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A visit to rural Cuba

Dayron is a friend of mine from the province of Matanzas, Cuba. He’s a musician and used to belong to Quinteto Cubanacan before joining a new band closer to home. In fact, in the first video at that link, Dayron’s the one playing guitar. Nice guy. (Scroll to the bottom for a video of him playing and singing.)

Dayron invited me to visit, as he wanted me to record a couple songs with his new band. I agreed – on the condition that he help me with my Latin percussion skills. So I just spent a couple days with him in small-town Cuba… Limonar, a smaller town than I’ve ever visited before. It’s so small, Google Maps doesn’t even show any of the streets! (That’s a First World joke.)

Matt and Dayron riding to Limonar

On the way to Limonar with Dayron

Before I went, Dayron warned me multiple times that their quality of life is humble. I could tell he was nervous about that. As a musician, Dayron works in some of the fancy tourist hotels, so maybe that’s his frame of reference for what I’m used to. I’d much rather be with a friend than in any hotel, and I just kept telling him that. But even so, I think he spent most of my visit nervous about it. He promised they’d do everything they could to show me a good time.

When I got to Matanzas City, Dayron came to meet me at the bus station. We took one taxi to the outskirts of town, then caught another to Limonar. On the way, our cab broke down. This is a totally normal problem to have in Cuba. Most of the cars are 50+ years old, so they break down all the time. We pushed it to a shady spot and waited for another taxi to pass.

Dayron checks out the broken down car.

Dayron examines the wheel, which has slipped far outside of the wheelhouse.

Blue vintage automobile

What’d be a collector’s item in the U.S. is just another taxi in Cuba.

At some point, another cab picked us up and took us the rest of the way into Limonar. We stopped to buy bottled water, as we both knew my digestive system wouldn’t be able to handle the local tap water. A couple of the stores were out of water, which is totally normal. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cuba going from store to store in search of bottled water. But at our third stop, we found some and stocked up. I also bought a bottle of Havana Club rum to bring to dinner. To me, rum is rum… but by their standards, that’s a fancy bottle of rum, and I figured it would be a welcome addition to the night’s festivities.

We arrived and I met Dayron’s family. They’d been preparing for my visit, and the older generation of women were working on dinner. Everyone else was just hanging out, and more people kept coming until there were maybe 20 of us.

A road with power lines and small homes built along one side

Dayron and his family live along this country road.

Cuban woman and child

Dayron’s wife Judith and El Pi, who’s a nephew I think. It was hard to keep track of all the relationships.

A handful of us walked a few blocks away to buy more rum at a nearby bar. Dayron’s sister-in-law’s boyfriend works there, so it was part shopping trip and part social outing. We hung out there for a bit chatting with him, drinking rum from a bottle, and watching some guys play dominoes.

I was shocked how inexpensive the rum was. Rum in Cuba is generally inexpensive – you can get a low-end bottle of Havana Club for three to five dollars. But one variety was only 20 Cuban pesos a bottle – around eighty cents. Once we got back with it, Dayron “improved” the cheap rum by mixing it with the Havana Club I’d brought.

view of industrial buildings in Limonar, Cuba

A view of Limonar as we went to buy rum. That little shack on the near left with a roofed patio is the bar.

Dayron pours Havana Club rum into a bottle of cheaper rum

Dayron improves the cheap local rum with some Havana Club

Dinner was great. I don’t know how much of the menu was normal and how much of it was a special effort for my sake. But if the quantity or variety were unusual, at least the individual foods were very typical. We had boiled yuca, fried sweet plantains, and roast pork. They served it all on a mound of congrí, rice cooked up with red beans.

In Cuban culture, a good meal means a huge plate of food. Since I was the guest of honor, that’s what Dayron’s aunts wanted to serve me. I’m not a huge eater, so I asked for moderate portions of everything – about half what they thought was right. They were shocked and worried at how little food I accepted. But I’m used to that, and I gave them my routine explanation about how “It’s not you, it’s me.” Then of course I made sure to compliment all the food – which was easy to do, because it was delicious.

A plate heaped with food

A plate of typical Cuban food: boiled yuca, fried sweet plantains, and pork, all served on a bed of rice and beans. For Dayron’s aunts, this was a meager portion to serve a guest. For me, it was plenty!

We did hit a third snag that day – the first two being the taxi breakdown and the difficulty finding water. Our third snag was a power outage. We were all sitting around the backyard after dinner when the music died and the lights went dark. Like the breakdown and the water, this was a problem people are very used to! So everyone took it in stride. One of Dayron’s relatives cracked, "If you want to know you’re in Cuba, either it’s gotta be raining or there’s a blackout. If not, you’re in some other country." We just kept drinking, used cell phones when we needed some light, and eventually the power came back.

Last but not least, I asked Dayron what music he’s playing with his new band. So he played me a sample. The music is beautiful, but the lyrics are all about how bad you treated me and how you’ll end up alone and suffering. “You’ll cry and cry with no one to comfort you…” Harsh!

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