Viñales, Cuba


Mogotes engulf the horizon outside our ‘Casa Particular.’ They are massive hills with steep sides that jut out of the Viñales Valley. Beneath them are chubby grumbling pigs, head-bobbing chickens, endowed dangling horses, fertile dirt, swaying palm trees, and exotic shrubbery. Soon, after the sun goes down, there are men with machetes chopping at something that I couldn’t make out to tell the tale. Their Spanish is loud and excited. Jenn has a beer and a Cuban rolled cigarette. We’re on the roof of our hosts’ beautiful home. The earth moves and the sun falls behind these mountainous hills, bringing with it an ocean chill, and we walk down to our room for the night.

There’s a single mirror on the wall at the foot of our bed. Jenn’s asleep now with her protective black mosquito netting awkwardly and unevenly stretched out over the bed frame. The comforter and pillowcases are pink-silk, embroidered with green and white, yellow flowers, and the pink-silk and black netting mix like lingerie —so when described like that it sounds sexy as all hell in this casa, however, it’s more stylish than anything else. There’s handcrafted molding worked into the ceiling, a handmade light-fixture sagging down from it, casting a shadow mural on the wall from our lamplight.

My head hurts today. Chest hurts some too.

Havana, the last two nights, has been as unkind to me as she has been kind. Picture this: My face buried in a porcelain bowl throwing my guts up some twenty or so times. My face and body miserable and hurting. It was a rough one. The toilet and I are friends now. Amigos, if you will. From bed to toilet, bed to toilet, bed to toilet. A full twenty-four hours. Mild hallucinations coming and going. I met Che and Fidel in these hallucinations; we smoked cigars and listened to Cuban music and there were no toilets in the vision at all.

I mean, could’ve been worse. It was BAD, but could’ve been worse.

Was it contaminated ice that made me sick? The cane sugar in the booze? Maybe some of the chicken or pork? I drank a good amount but it was more than the booze, I didn’t hit it that hard. I don’t know. Either way—for twenty-four hours I wondered if this was ‘all she wrote’. Called through The Great Porcelain Shitter in Cuba…to The Great Porcelain Shitter in the Sky.

        Our host in Havana was a lovely woman named Maina who lived in the heart of Old Havana. Maina would later give me medicine and some canned life/altering peach nectar when I was reborn the next morning. On our first outing, we walked up the street across from the capitol to a restaurant named Castillo de Farnes, whose walls went up in 1896, and we have Cuba Libres and Mojitos to drink, pork with chicken on skewers called brochetas, and rice with seafood called paella. It was one of the best meals of the trip. We met a bici-taxi driver named Alejandro who we became rather close with. He took us around all but one day of our four nights in Havana. He had steady pay coming his way, seemed to enjoy having some outsiders to show around the city, but I tend to think he enjoyed interacting with Jenn the most based on ‘mama’s given goods’. It didn’t help that my Spanish has never been solid, or even soft really, mainly just sad, so Jenn was doing the main communicating since she’s had years of Spanish courses. That first night we went to a place called Fabrica de Arte to see YISSY and the Bandancha, a fabulous band that I’m assuredly a fan of now, and I recommend that you check them out. In the morning Maina had bakery fresh bread, marmalade, bananas, pineapple, and Cuban coffee, accompanied with fresh pineapple juice. She took good care of us and later had a taxi waiting for us to take to the bus station the morning we left. Her house was antique with old large pillars, a mural painting over the dining room across the ceiling, beautiful carpentry work with double opening old-style bedroom doors that locked with a key, a key I accidentally took with me when we checked out that we were able to mail back (Phew.). Outside were city streets, gutters filled with chalk white water running from the dying and wringing out of these dyed t-shirts, apparently. Not t-shirt murder but coloring. People are everywhere in the city streets because Cubans walk everywhere when they’re not riding in their 1950’s and 1960’s taxis that fumigate the air. The streets are shambles crumbling all over Havana, some holes a few feet deep or/and wide. On our ride from the airport after arrival, our first taxi driver rounded a sharp corner, looking not at the road but for an address on the buildings, and I had to mildly scream “STOP!” which he did mere feet from a giant fucking hole in the street. “Oh, man,” he says to me, “you saved my life.” Meaning I probably saved his job. We did it together Taxi Man.

