A Farm in the Valley
Monolithic flat-topped mountains climb above a landscape of caves, rivers and waterfalls in Pinar del Rio, one of the most spectacular valleys in western Cuba. The valley is also one of the country’s premier tobacco-growing areas, and we spent our final afternoon in Cuba visiting a local tobacco farmer there.
Our coach brought us to a small plot of land with a sweeping view of the Pinar del Rio mountains. The owner, described by our local guide, Israel, as “the Cuban Burt Reynolds,” greeted us in a cowboy hat and a beige work shirt with cigars bulging from its front pockets. He led us into his thatched-roofed barn, where we gathered in between the large bunches of tobacco hanging from the rafters to dry.
Israel helped to translate as the farmer described the process of growing and curing tobacco on his 10-acre farm. After the brief explanation, the farmer took a bunch of dried leaves, sat down at a wooden workbench and used an old knife to carefully shape the leaves into a cigar. He then passed out the hand-rolled cigars from his pocket to those members of our group who wanted to try a local smoke.
From the barn, we went into the farmer’s white clapboard home, where his wife had made tea for the group of visitors. Children peeked at the visitors from around behind a wall; their grandmother worked in the kitchen to help prepare the beverage. We sat around the dining room table, and talked about life there.
The home lacks some modern amenities, but this family is not poor. As a farmer, our friend is allowed to sell his goods on an open market, a bypass of the typical communist system that allows him to earn up to $1,000 per year. By Cuban standards, he is fortunate.
It’s easy to come away from Cuba with mixed feelings. I left the island infatuated with its beauty but heartbroken by its poverty. I felt charmed by the Cuban people but frustrated by their government. Our trip was fun, engaging and compelling. And yet it was no vacation at all.
Still, through these interactions with Cuban people, along with numerous other events throughout the trip, I knew that my life would be richer for having made this journey. Perhaps relations between our countries will improve someday to the point where Americans can go to Cuba unfettered. Until that day comes, though, I’ll wear my Cuban experience like a badge of honor.