Today, I started my day horseback riding through the beautiful valley that Hotel Jazmines overlooked. We booked the tour through the tour operator located at a table near the front desk. In the group, there were four of us from ECU and two ladies from Wales. Pablo, the leader of the tour, was at least in his 60s, wore a cowboy hat, sun glasses, jeans, and boots with spurs on the back. The first hour of horseback riding involved maneuvering our way down a rocky path. My horse’s name was Negro, and I learned to trust him more than myself during that time because he knew the path obviously more than I did. Soon after arriving to the bottom of the valley we arrived at “una casa de campesinos” (a countryside house). We learned about how they produce tobacco in “el campo” (the countryside). Every single step was done in the most natural way possible. The left over stems from tobacco leaves are soaked in water and deposited around other plants, which act as a pesticide. The leaves had two drying processes that each took at least three months because it was done in an area enclosed by the leaves of the banana tree. We had coffee there, and a couple other men joined us for a further demonstration of the last processes of making cigars. We were then offered a cigar to smoke. Pablo emphasized how everything they grow is natural including bananas, oregano, avocado, malanga, sugar cane, and rice (which are only a few of the forty products they produce). Pablo explained that 90 percent of the tobacco produced on their farm belongs to the state, but they are able to sell the majority of other crops they produce in the market or to neighbors for private income.
Horseback riding was definitely on my list of top five things in Cuba. We passed cows and horses that were not enclosed in a tight space, but in open fields of fertile land. I also saw large amounts of butterflies scatter in the air as I passed through their meeting places with Negro. There were mountains covered by green vegetation surrounding us making us feel so small, but pleasured to be in the presence of such a work of nature. My roommate Yana and I were looking over the valley expressing how such a beautiful valley would have not even been the same if it were not protected and a profit-motive government system took advantage of the richness of the land.
About half the class went to a restaurant called El Palenque for lunch, which was located on the side of a cave in the mountain. The theme was of the African slaves that escaped from their masters and found refuge in the caves. There was also a statue of a slave with a machete held high after chopping the arm off his master. Lunch was beautiful because I received a small history lesson from the perspective of the marginalized group.
After class, Nathan, Sierra Jones, and I went to the Viñales National Park Visitor Center where we met an employee. Our conversation with her was insightful because she explained how important tourism is to Viñales National Park. Many of the locals make a living in “casas particulares” and “paladares,” which is when Cubans open their houses to tourists for renting rooms and eating Cuban food. She said that it has created a bit of tension between people because one can make a significantly higher amount of money than their next-door neighbor. However, she explained that this phenomenon is not large scale. Community members are still very communal and collaborate in order to survive. For example, the tour operator at the hotel brought customers to Pablo, and Pablo then took us to someone else’s home to drink coffee and learn about the production of cigars. The security guard at the visitor center explained that he would love to visit the United States, but he doesn’t want to live there. He expressed how he might not have the freedom of expression, but that he is still free because he doesn’t have to worry about his safety or suffering from starvation because there will always be someone who will help. I believe that we can’t have it all, and we all sacrifice one freedom for another depending on the country. The real question is not which is better, but which you value more in life and what you are willing to sacrifice in order to have it?