A few weeks ago, our program ventured to a small community in rural Cuba, called Picadora. It took us six hours to drive to the campamiento, otherwise known as the small town, and when we arrived, we were greeted by a parade of people. The leader of the community, Titi, introduced the community with a huge smile, and welcomed us with warm food and casas to sleep in. Everyone in the community pitched in to help make our stay comfortable and exciting. There was so much hard work and dedication in everything the community touched, and it made me want to help in whichever way I could. Our group was provided the opportunity to participate in community activities, from domestic work to farming in the fields. We learned so much from this small camp, and in return, I received a family.
The housing for our large group of twenty four was an adventure in itself. Picture summer camp: a large open area and cabins. Imagine waking up to the sound of roosters just outside your door, or rolling over to find a large millipede chilling on your backpack. They accommodated six to eight students, with one shower that happened to run out of running water two days in to our trip. Our toilet was like an outhouse, but inside the building. The white, faded paint was peeling off the walls, but added character to the abode. The floor was made of a cool, grey pavement, and all of us forgot shower shoes. The boys in our group lived in a house ten minutes down the road, and that was by horse. As the sun went down, the stars shone so bright above our new settlement, and the weekend held nothing but potential. I was determined to make this place as close to home as possible.
The general environment of Picadora reminded me so much of my actual house in the states. Back home, I live on a farm with cows in the backyard, and the occasional stray cats. Everywhere I turn, there is open field, and if you drive down the street there is a huge cornfield. In the springtime, there are usually ducks and their ducklings hanging out by the stream. My old farm house has stood on this land for over 100 years, and it shows. The paint in some places is a little faded, and it’s not sealed as well as it once was. We have a few mice who sneak in to steal some crumbs, and in the fall you’ll hear my mom scream over crickets crawling out from the cupboards. We don’t drink the water from the tap either, for it will definitely make you sick.
I knew as soon as I set my belongings down in Picadora that this space would feel like home in no time.
The food in Picadora was incredible. Something I found interesting was that no one in the community has a kitchen in their home. The kitchen is located in the center of the community, and each meal is intended to serve more than ten people. Every morning, there was fresh fruit, toast, guava paste, pineapple, and coffee grown right in their backyard. At dinner, they served fresh yuka, congrí, pork, and a mix of vegetables. I drank so much fresh coffee on this trip, I thought I’d never sleep again. The smell of coffee reminded me of being home with my mom. She loves her coffee in the morning, and cannot start her day without it. Each meal is also eaten at these huge picnic tables, intended to seat more than thirty people. The community usually eats with the tourists, and it provides a “family cookout” vibe.
One day, we went out with some members of the community to investigate the town and learn about agrotourism. While we were out, one of the girls in our group mentioned her love for malanga, which is a root plant used in a few of Cuba’s bean mixes. One of the community members directed us to the malanga plants in the field. Cuba is in the middle of a drought, and production has decreased greatly. The farmer of the Malanga stuffed the head back in the ground, and apologized, for he didn’t have more to give. It was disheartening to hear him say that, while tourists get so much at each meal. It wasn’t his fault that Cuba has not had enough rainfall to produce commodities such as malanga, rice, yuka, or other vegetables we see on our dinner table frequently. So much work goes into placing food on the dinner table, and each member of this small community pitches in to make it possible. It definitely made me think twice about my consumption, and more willing to help where I could. Whether it was setting the table, or helping sort rocks out of the rice ration, I knew that it made their lives easier, and it created community. I felt more like a member of their community, rather than another tourist on vacation.
Creating Community in Unexpected Places:
Within the community, we broke up into four small groups. I worked in a group where we played games with other members of the community, from kickball to sack races down the street. We also played baseball, a Cuban classic, with bats made from sticks straight out of their backyard. Everyone was so ecstatic to play with a large group, and it was so much fun running around, reliving childhood memories. It made me think so much of home and playing games with my family. We used to play games and run around in the yard all the time, all day during the summer. How could this small community, so far from home, feel just like one of my favorite childhood memories?
On the last day, the community provided us with wet bricks to “leave our mark.” Each of us left a quick message, or picture, on our brick for the community to remember us by. They would then use the bricks to keep building around their dining area outside. It was awesome, seeing all the messages our group left with this community that resonated within us all. Picadora was definitely an experience to remember. I’ll never forget the amazing hospitality and love that community shared with our program, and how welcoming they were. We left with our hearts heavy, sad to depart our new friends. However, we know wherever we end up, we will always have family in Picadora.
Shelby Trail is a Spanish major at Gettysburg College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Universidad de la Habana in Cuba in Spring 2017. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA-Butler through the First-Generation Scholarship Program.