Tales from Cuba

January 20, 2017  •  7 Comments

It’s a blinding sun sort of day in the Viñales Valley and Benito is holding up his chicken, gently running his fingers over its tail feathers.

He’s delighted to have a cluster of photographers follow him around the tobacco farm, bursting with healthy green plants against a backdrop of towering limestone mountains, called Mogotes.

Here in Cuba, Benito tells us, the government takes 90% of his crop and he keeps 20%. He’s not so good at math, he says with a wink, chewing on the end of his cigar.

After he tells me I could be the Tobacco Queen of Cuba and offers me his son’s hand in marriage, I laugh and tell him to stand still for a photo. But Benito doesn’t stand still. He poses, looking out at his field, squinting his eyes, and getting that “far-off” look while slowly smoking his cigar. He’s done this before.

I didn’t know I’d find my best model ever on a tobacco farm in Cuba’s Vinales Valley. But then again, there are a lot of things I didn’t expect to find here.

In many ways, Cuba is exactly as you probably picture it. Warm, colorful, and crumbling in a poetic, beautiful sort of way. It’s friendly. Salsa music emanates from every restaurant, the same five Buena Vista Social Club tunes on rotation, with a “Guantanamera” thrown in for good measure.

Though if you go looking, you can find a rich culture made of African, Caribbean, Spanish, and Chinese threads interwoven.

And it’s keeping up the façade of being “left over from the 1950’s.” You will find old classic American cars. Lots of them. But the vast majority work in tourism, as taxis or tour transport. You’ll find ladies smoking cigars with colorful head scarves and flowers... there to have their photos taken. You’ll enjoy rum. So much rum. At every meal and practically any time you sit down.

What I didn’t expect to find on an island that’s closer to Miami than Seattle is to Portland, is people plowing fields with oxen and hand plows... horses and buggies providing public transportation... and an unsettling mix of solid, sparkling infrastructure and hip tourist restaurants with everyday folks who can’t afford to buy soap.

There are no advertisements anywhere. But you may see a few billboards touting Fidel quotes about working hard and coming together for the good of all.

Yet, there is a buzz in the air. Talk of the Americans coming. Times changing. The economy shifting. And on the American side, the notion that we have to get there NOW before McDonalds and Starbucks do.

And they will. 

It's easy to go as an American, now. A quick visa to fill out, a short plane ride from Florida, and you’re there... sipping rum, learning how to smoke cigars, and meandering along the Malecon with the locals, who smile and say hello. Find a local guide on TripAdvisor and go now. You will enjoy so much good food, flashy entertainment, beautiful scenery, street color, and friendly folks. 

Brush up on your Spanish before you go, though – not everyone speaks English. And besides being able to order food and find your way, it’s worth it to hear the stories Cubans have to tell when no one is watching.



Diana Ruddick(non-registered)
These photos and your reflections were worth waiting for!
Beautiful shots and great stories, Bonnie. I was there a year ago and will likely be going back this year again. It is a wonderfully rich and complex place. Thanks for taking all of us back there for another visit. (You'd look great in the Tobacco Queen sash and salsa outfit!)
Ah, yes. That's the Cuba I experienced too. You brought me right back there. And reminded me I need to finish editing my photos!!
Laurie Clarke(non-registered)
Oh, Bonnie; wonderful images and stories! Wow!
R &K(non-registered)
Wow! Great story and wonderful images. Thank you for the travels!
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