more “time” in the day we donned our walking shoes and set off to explore the tiny town around the marina. Through “customs” again: after a bag search as we exited the compound we took about 25 steps only to run into Peppe, our dog from Florida! A short haired,black and white model with a very low center of gravity, a near exact replica save one important feature, this was a Pepina! Pepina turned out to be “Susy,” who had adopted a family not 100 feet from the marina entrance. After a brief visit she took us back to her house to meet her folks, head and tail high: an occasional look back to see if we were following. Within 5 minutes Cuba had welcomed us. Lena and Anna, Tibo and Paulo and their extended family literally had arms around us and dark sweet coffee (made on a fascinating diesel-fuel, kitchen stove) in our hands. Shortly we were chatting about life, our adventures, America and Cuba, the girls off with uncle Paulo in his horse buggy for a ride around the town.
We couldn’t believe it. With rice and beans on our laps we chatted into the evening with a resolve to meet up tomorrow and continue our new friendships. We wandered back to the boat mesmerized by the past 24 hours.
A new day was heralded at 04:30 somehow by telepathic roosters receiving communications from their Haitian comrades in the east that the darkness may be fading. After a duck egg breakfast graciously provided by our hosts, we found Victor our driver waiting atop the hill for a trip to Holguin town. Moments later we we bounding down the country road in his 3 million mile 56 Dodge with a retrofitted 80s, 6 cylinder, million mile Mercedes diesel. New, Chinese stereo pumping. Past farm upon farm, countless horse-drawn wagons and carts, goat shepherds, and peletons of Lycra clad cyclists, busses and trucks packed with people. Victor roared on, Buena Vista Social Club pumping from the speakers. As most every Cuban man and boy is first a cowboy, Victor shot 2/3rds of the passing cops, cyclists, truck drivers and fellow cabbies with his fleshy double fingered pistol resting atop the steering wheel.
We spent a day taking in Holguin, the provincial capital. First exchanging money on the black market to reduce the government exchange fee of 10% to about 6%, we were then promptly directed by our new pal to the local cigar factory. It was humbling to learn a physician’s set monthly income is $60 versus the $10 a day the cigar roller makes: the highest of state wage earners. Also fascinating was that out of the same factory came Romeo y Julietas, Cohibas, and virtually any brand of Cuban cigar one could wish for. Asked why they even put on different labels our guide responded, “that’s what the world wants!”
In the days that followed we made plans to return the next weekend for Lena’s son’s Quincinero party and pig roast, but first a road trip with Victor across the island, south to Santiago de Cuba.
After the port customs search of the Victor’s Dodge and our luggage for satellite phones, VHF radios, GPSs compass and maps: anything that could aid an escape intent Cuban, we were back on the open road. Four hours of driving took us deep through the Cuban countryside. We drove through the hills of exiled, young Fidel and the farms of Castros, across enormous flats of sugar cane, pregnant purple skies, through verdant ravines and around tranquil lakes. Everyone and everything shares the common road. Old BlueBird schoolbusses tow carts, Army trucks and countless donkeys in their traces. Kids holding hands in school uniforms. While packs of skinny dogs trot the road edge, kettles of vultures circle overhead. We rumbled past smoking apiarists selling rumbottles of honey, past the childhood home of Fidel where we would spend several hours on the way back.
Santiago is a big city, Cuba’s second largest at 1.5 million. And although every town in Cuba is old, Santiago is simply ancient. On a steaming July afternoon, 1515, Diego Velasquez de Cuellar sailed into the protected and unsuspecting bay of Santiago as a devil to los indigenos, and thus began the genetic comingling that has blended Asians, Haitians, Africans with the Indigenous, the Spaniards, French and Irish. Santiago’s deep and strangled roots take it back to conquistadors and brutal slave markets, through Santeria, malaria, and centuries of hurricanes. With far more apparent melanin, it advertises both its proximity to Haiti and its more complex culture and cuisine for the same reason. Communism and Fidel are just the last thick veneer on a richly stained people. So intertwined is its “Vodon” and Catholic heritage, for example, the Cathedral de Virgin Del Cobre regularly entertains a large faction of Voodoo worshipers as regular mass participants. Standing in the town’s main square, it’s easy to imagine the centuries of horrors and joys, revolution upon revolution, beginning with the blights of first world disease ripping through the ancient and unsuspecting populations sharper than a Castilian sword. It’s limestone cathedral was hewn from the coppermines by Africans and Irish, their bones long scattered, their descendants now lovers and indistinguishable. Over my smoke-tanned arm, we rolled past packs of young hustlers in the squares in tight, acid-washed jeans, and even tighter stars-and-stripe tee shirts. Forlorn teen girls behind rose-mirrored glasses hanging on their arms.