He was the perfect driver to introduce us to Cuba.

On our porch in Havana, we played somewhat of a basketball game with three young boys where I taught them to shoot the ball into one another’s arms since they had a ball but no basket. This was a surreal experience for me. Two older boys came by shortly afterward to hustle some with cards and tricks, so we let it play out for a while, gave a small tip so they’d leave. An old man stole Jennifer’s sunglasses from the porch on the day I was sick, obviously irking me that I wasn’t well enough to get out of the bed and throw up in his mouth in retaliation. Maybe next time.

The same day I was hanging hard with my Cuban friend, Baño, some random guy on a street prowl, who seemingly has his way with all the women from his ‘game talk’, asked Jenn to play with his balls in local ‘romanticized’ language. Maybe next time. Together we had no problems with disrespect other than this short-tempered guy who got angry with me in Viñales, like over the top angry, which isn’t worth explaining. In summary, he misunderstood me. I have to tell you, though, seeing Havana from the Malecón, the walkway directly on the bay, is unforgettable. The city in the distance jetties out where it peninsula’s with the tallest buildings being postcard ‘kiss-your-fingers expression’ perfect. The water splashes up on the streets at times causing one of the busiest taxi/walking routes to close down, forcing traffic to have to find another way around the city. We watched a sunset from the Malecón, giving the go-ahead to some local musicians to play a song for us for a few dollars. Everyone hustles in Cuba, even the quiet ones do, they’re only less aggressive about it. It’s how they survive. But hey, street food is rather cheap when it comes to tasty street-side egg sandwiches, or those plentiful ham and cheese sandwiches, or shots of fruit juice from little juice stands. You can haggle with the pastry guy walking down the street across from the bread guy doing the same, only in the opposite direction. Don’t look too long ’cause there are a dozen bici-taxis ringing their bells for you to get the fuck out of way just in time for the car taxis to honk at you. Horns are as much a part of Cuban culture as transportation itself. They drive crazy but it’s madness they understand. I didn’t see one wreck, and believe it or not they control traffic mainly off of body language and natural rhythm, something I admire.

The smell of bakeries comes with the smells of trash mixed with exhaust in Havana. Cigar smoke, cigarette smoke, the transportation culture of the 40’s to the 60’s with their chugging engines and honking horns, stopping you in stride to watch it all take place, and if I were to bet or hustle with you, I’d bet that this will bring a smile to your face—and I’d bet that you just got honked at six times for staying in one place too long. Move it along.

The snake sounds of “catcalling” are also as much a part of the culture as saying “Bueno” when greeting someone. However, this was directed specifically at single women or groups of women on the streets, so do with that information what you will. The Museum of the Revolution based inside the Presidential Palace, this being where student revolutionaries made an assassination attempt on the soon to be overthrown Batista, the bullet holes sprayed up the walls are part of the experience. The U.S bomber that was once shot down in Bay of Pigs is on display across from the Granma, the boat that transported Fidel and eighty-two other men from Mexico to Cuba, including Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, only twelve making it out alive to reach the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The revolution history is alive and propagated throughout Havana, and the story is rather unbelievable and spectacular, I recommend reading about it.

