A Few Photos From The Largest Caribbean Island

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I did something illegal, and I liked it. To limit my exposure and avoid potential fines I’ll refer to the crime scene as, The Island, and its capital as, The Citadel. Why such secrecy?

Largest Caribbean Island

Because Google and the NSA are one in the same (I’ve already been interrogated by the latter). And because I traveled, via Mexico, to the only country in the world to which the US government restricts its own citizens from visiting. The list of reasons for denying Americans this fundamental right have almost nothing to do with the truth.

What is the truth?

A guy on the plane said it’s each person’s perspective at any given moment, with the collective conscience evolving as new information presents itself. And I agree.

At risk of self-incrimination, I present the following words and photos as new evidence to contrast against the old, not to prove which truth is more true but to show to a handful of readers why isolating an island of innocents is un-American, inhumane, and as a former US Chief of Staff so eloquently put it, the “Dumbest policy on the face of the earth.” (If this is all news to you I recommend the quick read Facts from the Forbidden Island).

In Orlando's house

The Orlando Show began at touch down. With frenetic gestures and a warm breeze filling the cab, I learned the essentials: that he married a Mexican tourist and now lives in Mexico City; that he sells cigars to businessmen, some likely drug traffickers; that the profits cover his flights back to the island; that he buys for less than wholesale from the tobacco factory where he used to work; that the yelled phrase “This is The Island!” was code for you’re-about-have-a-good-time. What began with me asking a thirty-something mulato with a Dodgers cap cocked left and Army green duffel at his ankles to split the airport taxi fare became, within minutes, a friendship pacted and legitimized with a Cohiba cigar. Puffing his chest and meeting my eyes with that unique island intenseness: “You were lucky to meet me, am I right or am I right?” For the next seven days every aspect of my trip would involve Orlando (red shirt), his friends, and/or his generous family.

Chinatown Gate

The Chinatown gate near Orlando’s home. Old cars everywhere, no Chinese to be found.

Traditional food

Travelers generally say The Island’s food is bland, but I disagree. You must know where to look. This lamb, yucca, rice and beans, thinly sliced fried plantains, and side salad cost less than US$3. Juice included.

Downtown streets

A typical street in The Citadel.

Louis eating lunch

Looking left at Luis—one elbow out the window, one arm on the wheel—then straight toward the faded pastel highrises with linen-draped balconies, then right at Caribbean waves licking the long stretch of seawall parallel the famous avenue, El Malecón, I couldn’t help but smile at what my life had become: unpredictable in the happiest of ways. I was accompanying Luis, childhood friend of Orlando, to meet up with friends for what would be the first of many nights on town, nothing and everything mattering as the breeze flowed over us and the sun dipped into the ocean. Visiting The Citadel? Call Luis at 05-293-4861 for guide services. Spanish only, though I did teach him key English flirt words. Ladies, you were warned.

The Citadel from above

Rooftop view of typical residential neighborhood in The Citadel.

Propaganda billboard in the countryside

“Words teach, examples guide.” All companies are government-owned, which means The Island is not cluttered with the 3,000+ ads that the average American absorbs daily. On the flip, these Soviet-style billboards romanticizing The Revolution constantly make you feel guilty about not dying for the cause.

Mixing a mojito

The Island uses two official currencies: one for locals, one for tourists. (Read here for practical money tips). In general, The Island isn’t a budget-friendly place. By design it’s artificially expensive to trap the much-needed foreign currency that the United States Embargo so effectively cut off. Despair not, naïve bearded backpacker who believes Communism will overcome. If you eat and drink in local currency locales you not only support the real economy while paying at times 1/25th of tourist prices but you’ll also learn about the situation directly from those living it. ¡Viva el paladar! ¡Viva la cafeteria! ¡Viva la casa particular!

Viñales Valley

A view of Viñales Valley on the northwestern tip of the island. Luis drove us on an overnight trip through the countryside to the beach. A city boy through and through, he disapproved of the simple country life until the flash of a beautiful village girl would shoot past the window. “I’m staying here, this place is for me!”

Propaganda billboard with Fidel

“For those who defend a just cause, defeat doesn’t exist.” Fidel’s 1959 toppling of a US-backed dictator that treated the Islanders like serfs was admirable in many ways. I believe his original ideology was pure, his intentions good, which is why a large percentage of the island’s population joined his armed movement. But absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the past 50 years the world has modernized while an antiquated system is given lip service on The Island. A transition toward a hybrid free market system will not be as simple as waiting for the Castros to die. Entire generations know nothing other than Fidel’s brand of Socialist-Communism. Believing Big Macs and Walmarts are the answer shows a cultural disconnect wider than the 90-miles that separate us. The saddest part is that the US embargo doesn’t allow smart people on both sides to dialogue about the issues, to seek mutual solutions. A modern-day Caribbean Curtain.

