Friday, January 31, 2003

One Fine Day On The Road to Viñales

    After weeks of cold, gray days at home, the Cuban sun shone through the tour bus window, warming  me, as an ever-changing panorama, like a moving picture documentary, rolled past.  It was day four of our pilgrimage beyond the pale, to a country where there was no U. S. Embassy  to protect us if need be, and although I had been apprehensive about making the trip, once arrived, I relished the wonder of being here.

Outside Havana's limits, the bus bumped along broken highway, bouncing us in our seats as we listened to Cuban music emanating from the bus' tape player – salsa rhythms, son, and cha-cha-cha, and the haunting, lively guitar and song of Polo Mantanez, a Cuban favorite, all the more favorite because he had died in a car crash just two short months before.

We passed sugar cane fields in various degrees of growth and harvest.  Some, their stalks fluttering in a gentle breeze, seemed purple-tinged, as if brushed lightly by an impressionist's hand.  Other fields, already harvested and awaiting torching to scorch the ground in readiness for replanting, bore short, truncated stumps.  Sugar cane, we were told by Lizet, our Cuban guide, involves an endless cycle of planting, growing, maturing, harvesting, cutting down, and burning – then planting and beginning again.

Old farm machinery, as antique as the autos we had seen on the streets of Havana, dotted the fields here and there.  “How do they keep them running?” we asked, and “Cuban ingenuity and new motors whenever possible” was the answer.  When Russia was subsidizing Cuba, the economy was good, we were told, but when communism died in Europe and the Russians, having their own monetary crises, pulled out, Cuba had no resources to buy new machinery, or much else.  UNICEF came through with aid to refurbish schools, and other UN departments gave some monies for rebuilding and repaving, but in the main, Cuba was left in its present state – a beautiful island of grand and decaying buildings, equipment pieced together as best as possible, and roads in unbelievable disrepair. 

In the distance over fields, hawks, wide of wing, dipped and soared.  Now here, now there, a royal date palm (the national tree of Cuba) seemed to rise like a phoenix in the fields where cows grazed, and they were skinny cows indeed, as were the few beef cattle we saw.  Yet, there seemed to be no serious shortage of food throughout the land.  Most Cubans, we had already noticed, were trim, but by no means thin.  They appeared to be healthy for the most part and well-nourished.  Their general demeanor was confident and friendly, traits incompatible with abject hunger.  Their material possessions, as we had seen while in Havana, were few and in poor repair, but in the essentials – food, shelter, and especially education – the Cubans seemed sufficiently endowed.

At one point along the road, our bus passed an open truck.  Workers rode upright in it, standing in the area behind the cab, bunched together, shirtless, talking and laughing with one another on their way to work in the fields.  We saw many huts, simple homes, with an occasional pig tethered on a leash, and sometimes a scurrying chicken or two in the yard.  Some huts were thatch-roofed and some had a sheet of tin for roof, further proof of what we were coming to know – that Cubans make do with whatever they have, adapting to life rather than complaining about it.  Sheep could often be seen close

by, and farther into the fields we saw workers in groups of three or four, many of them in bright blue shirts, some wearing gray hats to shield the sun, whose heat now at the height of day, seemed to create undulating lines across my vision.  I felt myself slipping off into an open-eyed, dreamy sleep state.

When next I stirred to full awareness, the little mounds of hills I had seen early in the journey, had evolved into taller hills, then into quite tall ones.  Now there were more and varied trees, among which I spied the flamboyant, red, spiky-flowered tree the Cubans call the wedding tree.  There were yellow and orange-flowered hibiscus trees (which Lizet told us were of very hard wood and used for making baseball bats), and large-leafed trees that I learned were teak trees.  We saw coffee trees called carib trees, first introduced by the Haitian French in the 19th Century.  I spotted a fichus-like tree which Lizet identified for me as the almácigo tree, of very soft wood used in making pencils, and, of all things, coffins.  There followed also field upon field of tobacco, the devil weed, that later would be rolled into the much coveted Cuban cigars.  Being among such unfamiliar flora heightened the feeling I often experienced in Cuba – that of being somehow illegal, an interloper in an exotic, forbidden land, which only enhanced for me the excitement of being there.

Along the highway we saw many structures somewhat resembling football goal posts.  These were built for the sole purpose of displaying billboards and more billboards throughout the landscape, boasting the Fidel-led revolution of 1959.  Patria o Muerte proclaimed one; Revolución es Libertad, another.  The Cubans, in the formal history lectures we had been required to attend in Havana, referred to Castro's takeover as The Revolution That Triumphed.  We had come to Cuba to learn, and we knew we were learning much, but we also knew that interspersed among the facts was more than a smattering of propaganda, but as we had been told by our Elder Hostel coordinator, we were guests in a country at odds with our own, so we kept our mouths shut and our minds open.

Eventually, far off on the horizon we could see the Sierra Rosario Mountains.  Gray clouds hovered over their flattened tops, and mist drifted down to the valley below.  Nestled here along this road between mountains, we saw lettuce growing, yellow among other greens.  We saw a red tractor, vintage 1950, and by the side of the road a man coaxed a broken-down auto.  Farther on, off a few yards from the highway, we saw what Lizet said was a primary school.  Children sat at outside tables having lunch.  They waved at us in delight, and we vigorously waved back, and would have tarried a moment there, but the bus went doggedly on.  Along the road, two young men in a horse-drawn, open cart steered over to the berm to make room for the bus to pass.  We saw sway-back cows; we saw steel towers that carried electricity; we saw an old fliver with a tin hood painted red.  We saw white egrets in the fields, and a man on horseback surveying the crops, and a boy standing on his roof with hose in hand, watering the field behind his hut, and animals on long tethers grazing right up to the highway, and leaves on wooden poles strung between posts, drying in tobacco fields, and turkeys in a front yard, and two señoras, each with hands on hips, one in blue shirt and one in red, deep in conversation before their hut door.  At bus stops we saw clumps of humanity waiting, some of them had bicycles with them, and I wondered if they would be permitted on the bus, if it ever came.  The buses obviously ran few and far between, as evidenced by the great number of people waiting at the stops along the route.

We saw, besides all this, many other myriad and sundry objects, figures, and scenarios, until at last, climbing, the bus neared the crest of the ascent, and the Hotel Los Jazmines, our destination for the next two nights, came into view.