Viñales is a pueblo in Cuba’s tobacco country about 100 kilometers west of Havana. On the narrow, pothole-pocked road to get there, ancient Chevys and Pontiacs dodge horse carts that are not tourists traps but the life blood of the granjeros who work the fields. It is in this landscape–the tiny concrete cottages, wooden barns sagging in the sun, and neon-green tobacco fields topped with delicate white flowers–that Cuba seems to be offering up its heart.
Cubans love their color and Viñales has a Candy-Land feel, the neat grid of streets lined with houses painted bubble-gum pink, sunflower yellow, or robin’s egg blue. Most are for rent. Most have lots of bright polyester drapes, table cloths, and bedspreads, and most are immaculately clean, as if to say, “Pick me…pick me…pick me!” The third world edges, like intermittent water pressure and iffy electricity, stick out only on closer inspection.
The more I saw into Cuba’s heart, the more it broke mine in ways both good and bad. There was the skinny vinegar seller, a ten gallon plastic container strapped to his back, who told of how the police arrest him occasionally for selling without a government license. “I have three children who need to eat,” he explained, bringing his hand to his mouth in pantomime. When I gave him a flash drive as a gift (I’d heard that these are hot, hard-to-get items in Cuba, so I brought a bunch), he had no idea what it was. I explained, telling him that I hoped he could sell it or trade it. “Oh no,” he said, shaking his head. “This is a gift to my kids.” He thanked me with a kiss and tottered off down the dirt road.
There were the stray, starving mama dogs slinking through the streets looking for any morsels they could get, bellies low and heavy. And the tiny, sick kitten mewing in the middle of the road. The scope of the poverty shaped itself in scenes like these. In the town’s only outdoor mercado, there was the cheap, Chinese made junk you can find the world over, only these items were branded with the Cuban flag, a beautiful, red-white-and-blue splashed with a single star. When I bought a bottle of rum, the cashier didn’t have any change in her drawer to give me.
How fast will Cuba change now that Americans are coming back? And how? Will more competition for the tourist dollar turn it into a place where visitors feel heckled and harassed into buying Che Guevara beanies and fake Monte Cristos? The aura is still much more authentic than that, but there is a boom-town feel to Cuba, a dawning realization that now is the time to get in on the action. Throw a “For Rent” sign in your window, stock up on Wifi cards and SIM chips so you can charge Americans double (or triple) what you paid–there’s gold in the burgeoning tourist trade, but the Cubans seem to take genuine pleasure in mining it. No one was pushy, angry, or disinterested–instead, it was as if by opening up a negotiation with a Cuban, you also opened up their hearts.
There is a special brand of resilience in Cuba and I hope that this country’s “lost in time” feeling does not get completely lost in the changes to come. I thought this as I looked at our hosts 1980s era TV and stereo speakers, at the guy walking down the street with an inverted chicken trussed up in a special chicken-carrying purse, at the fabulous old cars that negotiate the streets carefully, lest they hit a bump too hard and fall apart. And then I had to re-think it: Cubans would probably be thrilled to catch up to a flat screen and a pair of wireless, Bluetooth-paired Sony speakers. Or even just lights that worked consistently, mosquito screens, or a nice A/C-equipped Prius that gets great mileage and doesn’t spew black exhaust.
The new Cuba is waiting. Waiting to leave? Waiting to make money? Waiting for a time when a flash drive is not a rare luxury? The experience of it made me feel bad for not understanding when, as a kid, my mom would tell me “Children are starving in China!” when I didn’t want to eat something. The specter of the great waste that goes on in a country as rich as the U.S.A. followed me through the dirt lanes of Viñales and into its campo, where a farmer pushed a hand plow harnessed to two oxen. I felt a little embarrassed and a lot humble– like I wanted to use only what I absolutely needed of everything. I left Cuba with a new appreciation of all the gifts we Americans are given–an understanding that often comes only when one place is seen in the bright light of another.