For three days we wandered Santiago and road-tripped its parishes. We chanced road-side, creole barbque, chatted up school kids on their way home, ate ice cream from corner vendors, hung with street magicians as kids played chess with their parents in the streets and soccer in the squares. And I got a 2$ haircut, that included zero conversation from a focused and professional barber. Strolling the streets it was hard to find one right angle in the whole town, Santiago was busted and broken with life growing through the seams like most of Cuba.
At the end of our three days we were ready to get back, check on the boat and hang with our gracious friends. Another four hour drive north with a stop at the Castro family ranch. Arriving in the late 1800s the Castros were ranchers. Complete with pool room, bar and post office, they built a town out of their ranch and then a host of children, two of whom would rule the country. Proudly displayed were important relics such as the first Castro television set, Mother Castro’s assault rifle and Fidel’s childhood baseball outfit.
We arrived back in Puerto De Vita and the countdown to the Quincinero began. A little boat-work, some trips to the local markets on horse carts for provisioning soaked up our days and finally the big day. Awakening early we hiked up to check on the preparations. Paulo, Tibo and the boys were already scraping the hog and passing a bottle of Cuban rum in the warm light of morning. Disemboweled and then run through on a long pole the pig was then wired on the spit and placed over a large wood-fire in the back yard. Jose, about 6’4” and 160 pounds sat his plastic deck chair and hand turned the spit in his shorts and sombrero.
After a trip to the market with the customs guy who had become our friend we returned to assess the preparations. Chayote was boiling to make a type of mashed potatoes, huge tins of rice and beans, fresh corn. It was enough to feed the town, and that’s because the plan was to feed the town.
I kept thinking to myself how, with so many empty shelves in the markets and only 4 kg of food allotted per person per month was this happening? There was no clear answer save uncle Paulo owned half a farm on the other side of the bay (the government owned the remaining half). As the crowd built in the afternoon so too did the wind preceding a cold front. And wandering through the crowd was little Suzy, checking on us just like our wonderful hosts who made us, along with their man of the evening, their son, the center of the party. Pig pulled from the fire at 4pm we were the first to try the succulent meat. From then on music, karaoke, food, dancing and rum. Helen liberated a bottle of Cabernet from the boat stores and presented it to the family, who promptly shared it with about 40 people. It was the first time they had tasted wine. The girls braided hair and chatted with the Cuban girls. And as predicted the whole town came, the celebration spilling into the street and town square where Lina’s cousin MCed the event.
When we had arrived, a week prior, we had brought with us and dispensed loads of old toys, baseballs and gloves, soccer balls, old scrubs and school supplies. Toiletries and Dollywood t-shirts, anything our kind Florida friends and neighbors and the Dollar Store could provide. The dispersement had proceeded largely uneventfully and without fanfare. We were unsure how it might be perceived and certainly didn’t want to seem like boastful imperialist saviors, not that tooth brushes and hats conform to Jerod Diamond’s tools of subjugation. We knew the Cubans had been hurting for decades and had heard even the most basic necessities, pencils for example, were hard to come by. But it was that evening, in the square, dancing with Helen and the whole town that we understood the implication of those goods. We were chatted up, danced with, stuffed, questioned, celebrated, back rubbed, high five’d, hugged, thanked and made to feel like royal guests. If this is how fame feels, were all in.
We died sometime around 11, wandering back down the hill to the marina and Ibis, but the party went on till 4 or 5 the next morning.
