The common vision of Cuba is the musically rich, Spanish colonial meets 1950’s, faded cityscape evoked by Havana. Despite what is true or untrue about how many people see Havana, it represents the Cuba they believe they know beyond the sandy resorts that line the South Western peninsula. Rural Cuba feels like a very different place — a place pulled at by Cuba’s cities but that stands alone.
Of course, rural Cuba is not one place nor is it one people. Also, of course, my experience of Cuba’s countryside is one of a Canadian tourist who happens to leave the areas many tourists don’t leave. I also speak only the quaintest smattering of school boy Spanish so my communication with Cubans has relied on their superior grasp of English and a shared willingness to ask and answer questions.
Gayla and I were fortunate to be introduced to an extended family: a mother and father, an older son back from the city, a very young son with wide bright eyes, the girls (cousins), the uncle who seemed to be living a rung above. The men were fishermen by trade. They swam with snorkel and mask into deep water (40 feet down or more) to spear fish for sale, trade, and for their own table.
The family lived in a small closely-knit community where the older son often called out to an “uncle” or a “grandfather” of no blood relation. Patches of family land dotted with small wood houses circled shared fields criss-crossed by goats, chickens, turkeys, and ponies.
We shared stories as we could. We talked with basic honesty about the precarious nature of bringing tourists into their home. We sat inside one tiny house talking while being watched through the glassless windows by a gathered extended family outside. We talked and ate as the single low bulb’s light was eaten away by the dark country night.
The man who made our introduction did so with caution. He made part of his living through handcrafted jewellery sold to tourists and part in the more abstract task of being an illegal liaison for people visiting Cuba through proper channels who wanted to see more of the country and its people. The work he was assigned to do, the hard brutal work of farming cane, cut him off from people, experience, and learning. Walking with him to this main road from an adjacent field, he asked that we wait for him to walk a way ahead so that passing police wouldn’t see us together.
We knew that there was a transaction implied in our meeting and a set of poorly articulated expectations about what we had and they didn’t. To this day, it’s difficult to describe the feeling. Because our Spanish was (is) pitiful, we couldn’t voice a lot of what we felt then or ask the right questions let alone understand the answers.
Despite stumbling over a legacy of relations between tourists and Cubans that has formed a lot of preconceptions on both sides, we were genuinely engaged and felt true hospitality and warmth towards us.
This is one brief view of Cuba’s countryside and a few days spent with one of its families. There are more stories and more images but it feels better to leave those to another time.
It’s been roughly four years since these photos were taken. That’s Jubalito, at three years old then. Right now he might be running across that field kicking a football with cousins or still chasing after an errant goat.