Travel Writers: A Cultural Economy

by Nicholas Lindner

 

image: Pinar del Rio, CubaLocation: Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Fifty-seven miles per hour was our tour bus driver’s speed of choice as we fell down the stunted mountains of western Cuba, racing past signs advising for speeds half that on narrow roads with no more than a foot of treacherous crumbling asphalt leeway on either side. I was grabbing as many pictures as I could through the forehead-grease smudged windows, a scene so unlike Havana was revealing itself shamelessly and proclaiming; “This is Pinar del Rio…rural Cuba!”

As we sank into the next valley, a whole new world came streaming through the glass; a new world of limestone hills that appeared to bubble up right through the surface of the world’s best tobacco growing soil. Between these exquisite domes of stone were the homes of those who continued to fight the ongoing battle known as Cuban agriculture.

image: Pinar del Rio, CubaThese homes were not houses but shacks, and comparatively, awarded Havana’s slums Beverly Hills status. Once we fully submerged into the valley I was able to look closer, and imagined I knew what it meant to experience the toil of the Cuban farmer. As I sat on my overly-padded seat in the climate-controlled bus, I observed people going about their daily lives in absolute poverty. I saw children playing in and with the dirt and nothing more, while a father looked on from his ox-driven plow that surely was surplus from the Middle Ages. I saw old men sitting together on porches made with rusty pipes and corrugated plastic sheets smoking cigars stolen for them by their grandchildren, (who roll them for a living) as mothers with great tubs washed clothes that were the hottest style in the U.S. in 1985.

As we raced by these people I noticed they all had one distinguishable characteristic I’d never experienced in my travels; every rural Cuban was smiling. Through the glass, these people appeared as satisfied in their shacks and fields as any human could possibly be. I adjusted myself in my seat to alleviate the discomfort I was feeling from my wallet, stuffed fat with bills, and marvelled at how these people could radiate such content in a region so apparently destitute.

I gazed down at my camera and wondered how these people could be happy without one. I tried to grasp a reality where I didn’t have a camera, a tour bus, or a wallet with American twenties, and was probably on the fringe of the old “money isn’t everything” lesson. Perhaps an epiphany that would influence the rest of the trip and even my life was about to reveal itself and free me from the burdens of commercial consumerism. Fortunately, before my ignorant suburban mind could conjure it up, I saw a little boy laughing and playing with a dog, so I just took a picture instead. Maybe in a few years I’ll look at that face in the photo and try to find the secret, that everlasting truth I needed in that excessively luxurious tour bus, gazing out at poor people. That time will come of course only if I’m not too busy making a run to the mall.

Text and images © Nicholas Linder, All Rights Reserved

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