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Work 4 Peace,Hold All Life Sacred,Eliminate Violence! This is my often neglected blog mostly about my travels across country in my mobile billboard truck as I attempt to engage in dialogue with people in hopes to wake us up and inspire action to change our country and communities and selves. And it is froth with my opinions, insights, analyses toward that end of holding all life sacred, dismantling the empire and eliminating violence while creating the society and life we want

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Day 12: The beauty that is Cuba

I’m too excited to run this morning and anyway, I’m planning on getting my exercise doing some mountain climbing today. I need to be on the hotel steps by 7:15 but breakfast doesn’t start until 7. I want to make a sandwich maybe and get some fruit and certainly fill up my coffee mug.

The restaurant womyn let me in 5 minutes early when I explain where I’m going, so I cut some bread, grab a banana and a couple of hard boiled eggs while I wait impatiently until 7 on the dot when the scrambled eggs and yummy beans come out of the kitchen to the buffet table. I hurriedly try to make a sandwich as one of the womyn returns with my filled coffee cup and offers me an empty plastic paper napkin bag.

Stocked up I’m downstairs by 7:10 to find Julio is already waiting for me on the steps. He is not driving a jeep but a new-looking-without-the-new-car-smell, thank goodness, white 4 door Chinese car. He speaks pretty good English – and French, German, Italian, and of course Spanish – but I tell him I prefer to try to speak Spanish. 

He graciously says he also prefers espanol and he will help me speak correct Spanish. 

We drive a few minutes to another big hotel to pick up the germans who are coming on the tour with us. There, another driver and car – this time one of the burgundy jeeps – await with not two german men like I was told to expect, but two german straight couples smoking like they’re on fire. Grrrrr

I’m so very lucky because they do not want to split up so Julio and I change cars – we get the jeep and I get a great tour guide all to myself – and we take off east toward Pinares de Mayari, behind the white car.

I can barely contain my excitement – to be leaving this heavily touristed area and to experience the drive to and to be at the most beautiful place in Cuba!

I ask Julio if it’s okay with him that we go solo. He quickly first assures me with a broad smile, it is okay then goes on to explain wryly that it just means a smaller tip for him – and I think, oh no, of course, a larger tip from me.

I have exactly $20 pesos left to my name and 2 more days in Cuba. I really don’t need to spend any money but I wanted to have some money to give Josefa (even though I told her I did not have money for her) and tips for the womyn who will clean my room today and who help me at the restaurant.

Plus I was hoping to buy a Cuban hat for me and maybe a similar one for Mujasi. Oh well.

After a few minutes of worrying, I ask Julio if he will still get paid the same even though he’s taking only me. He explains that he is on salary so he gets paid the same no matter how many passengers he has but nevertheless, he will lose money today. 

He has to pay to wash the car and pay the office $1 peso whenever he takes people out. I ask if that is so he can be the driver chosen for the trip. He says, no, driving is his job but that the people in the office also want a tip but they never get one because they’re rarely in direct contact with the tourists (i.e. potential tippers) so the drivers have agreed to pay one peso for every tour in hopes that they will make more than that in tips.

He then explains to me what most Cubans have confirmed: he makes around $250 or 300 pesos a month, which is about $20-30 CUCs. With three children, a wife, old parents, a sister with children whose husband is for some reason not around (I don’t ask), and a brother who is just starting out on a farm, he really wants more money to share with everyone.

I tell him I have only $20 pesos remaining for my entire time left in Cuba, cual estan solo dos mas dias, but I will share them with him – even though I had been hoping the germans were at least rich and generous (talk about {oxy}morons…), relieving me from the need to tip generously.

But here we are, with me in the jeep by myself with a wonderful guide willing to speak and correct my Spanish, so fortunate I was able to find a way to the one place I REALLY wanted to see in all of Cuba – well the 2nd most wanted, as I never found the womyn farmers. 

I give him the $10 pesos and he slips the bill into his pocket in concert with the slip of any former emotion from his being, donning the now familiar expressionless face and still internal place everyone here seems to go to when receiving a ‘gift’ from me.

Our first stop is at una finca, a farm. It is quite beautiful but as we pull in and he explains the family is expecting us and has prepared fruit and coffee for us, I realize with horror they will be hoping for a tip.

After apologizing profusely, I reluctantly ask him if it’s okay if he gives them $1 peso from the $10 tip I just gave him. He assures me it is no problem but I imagine I see pain in his eyes – he’s probably already divied up the money in his head and now has to calculate where the missing dollar is going to be taken from.