Remember those chickens, pigs, and horses? The pink silk bedding? That was our second stop, Viñales. The roosters woke us up, all two hundred of them. Or, that’s what it sounded like. This wasn’t a nuisance to me at all only oddly charming with some inescapable humor to it, although I can’t say the same for Jenn, she wanted rooster for breakfast after they woke us up. We ate our breakfast on the roof shortly after the sunrise, though we were up there watching all the animals in the semi-dark for as long as we could. A wonderful little table up there laid out with Cuban “china” dishes soon piled with fried eggs, bread, fruit, juice, coffee—no rooster—along with that devastatingly delightful view of farmland and mogotes. If clothes weren’t allowed it would’ve been goddamned perfect—and in the end, it was anyways. The huevos here, the eggs, are incredibly delicious. Whenever you can eat them, do. The taste is rich, explosive with flavor. That free-range Cuba land diet. The ride into Viñales is winding roads over flatlands, farmlands, mountains, hills, palm trees—they’re all here. We also rode inside a rickety van with eleven people, some from France, some from Germany, some from California who were the first Americans we met. We stopped on the freeway a time or so for people to approach the van with things to sell ranging from cola to cloves of garlic. For miles, people stood selling whatever on the sides of the highway. I saw a man driving a forklift down the highway. Saw a guy on a donkey in the slow lane. Cows were hangin’ out with pelican-like birds in dry fields. Tobacco was turned up and drying alongside houses.

From there we took a six-hour trip to Cienfuegos in two separate cars. Our second driver seemed annoyed by the older french couple that rode with us but I thought they were pleasant, even running into them again later that day. Our first driver was pulled over by the police and whatever happened wasn’t explained to us, they simply dropped us off with the other driver. Entering the city square there’s a statue “…placing you at the feet of Jose Marti,” Cuba’s first well-known revolutionary, who was also a poet. This city was calm, not so many tourists to stir crowds. We walked down a few streets to a waterfront bar, had to step beyond a guy selling horse-drawn carriage rides. I got some fresh juice and Jenn got a beer—I still couldn’t bring myself to drink since Hurlfest. It’s a pretty bay here in Cienfuegos. We took a horse-drawn carriage along the empty streets that were eerily quiet and had our twenty-one-year-old local driver take us down to Punta Gorda. Off the carriage and now walking, the tourist area we were told to check out in Cienfuegos was closed for the next three hours, the three hours we planned to stay before leaving town. We decided to take a bus to Trinidad once our taxi options were exhausted, bringing our Cienfuegos experience to not much of a remarkable one, entirely due to our own blunders. Lo and behold, before we left, on a search for a public restroom that was hard to find, we came across a father and shirtless son on the street that, particularly the dad, had obviously been drinking. We asked politely and they invited us in to use their restroom. While Jenn was indisposed, I waved over to the entire family sitting at the dinner table, who were looking pleasantly, somewhat confusingly back at me. “Cuba!” one of the friends or family members says and then stands, then approaches while pouring a triple shot or more of rum. Oh, it’s for me? I clanked to his entire bottle of rum he held and we shot ’em. They asked about baseball—I know sports but current baseball not so well, so we high-fived, laughing a little from not understanding one other much, then we say goodbye and hit the bus station, off to Trinidad.

