Everyone, every single one of us, has our own sense of home. And I think we can all agree that this feeling- that recognizable sense of belonging and familiarity- is something we seek no matter where we are. Sometimes we just happen upon it and other times we find a way to recreate it. And as travelers we are pretty simple; home feels like a nice warm meal or a comfy bed. It feels like a few friendly smiles or your favorite song.
I’ve felt home in the rocky mountains of Patagonia and on the banks of a river in Oregon. I’ve found it while cuddled close to my main squeeze and also during torrential downpours. Home tastes like wood-oven pizzas and tootsie-roll pops. I’ve felt home all over the world.
Most recently, I found myself feeling this sensation in Viñales, Cuba. The town itself was absolutely enchanting, with sweeping valley views and an abundance of smiley Cuban faces. But more specifically, I felt this with the company of one very special family.
Meet China, Jose Luis and Elena (not pictured).
Luke, Amy and I wandered upon their humble, but wildly alluring abode in pursuit of a late afternoon jaunt through the countryside. From town we caught eye of a couple well-worn footpaths intertwined among fertile green tobacco fields and figured we would check it out; maybe just go out and back to work off the street pizza we had been stuffing our faces with.
A few minutes into our walk, we came across a beautifully sun-aged woman named Elena. Luke asked her if we were allowed to walk through the expansive farmlands and after assuring us it was fine to do so, she invited us to follow her to her home. Once we arrived to the property she explained that her family ran a tobacco farm, then proceeded to indulge us with the most fascinating tour we could’ve imagine. We learned everything from the soaking and treating process to how the government regulates production. Farmers are required to sell 90% of their yield to the government, at a very low price, and are only able to keep 10% for personal use.
The tour didn’t stop at her front door, however. Elena invited us in to enjoy a cup of fresh brewed coffee- and to our excitement, a lesson in cigar rolling! We circled around the wooden kitchen table and sat wide-eyed while she wrapped a handful of home-grown tobacco into leaves with all the grace of an artist. As I sat there taking in the scene, Elena’s deep wisdom and matriarchal spirit filled me with an indescribable feeling of comfort and a wild sense of reverence. I couldn’t believe I was about to have my first ever cigar, not only in Cuba but in the company of a tobacco farmer at her family’s table. Talk about pure bliss.
We met the rest of the family, including China and Jose Luis; who are a jovial husband and wife duo- Jose works the fields from sunrise to sunset, with the utmost pride and attention, while China keeps the home and kids in running order.
Our walk back into town that night was practically silent as the three of us absorbed what had just happened. Cuba, up to this point, had been fiercely frustrating and uncomfortable. But now we had our own taste of the magic that people had been raving about. I couldn’t help but smile with glee as my heart fell into a deep love for Viñales and these magnetic people.
The next morning we returned to their home to meet their eldest son Manny, who would take us on a tour of the vast landscape via horseback. He is the quintessential cowboy, complete with a well-worn hat, machete and the swagger of someone who spent their youth on a saddle. My veins pounded with excitement and allure as we trotted deeper and deeper into the hills. I’d love to have adequate verbiage to elaborate on the details of the beauty that exists beyond each bend, but my words won’t do it justice. Just trust me, you will be persuaded to become a Cuban homesteader. You’ll never want to leave.
As badly as we wanted to spend every waking moment in the graces of our new friends, we agreed to one last dinner before we took off for Trinidad. We arrived, cake in hand, just as the sun was setting gently behind the hills. We joined China and Jose in rocking chairs on the back porch for a cigar and as the last embers burnt away at the sweet tobacco, dinner was ready. We sat down at the now familiar kitchen table and our stomachs expanded into black holes as our eyes saw what lay before us. China had lovingly prepared bowls of malanga soup and yucca chips accompanied by massive plates of creole chicken, rice, beans and salad. Every morsel of food was from their farm, which was made evident by the bold and layered flavors. Every bite we took got better and better; I’d argue that this was one of the best meals I have ever had.
Feeling more than satisfied, stuffed to the brim, we hesitantly stood to say our goodbyes. We exchanged emails, hugs and promises to stay in touch. Now, I’ve made tons of “24-hour friends” while traveling, but this goodbye might have been the hardest. This family took us in and fully included us in their beautiful culture. This is why I travel- to meet people who inspire me to live better. And this family did nothing short of that.
Traveling to Cuba was a lifelong dream of mine. Every moment of the trip was educational and eye-opening. But I found myself feeling so far removed from the truth of what it means to be Cuban. I struggled to crack the social boundaries that my white American tourist status created. That was until I met Elena, China, and Jose Luis. Their home became my home- a little fleck of commonplace in a country where I otherwise felt lost.
While getting to know China and Jose Luis, we learned that they were in the process of setting up a Casa Particular in their guest house. We unfortunately were there before the paperwork had gone through but they gave us a tour and explanation of their plans and it was nothing short of remarkable! If you EVER find yourself in Viñales, do yourself a favor and stay with China and Luis. They will make your experience one to remember. Click HERE for more information, or contact me directly.