The germans get there before us and are already sipping coffee and eating fruit. I’m delighted to be at such a lovely farm, that I’m sure is mostly representative of Cuba, but also tweaked for tourists.

I see the farmer off in the field trudging behind 2 huge oxen sporting more ribs than muscle, dragging a plow. As I get closer I see he is drenched in sweat, wearing light colored but long-sleeved shirt and matching pants with no hat. He speaks with me in Spanish, I’m thrilled, and explains he intends to plant more papaya and maybe bananas in this field. 

He then leaves the oxen mid-plowed row in the heat and sun to show me around the farm. There are several ‘corrals’ where chickens with chicks, a turkey or two, and a female peacock are scratching the ground for food, or another pen with a medium-sized grey pig lounges with a little pig nudging her but not nursing.

A parrot perched on the roof over a doorway of one of the 3 or 4 small cement or wood buildings screeches “hola” and I’m told it is endemic to Cuba, but domesticated. There’s pineapple planted everywhere and several fruit trees providing lots of shade plus delicious fruit: mango, guanabana (with no ripe fruit much to my chagrin), avocado (also no ripe fruit – August he says), coconut, and many banana palms.

He picks a short, fat banana and gives to me, which I promptly devour. 

He points out the guinea pigs mixed in with the chickens and then takes me over to a little cement pond with two salt-water tortugas who have adapted to fresh water, that he says of course are endangered, and are protected in Cuba. I ask if I can feed any of his animals the banana skin. He says all of them will eat it, so I hand feed the turtles and the guinea pigs – the chicks ignore me, they’re finding better treats in the dirt.

An old man wheels out of one of the small wooden buildings with a thatched roof. He is missing one leg but seems to traverse the dirt and stone paths easily. I find out he’s the original farmer and the father of the man I’ve been following around the farm.

The germans have been ready to leave for awhile and I notice all the fruit has been eaten. I’m happy with my luscious banana although I would have liked some papaya.

We tumble back into the car and as we drive out, Julio spots both the male peacock and 2 immature adults. He stops so I can take a picture as I ask him if this finca is typical of Cuban farms. He says almost – that the biggest difference is the animals displayed for the tourists: the guinea pigs, the peacocks, and the tortugas. Everything else – the structure, size and number of buildings, the oxen and plow, the chickens, fruit trees, outdoor fire for cooking, are all found on farms around Cuba.

He thought there also were smoother paths here and more concrete floors than usual because of the father needing to get around mostly in a wheelchair.

As we drive out the farm back onto the road to Pinares, he asks me if I like birds. I tell him I love birds, of course, and he explains to me that he is just learning how to identify the birds of Cuba and would I like for him to show me?

Oh yes I would and so for the whole trip, he listens, hears a tweet or a whistle, stops and we get out of the car to find the source of the music. He has a little cell phone where he has recorded bird sounds with their names in Spanish and English that he sometimes plays both for me so I can distinguish which song I’m listening to and so he can attract that particular bird closer to the highway so I can see it.

He suddenly stops and points out a small green heron across the road half a soccer field away, happily pecking at short green stalks that Julio explains are rice fields. Of course they are, I can see now. On our side of the road where the rice fields continue, he points out a white egret bent over long legs, also happily feeding.

When we start back on the road, he begins to speed, saying we should catch up to the germans. I’m holding my breath hoping he doesn’t squash any of the multitudes of folks standing, waiting to cross, or walking along the road – not to mention the slow-moving horses and carts, and the bicyclists! 

He asks me if I want to know about the geology of this area.

What a treasure! A guide who speaks many languages, drives skillfully (if too fast), knows and can attract his Cuban birds by sound, and is willing to share information about the geology of Cuba. And is so modest, explaining he is just learning himself.

I learn the kinda flat area we’re now passing thru used to be under water (several thousands or millions of years ago) where a channel between the two allowed the Atlantic Ocean from the south to mix with into the Caribbean Sea from the north. He points out the mountains on both the east and west sides and says that over time the land lifted and sediment from the mountains filled in the channel but it remains rich in calcium even today.

With a broad wave, he highlights the tall endemic palms that grow profusely everywhere the land is not cultivated and end abruptly where the land starts to rise into mountains, saying this variety need lots of calcium to thrive.

It is breathtakingly beautiful here – not just the mountains and plains, but the houses, the farms, the animals, and the lovely people who are so racially mixed I rarely see groups of dark-skinned people without light skinned people, or light skinned people without dark skinned people – whether they are: driving or riding a bus, truck or horse & buggy, working in the fields, hanging in doorways, etc.

I think my daughter and my grandson would feel so comfortable living here.

