The camera is gone. The images are missing. Now, after having my school-rented Nikon mysteriously stolen not even two weeks after returning from Cuba, the only way I can recreate the time I spent on that slender Caribbean island is to rely solely upon my memory.
For the two weeks I traversed the Cuban countryside, my Nikon was slung as preciously over my shoulder as a revolutionary would carry his rifle. At every possible moment, I lifted my camera from my side and carefully sought out shots like a soldier setting the crosshairs on the enemy. With my lens, I endlessly sought to reinterpret that feverish tropical dreamscape, trying to divine meaning out of the passing of the Earth around me. By the end of the trip, my efforts had yielded an enormous pictorial catalogue of my journey.
It was my second time traveling in Cuba. The first time I went I had gone with two friends, on our own, and we had stayed in around Havana, whiling the bulk of our week there wandering the labyrinthine tanglework of broken backstreets that are as emblematic of that city as the Eiffel tower is of Paris. And though I was exhilarated by the first trip- by the adventure of exploring a new land where I could practice my pent-up Spanish language skills- I was not in love. The second trip, however, was different.
Bouncing between the colonial cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, we threaded our way across the long tropical plains of the Cuban countryside, experiencing the earthy, rural texture of the country that I had never before known. We swam in jungle lagoons fed by precipitous, pounding waterfalls. We walked through the lushly vegetated mountains until our clothes soaked through with sweat. We passed lone horsemen on the roadside who, seen fleetingly as they whipped past the windows of our cars, drove carts loaded with plantains, the hard leather of their faces slick with sweat under the beating afternoon sun. We trekked among the hulking ramparts of the mogotes in Viñales over gutted clay trails, weathered only by the passing of horses. We swung by vines into cool, rural, tannin-stained rainforest rivers on bright summer afternoons. And at nights, when we managed to stay up long enough past the cigars and dancing, we listened to the cooing shrill of songbirds, lamenting softly in the darkness of the tobacco fields.
After hardly a few days of this, I realized I was in love. Not just with Cuba. With the whole of Latin America. With the wild, rural beauty of the tropics. Over the course of this trip, I was reawakened to the fact that, more than anything else, I was in love with life itself.
So it struck a particularly stinging blow when it dawned on me, in the week after our return, that my camera had been stolen. In mounting despair, I searched everywhere for that camera- in my moms house in Winter Park, my dads in Deland, my own home in St. Augustine- because through the entirety of my journey that camera had remained loyal to me, as fumblingly awkward as my handling of it was. Which made the loss of my camera all the more heartbreaking, for it seemed to feel, at first, that the camera was a part of the trip, and that to lose it was to lose a part of the trip itself.
There were many other pictures taken, of course, a few from my phone and the rest from everyone else. But they were not the same; they lacked the first person freshness and lucidity that characterized the pictures that I took with my own camera, which by the end of the trip having taken up three SD cards of memory, probably numbered in the thousands.
But I remember how each night in the houses where we were staying, or swerving down cracked rural roads on long afternoon car rides, I dutifully set myself to the task of recording my experiences in my notebook. In passages made even more difficult to read by the bumpiness of the car rides during which they were scribbled out, I transcribed the first impressions of the Cuba I was beginning to love.
As the trip unfolded, I was concocting plan about writing long articles flush with all the pictures I’d taken, but now, to stave off disappointment and the corrosive drift time wears against our memories, my writing alone will bear the full responsibility of painting those days in all their color.
Where there once pictures that could make remembering easy, there will now mostly be words. Where there would once be images, there will now be mostly memory.
I remember how late one day in Viñales, a friend and I broke off from the main group and trekked out across the tobacco fields in the canted afternoon light, the hushed wind of the valley seething in the plants underfoot. We crossed cracked streambeds where there once ran water and wandered in the grass amongst meandering goats and cows. Near an old, thatched-roof barn- known as a secadero, the building in which tobacco leaves are traditionally stacked and dried- a viejo with a straw hat and machete approached us on his horse. I asked if the secadero was his. Of course, he said, grinning slightly in his warm Spanish. Would you like to come inside? In any other world people may have deemed us insane for wanting to come inside. But this was Cuba. This was different. We went inside the secadero.
Motes of dust swirled about lightly in the shaft of light that cast in upon the dusty ground when he opened the thatched door to the barn. Inside, the air was rich with the bitter, musty aroma of aging tobacco leaves. The leaves lay stacked in heavy, tightly knotted bushels in the racks along the left side of the barn, piled up atop a latticework of thin poles lashed across the empty interior of the building. He shows us proudly the place where his agriculture yields its final fruits, a thick smile stretching across his leathery face. Would you like me to roll you a cigar? He asked, gesturing with his hand over the browning leaves. Of course, I say. I would love a cigar.
