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April, 2007

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Cuba: out of the resort and onto the streets
by Nancy Snipper
No touristy Varadero … the real Cuba captures your heart unforgettably.
Staying at Don Lino Villa in Holguin province offers everything Cuba’s bustling resorts don’t. Right outside the 36 roomy cabanas lies a lovely, sandy beach.
Having stayed in resorts where tourists fight over lounge chairs, I counted six empty extra ones, each shaded by a large palapa umbrella. There are free Spanish lessons, with horse back riding and cycling for the intrepid folk.  Cuban music plays over the pool; not a note of American. Here the stressed traveler can relax in privacy, dance as he likes or fall asleep in a tree shaded hammock on Don Lino’s rustic grounds.
At night a Cuban folk band from Rafael Freire - the nearby town - entertains you while you eat. The choice of food is above standard fare for the usual two-star plus hotel. True, the water pressure in my shower was questionable, and at one point, there was none, but that didn’t last long.
In fact, I relished getting a taste of unadorned Cuban hospitality, and as long as Juan Carlos, the discreet bartender mixed his incredible mojitos of mint leaves, rum and soda water, I was as happy as Lino’s resident little dog.
On the third day I headed for Playa Blanca, an easy walk along the only paved road sided by casitas.
The next day I cycled there, but before arriving, I met Arturo. He loaded me up with bananas from his backyard tress, and showed me his plantation: 2000 banana trees!
Arturo also owned several goats, chickens and a bull, that was the resident stud for the cows he owned.
Castro and Arturo are in business, for Arturo is contracted to supply ten families from Playa Blanca with fresh milk and on the rare occasion… meat. Each week, ten little kids visit Arturo to fetch their family’s four-litre milk ration.
Arturo earns 2000 pesos a month – almost five times more than the average Cuban. No wonder he was able to purchase a CD player. A few days later I met Alexi, the hardest working man in the area.
Arturo works 10 hours each day; Alexi puts in 16-hour days, making 400 bricks each day by hand. But when it rains, he loses out, and the bricks turn to mud. He can’t afford to buy a shelter for his bricks. Alexi lives in one of the four pueblos (make-shift shanty villages) that pop up amidst the province’s 93,000 square kilometers, of which 25 percent comprises forest.
Alexi took me on a ride to a lovely abandoned beach called DB, and it is from here that he made one of his two attempts to escape Cuba. He was caught on the open sea both times and shoved into prison where water and food were scarce. At the age of 16, he spent two years in prison for refusing to take his obligatory army training. Now divorced, with prison, and a future that is less than bright than the fire that burned down his first home, Alexi remained fearless. “Castro es un dictador!”  These were the first words he shouted to me when I first met him while on my fourth visit to Playa Blanca. He was steering his horse-driven cart, and for some reason, I asked this stranger to take me with him.  Shouting ‘eba’ to his horse and castigations against of Castro, we trotted on.
That evening I arranged to meet his father, and later in the week we enjoyed a wonderful fish meal at Ismael’s, a friend of Alexi’s who also lives in Tumbadero. His house has a sink!
In between his 15-hour shifts at the hotel as lifeguard, Ismael fishes, and what he catches he often shares with his family and friends. Also living in Tumbadero, he is one of nine children. His octogenarian parents who live in a hut are as healthy as the sun is hot.
One day after foolishly walking one hour mid-day, I got sun stroke. Before I knew it, a hotel waitress appeared to cure my stomach woes. At my bedside, she began to whisper to herself as her hands made criss-cross motions across my abdomen. Later on, Ismael himself appeared stating I was “apechado”, and in a downward motion using his hands, he heartily massaged my calves. Then, like the waitress, he shook his hands in the air to rid himself of the ‘evil’ in my body, and his too, I suppose.
After the 3-minute procedure was completed, he asked for a damp cloth to place on his forehead not mine! Still, I believe it was the injection I received from Anna, one of Don Lino’s most attentive nurses that really healed me.  She refused to accept money. I shall never forget the love I received from my  Don Lino ‘family’ along with Alexi’s warmth, hospitality and courage. They are Cuba’s beautiful losers.

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