We started this Saturday morning by running in a short version of the Terry Fox cancer-fundraising marathon in Viñales--and Vicky won!!! What a beautiful mural right in the middle of town! Our aim this morning was to explore the rural agriculture-based Viñales Valley, which is particularly famous for its great freestanding rock formations, called mogotes, that are designated as one of only four UNESCO Cultural Heritage Landscape sites. We visited several local farming families; in one we learned about the process of cultivating tobacco, an essential and famed commodity for Cuba's US-blockaded economy.
Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe,
When tipp'd with amber; mellow, rich and ripe:
Like other charmers, wooing the caress
More dazzlingly when daring in full dress:
Yet thy true lovers more admire by far
Thy naked beauties--Give me a cigar!
from Lord Byron's "The Island" II, 19
(To the left, tobacco leaves drying.) At home I have a cocktail table-size book called The Havana Cigar: Cuba's Finest by Charles del Todesco (NY, Abbeville Press Publishers); I bought it in 1996 when it was first published in English, because the photography, by Patrick Jantet, is gorgeous, and because I'm enthralled by the cultural history of the Cuban cigar. Among the things I learned in this book is that tobacco, grown in the "new" world long before Columbus' arrival, had been used as a state-altering ingredient to facilitate divinations and communication with supernatural spirits. And, that Cuba is the "motherland" of tobacco. Early in the history of tobacco's exportation, Catholic priests emphasized tabacco's use in Native religious ceremonies in order to demonstrate--and denounce--its diabolical character. Nevertheless, by 1540 the use of tobacco had spread throughout Europe, and throughout the Far East by the early 1600s. By 1612 tobacco was being grown in Virginia, US!
By the early 1800s, cigar factories were burgeoning in Havana. They became places for promulgating ideas, and for promoting literacy. One interesting by-product was the use of lectors in cigar factories. His (it was never a woman) role was to inform the workers about current events, perhaps to inculcate political ideas, but also to entertain them and keep them happy so that they produced more. Oftentimes, the lector read from great works of literature; consequently, illiterate workers were very familiar with the intellectual and polemical issues in Don Quixote, for instance. Two cool factoids: José Martí was a lector in and around Tampa, Florida after his exile to the US. Nilo Cruz (see here too), a Cuban American playwright, wrote a fabulous play, called Anna in the Tropics, about lectors in Florida's cigar factories.
We visited a small tobacco farm and met the owner, Benito (pictured above, his bohio, where the leaves are dried, in the background) whose parents, like most tobacco farmers in Cuba, emigrated from the Canary Islands. He talked to us about raising, drying and curing tobacco, and then he rolled a few cigars. He also clarified that he's contracted with the government to grow a certain amount of tobacco, and that he's allowed to keep the excess--and surely, he must need it; he showed us how he packs bunches of cigars into each of his shirt pockets, so that they're readily available to him through the workday--all ten cigars, yes, ten cigars a day! But he affirmed repeatedly that he only smokes the first half of each cigar. The other half he throws back into the soil, because as the cigar burns it intensifies the potency of nicotine. At age 68, he said, he's yet to cough because of a cigar.
This is soooo funny: all week Vicky kept telling me that we tourists can be very silly taking pictures. She told me a hilarious story about her grandparents back in their Greek village. Tourists would stop by and her grandmother was consistently consternated by them taking pictures of their house, and their flowers, and their chickens and animals--all the things that were mundane to her. Vicky imitated her grandmother calling out to her grandfather and showing him how she took an egg and pushed it in a tourist's face to explain that it was just an egg, just an egg. I was in stitches. Then, when we were visiting Benito, he walked over to his chicken coop and started feeding all his birds. Vicky took her camera and was clicking away when suddenly she turned to me and cracked up in the loudest heartiest laugh I'd heard all week. I think everyone else must have thought we were crazy. (Below, another farmer's home, mogotes in the background.)
Afterward, we took a magical walking and boat tour through the limestone Cueva del Indio (pictured on the left) used by Guanahatabey Amerindians as a burial site, and later as a refuge from Spanish slavers. The group walked a little inside the cave, then boarded two boats and motored up the subterranean river for a bit and then back and out of the cave. The tour guide pointed out different formations resembling various things such as a witch, and animals. This cave is part of one of the largest cave systems in Latin America. Lunch was in the restaurant (pictured below) on one side of the Dos Hermanas mogote, right in front of the Mural de la Prehistoria (a bit of it shows to the left of the car in the picture).
Then we returned to the town for a last dinner together at Casa de Don Tomas Restaurant in the oldest building in Viñales. After exploring the open-air craft market and the church, there was dancing in the central plaza at the Parque Martí.