Like an artist delicately setting himself to making the first sketch, he drew a sinewy leaf from the stacked rafters and, sitting down pensively on a stool against the wall, his lanky figure outlined by the golden light in the doorway, set about to the task of rolling a cigar.
Outside, I luffed away at the tobacco with slow, tentative breaths and asked the viejo about his life. It was in Viñales where he’d lived all his life and Viñales where he’d ultimately die, and though the government took ninety percent of his cigar yields, he was still a supporter of the Revolution and nonetheless considered himself a happy man.
Te gusta? He asked with an expectant, childlike gaze.
Es tu caballo? I asked, gesturing towards the horse slowly tearing away at the grass beneath the tree before us, its thin body garlanded with a delicately carved homemade saddle.
He said yes.
Te puedo tomar un foto, con el caballo?
Si, he said warmly, obviamente.
I drew my camera to my face once again as I snapped the frozen image of him, standing there proudly astride his horse in the slight shadow of the tree.
Gracias señor, I said, y que tengas un buen día.
Igualmente, he said with a smile.
We walked on.
Further on towards where the road turned right under the hulking mass of the mogotes we happened on a lone house where the sound of women cooking drifted in from the grove of trees out back. Meandering past, we spark a conversation with the wrinkled vieja standing out front, an open, grandmotherly lady who with a swing of her arm invites us in to see her house.
Ven acá, she said excitedly. We followed her.
Out back, a woman who appears to be her daughter is cleaning listlessly in a ramshackle kitchen set atop cinder blocks and barrels in the soft mesh of shade that falls through the trees. Her name is Areli. Sit down, please, they said, and we sat down on some plastic chairs and as we sat there the middle woman asked us if we would like anything to drink.
Café, she asked, o rón?
We ask for café, and as she disappeared into the house my attention drifted to her rambunctious, three-year-old daughter scurrying about our feet, intermingling excitedly with the wide-eyed chickens and the cats. She was a sweet little creature, dressed in a pink outfit laced with unicorns, now grey and sooty with dirt, her brown tufts of curly hair curving down over her forehead. She contemplated us shyly with fleeting glances when she thought we weren’t looking, and laughed with a high-pitched shrill when she thought we were. Her madre shushed her when she came back with the café.
Areli asked us who we were and where we were from and how it was we ended up walking through the countryside in Viñales. I told her that I was a journalism student and that we had come to Cuba with a teacher who had once been a journalist here many years ago and that this personally was my second time visiting the island. I told her that I was enamored of Cuba. Que bueno, she said with a smile. She asked if we’d like anything to buy, even if only for a little, but we say no, thank you, we’ve already had some cigars today, but we instead asked if she knew any ways to get to the mogote. Her eyes suddenly lit up.
She pointed to a trail that lead off to the left into the fields behind their house and disappeared into the mass of brush upon the lushly green rock formation. Una cueva, she says- a cave. She told us we could snake our way to the top if only we can ascend to the cave, which acts as a natural geologic stairway to the opening of the plateau high up there.
So we bid farewell to the old lady, still regarding us with her smiling, half-blind gaze, and followed the mother Areli out onto the sodden dirt path, her rambunctious daughter still darting about our feet. It was a clean evening, with clean cool light and a purring shrill of cicadas in the air.
AS she parted with us she pointed out the massive, gnarled, low-hanging oak tree further down the path from us.
Bueno para tomar fotos, she said- good for taking pictures.
We smiled and thanked her and continued down the path, the figures of her and her daughter receding into shrinking human specks as they returned in the opposite direction towards their house.
At the mogote, the mythical stairway to the top was nowhere to be found- or if it was, we couldn’t seem to find it. Near the base of the strangely shaped mountain we opted to follow what appeared to be a thinly worn animal trail, barely visible to the naked eye, and climbing up on the steep switchbacks, soon found ourselves enclosed on all sides by a rich layer of deeply intermingled brush.
Halfway up the mountainside, the trail opened up into a tall, long, narrow cave, buried in the thick green diffusion of dying sunlight slipping through the tree canopy.
There was no life, no animals to be found in this strange bare chasm in the mountainside, a geologic rupture hardly ten feet across but that nonetheless shot clear to the top of the mogote.
My friend waited and watched as I clambered down the massive boulders pitched between the opposing shears of vertical rock, jumping down to the peat floor of the cave and slowly exploring back upwards, where it led deeper into the mountain.
