The transport truck drops us off beside a path that cuts through a field at the foot of the mountains. We skirt around a hefty bull grazing near the woods, and in about 20 minutes we arrive at a small, wood-framed house, half hidden amongst the trees.
As we’re introduced to everyone, we sip some coffee – grown, harvested and roasted right here – the best I’ve ever had.
We also meet the family pets, a couple of macaws, the first domesticated pets I’ve seen so far.
Nature calls and I’m shown the outhouse. It stands a bit away from the house, nestled up against the woods. This one has only a curtain strung across the doorway. I’m glad I don’t have to do anything – major.
Hills and Highways
A young man announces he’s our “designated rower” across the lake. The sky turns overcast once again; I don’t relish the thought of being on a lake in case a thunderstorm rolls in.
We take our leave and stumble along a narrow path cut through the forest. Claudia and I are both so hot, muggy and tired we feel like crying.
Then we get to the edge of the lake, a smooth circle of turquoise water, the mountain chain surrounding us. Splotches of bright red tropical flowers are dotted throughout the green ferns and trees. Birds chirp somewhere behind us in the forest.
Other than our small group, an elderly man fishing in a battered rowboat is the only person we see.
Our rower cheerfully prows us across the lake.
Now we get to climb a mountain.
With our level of fatigue El Escambray may as well be Kilimanjaro.
“It’s not far now.”
I’ve heard those words before, like 21 hours before we get to wherever it is we need to be.
I shove tangled vines out of my way and haul myself a bit further up the trail. I’m hot and sticky. The muggy forest feels suffocating. My head is pounding and my eyes feel gritty from lack of sleep.
“El Che estuvo aquí, (Che [Guevara]) was here.)” I’m told.
Well that’s just peachy keen.
Che was bent on revolutionary conquest.
This is supposed to be my vacation.
Cuban Stamina and Strength
I’m astounded that people manage to live here, lugging whatever they need up this steep climb and through this mass of vegetation. As it is, I’m almost crawling on hands and knees carrying only a small backpack.
Finally we emerge from the greenery and arrive at an old wood house set on a leveled-off stone slab foundation.
The patriarch of the family waves hello when he hears us approaching, an old, partially blind man. He came here with his relatives around 40 years ago, before the Revolution. They uprooted trees, smoothed the ground, built the house, everything from scratch, an ax or two and a couple of shovels their only tools.
I wish I had more energy to enjoy their company more, and as we sit and talk, Claudia and I get sleepier by the second.
However, I can always count on needing to go to the bathroom to wake me up a little.
“Which one would you like to use?”
The lady of the house (I stopped trying to remember everyone’s names a couple of days ago) asks if I want to use the closest outhouse or the other one down the path.
They both look the same to me, and each has a door rather than a curtain. I choose the closest, and am handed a pail of water.
It has a regular toilet?
I pretend to know what I’m doing, say thank you and take off with my pail.
Inside the outhouse there’s nothing. Not a modern-looking toilet that needs water for flushing; not a wood bench with a hole cut in the middle. Not even a hole in the ground à la Turc.
It does have a flat, rather damp stone. I’m standing on the toilet. This outhouse is on a slight incline, so pouring the water over the stone rinses everything away into the bushes below.
No wonder it’s so lush and verdant here.
A Visual Paradise
To wash my hands after my bathroom break, I walk over to what is probably the cleanest, freshest water I’ll ever see, a do-it-yourself water delivery system made of hollow bamboo stalks, attached one to the other from a water source near the top of the mountain and down to a spot next to the house. A constant supply of pure, cold spring water drips into a large pail.
The house is beside a path that borders the edge of the mountain, trimmed with shrubs and the brilliant red flowers I spotted from below. Another path leads higher up the mountain to where the regular coffee crop is grown. And in a scene straight out of a coffee commercial, a man with sun-wrinkled skin and sporting a cowboy hat and threadbare plaid shirt saunters down the path, donkey in tow behind him, laden with bags of freshly harvested coffee beans.
I almost expect to hear a voice-over announcing: “Coffee beans hand-picked by Juan Valdez.”
What I do hear is music. Rhythmic Cuban salsa. Someone has tracked down some cassettes from somewhere, popped one into an old Russian-built tape player and everybody gathers round to dance in the yard.
For a few minutes we’re energized and Claudia and I dance and laugh and goof around with these wonderfully adaptable and incredibly creative Cubans.
I can’t believe how lucky I am to know these people and have this experience.
The whole spectacular view of the valley and lake below, the infectious joy people have in the simplest things, their cheerful resilience and hospitality, even the multitudinous outhouses I’m now acquainted with – this has truly been a remarkable trip.
And I’m not sure I’d survive many more like this. By the end of a couple of songs I am so hot, sticky and grimy I go over to the bamboo water pipe and stick my head under the frigid stream of water. Everyone laughs and Raul says I’m getting “aplatinada” – Cubanized.
I couldn’t be more pleased.
The back seat of a ’53 Olds is crazy big; no seat belts of course, but the monster car could probably withstand an artillery attack, and I can’t imagine the thing ever rolling over. However, the steam that starts hissing from under the car hood has me a bit worried.
There are no garages around, of course.
Once again it’s only us and the sugar cane field.
Claudia, Julia and I take refuge from the blistering heat amongst the cane stalks while the guys fiddle with a mirror under the blazing sun. They try to focus its rays on the cracked radiator hose until enough rubber melts so they can patch over the hole.
While we wait, we talk about music and dancing. I mention that one day I’d like to learn the samba.
Suddenly we’re out of the sugar canes and onto the highway. Julia hums a popular Cuban song and leads me step by step through Samba 101.
Then it’s Claudia’s turn and Julia puts her through the paces.
It dawns on me how unbelievable this all is.
Two men bend over a radiator hose.
A mirror is their only tool.
Behind them, three women sing and dance on an empty highway under the hot Cuban sunshine.