Our last full day in Cuba began with an oh-so-Cuban experience I'd dreamed of for years: a tour of a cigar factory. We weren't allowed to carry cameras and I'm not cool enough to have an iPhone to smuggle in so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was a sobering experience. Jobs in this factory are reportely coveted by Cubans - the money is better than most jobs, and the pay per cigar means that hard workers are rewarded for their efforts. It did not, however, look like a good job. It looked like being stuck in a small space for hours on end, doing the same thing over and over again while tourists hung over your shoulder or peered through windows to gawk at your efforts.
The real disappointment was that I did not get to hear the reader in the cigar factory after all - they take a break for several hours while tourist groups (and there were lots, from just about every place on earth) come through. It makes sense to separate the hushed sound of shuffling feet and comments from tour groups from the voice of the reader, but of course I experienced some slight travel heartbreak that I wasn't able to see something I'd dreamed of for years.
The cigar-making process really is fascinating, and I wish I could say I learned a lot from the tour. But mostly I just understood why those things are so expensive. "Labor intensive" doesn't even begin to describe it.
I liked the factory details that weren't highlighted in our tour: the bulletin board where workers wrote down the small amounts they wanted to donate from their paycheck to a maternity ward of a local hospital (is it mandatory to donate, I wonder?)...the poster about global warming prevention that was posted on the wall but had been crumpled and faded by exposure to the heat and humidity of Cuban weather...the woman whose job was simply to add that little sticker wrapper around the top of each cigar. It all came together into one of Cuba's most important processes but overall I didn't enjoy my time in the factory as much as I thought I would. And it certainly served as a reminder that I shouldn't ever complain about my own job again.
I'd started the day with a unique perspective since this was the only day when I had absolutely no idea what we were doing. At the end of the day before, Erik had outlined where we would go and what we would see but as you will recall, I ditched the bus before it headed back to the hotel. This would have driven me crazy before I landed in Cuba - I'm the girl that had a three-ring binder full of printed facts about each stop on our itinerary, after all. But Cuba was good for me, and that folder hadn't come out of my suitcase the entire trip. A whole day of surprise opportunities? Yes, please.
My ignorance only increased the joy I felt when I discovered that we were on our way to western Cuba, to the Pinar del Rio province.
For some reason I thought a visit to this area was cut when our itinerary changed/improved to include the Cayo Santa Maria visit, so imagine my delight when the city streets we'd navigated (and by "we," of course, I mean Tilon...all we did was gasp in fear or frustration, which I'm sure was no help at all) by the cigar factory:
gradually gave way to miles of scenery like this:
And as if that weren't good enough, we also drove past the one thing I'd given up hope of finding in Cuba in the summer: a real baseball game. (Note to self: make sure your next visit is during baseball season!)
The scenery continued to change, making that jump seat in the front of the bus even more enjoyable. Rice paddies, baseball games, green fields and tall forests - this drive included them all, and since few Cubans have the opportunity to drive such long distances we had the road almost completely to ourselves.
Just about everyone on my bus agrees that what came next was one of the best experiences of the entire trip. Our enormous bus pulled down a narrow dirt road to an operating farm, complete with animals and crops for miles, surrounded by those beautiful sharp-cliffed mountains in the distance.
The breathtaking sight made it difficult to go inside, but I obediently followed the group into this amazing structure with a thatched roof. Drying tobacco leaves hung along the walls, and the cool, scented air helped me understand why our friend the farmer enjoyed being in here. (I would be forever grateful if someone remembers our friend's name...until I'm reminded, he's forever lovingly branded in my mind as The Farmer.)
This was an entirely different experience than watching the workers roll cigars in the factory; that was a streamlined process with no allowance for creativity, but this was a casual process left entirely up to the cigar's creator. The first one didn't light quite as he wanted it to? It got tossed aside to restart the process until the cigar was exactly as he wanted it to be.
The Farmer owns his land, an option that was created when the failure of the USSR forced Cuba to shift from large state-owned sugar mills to smaller privately-owned parcels of land. That's not to say he's wealthy or free to do as he pleases, however: the number of cattle he owns is strictly controlled by the state, and between 80-90% of the revenue and products he grows must be given back to the government. (Crops are a coveted part of diversifying Cuba's food rations.) So he got creative and took advantage of the fact that almost everyone in the world is curious about his life and his land. A steady string of tourist buses from around the world made their way up that narrow road to his house, none of which disturbed the regular processes of operating and improving the farm land and facilities.
We were all invited into The Farmer's beautiful home for a cup of coffee. Not even a trip to Cuba could make me learn to like coffee, so instead I stood outside to enjoy the view of this lovely kitchen...
Yep, that's an Oakland A's magnet on the fridge!
...and spend time with my new friends.
The hours of open road were a welcome change from the more crowded city streets - Tolon finally got to relax for a few minutes.
I loved him even before he asked if I was from Italy.
Even this city girl could have stayed on that farm for at least a month, but since that was impossible - and the next batch of tourists was coming in for their own cigar-rolling demonstration - I climbed back on the bus for our ride to the one-of-a-kind Valle de Viñales.
This place is both a national park and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I'm a big fan of any level of protection that keeps this place looking like this - it was truly the most amazing scenery I've ever seen.
Those mountains are called "mogotes" but I refuse to accept that term because it's a rather ugly word for such an amazing sight.
One of the mountains is especially impressive: the Mural de la Prehistoria.
The mural was begun in 1960, and it depicts the history of life in this area of Cuba. It took 18 workers four years to complete it, and there are ropes hanging from the top of the cliff so workers can climb up every four years to remove growth from the cliffs and touch up the paint so it stays this vibrant. It's a tourist trap, sure, but something this beautiful deserves to be.
Everyone else was in a hurry to eat at the lovely restaurant located at the base of the cliff, but I'll be forever grateful to Dave who inspired me to tackle this oh-so-touristy experience. I definitely don't have a future as a bareback rider but I loved the moment.
I became the anti-social member of the group that afternoon, ditching dessert (again!) to simply walk around and try to capture every detail of this place rather than join in conversations about the trip home the next day. I couldn't bear to think of leaving and, though of course I love my home and missed the people in my life there, I'll admit that I shed a few tears during our quiet moments at this viewing spot over the Valle.
Practicing my driver/guide partnership with Afrodite did a lot to shake the sadness, however, and hopefully no one saw those tears.
The driver-in-training is reflected in the mirror. Wait, why are people in a hurry to get off our bus?!
The drive back to Havana was long but enjoyable, and I'd like to think the hours of silence meant I wasn't the only one processing the fact that our time in Cuba was almost over. The revelry wasn't over yet, though! We climbed off the bus for our time to refresh at the hotel (or, in my case, go get ice cream at Copelia) before our fancy farewell dinner.