We rode the bus in through winding hills that were on fire. Wildfires happen out here, like they do most places, but this one apparently wasn’t the natural kind, the driver told me. Cubans smoke lots of cigarettes and cigars that they flick out of their cars can, not all the time but definitely sometimes, set-off massive wildfires. It’s poetic to burn a mountain down…preferably as long as no one dies or so long as houses of the innocent don’t burn, nevertheless, this isn’t always the case. Pulling in out of the engulfed mountains, the bus hits cobblestone streets that were probably the work of Spanish settlements. A few blocks up the uneven cobblestone streets that were dim-lit with few stragglers, there was music that calls the locals and visitors every night up the hill, up the stairs. Congas, bongos, full set kit, horns, Spanish words I wish I studied a little more before I came here like the goon I am with my. “taco, hola,” talk. We met Erick who brought us to his family’s home, setting us up with a bed and breakfast. Erick is tall, dark and skinny. He’s young but teaches at a local school, saying that Che is someone he looks up to. You can only drive or walk so long whether it’s through the cities or rural areas before you’ll pass billboards propagating the continuing revolution. There are random statues of Jose Marti’s head all over, even in people’s yards I noticed, seemingly placed by the government but I can’t be sure, though mostly there are billboards of Fidel as an old man, every so often a young Fidel and Che. Many of them mention unity in some form or another. We met an old man, a hundred-year-old man by the name of Roberto. He’s missing a pointer finger on his hand that he lost in the revolution, and since I still felt like shit I wasn’t drinking even though all the music and dancing was happening around me. Jenn and Roberto smoked and drank for over an hour as I sometimes came in and out of the conversation. He was the most lucid older man I’ve ever met. He seemingly understood everything I was saying and at a rapid pace even though he can’t speak English. He knew America’s politics well. He gave me a rare three-dollar bill with Che’s face on it as a gift, giving a picture of himself as a young man he claims was taken during the revolution. Jenn bought him drinks, they both smoked more cigarettes—I subtly helped him down the stairs when we left and he seemed to appreciate that without having to outright say it. The following day Erick had a taxi ready and bound for the beach. That Cuban beach where I drink straight from the coconut, saw some Europeans sunbathing with breasts out, ate some chicken with rice under the bar covering, strolled up and down with my feet barely in the water, once or twice ‘gracelessly’ wading out twenty or more yards only waist deep with any eyes choosing to land on me knowing exactly what I was doing out there, and it wasn’t swimming. You had to tip to use the portapotty.

Our taxi to Santa Clara was a 50’s red Chevy that you could take a baseball bat to the frame and only the windows would ever crack. I nearly burned my leg on the muffler when putting my bags in the trunk; luckily the driver brought it to my attention before my skin melted to it. We stopped for some juice at a small stand, buying some cookies and a pastry off the side of the street. Our driver picked up a gray-haired black man selling bread or crackers who rode with us for nearly an hour. Santa Clara is the prettiest city we experienced in Cuba with extremely clean streets and laid back atmosphere. Our host found us on the street, surely noticing we looked like people who needed a place to stay. Her home was beautiful. We lucked out here and were immediately grateful. It was in the city only a few blocks from where our taxi dropped us, an apartment building you had to ring a bell to enter, then ascend a flight of stairs to a shared lounge space. I found it picture-perfect as an old structure with obvious renovations, the bedroom all burgundy drapes and bedding, a wall of dark finished shelves that reached the ceiling. The outer lounge area should be on a postcard with the colorful couch, a record player, an open terrace that could only hold two or three people, but was directly over the city street. It can seem like a movie based in earlier times. This phrase you hear about Cuba is likely a cliché now yet it doesn’t make it any less true—you feel at moments that you’ve time traveled. Not the entire time, of course, I only had that feeling from our terrace during sunrise watching the horse carriages, the vintage cars, the bicycle taxis, motorcycles with sidecars, the vendors selling bread, pastries, and eggs. After visiting Che’s memorial in Santa Clara, this being the town where Che immortalized his role for the revolution.

The following morning, we ended up back in Havana for our remaining two days. Havana’s a city that isn’t behind on dress fashion in any sense that I noticed, the people have a strong sense of style. We had one more run-in with the police when an officer stopped our bici-taxi driver, ending with our driver giving the officer money. A man yells a mantra for us to hear that he’s selling fresh bread. I walk around lost, buy two egg sandwiches from a man who spoke no English at all. I’m coerced into a bar by a man telling everyone that passes by that this is the place we need to be. The bartender offers a daiquiri with too much cane sugar in it because he thought I’d prefer it apparently, this added sugar is normal for tourist drinks. He tells me sometimes his family in America has to send money here for the bar, then other times when the tips are good he sends money to them. The television over his head plays Enrique Iglesias videos back to back to back. Is that Mickey Rourke in an Enrique Iglesias video? It is.

The bartender tells me to watch closely, watch how he makes the drinks for the locals, pouring probably a triple shot of rum into each glass then splashing maybe a tablespoon of mixer with it, and serves the two gentlemen. I finish my drink that leaves crystallized sugar in between my teeth, headed through the streets in this direction. No, no, that direction.

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