I must have slept soundly as I am barely awake when Margurite taps on the door for breakfast. A teenager, presumably one of Maga and Julian’s three sons, is sprawled in one of the four wood, web-seated rocking chairs that, along with the television in their midst are the only furnishings in the ‘livingroom’. Maga has prepared our breakfast of crepes and fruit, and an arrangement of three thermoses that contain coffee, hot water and milk. The milk is also hot as Margurite discovers when she downs a glass, thinking it cold. I get a kick out of that. I am distracted at breakfast by a sinister looking pit bull, black with yellow eyes who peers down at us through the roof opening to the neighbours house. I’m not much of a dog person at the best of times and there is nothing friendly or inviting about this fellow. Margurite gets a kick out of that.
We meet the rest of the girls on the porch of their casa and wait for Jorge, who we think is operating on Cuban time. Nine-ish. My kind of guy. Jorge and Pedro arrive and we all pile in the van – only to be unloaded again about half a block up the street. From there we walk what seems like miles through the village, up a dirt laneway, across a small stream to where one big Cuban vaquero is waiting with a string of horses loosely reined to a farmers fence.
Most of our group have not ridden before. Priti has had a bad experience so approaches the adventure with some trepidation. No need. These horses have made the same trek out and back many, many times over so rider intervention of any kind is a nuisance they’ve long since learned to ignore. We follow a narrow red dirt path toward the hills past rice and tobacco fields, tarot gardens and the occasional abondoned-looking shack that I suspect is more or less occupied. The day is overcast and looks like it will rain at any minute, but the cloud cover keeps it pleasantly cool and the rain never does materialise. More’s the worse for the local farmers who have been experiencing drought for the past few years. No place on the planet is exempted from climate change. Too bad they couldn’t put an embargo on that. The horses are similar to the small, muscular animals we’ve seen pulling the two-wheeled dog carts in Vinales. Dani, who has decided to wear her white jeans is delighted when our mounts wade knee-deep through several huge puddles of red mud along the way.
The backs of our legs are all splashed in red mud by the time we pull up at an open shed, tether our horses and are welcomed by a wiry young vaquero with piercing blue eyes and almost no English. On the crude wooden table a line up of fresh coconuts, pomelos and bottle of golden honey. Our host proceeds to chop the top off the coconuts, squeeze in the juice of the pomelos, add the honey and ducks into the adjoining hut to emerge with a bottle of vodka. Yummy! I will definitely be trying this at home. After throughly enjoying our refreshing drinks the vaquero offers to show us how to roll a cigar from a pile of dried tobacco leaves. He uses scissors to cut a long, rectangular strip from a large leaf for the wrapper, bunches together a handful of leaves for the filler, trims the ends and lays them across the wrapping strip before winding it snuggly around the bunched leaves. Once trimmed up it does look remarkably like a cigar and quite smokable. Tempting. The vaquero speaks very little english and Dani, having taken a ten-week course in spanish while traveling in Spain makes a valiant attempt at translating, which we all find hilarious as much of it is guesswork, made all the more challenging by all of us chipping in excitedly when we think we hear some identifiable word or term. Our coconut drinks might have been taking effect.
It’s a quiet ride back to our starting point. The sun is out, it’s very hot and humid and we are all feeling the very nice effects of our coconut cocktails. We thank and tip our trail guide and the rest of the girls head back to meet Jorge for the afternoon activity – a trip to see local caves and cave paintings in the hills.
I’m tired and feel the need for some down time so I take my iPad to a cafe on a corner of the busy main street and order lunch. Spaghetti is the only alternative to ham, cheese or ham and cheese sandwiches. It’s topped – wouldn’t you know it – with shredded ham and chunks of white, soft cheese on a too-small circle of something that tasted like tomato soup. I’m realising that everything tastes better with beer so I accompany it with another local brand, Bucanero.
