The lush green valley embraces me as we pass over the creek, and a decade of memories begin flowing through me. The horse beneath me trots along the dusty dirt road and we move together from town into the magical lush world of the pastoral. I am lost in my own world as my two friends who are with me today chat happily behind me. Like the worn rocks beneath the cool, clear water in the river, some of those memories are slippery and even dangerous for me to allow access to. I give myself a few minutes to savor those memories, then tuck them away and bring myself back to the moment.
The valley looks the same as always. Lush, green, and fertile, fields of grasses and mango trees are speckled with little homes that look like they couldn’t possibly stand another year. Yet, they’ve been here for many years. Before and since I’ve been riding this valley, they’ve always looked about the same. It always amazes me that they’ve withstood so many storms and that people live in them. Some have pieces of metal over the roof held down by concrete blocks, others have thatched patchy roofs and all of them have open windows, no AC, no screens, concrete floors and walls and very few modern conveniences, if any. Children run and play on the dusty dirt road barely clothed, and barefooted. Dogs and cats roam around freely, and chicken and roosters can be heard everywhere. People pass us in horse and buggies, bikes, horseback and on foot as we pass through the little barrio of the pastoral, two foreigners and my beloved friend who helped us get the horses and serves as our guide today. This valley is so idyllic in it’s beauty, so charming and so serene. We are just a few minutes out of Trinidad, but it is truly a different world, and very little here has changed since the pandemic for the people of the campesino (countryside). As we pass through, a few people greet me who recognize me from years prior, and we stop briefly to chat and catch up.
Crossing the railroad tracks, I know we are close to the house of an elder couple who live by the riverside and I wonder how they made it through the pandemic and if they survived. As soon as we get within sight of the river, I am overjoyed to see a tiny brown woman bent over washing a garment in the river, smacking it on the rocks with force and repeating. Her brown legs and bare feet, hardened and strong, grip the slippery rocks as she works.
As our horses approach, I call out to her, “Oye, abuela!” She looks up and her face erupts into a huge smile when she realizes it’s me and she starts up the hill towards her house motioning for us to follow her. We cross the river and as we ride up the hill to her house, I see her husband, Roberto walk towards us, and his brother following behind him. I dismount and embrace them all and we chat for a few minutes. She and Roberto are now well into their 70’s. I’ve been visiting them here like this for 10 years and watching them age with grace, strength and incredible resilience. They are both still very strong, and as we talk, I’m struck by how physically strong and capable they both are, how much love is still between them, the gentleness with which they treat each other and us and more than anything how incredibly grateful I am that they are still here. I ask them how the pandemic was for them, and they both look at each other for a moment, then look back at me.
“Oh Hija,” she says, “Es lo mismo de siempre aquí. Todo esta bien, gracias adios.” (The same as always, all is well thank God.) She smiles and seems to want to change the subject quickly. I ask her about her family, and if she had a hard time getting food, and she basically repeats the same sentiments. For them, everything was the same. They have a garden and for years they’ve eaten out of the garden. They have chickens, so they always have eggs, and their entire family is in the campo so they had the food, meat and provisions they needed pretty much the same as before. The family all made it through CoVid without incident, no deaths, the granddaughter is fine and getting big, and for them nothing has changed much.
Usually when I’m by myself I’ll spend an hour or so with them, have coffee, fruit, wander around their garden and just spend time catching up, but today we are riding under a bit of a time crunch so when they invite us in for mangos and coffee, I tell them I’ll come back another day when I’m by myself without a time constraint. They pack our bags full of mangos, give me big hugs and pats on the back and as we ride off back to the trail, I am eternally grateful that they are still strong and doing well considering all of the issues my friends in town are having. It seems the people in the pastoral have fared much better in many ways than those who are in the cities.
We continue towards Jose’s house, in the calle de los mangos as I affectionately call it. It is a beautiful canopied path that goes from Jose’s house and restaurant out into the road that takes us to the waterfalls. I’m excited to see Jose again. I can’t wait to see his big smile and joyous personality bubbling over. I’ve known him for over a decade now. We’ve shared deep conversations about life, music and philosophy and a whole lot of fun playing music and laughing. In over 10 years of visiting, he’s always been overflowing with love, joy and good humor. Every group of travelers I had in Trinidad, I brought to his home for food, delicious sugar cane juice and the opportunity to share with one of the most exuberant, fun humans I’ve ever known. I am super excited to hug him and see his smile light up the world again.
As we cross the river again to ride by his house, I ask my Cuban friend, who is riding with me, how Jose is doing. He pauses, and then gravely informs me that Jose passed away a few months ago. Instantly, my eyes tear up and my heart aches. This makes the 24th person I’ve known that has died since CoVid began. Another brilliant star taken from us. I learn that he didn’t die of CoVid, but that he had a fall while working on something at the house. He cracked his skull open, and his family couldn’t get him to the hospital in time to save him. He was loaded on a tractor and they tried, but he had lost too much blood and wasn’t able to get there fast enough.
Out here, getting emergency care is nearly impossible and the people who live in the pastoral are well aware that an accident or fall can be the end of a life for anyone, people and animals alike. There are no ambulances that come out to the pastoral, and often no ambulances at all even in Trinidad. Jose’s son, brother, wife and family are left behind to run the restaurant and maintain the farm and animals there. We stop in to visit them for lunch and get the full story and together feel the gravity of Cuba’s difficulties in getting good, quick and effective health care. His son is bitter, understandably. Jose was still very vital and not that old. If he could have gotten care fast enough, it is very likely he would still be alive today. 2022, and still so little change for them there. Still no good roads, still very little transport, still very little access to the outside world, still the same day in and day out.
I spend most of the ride back in silence reflecting, feeling and observing the life around me as we pass through a valley that is so dear to my heart. A world where little changes, and the pressures and stressors of the greater world are irrelative to daily survival. Little of that world matters here. CoVid did not hit them the same way it hit those in the pueblo or cities of Cuba. The food crisis did not affect them the same way that it did those living in the cities. Their challenges have remained more or less the same as always. Life and death continue mostly unchanged out here. It is part of it’s charm, and it’s beauty, and while some wish for more, many out here know that they are living a more peaceful, calm life than their families in cities and outside. A life of direct consequence and of practicality above all. Grow food, chop wood, carry water, struggle, suffer, smile anyway and keep going, one day at a time.