A Uniquely Ordinary Day in the Cuban Countryside
In March 2017 I went to Cuba for the first time, and I’m just now sharing my first Cuban photos. And, interestingly, they’re not photos of old buildings, old cars, or old people. But of the thousands of photos I took, these are the first I processed. And this was the most ordinary, and most unique, day of the trip. I went to Cuba on a photography workshop with Colby Brown Photography, and was thrilled that we didn’t just photograph all the usual suspects — old cars on the Malecon in Havana (we did that), colorful Trinidad (we did that, too) — but we went beyond the usual tourist attractions.
On this particular day, we went WAY beyond the smallest inhabited town outside of Trinidad…many miles down dirt roads that only a Soviet-era Ford truck with wooden benches and no suspension could navigate. The last paved road we saw was in the tiny village of Sancti Spiritus. It was a challenge to get shots from the truck, in spite of the fact that there was no glass in the windows — because we had to hang on so tight to avoid being tossed. So some of these are blurry, but that was part of the trip, and they’re a quick glimpse at life in the beautiful Cuban countryside. Here’s the BEAST, and the trip from Trinidad to middle-of-nowhere…
We were there at the end of March, which is the end of the dry season. So there were lots of brown hills, dusty roads, and skinny animals. We were assured that the skinny cattle, horses, and dogs would all beef up when the rains came again. When we felt a few rain drops later that day, we all cheered (and then hastily covered our cameras).
We arrived at a bunkhouse that appeared to house 1-2 cowboys, with a small kitchen. We then hopped on horseback and rode down the dirt road, across the river, and down the trail to a pasture where the vaqueros put on a show for us. They herded cattle, roped cattle, and milked cows for us. They were very proud of their work, and happy that it all pleased us so much.
So it turns out that Cuban cowboys (vaqueros) look a lot like American cowboys….and Spanish cowboys…and Argentinian cowboys.
And…a horse is a horse, of course, of course.
There were 4 generations of vaqueros there — only one cowgirl, but even one came as a surprise to us in this mostly male-dominated country. Smiley (sorry for the nicknames) (I wonder what they called us) was the patriarch and father of Purple Shirt and Plaid Shirt. Purple Shirt was the father of Blue Eyes. There were 3 or 4 very young boys, maybe 5 or 6 years old, on horseback with their fathers & grandfathers. They told us that there is no other way to make a living that far out of town, so children are taught from a very young age to ranch and farm. When we had enough photos (although…does a photographer ever really have enough photos???), we headed back to the ranch house for lunch.
We had two good interpreters who spoke both English and Spanish, but we didn’t have much trouble communicating with them, especially after the first bottle of rum. It was the end of the work week for them, so the rum helped a lot, and it was delicious!
Blue Eyes finally decided he liked posing, after the first bottle of rum. When we ran out, 1 of the cowboys and 1 of our guys jumped on their horses and rode down the road. They road their horses up to a local house, gave someone money through a window, who then handed 2 bottles of rum back through the window. The local ride-through.
The meal they cooked us was delicious — the best we had the whole week in Cuba. They got up at 3:00am that morning to kill the pig and start roasting it. They love pork in Cuba! They took turns constantly turning the pig over the fire, and it was ready 12 hours later. We also had the traditional rice and black beans (Christians and Moors), and the most delicious tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. The fried plantains were to die for! The whole neighborhood contributed — a local rodeo celeb stopped by with a hatful of fruit. There weren’t enough plates for everyone, so we had to eat in shifts — the vaqueros insisted we eat first. This will go down as one of the most memorable meals of my life — for the food, the location, and the company.
These men were among the nicest, happiest guys I’ve ever met. They were proud of everything they had — a well that had been built in 1919 and was covered with rusty car parts, the food they prepared, their cowboy skills and, most of all, their friends and family. They seemed like they could sit there all day just talking and laughing. I wish we could have met their wives — I’ll bet they could have told us some stories.
We ended the day back in Trinidad at the beach, where it turns out that a Cuban sunset looks very much like a California sunset. But I knew I was in Cuba. And, thanks to Colby Brown Photography, I had a unique day I would never forget.
I promise to post more traditional Cuban photos in the next few weeks. I find it really hard to choose between my photo-children. Individually, they’re a moment a time…a wonderful face…a beautiful building. Together…they’re a story.
And they all lived happily ever after. At SmugMug. The End.