Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — All of a sudden, for work reasons, my trips to Pinar del Rio no longer have that young guerrilla spirit of camping out in the mountains and eating snacks. Now, I have been going to places which I couldn’t afford out of my own pocket: rentals, restaurants, cafes; where everything is paid for in CUC. The town I have traveled to in these coming and goings was Vinales; a place of exceptional natural beauty which invites visitors to come time and time again.

Besides its mogotes (limestone outcrops), Vinales offers a startling number of places where tourists can satisfy their appetites or rest their heads. Houses which used to be only for families up until recently, have been restructured and now operate as homestay rentals.  Many of these homes have made their backyards into small outdoor restaurants where they sell food. Other places have been completely transformed into restaurants, taking advantage of a particularly popular street or the height of a mogote where visitors can watch the beautiful sunsets.

Some properties have been bought by people who are foreign to the area, who have found their way here by sniffing out business opportunities. Therefore, you can see that this is a city that is based on tourism, government controlled and private, from even a short stroll. A segment of society here has been able to take advantage of this whirlwind.

That is one side of the story; the other is a little sadder. During this gentrification process that Vinales is experiencing, many farmers and other native people to the region have slowly been set aside, with very few options to survive on their own land. From extremely expensive food and personal hygiene items, the struggle to get supplies for their farm work, to water shortages; everything works against them.

When talking to some tobacco farmers, for example, I was able to dismantle the myth of riches which surrounds them. From a distance and under the shelter of Robaina (the famous grower) financial success as well as that of some other tobacco farmers, many Cubans believe that whoever has a patch of the crop will become rich. We’re wrong; these farmers have to pay a lot of money for fertilizers, hoses, fuel, etc.

They also have to pay the workers who help them to collect the harvest or threading tobacco leaves. You’d also have to take into account the size of the land they use, the quality of the tobacco they harvest, whether it grows or not with so much drought, whether they are affected by pests. When they collect the tobacco, they do the math and the reality is they only make very little. This sum of money isn’t enough for them to get by in an area where business is mainly tourism-centered.

Water also marks an important difference between life in the city and the countryside. 2016 was one of the five most critical years with regard to drought, in the history of Cuba. In Vinales city, with so many rental apartments and restaurants that need this precious liquid to function, water is sometimes scarce, of course, but not so bad as in places where there isn’t any tourism.

It would be interesting for somebody to calculate just how many liters of water are lost every time the toilet flushes or in a shower, taking into account that there are houses which have two or three bathrooms; or in washing up plates or cooking food in restaurants, bars and cafes. I’m sure that this figure would shock us. This water isn’t being recycled. Meanwhile, the majority of farmers suffer from having crops growing on super dry land and the anxiety of when water tankers will come to their remote homes to fill up their tanks.

Families with low incomes look after their clothes, stretch out the detergent they have however they can to make it last longer, extend their shoe life by mending them with the few resources they have and value the importance of having food on the table. Many remember the time when pigs were given a banquet back in the day. Now, everything has to be limited, these aren’t times of abundance. People who think like this have never set foot inside a restaurant, although they know that they are very expensive and that the food is delicious.

They are unaware of just how much food is wasted in these places. A trend has become customary in many restaurants: you sit down at a table and wait to be served, you don’t order anything.

Suddenly, plates filled with fruit, salad, fried food (cassava, sweet potato, malanga); the soup comes, then different kinds of rice: white, congri (black beans and rice), with pineapple, with vegetables; then black beans and last but not least, the main dishes: pork, beef, chicken, fish.

All of this comes to the table; it doesn’t matter whether diners prefer one kind of rice or another, or whether you’re a vegetarian. You’re served everything and then you choose, that’s the way it works. Whatever you don’t want goes straight into the garbage or, in the best of cases, to the pigs. This is what happens at several restaurants; just imagine how much food is being wasted in a single day!

However, that isn’t the worst of it. The worst thing of all is that in a poor country, where we are meant to be saving, which suffers from drought and where people have a very poor diet, when I tell people, I come off as the bitter one in the story; people praise and “normalize” this waste. “Enjoy progress, my girl, don’t fight it.” I’ve even been told by those who have never even been to Vinales that now, when everything is super expensive; they won’t be going in the future.

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One thought on “Vinales Isn’t a Paradise for Everyone

  • Everything is well taken care of and the soil looks healthy.

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