Fruit vendor in the countryside

Less than US$1 per day, that’s what this mother-of-two fruit vendor earns. To begin to understand The Island you need to know two things. One, the average official government salary is equivalent to US$20 per month. Two, every citizen must be employed. Instead of being complacent with the government-subsidized housing, healthcare, and education I witnessed a trait that I believe will yet create a vibrant, wealthy island: entrepreneurship. Locals survive—and some thrive—by providing services and selling products unofficially after completing their required shifts at their government jobs. (Since they could earn more money with black market activities, like selling rum to tourists, government checks-and-balances ensure that each citizen shows up to work). Imagine if those eight-hour shifts were used to fix the system instead of simply existing within it? What type of ingenuity would result? What if the same entrepreneurs had access to capital and resources while being allowed to tinker unrestricted? This will happen eventually, and when it does the island’s mix of idealism, integrity, and ingenuity will show the world something it has never seen before.

Propaganda billboard with Che

Old billboard, tired phrase, same Che face.

Stephanie with old car

This is a vintage-loving French-Canadian in her natural environment: posed like a 50s pin-up against a classic car. As two tall foreigners with mutual blondness, Stephanie and I were introduced to each other by locals at bar in The Citadel’s Old Town, not far from where Hemingway regularly sipped daiquiris. Shortly after we were twirling around the dance floor and sitting with the all-girl band during their break, me interpreting across the table for a middle-aged New Yorker and her young Spanish-speaking boyfriends, Stephanie talking to a Canuck expat about snow and reindeer and hockey (I love you, Canadian readers). We had such a good time that we decided to travel together the following day. Being her guide in my second-language while she and I communicated in hers added a fun element of introspection to being strangers in a strange land.

Cabo Juntia

Cabo Juntia beach, where we played in the waves like dolphins while Luis chatted up a 16-year-old.

Tobacco leaves

“We want to visit a farm to see how people live, can you make it happen?” The waitress came back 15 minutes later with good news: her friend would drive us to the meet a rural family. It was 8pm, our mojitos were half-drunk, and we were complete strangers. This is why I love Latin America: because people put people first. When the car pulled up Stephanie and I bought gifts of rum and beer then drove until the pavement became dirt, deeper and deeper into the mountain darkness, the headlights illuminating skinny cows while Darte un beso blasted on the stereo. Not knowing where we were or what to expect, we arrived to a ranch surrounded by tobacco fields. You could hear the stars burning white when the car shutdown.

Hands rolling cigars

A grandmother greeted us with fresh coffee (the beans grown out back, then hand-ground in a huge wooden pestle); the father and sons showed us the shed where the tobacco leaves of their 30,000 plants hang to dry during the harvest. Did you know one plant can provide four flavors, for four different cigar brands, dependent upon when picked? The stars, the selfless generosity, the simplicity of life, the warmth of conversation, the curiosity about the US and Canada—time ceased to exist. Then, we started drinking….

Lighting a cigar

The Islanders might be the best drinkers in the world, not for their tolerance, but for their behavior under the influence. With the exception of one awkward drunk (cough, Orlando), I observed the same happy buzz and non-violent tendencies everywhere: unisoned singing, gyrating dancing, lively talking, focused listening. And apparently in this rural area, cigar rolling. After a bottle of rum, several beers, and the most delicious cigar I’d ever smoked, rolled with step-by-step commentary, by field-hardened hands, I felt an ambassador of sorts, accepting hospitality on behalf of my nation and making it known that my people meant their people no harm. Upon leaving the father gifted me eight homemade cigars, whose symbolism of goodwill between two men trying to do their best within the opposite systems imposed upon them I’ll never forget.

Stamps and posters

Post-Revolution stamps and posters.

Outdoor book market

With so much propaganda on both the American and Islander sides, it’s hard to know what to believe. Many locals told me the government-provided housing and healthcare is dismal. This is obvious while walking around The Citadel. Education, on the other hand, seems to be one undisputed success of the Revolution. Islanders, even among lower classes, are highly literate, which may be a blessing or curse when the government controls the internet and other media sources. Pictured is an outdoor market, mostly for tourists, showcasing revolutionary books, magazines, and the iconic Che image on anything they can sell.

Rooftop party

A rooftop party on Christmas Day, a minor holiday on The Island.

The Five

The story behind this poster, as with most political information about the US-Island relations, is not always as it seems. If interested, this ever-morphing Wikipedia article has the deets. Warning: the rabbit hole is deep.

Santeria santera

Most Islanders practice Santería, a religion that mixes African beliefs and rituals with the Catholic faith. When Orlando took me to one of his girlfriend’s houses—yes, most men have several girlfriends: la esposa, la novia, la querida, la amante, la amiga, etc.—I talked at length with the mother, an ordained santera priestess with over 20 years experience. “Does it work?” I asked. “Why else would I do it for two decades?” she replied. Each nook and cranny housed an active ‘saint,’ or offering, to invoke the help of a certain Afro-Catholic deity, whether to cure sickness, bring success and fortune, or repel an enemy’s ill will. Animal sacrifices are common. A few offerings I saw included horse hair, a dried beaver head, handcuffs, rocks of various sizes, herbs of all kinds, coins, candles, and so on. These piles of ceremonial trinkets are simply part of the home, unnoticeable and unquestioned, at least not by the Afro-Islander crew with which I spent most my time. The photo shows the priestess’ ‘recipe book’ for offerings, some with up to 30 ingredients.

The Island is a very unique and confusing place. Have questions, doubts,
or are planning a trip? I’d be happy to assist in the comment section below.
To avoid search engine results please DO NOT mention the country’s name.

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