Having spent a week in Havana, I couldn’t resist a little adventure out of the city. The island still suffering from an embargo, renting a car proved a lot more expensive than expected. There are other options: buses, asking around and sharing a ride with another family, hitch hiking… I chose an easier one, an Airbnb Experience: after all, who best than the locals to show you around?
I chose “Life in the Countryside”, organised by teachers at the university. The group met at a small café in town, shared life stories around a freshly pressed fruit juice and jumped in the classical car ready to chauffeur us to a small farm in San Diego de los Baños. On the way, we asked every single question we could think of: education, jobs, traditions… We were often taken aback by the answers. Tourism is important to the economy. Cigars and rum too. But Cuba is also renowned for its medical research, admired worldwide… Nor did we expect that the island had an ageing population. Most couples will have one child: men and women both study later, want to put money aside, have a career. We realised how many stereotypes we had about Cuba.
The original plan was for the children of the family we would be visiting to take us fishing in the river and visit bats in a cave. Rain, a monsoon, pouring down yet beautiful to watch kind of rain got in the way. Plan B! Warm welcome, hugs, embraces… We didn’t speak much Spanish, they didn’t speak much English but the teachers made the link. Smiles, pointing, a few key words did the rest.
We stood there, under the porch, discovering little things about their lives. The hive on a bench, right there by the front door, a bee always standing guard, never leaving unless another is ready to take its place. Fresh mangoes, so many different sorts, each with a different flavour. Coffee made from beans grown on site, roasted in the kitchen. Incredibly cute puppies, just 2 weeks old, their eyes still closed.
A lucky break in the weather and we rushed outside to have a look at how orchids are grown and grafted. We passed sweet little piglets and their quite impressive mum. We all were used to all kind of farms, but there was something so much simpler, so much… happier here that made us feel like kids discovering this for the first time. A feeling worth celebrating… with a local guava liquor!
We retreated to the house, rain starting again. Cigars were lit, dominos put on the table. My childhood memories of the game were boring but this was something else, if only because they went up to 9 instead of 6. We worked in teams of two, playing strategically. The kids gathered around us, experts at the game, advising us. The atmosphere was both serious, each player concentrating on its move, swirls of smoke filling the air… and incredibly fun, dominoes being slammed on the table, doubles coming with all kind of expressions (a double 9 being compared to a pack of beer), and so much laughter. Rain, you said? what rain?
Lunch was served. Slow cooked chicken so tender it fell off the bones, fish from the river grilled so crispy you could eat the tail and fins. The plates were filled, again and again. A hen would occasionally come through the house, walk under the table and, seeing the cat or surprised by a noise, jump on our shoes. Helping to put everything away, we learnt that everything was still prepared on charcoal, by choice, the taste being much better. We also met the house pet – a mix between a beaver and a rat, delighted to be fed a little bread.
It was already time to drive back. I would have gladly spent a few more hours, days, weeks. We barely knew each other and yet, we were a family of sorts. Each time it rains, my heart goes to them…