I thoroughly enjoy watching the world go by this busy street corner – village women doing their shopping, lots of young men hanging about the doorways of small sparse shops and food stands, decrepit looking old cars, many dog carts and in surprising contrast a brand-new high end Mercedes that creeps along a narrow side street carefully avoiding the foot traffic. I update my journal with notes about the preceding days, send off a long email to family and then head back to the casa for an afternoon siesta. I really wish we would adopt that custom in Canada. So civilised.
I’m wakened by Jo’s tap on the door. We are all going to a party with friends of Jorge’s. They’re roasting a pig! Which I guess in Vinales is the nicest way to welcome visitors. Off we go to the edge of Vinales and then down a narrow alleyway between shacks and small houses to a small, colourful two-story house at the end of the alley. We hear the party before we see it – raucous yelling and the slamming of tiles. On the patio in front of the house four Cubans are ranged around a spindly-looking table, on delicate looking wrought iron chairs playing an almost-violent game of dominoes, loudly disputing every move and at times sweeping the whole game off the table in humourous outrage. We crack open our hostess gifts of rum and coca cola and are soon swigging Cuba libres and eating fragrant chunks of roasted pig.
Dominoes is something of a national sport in Cuba. We saw games being played on the streets, sidewalks and in cafes everywhere. This particular game is played as partners, sort of like bridge. I watched for some time as wild-haired Neuka, in jeans that barely manage to corral her ample backside and her partner Bebino, a musician who has played both the Vancouver and Toronto jazz festivals challenge Eileen, from the UK and her Cuban boyfriend, Ivan who runs The Club in town. He is hoping to emigrate. Eileen tells me that they will get married to facilitate this. There is another European there, Britten from Switzerland also with a Cuban boyfriend hoping to emigrate. Although the domino game itself, to me at least did not appear to be exceptionally entertaining, the banter around the table and the excitement over a particularly good, or bad move is drama at it’s best with much slamming of tiles, uproarious shouts back and forth and animated cursing (I think) between partners for a questionable move. Margurite took a turn at the table, as did Joanne but both were soundly and hilariously beaten. Winning involves counting the dominoes that are played or that are out of teh game, and deducing what your partner holds so you can play to it. I believe the games would go on all night except that most of the players are also the musicians who play at The Club in Vinales every night at nine.
I never figured out who was hosting the party or who stayed at the little house. As yet there is limited property ownership in Cuba. Houses are assigned by the government. The main floor was three small rooms in a row running front to back. The first room was empty but housed the precarious table and chairs in the front yard. Behind that was the kitchen – an L-shaped counter filled with bottles, glasses and plates of roast pig, a small gas cooker, an ancient refrigerator (filled with rum and coca cola) and a rusty sink. A television blared loudly from the room at the back of the house – a video of local musicians playing salsa. Several of the ubiquitous wood and web rocking chairs were ranged around the room. We saw these rockers sold at the roadside in a number of places. They seem to be a staple in Cuban households, at least in the country. A tall, thin girl with a full mouth of shiny braces and swaying hips was giving salsa lessons. No great dancers in our group but lots of fun anyway.
The domino players start to gather up instruments, drum parts and speakers and head down the alley for the walk through town to The Club. Nic, Priti, Joanne and I walk into Vinales for dinner while Dani and Margurite hang back at the house. We eat at Don Thomas, a relatively upscale two-story spot with a front garden and a fountain. It’s newly opened. We share plates of grilled fish, a delicatessen dish of chicken, pork, sausage and the ever-present processed ham, rice and beans, root vegetables all very tasty. The ice cream and creme caramel (Cubans call it flan) for dessert is delicious and all through our meal we are serenaded by a very good trio – guitar, bass and drum.
It’s home to bed after that. We learn next morning that Dani and Margurite carried on to dinner with Jorge and Pedro, a long drive out of Vinales to a spot that sounds like it was at the top of one of the towering mogotes. We also learn that Pedro, who has said very little during the trip so far, speaks very good english.