I was having the most fantastical dream. A friendly parrotfish and I were standing at a bus stop with our grocery bags when a loud thundering noise made us turn towards the top of the road. We were expecting to see the 32 arriving on time, but instead we saw a tidal wave ravenously crashing towards us. The parrotfish threw her grocery bags in the air, upending a bunch of organic radishes and packets of muesli, grabbed me by the fins (it turns out I’ve got fins) and we legged it. I guess I should say we ‘tailed’ it, as I had gone full fish by then. Looking back over my fish shoulders as I ran, I watched as a couple of crocodiles emerged from the water and rode atop the swell like a mad Kelly Slater – Mick Fanning duo, first on their bellies, then popping up on their short legs. Laughing, they fished out a couple of metal objects from the debris that the wave that swept up off the streets and pretended to duel like a pair of scaly musketeers, the steel glancing off each other in a soft “chunkachunk clink, clink…“
When I opened my eyes, the crocs were gone, but the sounds of metal clinking was still wafting in through our windows along with the scent of a hot breakfast. S was already awake, so we freshened up and made our way down to the garden patio to share a spot in the sunlight with a blue-headed lizard who chaperoned our omelette and toast from the wall.
The lady of the house bade us a kind farewell as she left the house in her work uniform – presumably, she was also a hotel employee. I gather it’s not unusual among the neighbours to maximise their income by working from home. Casa particulares such as this one were marked with a blue arrow to alert travelers that they offered rooms for rent. The next door neighbour earned 2 CUC for watching over our jeep which was parked on the narrow curb overnight, and across the street I spied a man who had set up a barber shop in his living room.
Soon we were on the road again, making friends with the Cuban countryside. The hustle and bustle of the town spilled over into the verdant plains as children in uniform walked to school in single file across a bridge, and horse carts trundled along with toothless farmers heading out to the fields. There were parts of the highway where weeds grew ferociously; here, the locals came with scythes to trim the brush til it gave way once more to the fertile lands that the people nourished and were nourished by in turn.
We had become accustomed to seeing large billboards and murals with revolutionary quotes by the Cuban greats. “Education is not fruitful if it’s not continuous and constant,” counseled Jose Marti, the prolific scholar. “One of the most noble forms of service for the country is to devote yourself to work,” declared a poster which featured Che Guevara. As moved as we were by many other such quotes, we were equally struck by the absence of billboards dedicated to advertising merchandise. There were no giant Coca Cola bottles promising a good time, no luscious locks advertising the latest shampoo, no 10 foot high poster of the next box office hit, no golden arches or oversized donuts marking fast food outlets.
We had traded the neon lights of capitalism and the constant urge of consumerism for the unadulterated scent of the socialist earth. I don’t purport to think that any one model is ideal, lest I show myself to be a hypocrite, or worse, an ingrate. I have lived in both the East and the West and visited many places in between and have yet to come across Utopia. What I would like is to be mindful. To know that there are many ways for many people, and to show each other respect rather than vilification. Though this trip was a holiday for us, the political and socioeconomic milieu was something that we think about very often, in large part because we have traveled here from the US, a country which treats Cuba as its sworn enemy. It places cruel embargoes upon these people, and like the Queen Bee to a gaggle of high school girls, it uses its international dominance to threaten other countries who would otherwise trade food, medicines and technology with Cuban citizens. It accuses Castro of dictatorship, bandying about the terms ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘terrorist’ like filthy words, priding themselves in the gold standard of ‘democracy’ which somehow absolves them of other crimes of humanity. Is it right for a nation to be able to do this to another?
Democracy should not be an ideal that everyone aims for if it means that other values are lost along the way. I believe that the responsibilities of the leaders and policy makers of a country is firstly to treat their people well, and then to treat others well when going about their foreign affairs. Cuba’s leaders have adopted an ideology that is more austere – their cities are traditional rather than modern, and their citizens do not lead luxurious lives. However, with monthly food allocations to each and every family, they do not allow their people to go hungry. With free tertiary education, the youth do not grow into adults shackled by the weight of student loans, and with free healthcare, the sick and needy do not waste away for lack of medical insurance. But clearly, there are sacrifices that an individual endures for the good of others. In the States, the good of the majority is a vaguer notion. It is a nation of haves and have nots, chasing after the American dream. Life is comfortable, enjoyable and secure for many, and there are many successes with regards to technological advancement, medical breakthroughs, art and literature, standards of living, and public services. But this shiny veneer has cracks that reveal a disparity of rights and opportunity within its own people, as well as when compared to other parts of the world. There are sacrifices being made towards the attainment of the American dream, too, but these sacrifices are borne by the have nots. If it can be borne by another nation, all the better.