Despite the blustery and rainy day the roosters likely found us much more rousable than our friends, and so we waited a bit before heading up for the planned trip to the farm that Lena’s uncle ran with his daughter and son-in-law. A menagerie of cows, horses, goats and chickens. The crew was ready when we showed, but the driving rain had fouled the plans to use the neighbors’ old yellow Triumph to drive the dirt road to the farm, so we set off on foot and paw. Lena, Tibu, and Lena’s aunt Anna, our Ibis crew and, of course at the front of the parade, tail and head high, full of anthropomorphic pride and Lilly’s affection, Suzy. Walking down the town road in the drizzle, with Tibu laden with darkening scrubs, we chatted about the evening, life on the farm, Suzy’s romantic 8 years and the northerly weather. Out to the main road and a right, east. In life, time is an illusion. Moments slow. Perhaps it’s the reflection that controls the perceived pace but I don’t think so. Walking east, time slowed to a stop.
In that freeze frame, Suzy darted in front of a speeding truck, belching evil. Then a car behind it added insult. And then just the wind moaning in the roadside pines. Suzy rolled to a rest, obtunded, blood in her tongue choked mouth, eyes askew. Lilly ran in a bolt of howling realization to comfort Suzy. Grace, Helen, Lena and Anna’s tears mixing in the rain, all of us stunned. We carried Suzy to the side of the road and knelt over her stoned, processing the significance of the loss of the family mascot. I was inert, no amount of skill or compassion can overcome a 20 ton truck despite Grace and Lilly’s pleading. Anna wrapped the still lightly breathing Suzy in a scrub top and carried her back towards the house.
And we walked on, single file down the main road on toward the ranch each alone, the girls inconsolable, each quietly praying for Suzy’s improbable recovery or hasty departure.
I watched, walking from behind, our girls in a flurry of my own confused emotion. Sadness mixed with pride in the girls responses, thankfulness for my dear sensitive wife. This life before sailing had taken me away and the countless hours of Helen’s nuanced and gentle guidance had produced children who could simultaneously comprehend the circumstances of not only Suzy’s suffering but also for Anna and Lena especially.
We walked in quiet save the occasional hiss of passing tires until we turned off the road south again and down a lane so muddied it sucked the shoes off your feet. Lilly simply went barefoot like grandmother Anna and we continued on to find our huge smiling uncle Paulo and Jose waiting with 2 horse-drawn carts. We waded the creek and the ladies climbed in the carts excitement already warming their somber hearts.
Helen, Paulo and I walked together as the carts pulled away ahead of us up the track which slithered over the misty grassy knolls. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Huge brown milk cows wandered and lowed. Sheep cropped the the low grass, horses gathered the high grass. We meandered and chatted about the farm, Paulo’s land as he pointed with a reed. He described how the hurricanes washed over the land, and his vantage from an old mudbrick shack. We ambled back to join the others at the family compound, stopping briefly as Tibu hauled up fresh sweet water from the deep well. Paulo, thrilled to have a rapt young audience explained their lives on the farm, collecting eggs,the twice daily milking of the cows, how his granddaughter nurtured a week old, orphaned kid goat in the house. Not long thereafter, Paulo chatting on his milking stool munching on earthy peanuts, came up his hand from under the steaming chestnut beast with a tin of hot, frothy milk. He passed it to me with an excited grin full of perfect teeth. There was only one response. I passed back the empty tin with a thanks, shoulder wiping my pale, mustachioed lip. Helen, then nudged aside wide eyed Paulo to finish milking the cow and she did so shocking him with her aplomb.
As the morning wore on we could feel the weather change. The rain fell from a higher angle, the chilimoro trees had ceased their swaying and we knew our time in Cuba was closing. Paulo told us we should build a house on his hill over there and stay until then in his house. Like brothers, we hugged each other both understanding the sad improbability of meeting again.
It was time to ready the boat to head back to the States.
Paulo took our two girls in his cart while his son-in-law drove us in his, behind them. Anna and Tibu hiked the shortcut trail. On the way back, in the quiet clop of shoeless hooves on pavement, Helen silently pointed ahead to Lilly’s arm which had slipped around Paulo’s hound, Lluvia, holding her tightly. Helen kissed my hand on her shoulder.
The leaves were still wet but the rain had stopped.