It was a strange, surreal, almost lunar chamber, the thin bright strip of sunlight that was the sky falling down the rock walls from high overhead.
Nothing moved. I ran my hand over the smooth, perfectly scalloped stone walls, percolating geometrically in an immaculate pattern like the skin of some ancient dinosaur or sturgeon. It was a cave seemingly as old as time itself.
At the far end of the cavern I stop and take a look back. My friend Michelle stands in think black outline against the paling evening light further yet behind her, a lone figure atop a massive, uneven stairway of boulders. I will not go further back into the cave. It is an inky dark back there and the afternoon is already dying. The sound of a rat squealing fills the chamber with a piercing echo. I decide it’s time to go home.
Dusk is slowly approaching the countryside, a mint-blue veil filling the evening sky like some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
On the long walk back over the gutted country roads, we happened past a lone house near the tobacco fields under the looming shadow of the mogote to our left. We shouted hello to an old man out front, who in return raised his hand with a lingering, silent smile. His figure soon faded behind us. We walked on.
Near a second conglomeration of houses in a heavy grove of trees far down the road, we approached two young boys, dressed in bent palmetto straw hats and faded foreign T-shirts, riding a beautiful pair of stallions.
They tapped their hats to us.
Saben como ir.
Si. Al pueblo.
With his big, glossy wide eyes, one of the boys motioned with his hand in the direction of the town.
Por aca hacía esa esquina. Y entonces a la derecha.
They nodded to us again.
We walked on.
Back at the house where we would be staying for the next few days, we ran into the rest of the group on the big open porch overlooking the fields and the mountains beyond. It had been nearly three hours since we first broke off from them. They had gravitated towards the center of the town in the opposite direction of where went and were now chattering happily about what they had been doing over that day.
We went and found a place to get haircuts.
I took a sip from the bottle of water I’d gotten inside.
And we found a few clubs we could go to later.
What did you guys do today?
We told them how we had trekked out over the hilly rural farmlands before us and had met several farmers and a small family and had smoked a cigar and drank coffee and climbed up into a cave midway up the wall of that distant mogote.
That sounds wonderful.
Yeah, I said. I took another sip of water and gazed out at the darkening green of the lush landscape and at the hard outline of the mogote against the pale evening sky. It really was.
I turn over my memories of that two weeks in Cuba unceasingly, a vast, kaleidoscope chronicle of sights, scenes, sounds. I am desperate, for I know that with my camera stolen, the majority of my pictures missing, the only way to recreate those days and thus preserve their memory in all their crispness, before they inevitably rust with time, is to write them all down. Thus, I sit here, and I write, and I remember.
I remember how one bright afternoon, after a long morning of riding horses through the hills of tapestried tobacco fields, we found ourselves driving through the long, magisterial valleys in the mountain country, the mogotes to our flanks rising and falling slowly in a dancelike procession as we drove along the hot rural roads.
At a bridge far out in the jungle, we pulled over the side of the road and began our descent into the river below. There, at the end of a rickshaw line of rotting wood stairs, we found the waterfall and the pool.
Shaded by the soft mesh of sunlight filtered through the light tree canopy above, the river water slipped over a wall of massive, slick boulders, each one sheathed in an intricate filigree of thin dark moss, down into the deep calm of the tannin-stained pool below.
One of the first down the precipitous set of stairs, I lost my shirt, flip-flops, and glasses, and began wading out over the rush of water where it ran swiftly over the rocks, slowly treading upon the mossy surfaces with my arms outraised like an ill-balanced heron.
Out towards the middle, beneath the first shelf of waterfalls, two Cubans sat in a nook that had formed its own pool of water. I asked them if they came here a lot. They said yes, and they pointed out to me a long, petrified vine dangling down in a corkscrew, hanging from a branch near the edge of the water. They told me that it’s a swing, and that I should go try it. Ok, I figured. Why not. I wobbled out towards the swing.
By now, many others have hobbled carefully onto the slippery fortress of slickrock- the pressure was on.
I worked my way out to the vine where it dangled at the edge of the waterfall where the rocks steepened and plunged into the pool. Grabbing the brittle tether, baked hard by years of usage in the hard sun, I pulled down to see if it held. The thick branch high overhead gave way with a slight elastic dip, but didn’t break. I stood there for a moment with the vine in my hands, feeling the slow pulse of the swinging branch overhead, feeling the fear slowly swell in my gullet. Fuck it, I said to myself- everyone was watching by that point. So I walked back a few steps, try to divine what the trajectory of my fall would be when I let go, and vine in hand, began to run forward.
