Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cuba, Part 11

Danielle and I stepped off the bus with our suitcases and into the hot sun.

We arrived in Vinales, Cuba in a small sea of signs held up by Cubans indicating rooms for rent. It was impossible to make our way thru the throng of people without multiple solicitations being shouted all around us.

My eyes stopped on a heavyset man with a thick mustache and a pastel t-shirt, holding up a sign on the periphery of the crowd. I liked him on sight, and he was advertising a room for $25 US dollars per night which seemed to be the going rate, including meals.

"Let's go talk to that guy," I said to Danielle, pointing at him.

As we approached him, I realized how relaxed he was compared to everyone else in the crowd. There was something comforting and trustworthy about him. Not that I was particularly worried about anything, but it helped in the decision-making process.

"Hello, how are you?" he asked the both of us as we approached.

"We're good! Our bus broke down on the way here, but it was a nice ride from Havana other than that," I replied. For some reason the bus braking down had really hurt my mood earlier in the day, but Danielle added some levity to the situation and improved it somehow.

"How long are you staying in Vinales?"

"Five our six days," I replied.

"Oh, that's good! I'm Paulo. I have a nice home and my wife is a great cook! Would you like to see it?"

I looked at Danielle and could see she liked Paulo, too. We introduced ourselves.

"Yes, we would!"

"OK, let's go! I'm just a few streets from here."

We walked alongside the man, rolling our suitcases thru the dusty road. We took a right turn, and things became distinctly more rural. There were orderly rows of small, colorful homes on the dusty streets. I was admiring what a fine day it was when a piercing animal cry down the road raised the back of the hairs on my neck.

Three men were carrying a pig, upside down, with its feet tied to a large piece of timber. The shrill bleats from the pig were so loud I would have covered my ears if I weren't pulling my suitcase. It was physically jarring. As the men came closer with the pig it got even worse. This was just a normal everyday event here. The pig was being taken to slaughter and it was fighting back with the only thing it had left: its voice. It was the kind of thing that could turn a person into a vegetarian. Just an ordinary event. That's how we get ham and pork and bacon, after all, but it's interesting how something so basic and simple becomes an indelible event in the mind of pampered Westerners. It made me quite sad for the pig. Not sad enough to quit eating bacon, but sad nonetheless.

We heard the pig all the way down the road, on our way to Paulo's home. When we arrived, I saw that his street was very similar to the four others that we had passed, but just a tad greener in the front yards with more trees.

Paulo's house was light blue and had a large front porch with a bench swing, where his wife and two sons were sitting, expecting the arrival of new tenants.

Paulo had an attractive wife named Estelle who was several inches taller than him. His older son Carlos was eighteen years old, a very handsome kid, and the younger son, Teo, was five.

We pulled our stuff into the living room and noticed the house was nice inside and immaculate. Paulo showed us our room which was very basic with a large bed and dresser/mirror and we had our own bathroom.

"What do you think?" Paulo asked.

"We'll take it," I said with a handshake. I went to reach for my wallet, but Paulo stopped me.

"We can take care of that later. Let's get you two something to eat!"

We unpacked our things, walked into the living room-which adjoined the kitchen-and we could see that Estelle was already busy in the kitchen. There were a lot of lacy place mats on all the tables and a huge boombox on the long table next to the dining room. It felt nice and welcoming in the house and you could tell it was a good family just by looking at everything and how it was arranged. Pictures of the family were everywhere.

On the dining room table lay a guestbook of all the people who had every stayed there, and we were asked if we'd like to sign in. In the guestbook, all the previous tenants had put little stories of how their stay in Vinales went. One couple had a story of how they had rented motorbikes to ride thru the long, country roads that cut through the picturesque limestone cliffsides. The guy had taken a very bad spill and had to fly home with some teeth missing. Oddly, the story made me want to rent a motorbike--an idea I hadn't thought of. I vowed to watch the road carefully if we decided to do it.

Estelle made a very nice meal of rice, beans, pork, and fruit and it was arranged on our plates very artistically. We tried to curb ourselves from eating ravenously, but it was hard. We'd had a long bus ride.

After a nice conversation with Estelle, we decided to venture out into town and rent a couple of the motorbikes we'd read about. We found the guy on the side of the main road, under a large canvas umbrella, and to our surprise, all the bikes were brand new. There were about ten of them, mostly red and yellow. We left our drivers licenses with the owner and didn't even have to pay in advance. I thought that was strange. The guy trusted us with the brand new mopeds with just driver's licenses which were totally worthless. Perhaps he'd seen us drag our luggage over to Paulo's and figured we would have to come back. Or perhaps a tank of gas couldn't really get us anywhere urban from here.

Danielle and I got outfitted with some helmets and we were grinning from ear to ear. This was going to be really fun! We got started on the bikes and turned off onto a paved road which unfolded into completely unspoiled countryside. The towering limestone cliffs alongside the road were stunning. I pulled the throttle on my bike and found that it could go around 50 miles per hour. We gunned them for a little bit, Danielle and I racing down the smooth, paved road and deeper into farmland. There were no interesting turnoffs so it would easy to find our way back to town.....