By Emily Benson
The day started at 5:00 a.m., but it wasn’t supposed to.
My day was supposed to begin at 8:15 a.m., according to the morning alarm set on my phone. But in Vinales, the roosters run the show. And thanks to one very loud, very determined rooster, my morning began at the crack of dawn.
Janelle and I eventually rolled out of bed, giving up the long fought sleep battle against the vicious bird. Not that I minded. If I was back in New York huddled under ten sheets of warm blankets fending from the cold, I would have personally kicked the rooster straight to the moon. But this wasn’t New York and it wasn’t snowing or freezing cold, it was a warm 60 degrees with slight humidity. I loved Cuba more and more each day for greeting me with sweet, tender heat rather than sharp, icy cold.
Breakfast was served by our Cuban family, a sweet, short woman with long black hair, her husband and two boys. Nobody. Spoke. English. Three words that make communication extremely difficult, but not impossible. To eat, we had omelets, pineapple, bread and butter, coffee, tea, and the best bananas I have ever ate in my entire life. It was hands down the best food I ate while on this trip. Which makes complete sense; nothing beats mom’s cooking.
By 9:00 a.m. we were all packed and on the bus. We drove to a local, family-run tobacco plantation where we saw the fields, farming practices and drying barns.
Tobacco leaves were hung on across the various parts of the barn ceiling. The dry season runs from January to May, and the barn is expected to be filled with leaves by May 15th. The farmers talked about the methods of planting and growing the tobacco plant, and how picking off the leaves from the plant top to bottom allows different exposure to sunlight and time on parts of the plant, leading to different flavors and different prices.
The main vein of the tobacco leaf contains 75 percent of the nicotine, so the farmers cut that out and use it as a natural pesticide and perfume. Then, when all the leaves are pulled and ready, the farmers work their magic, wrapping the tobacco leaves up and pressing them together to form cigars. We all gathered around a freshly rolled cigar, taking a few puffs and coughing off the practice hits. I felt quite Cuban for not coughing on the first try.
Then the mud happened.
As we stepped off the bus at our next stop, the Viñales National Park, I saw a long, winding muddy road ahead of us that, unfortunately for all of our shoes and pants, was the pathway to our destination.
I want to say that we were stepping in just mud, but this was not normal, American mud. This was Cuban mud. And Cuban mud doesn’t just stick to your shoes, it clumps to you in blobs of 5 to 6 pounds of weight and fights to ensure you can’t walk more than ten feet without slipping on the wet ground.
Oh, and there were bulls on the side of the road that potentially could charge us at any second. Fidel, our gorgeous tour guide, said that if he yelled run we were not to hesitate to book it. Which really would have done us no good considering both the bull and me would have slipped within the first few steps of sprinting.
But no pain goes without reward, and our reward was beautiful: an incredible view overlooking the Vinales Valley. Oh, and there was a small restaurant that brought us some rum drinks. We basically found heaven on earth; you just have to wade through miles of sludge to get there.
I had never been so happy to see a tour bus in my life. We returned bruised, dirty and covered with sweat, but filled with pride for conquering the Cuban mud track.
As well as pride, we were filled with hunger. We gathered at a restaurant located on a farm where we were served variety or organic fresh vegetables and fruits. All fourteen of us gathered around a long table where we what was nothing short of a feast of food: Chicken, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, fish, rice, beans, bread, soup, squash, lettuce and carrots. All served family style.
Ironically, the restaurant gave a gorgeous view of Silent Valley, though our lunch was anything but silent. Stories were exchanged, laughs were shared and memories about the trip discussed. As I ate my last bits of flan and finished off my coffee, I couldn’t ignore the impending feeling that all too soon we were going to be home.
But we weren’t home yet, and the trip still had plenty of surprises left to it. On our bus ride back, we revealed our “secreto grande” to our professor: booking hotel rooms for our group in a beautiful, classic hotel called Hotel Inglaterra in the heart of Old Havana. Our tour guide, Eva, pulled some strings to get us in there for our last night.
I could not have been happier that we did too. To say the hotel was beautiful is the understatement of the century. It has high ceilings and old architecture that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an 1870s Cuba.
After a quick but very intense shower, we gathered in the lobby for our goodbye dinner at Paladar San Cristobal. It was tightly packed tables, with warm yellow walls covered with posters and advertisements reading, “Tomar Coke a Cola” to “Visit Cuba!” We were visited by Ambassador Carlos Alzugaray, who ate with us and had a heartfelt discussion of U.S. and Cuba’s foreign relations.
At the end of the dinner, we had our final speeches of the trip. We exchanged some surprise gifts and teared up over the laughs we shared and memories we made, happy to have made them but sad to leave them here. As the meal ended, we raised our (shot) glasses to a toast, and I won’t forget some of the final words of the night our professor said: “Let’s take the people of Cuba back with us.”
These words really stuck me because I found the Cubans to be a beautiful juxtaposition. They are destitute people living in crumbling broken houses, driving these rotting vehicles. Yet, they are rich in culture, in Cuban pride, in religious morals and in a deep happiness for each other.
Our stories, videos and work as journalists is an opportunity to take these words, thoughts and hopes of the people, bring them back with us and expose them to the world. I feel so blessed to have such a great responsibility bestowed upon my classmates and me.
I hope we do you justice, Cuba.