I didn’t jump. Fearful for a brief moment that I will clip my head on the rocks on the way down, I let my body swing out and back again, and then, with my feet back on the rocks, take a second to regain control of my nerves. Taking a few steps back once more, I ran forward again, swinging out over the edge and over the brown water and letting my body fly loose.
The water below was cool and refreshing.
We spend the next hour or so exploring around the waterfalls, sliding on the rocks and sitting in the cool eddies of water, swinging on the vine until it finally breaks, exploring the languid, silt-bottomed creek above the falls and swimming in the deep pool below.
It was a hot, bright, jungle afternoon. The water was cool against our skin, and high above us, thunderheads rose up clean and clear into the dazzling blue heights of space.
Standing there in the middle of the waterfall where the water rushed over my feet, goading my shyer friends into jumping off the rocks with me, I was overwhelmed with a strange feeling that I couldn’t quite articulate but that was as real and authentic as anything I’d ever felt before.
This feeling was the same one that animated me with an electric sense of aliveness when my friend Matt and I swam down to the lower end of the brown pool and began to clamber up the high, steep crags so we could jump down into the river below.
Climbing these sharp, mossy shears of rock without shoes was a difficult task without shoes, and when we stood atop them it was a hard balancing game staying up. And it was not necessarily safe jumping in either, despite our efforts beforehand to seek out boulders or other dangerous shallow obstructions by sinking down vertically, using our feet as depthfinders. But it was a feeling of ultimate satisfaction when we finally made the jump, flying out and crashing into the murky depths below where clouds of green particulates floated freely, feeling my toes and heels touch the smooth mud bottom, and then finally rising up through the water, slowly, slowly, until I reemerged into the clean light of the high afternoon and wiped the wet bangs of hair off my forehead and saw everyone else standing and watching on the rocks upriver, smiling.
It was the indescribable feeling you got when you drink from the powerful yet ever so elusive elixir of life. I had been more and more of it; now I was incorrigibly, happily, madly addicted.
Up at the ramshackle restaurant near the bridge that ran over the river, we sat drying off from our afternoons swim under the broad roof of thatched palmetto, eating away at heaping plates of rice and grilled pork and fish. The bright, sultry air beyond the cool shade of the veranda was burning, so much so that nothing along the roadside seemed to be moving. We sat there talking quietly and sipping Presidentes and Bucaneros, on whose cold cans heavy layers of condensation had congealed in the formidable heat; the workers, when they were done serving food, mulled listlessly in the shack at the end of the veranda, some resting forward meditatively with their forearms laid against the wood bar, watching indifferently as the occasional aging car roared past on the road.
I had for some minutes been eyeing the tall, steep bank of earth across the road whose cresting ridge was too high up to be visible from underneath the roof of the veranda. I had finished my food and was consumed by an urge to explore. And so I told Tracey Eaton, the leader of the group, that I was going to go climb the hill. Like that, I slung my camera over my shoulder, the metaphorical rifle for a photographic revolutionary, and broke out across the road.
Before I set out to climbing the hill, I noticed a group of caballeros standing restfully astride their horses in the deep shade of several trees, over by the bridge to the left. I broke off towards them, walking slowly to avoid seeming intimidating, unsure of how they would react.
They regarded me with deep, indifferent gazes, as if the heat had given them sufficient reason to not bother moving.
Hola, they each said, responding in a broken unison, still regarding me indifferently from the deep shade of the tree.
Les puedo tomar algunos fotos?
I asked them if they were from around this area and they said yes. They were hauling loaded bushels of plantains in the wooden cart they were traveling with. I asked them if this abode was some sort of respite from the blistering afternoon heat, to which they again replied yes. With them in the shade were several gaunt horses whose skin sleek with sweat revealed the faint outline of their ribcages. I asked them if the horses had any names, but they replied no. The horses out here were nothing more than horses.
Continually walking around to capture differently angled pictures of them, I repositioned myself outside the caballeros periphery of shade in ritualistic circles, snapping away with my camera.
We contemplated each other from across a vast gulf of mutual incomprehension, the caballeros and I- me, as a journalism student from the richest country on the planet, them, as horsemen from the rural Pinar del Río province of Cuba.
They were dark men, laconic men. They uttered few words in my presence, though I sensed that they wouldn’t have needed to anyways. Their presence conveyed all that needed to be conveyed. The ease with which they rested, arms spread against the tree stumps and carts and horses, reflected a sort of saturnine calmness which I had noticed seemed to be the nature of men like them.
