Sights and Sounds of Rural Cuba

The silence of an ox-drawn economy greets visitors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

I have a sister who places the view from a hotel room right up there in importance with the kids' grades in school and whether her husband remembers their wedding anniversary.

Some day, when Fidel Castro is just a memory and Americans can freely visit Cuba once again, she will have to book a stay at Los Jazmines hotel in the Pinar del Rio region of this forbidden (at least in the eyes of the United States government) Caribbean island.

The hotel itself - two pink buildings flanking a blue swimming pool atop a hot grassy bluff - is not the draw; it's the view that's a knockout.

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Stretched out below the balcony of any one of the hotel's rooms is an awe-inspiring finger of the Vinales valley, a canvas of greens, browns, purples, and grays that would not be considered natural if it were painted in a picture.

Much of the valley is a patchwork of small tobacco farms. But what really makes the view are the vegetation-covered geological bubbles, steep and strange, that rise abruptly amid the caramel-colored plowed fields and the spring-green crop rows.

Called mogotes in Spanish, these limestone uplifts give the valley an Oriental air, perhaps because they are reminiscent of the formations prominent in ancient Chinese paintings from that country's Guangxi province.

The scene is also accompanied by an eerie silence. No roads cut through the tranquil scene, and since much of the farm work here is still done with oxen rather than tractors, what labor can be spotted is carried out with virtually no noise. When a full moon bathes the valley or fingers of mist creep in, the mystery of the place is only heightened. For anyone seeking rest and refreshment, an hour spent in silence on a Jazmines room balcony seems perfect.

As appealing as the Vinales view is, however, it was not the only highlight of a recent weekend this reporter and a Monitor photographer spent west of Havana, as far as the province of Pinar del Rio. The weekend included a walk through a biosphere reserve near Soroa, one of four in a country that, since the Spanish arrived and sugar was made king, has lost nearly all its original tropical forest; lunch at an 18th-century coffee plantation built by the French (vestiges of the slaves' quarters have been invaded by tropical tree roots but are still visible); a swim in a mossy stream accompanied by a group of prankish Italian tourists; and a visit to a small roadside tobacco farm.

As is usually the case in any country one visits, the most interesting aspect of the trip was the contact with the people. And though it may come as a surprise to some, we two Americans encountered no hostility from the Cubans we met. (A French couple on a tour of Cuba were wide-eyed when I revealed my nationality. "You must tell them you're some other nationality, or I suppose they'd have your head!" the woman said.) Many rural Cubans don't even know for sure why there are no American tourists on their island. "Is it my government or yours that doesn't want them here?" one man asked.

Those older Cubans who did have a quarrel with the US made it clear they differentiate between the American government and its people, while younger Cubans were thrilled to meet Americans. It seemed to help them feel less isolated on their lonely Communist island - if only for a moment - and to prove their knowledge of American culture, mostly music and sports.

In Vinales, a modest agricultural town in the shadow of some mogotes, a small group of young friends preparing the old town square for a week-long cultural festival offered a picture of today's restless yet mild-mannered Cuban youth. After a good-natured argument over whether Miami singer Gloria Estefan is more American than Cuban, the kids discussed Cuba's future and their own economic prospects.

Even out here in the provinces, they said, without access to US dollars life in Cuba is impossible. One of the boys worked in agriculture with his father - earning the equivalent of $2.40 for every 100 pounds of tobacco he harvested - but said his family would have to live without soap, cooking oil, toothpaste, and other "luxuries" without the $30 to $50 a month a sister was sending from Miami.

Another young man, Julio, said poor pay and even poorer conditions made him shun agricultural work in favor of whatever "little jobs" he could come up with. But leaning forward he whispered, "We have to be careful about what we say, especially if it's anything bad about agriculture, sugar, and tobacco because they're very sensitive about the economy. There are eyes and ears around here," he added, indicating with his eyes and a tilt of his head two policeman observing us from across the street. "There's not as much freedom out here as you find in Havana."

That thought reflected a common theme of our 48-hour foray into rural Cuba: While Havana, home to about a quarter of the island's population, is considered unruly and a bit troublesome for Mr. Castro's control-obsessed regime, the provinces are presented as more obedient and supportive of Communist ideals. What we found, however, were pleasant people with little interest in politics, most interested in managing to get from one day to the next.

In one village we passed, almost the entire population of perhaps three-dozen people was piling into a cattle truck to attend the funeral of one of the villagers. At another point we passed a man selling two three-foot-long fish from the back of his bicycle on the shoulder of Cuba's little-traveled westward freeway - little-traveled primarily for a lack of gasoline and automobiles.

"Five pesos each [about 25 cents]; you can feed your family and half the neighborhood," said Jose Manuel Abreu Lopez, a policeman during the week in Consalacion del Sur. "I catch them in the morning to sell in the afternoon," he added.

And at Juan Cabo Otero's tobacco farm, east of Vinales, the weathered farmer quietly relished the prospect of an extra $24 US for this year's bumper crop, which he and son Manuel Cabo Noda were cutting and bringing into the drying shed.

"In June, Tobaccos de Cuba will come and pick this up," says the elder Mr. Cabo, indicating a shed full of withering leaves. "And if we bring in what I expect, we'll get $24 as a bonus," he says. "A good year."

The Caboses' produce is brought to the drying shed on 12-foot-long poles that are loaded on a wooden frame pulled by two nonchalant steers. The frame has no wheels, just wooden runners, like those on a sleigh, that slide easily through the red Cuban earth.

With no wheels creaking, and with father and son working quietly side by side, the only noise on the Cabo farm comes from the wind. It's the same silence one hears from the balcony of Los Jazmines hotel.

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