Julio says that he thinks the people have forgotten that before the revolution it was bad to be dark skinned and better to be light skinned and that such a notion is now very foreign, especially amongst the youth up to middle-aged people.

We give up trying to catch up with the germans and stop several more times, whether to take pictures of spectacular views, to seek out the birds – and now we’ve added butterflies to the book of knowledge Julio is sharing with me – or to learn about unique land formations and endemic wildlife.

The road we travel is mostly smooth, although in places it is deeply rutted, especially as we get closer to the mountain. It also is getting cooler and the sky fills with grayish clouds.

Julio tells me he is trying to expand his work: he believes he’s lucky he has a job he loves, being a tour guide and one that doesn’t compromise his values, but he wants to go deeper for his spiritual life, he says, and be a guide for people who love nature, as he does. And as I do. We’re a good match!

To my horror, he talks about building a cage for butterflies on his land so he can invite tourists, introduce then to the butterflies of Cuba, and stay home while making money.

When I question the caging poor butterflies and the impact on his spiritual being, he assures me that he will make it huge and comfortable for them. I tell him he cannot make it as vast as their natural habitat and roaming grounds.

I suggest he figure out the plants that attract the butterflies he wants to acquaint people with and let them come naturally to him. I tell him he can also grow things that attract bees and certain birds, and have a huge natural open air natural sanctuary with vegetations native to Cuba as well. 

I tell him that every place I’ve been where butterflies are trapped and on display, the ground is littered with dead butterflies. He says everything has to die and I ask him if he knows of Malala, the young girl from Afghanistan who rallied the poorly armed Afghan people to fight the invasion of English soldiers.

I paraphrased her inspiring cry – or maybe it was someone else’s – that it is better to live one day free than 100 years enslaved.

I told him I think that applies to everyone and everything alive, human, insect or animal.

Which leads us into a discussion about what is freedom. He says he knows that u.s.ofa. people (even Cubans who now live in the u.s.) think they are free because they can say whatever they want and that Cubans here are not free because we in the u.s. think that Cubans cannot say whatever they want.
He says in Cuba, we have two words for freedom: libertad and then libertadano – or something, I should have written it down.

The first one, he says is true freedom, that the Cubans have, the freedom to be happy and do whatever you want for yourself as you make the life you wish to live, but you have to live within the rules that society has made up. He said in Cuba it is very clear if someone offends you or does something against you, you cannot retaliate but you have to go to the government and they will handle everything.

The other freedom, the fake freedom, (which I forget the word for) is what he thinks we have in the u.s. – the freedom to live a life doing and saying whatever you want whether it hurts other people or not, with impunity. He says this is false freedom and does not lead to the happy, peaceful, content life of Cubans.

I begin to say offense is a tricky thing, remembering my red-faced screaming and offended racist. But I want to talk about freedom instead - plus I have no idea the Spanish word for "tricky".

So I ask him, can he talk opening and critically about the government? He kind of asks me if I know who Castro is. Before I can say of course, he tells me do I remember what Castro said when he was on trial and facing imprisonment if not death during the revolution.

He tells me Castro was/is a lawyer and he wanted to defend himself. When he was asked why he fights, he said he believes every Cuban deserves a safe,secure home where they can raise their children; a good education so every Cuban can have choices and live a good life, and good health through access to medical services.

And Castro has given these things to the people, he has made good on his promises –and I think unlike most ‘politicians’. I also wonder, once again, what part of capitalism would we in the u.s. be willing to ‘give up’ if we could have politicians who fulfilled their promises?

I noticed rows and rows of obviously planted trees that are neither nut nor fruit that I recognize. Julio tells me these are neem trees and are used for good pesticides for crops that are endangered by disease and insect infestation. He tells me the government and farmers and looking for more and more ways to combat the enemies of farms, like neem and ladybugs – although he calls them something else (which I have forgotten) in Spanish.

I’m so pleasantly surprised – I’ve only learned about neem since my daughter was pregnant, wow almost 9 years ago. I ask if neem is endemic to Cuba and he says, India.

He tells me last week, when all the trees where in bloom, the smell was so delicious. On our way back, he will stop and find a blossom for me to smell!

We have crossed two railroad tracks and one intersection while making our way up to the mountains. Only the road intersection has stop signs – the tracks are unmarked. Julio jokes about how slowly the trains go, which confirms what I’ve heard, so there is no problem seeing them, and probably hearing them, long before they cross the road.

We don’t see any.

The road is now totally dirt and becomes darker and darker reddish brown the higher we go. And more gullied and pitted! Finally we arrive at the national park and I’m overcome again with the beauty that is Cuba.


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