I bid farewell to the men, who again responded in a broken union of adios’, more openly this time, and who then watched me stride off down the road for a few moments as I disappeared towards the hill.
The steep bank of the sandy hill was laced with a mazework of dry, brambly, tropical thorns that continually threatened to lodge themselves in the soles of my flip-flops as I worked my way up the slope. A thin trail of loosely worn sand and gravel snaked erratically up the hillside, and I was cantering up with long strides just fast enough to put me out of breath by the time I made it to the top. I was eager to get to the top. I wanted to climb up and immerse myself in the view of the valley before the afternoon storms rolled in. Soon, the restaurant and river lay below me, and not much longer after that the trail evened out and crested into the flat open ridgeline atop the hill.
A long, swelling strop of dry grass with nothing taller than the small trees at the periphery of the ridgeline or occasional ground vegetation, this sandy ridgeline above the restaurant afforded an astonishingly panoramic view of the Viñales countryside: the hulking outlines of the green mogotes, the rolling hills of serried tropical pines, and the deep ravine in which the river far below ran beneath the bridge, all of it baking in the hot dreamscape of the burning white Caribbean sun.
Wandering up the ridgeline I encountered a lone goat tethered with a rotting rope to a tree, its lower jaw chewing at a wad of grass with a slow gyrating motion. Its thin body caved in and drawn, it stared at me blankly for a moment with the dark triptych of its ovalesque eye. I continued on.
At the far end of the bare ridgeline stood a lone open-air lookout made of a rotting platform of plants lashed between four wooden spokes about ten feet off the ground, shaded in by a thatched dry-leaf roof. One of our drivers was descending from the structure as I approached, he having evidently gone off to explore in a similar manner as I, and when I asked him what the purpose of the lookout was, he said it was to look out for fires. He said the view atop was beautiful.
But be careful, he warned me in Spanish as he walked off behind me. That ladder is scary getting up.
Several minutes later, having crawled up the flimsy pole latter despite all its inherent instability, I sat with my legs crisscrossed and watched contemplatively as the reef of thunderheads banked high into the atmosphere beyond the mogotes, the tops of the clouds billowing out in smooth concussions against the airless limits of the upper stratosphere. The brightness of the afternoon sun was almost overwhelming to the eye, though far off, beneath the growing depths of the thunderheads, the Earth is cast in a dark veil of rainfall.
I was warm and full of food, my body still wet from the swim in the river below. I took many pictures with my beloved camera atop this ridgeline, though none with my phone. Thus, the pictorial record of my time atop this ridge is gone, and I doubt that the people I took up the hill the second time have many either.
But now as I’m writing this article, as I look back at what I have written over this article, I come to a realization that is as liberating as it is true: that for me, it was not the literal pictures that mattered so much as it was the deliberate act of taking them. That more important to me were the places into which taking pictures drew me rather than the literal images themselves.
I remember how, rising one morning in the quaint pueblo of San Diego, far out in the countryside of Pinar del Rio, and how when I gazed out from the tiled balcony of the hotel that morning, the earth had a certain freshness to it: a crispness, a wide-openness, an emptiness. As if the horizon of flat, tropical farmlands was itself an image of the world in its creation. I retrieved my camera and tried to make sense of the grandiosity of the Earth before me. But it was to no avail. Being there on its own, having a mind and eyes and a soul to experience that scene was enough in its own right; no camera, no matter how skilled the artist who handled that, could truly eternalize a view like that.
Later that day, after hiking through the hills near San Diego, I wandered off from the group towards a group of boys tending to their horse at the edge of their farm. My camera in hand, I approached and struck a conversation with them, slowly beginning to snap photos of the young caballeros, now enamored of my desire to know about their life. Asking about their farm, they invited me in, where their mother stood wreathed amongst a grove of lime trees. When I asked her how long the family had worked her farm, she smiled. She said that it had been theirs since nineteen hundred and nine.
Les puedo tomar algunos fotos?
Of course, she said with a warmth that was all too rare back home.
A voice called from behind me. Ven acá, it called impatiently. We have to go.
I glanced for a brief, ephemeral moment out the window of our vehicle as the caravan of vans rode off down the rode, a trail of dust floating up behind us: there, amidst the quaint farm and fences and the land flush with horses and chickens and the lime trees, sat the family that pictures had drawn me to, the family whose story was etched into my subconscious but whose pictures were missing and who I would have to write about and who I would very likely never see again.
And like dust in the wind, we turned the corner, and they were gone.