Log Cabin Chronicles

Leo

A Canuck in the land of Castro

PART 7
LEO GERVAIS
(Photographs by Edmond Wang)
Montreal
Posted 04.10.06

Tales of the Jeep safari

La semana, the week, was passing quickly. In fact, it was Sunday, December 25 - Christmas Day and there was only three days left on this Cuban sun tour.

There have been many cold, snowy Christmases - thirty-nine, in fact. This was the first one I would spend in 30-degree heat taking a jeep safari through the Sierra Maestra mountains.

Hurricane Dennis ravaged the island last year, and the evidence was plain to see: washed-out roads and uprooted trees were everywhere in the southern mountain range. The Cubans said the roads were now passable, but that only meant that the larger trees had been moved aside.

There were many large (three-foot plus) potholes and many roadsides had been eroded, to the point where sometimes the tires were barely on the road.

Several times we stopped, got out, and the jeep driver veered off the road down a small hill, drove a short length through the forest, and drove back up the hill to rejoin the road.

The lack of guard rails made the look down the steep embankments very nerve-wracking - I felt my throat and a few other orifices tighten up more than once as we snaked our way through the treacherous roadscape.

The jeep safari is organized by the hotel and costs about $60 Cdn. It's an all-day affair that takes you through the mountain side to a small village where you stop for lunch at la granga, a small farmhouse.

We were ten people traveling in two jeeps, and the group included Edmond Wang (along with his wife and two daughters), who took several of the pictures you see here. He hails from Pickering, Ontario, but is originally from China.

The area we were in is famous among Cubans as the place where Castro and his rebels hid while planning their revolution.

One older local said (through our guide Anita) that he recalled the Cuban army coming through and hanging anyone who had offered shelter to the rebels. The story goes they would leave the bodies hanging in the trees as a warning to anyone who might offer help to Castro and his friends.

After a two-hour drive through these tree-lined mountains, it is easy to see how people could hide effectively.

Our first stop was Las Yaguas, an impressive waterfall near the farmhouse. A few brave souls dove right in, the author among them.

waterfall

Let's just say the water coming from the mountain was cold enough that a prolonged stay was ill-advised as several body parts gave warnings that the cold was having a severe chilling and shrinking effect, if you know what I mean.

The vegetation is very lush, and there are lots of palm trees and sugar cane, staples that the Cubans depend on. The farmhouse we ate at used the wood from the palm for their homes.

Our lunch was typical Cuban fare - beans, rice, papaya (frutta bomba!) as well as pollo (chicken) and carne (beef).

I never turned down an opportunity for the local beer, so I went for a Buccanero, like a pilsener, but they also offered several soft drinks and limonada (lemonade).

women

The three ladies at the farmhouse were very friendly, like the vast majority of the Cubans I met. They happily explained how they made their meals in the oven pit in the farmhouse and showed us the press they use for the sugar cane as chickens, roosters and several dogs ran playfully around us. One jeep safari traveler, a lady from Trinidad, spoke with them at length in broken Spanish about their seamstress work.

The schoolhouse

After lunch, we traveled to our final destination - la escuale, the schoolhouse. School was not in session, but the locals knew we were coming so they arranged to have the teacher, his wife, and four children there.

There were several pictures of Castro and heroes of the revolution, as well as an old PC running Windows 98 and a television set on the walls of the wooden building, roughly 350 square feet.

Even though the schoolhouse was in the middle of nowhere, miles from anything resembling civilization, the solar panel on the roof provided enough power to run the electronic stuff.

school

The schoolhouse itself was quite small, and there are only about eight kids who attend, all under the age of ten. Free education is a tenet of communist Cuba, and the literacy rate is very high: According to the CIA World Factbook 2003 estimates, 97 per cent of people age 15 and over can read and write.

In comparison, Canada checks in at 99 per cent. However, the quality of education seems to be much higher here.

kids

The kids looked at us in wonder, and we did the same to them. We marveled at the primitive setup, but this was truly better than nothing. They could read, learn about their country's history, and they got to use a computer. One day, Cuba and other poor tropical countries will likely benefit from improved solar technology since the sunny weather is one of the assets the country has in abundance. But it will take the concerted effort of people in the West to make that happen.

The teacher, who I'll call Armando, was very friendly and explained to us that it is a humble place but the kids love to learn, like most kids do.

Anita pointed out that Armando was also an excellent guitar player, and we asked him to play a few songs for us. He smiled, and declined, but we implored him so he brought out the guitar. He played a few Cuban love songs including Yolinda, and finished up with Guantanamera, the famous song based on the poem Simple Verses by the beloved Cuban hero Jose Martí that literally means The girl from Guantánamo.

Armando had a wonderful voice and played superbly, apparently without ever taking a lesson. As we sang along, I was struck by his heartfelt playing and how everyone in the room, even the children, sang the chorus effortlessly.

There we were, people from Cuba, Canada, China, and Trinidad and we all knew the melody and we all knew the chorus, sharing a totally unplanned, intimate moment in song - amazing!

Armando finished to wild applause and took some good-hearted, exaggerated bows as we offered a few dollars for his efforts. Edmond and his family had been to Cuba several times before, and had brought pencils, paper, crayons, and a few other supplies for the children that were greatly appreciated. I must remember to do that next time.

Armando's singing echoed in my mind as we drove away from the school and back to the resort, I couldn't help but wonder who among those young kids was a genius just waiting to happen but lacked the proper tools and education system we take for granted in Canada. Was there a Salk, Curie, Einstein, or Hemingway among them?

We may never know, and that is a real shame.

To be continued…
To Part 1 | To Part 2 | To Part 3 | To Part 4 | To Part 5 | To Part 6 | To Part 8

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Copyright © 2006 Leo Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.06