So the United States choose not to have diplomatic relations with Cuba and feeds its citizens with the propaganda that there, across the straits of Florida is a country which used to suit us just fine, but is now run by a communist dictator capable of terrorist activities with no regard for human rights. Since this information comes from a democratically elected government, it is widely accepted as fact. But try to see past the diplomatic facades of these politicians and look into the eyes of honest people elsewhere in the world who, whether you know it or not, are really your brothers. There are drones terrorizing Afghani skies and raining explosives onto their population. There is destructive military presence in the Middle East. There are sweat shops all across Latin America and incidentally, undisputed ownership of nuclear warheads. These are all activities are being carried under the orders of the policy makers of the United States of America. Not Cuba.
Every ideology has its strengths and weaknesses. In the West, I live with adequate material comforts and vast opportunities for growth and self-realisation. I do not need to contend with poverty, famine, war. I have so much clean water that I waste it without thinking. I have a good job because I went to a good school. I buy clothes that I don’t need, I can travel the world, and I know that there are invisible welfare and healthcare structures in place should I be in need of help. These are good things, things that I take for granted, things that people in certain parts of the world are struggling without. These are things that I am incredibly grateful for.
However, our comforts should not enable us to turn a blind eye on the injustices that are being carried out in the name of wealth and power. We should educate ourselves as to where our resources come from. I do not want to be in the 1% if there are 99% fellow humans suffering in my wake.
There has to be a better way.
So the battle of ideologies carry on, long after the Revolution. For now, we roll the windows all the way down and let the socialist winds ruffle our hair. We have chosen our camp.
We saw once again that the highway was flanked with hitchhikers and we were able to give a few people a lift. On the Autopiste to Pinar Del Rio, S overshoots past a hitchhiker in military fatigues, belated decided to stop, and does so halfway between the militar and another guy waiting just up ahead. They start running towards us from both directions and end up sharing the back seat. While the militar soon fell asleep from the exertions of waiting in the midday sun, the other introduced himself as Alain and was eager to practice English with us. He thanked us profusely for picking him up, for he had been waiting 3 hours and had expected to arrive in Pinar Del Rio much later tonight.
Alain worked as a quality controller for the tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio, which he says is the best in the world. In very compelling English, he convinced us to abandon our plans of driving as far down as Maria La Gorda, and to stay instead in Pinar Del Rio, where day trips to several areas of interest in the region were possible. Additionally, he could sort us out with his aunt who owns a casa particular.
Upon arriving at Pinar del Rio, we visited the tobacco plantation at Alain’s behest. I must profess that I have never been intrigued by tobacco of any sort. I’ve had a strong aversion towards smoking since I was very young. But Alain’s enthusiasm was overwhelming. He beckoned for us to squat down to see the young shoots growing in rows, then flings the doors of the drying house open as if he were welcoming us into his own home.
Tobacco plants are grown once a year in Cuba. The government supports the farmers by distributing seeds in September which are planted temporarily in the humid and fertile soil near rivers before they are relocated to the fields. The trees grow wide green leaves which are harvested from January in three phases. The leaves are collected from the bottom-most layer, moving up to the middle layer after 15 days, then finally the top of the plant 3 weeks later.
Once collected, each batch is taken inside a drying house which had been shut 2 months prior. Within it are scaffolds of wooden beams placed at incremental levels from the floor to the ceiling. On the beams, the leaves are laid out right and left and held in place with a needle. When the next batch comes in, the first wooden beam is elevated to a midling slot, and then pushed up near the top.
The drying and fermenting process takes bloody ages. They are mixed with honey, rum, cocoa and water before being rolled into cigars. The first 2 batches of leaves collected are used for the inner part of the cigar, while the last batch is used as the outer wrap. Cohiba, the best brand, has 10 leaves inside and 2 outside. Selectus has 8 and 2, while some other brands will only have 7 or 8 total. Low quality cigars are mixed with banana leaves – which fall out if a cigar is rolled between your palms.
Unlike cigarettes, the cigar has no chemicals in its making. Everything is handmade using natural ingredients. There are no nicotine or toxins added. Alain would argue that it would be less deleterious than cigarettes. I still don’t think that I’ll ever be tempted to smoke a cigar in my lifetime, but at least I learned something new :)
Also check out this cool article with pics of cigar-making in full swing :)