Friday, 9 October 2009
I wrote this piece for a travel writing competition; it didn't win, but I feel it deserves a wider audience than just me and a couple of anonymous judges.
The photos weren't part of the competition submission, but I haven't made any other edits. I'd love to know what you think.
It was only March, and thankfully we were in the shade, but still the heat was unbearable as we struggled up the steep forest track. Noticing that I was falling behind as asthma started to get the better of me, Maria reached out and took my hand to help me up as the walk gradually turned into a climb. She was visibly pregnant, but accustomed to the Cuban heat in a way that a ghostly-pale English girl like me never will be, and she laughed when her husband pointed out that we'd barely started our journey. He and my fiancé were well ahead, of course, striding easily up the mountain and scattering sandy earth down the slope behind them and into my sandals.
Andy and I had no idea where we were going; we still don't know exactly where we went. Following our new friends' directions we'd driven into the mountains south of Bayamo, to the very end of the smallest road marked on our map, then kept on driving along a potholed track that tested our hire car's suspension to its limits, until it was possible to drive no further.
Then we'd parked in a small village, exchanged cheerful greetings with a couple of young soldiers (uniformed even though they were on leave), and started the long walk up to Juan & Maria's family homes. The tiny mountain farms we were to visit can't be reached in any vehicle, though the Cuban government – in a desperate bid to curb migration to the cities – have ensured they all have electricity supplies.
En route we paused to marvel at pineapples growing wild on the hillside, and to soak up the jaw-dropping vistas which opened up from time to time as we climbed higher, and to peer backwards trying to work out where we'd just come from. Every time I stopped to take a photo I was glad of the chance to catch my breath, however briefly, while hiding behind the camera.
After what felt like forever, though it was only mid-morning, we emerged blinking into the first farmyard. Scrawny chickens scratched hopefully at the dusty soil, and a couple of tiny girls ran to hide when they saw us, peering back with wide brown eyes at the strange, pale visitors. Though they backed away at first, I eventually persuaded them (in broken Spanish) to tell me their names and ages, and shocked them with the news that I'd come from England, before we ran out of common vocabulary.
As guests we were greeted with bemused but friendly smiles and constant offers of coffee, served each time in a shot glass and prepared with so much sugar as to be virtually a syrup. We must have showed our enthusiasm because Juan proudly led us on a tour of the family's coffee-growing business, starting with the small plantation where the first beans of the season were just beginning to ripen, before taking in the yard where the whole crop would be laid out to dry in the sun before being swept up into sacks for storage. He then showed us the stove where a pan full of beans was roasting for the family's own use, already charred and blackened but apparently not yet ready to make coffee the Cuban way, which is as black and fine as coal-dust after grinding.
At the next farm we were shown the relics of a more sinister business. Cock-fighting is now illegal in Cuba, but the walls of one tumbledown barn were lined with cages where the family used to keep their champion birds; since it was made illegal, Juan told us, they kept only one. There was no suggestion that the fights had stopped – simply that they didn't make as much money as they had before the 'sport' was driven underground. The single ragged cockerel pecked forlornly at the bars of his cage when we disturbed him, looking like he'd never have the energy to be an aggressive fighter.
Before making our way back down to the car, we dropped in on another farmhouse where one of Juan's uncles was watching baseball on an old television set as he ate his rice and beans. The government provide it, he explained, and when it breaks down you call the government to repair it. Similarly, the government handed out energy-saving lightbulbs; now everyone uses them because they slice a massive percentage off a family's total power consumption.
Our visit to the mountains was a far cry from the turquoise oceans and white sand beaches to which, it seems, the Cuban government would prefer tourists to limit their visits. But it also taught us far more about this fascinating country than we could ever have learnt if we'd stuck to the tourist trail.
* Names have been changed.