Saturday, November 20, 2010

Journey to Sancti Spiritus

Our Global Exchange program is nearly over and soon we will be riding our tandem bike through tobacco fields and connecting with more and more farmers.  Inspiration is everywhere in this country. The following images are a collection of photos from a cooperative farm, a walk around one of the oldest cities in Cuba, and an urban permaculture project. Make sure to read the short story below by Pete about our new friendship with the Garlic farmers of Banao......


November 19, 2010
La Habana Cuba
Honored, Humbled Guests of Banao’s People
Sometimes we write to reflect on experiences, to record ideas, dreams, aspirations or important events. Tonight, after spending two hours embraced by the loving hearts of new Cuban friends, I write, so that we may never forget this deeply compassionate, love-filled fiesta with a community of amazing souls.
Meeting with Banao’s CDR
*Note for readers: CDR (pronounced “say-day-air-ay”) stands for Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Created in the early years of the Revolution, CDR is basically a town hall meeting forum for neighborhood members to gather on a regular basis to discuss community problems and solutions. Each CDR has an elected leader (non-paid voluntary position) who represents the people on the National Assembly level.
Our group of ten American visitors and one Cuban tour leader arrive in our bus well after dark. Expecting to have a “meeting” with local CDR members, we are prepared with notebooks in hand, ready for a formal discussion, eager to learn. As we bump along the town streets of Banoa, a rural community in Central Cuba, we see a person waiting for us at the street corner. He waves to us, then sprints down the street waving his arms at a mass of people gathered in the streets. What the ten of us experience next, we could have never expected, and we will never forget.
As we exit the bus, the mass of people, easily numbering 100, has organized themselves into perfectly straight rows on either side of the small cobblestone street. Their hands are folded in front, stoic in their bodies and faces, radiating direct eye contact, emitting welcoming yet serious glances as we all begin to walk down the center our their human tunnel of honor. My mind races with confusion, and I wonder who they think we are. They all begin to clap with vigor and in unison. We feel like heroic champions, returning from a valiant effort abroad, being welcomed back home as honored citizens. What have we done to warrant such a gesture of respect? We have done nothing special, but we are guests of Cuba, visiting from the United States, and to the people of Banoa, our arrival is something to celebrate. They see us as family, and their hospitality runs freely and deep like a bubbling spring.
The clapping stops and a woman, the speaker of Banao’s CDR, announces, “We begin all our community gatherings with this song, our national anthem.” The voices begin with conviction and harmony, kids, grandmothers, teachers and farmers. The song ends and we clap. An elementary child, dressed in her school uniform and shiny black shoes, recites an emotion-filled, eloquent poem about the Cuban Five, all by memory, all words spoken from the heart. Next, two high school youth sing a Cuban welcome song accompanied by a guitar. The committee’s leader reads a beautiful welcome address, bringing tears to our eyes. We are treated with incomprehensible honor and love. All eyes are on the ten of us, the moment lit by streetlights and infused with an energy of both uncertainty and excitement that builds with each second.
King, a member of our group, steps forward to make an unexpected offering to the people. “I have a story to share. Before Fidel Castro was a legend in Cuba, he tried out for a baseball team in the early 1950s in the United States. Luckily, he did not make the cut – instead becoming one of the world’s most unique and controversial leaders. We have a baseball from the United States to offer to you as a gesture of friendship.” The group energetically claps and the ball is passed to the woman leader. Smiles begin to loosen and the intensity of the moment eases with this regalito.
Next, Kati and I step forward. In our hands we hold a garlic braid, Ajo Criolla, which we had purchased earlier in the day from a man selling on the highway. “Thank you for welcoming us into your community so beautifully. We have a garlic farm in the United States, and although it is difficult to bring garlic from our farm here, we wanted to offer this beautiful Cuban garlic to you as a gift. Then, Kati steps forward and so eloquently adds, “For us, we see garlic as a symbol of family and unity, because from one single clove planted, many new generations will grow and expand in our gardens. We offer this to you with hope that our futures will grow together with kindness and friendship.” What we learn next is a true miracle.
The community of Banao is famous throughout the island of Cuba for the cultivation of two special, honored crops: Cebolla y Ajo (Onions and Garlic!). My heart skips a beat when our translator relays this joyous information. My eyes widen as we prepare to hear more. We have landed in the heart of Cuba’s garlic growing community. I am stunned by this news and in the moment, there seems to be no such thing as coincidences in life, only perfectly aligned combinations of factors, allowing for true connections to be made.
**Note. The following story may seem too striking to be true. However, this is simply the true documentation of the evening’s proceedings. Kati’s initials are here to confirm content accuracy (kg).
The woman leader of the CDR takes the braid and holds it high above her head, “Even though we have plenty of our own garlic in this town, and even though this garlic you offer to us probably was grown by one of the members in attendance tonight, we will honor these heads of garlic as the most special garlic we have, because it comes from your hands tonight, and we know that your admiration and friendship is now inside of these bulbs.”
My jaw dropped as Elizabeth, our Cuban translator, echoed these words. I could hardly breath – my heart garden bloomed with miraculous joy in this moment. I held my beautiful wife close, pinched my own cheek to make sure this was not a wonderful dream, and another round of vigorous clapping echoed into the tropical breezes of the night. The party was just beginning.
Welcoming ceremonies complete, baseballs and allium gifts exchanged, and music begins to blast from two large speakers on a wooden table outside the community building. Before anyone can understand that we are not headed inside to begin the meeting, Kati and I are swept off our feet by two elderly dancers. The crowd moves into the streets center and the dancing begins. Kati is twirled around by her Cuban dance partner, her dance skills and rhythm serving her well as onlookers clap hands to the Reggaeton beats and laugh at the sight of ten Americans trying their best to dance.
Sweat pours from my face as my seventy year old Cuban dance partner shakes, rattles and rolls in the balmy air of Cuba’s central valley. I take a break and quickly am met by a group of kids who try to teach me their dance step. I try. Kati’s pot-bellied dance partner is all smiles and smooth moves and seems to be glowing with his good fortune of dancing with my beautiful wife.
The music stops and the woman CDR leader makes an announcement, asking for the newlyweds Kaaaati y Pedro to come forward to the dessert table set up in the street. Someone had been informed we were on our Luna de Miel, honeymoon, in Cuba. “We have a very special tradition here in Cuba, of good fortune, for celebration the union of two people in love. We ask you to honor us, and please cut the first piece of cake.” Nearly to the day of our two month wedding anniversary, encircled by the gentle, smiling faces of an entire community of new Cuban friends, we take the knife together, cutting through the cake with smiles as big and pure as on our wedding day at Costanoa. We eat the first slice and everyone claps. Sticking Cuban frosting is smeared on my face. We want to cry from the beauty of this gesture. Our marriage is blessed, Cuban style.
We thank the crowd of friends, again uncertain what we have ever done as human beings to deserve such regal treatment and respect. But all we can do is reciprocate the emotional love. We announce to the crowd that it has been a dream of ours to celebrate our Luna de Miel in with the People of Cuba, but that we never could have expected we would be gifted such love, kindness and spirited joy. Having our Luna de Miel celebrated with the People of Banao on this magical night is the highest honor, and this experience of pure friendship will live on within us, and our future family, forever.
For the next hour we share our photos and explain life and family in the United States. One garlic farmer named Avley Gomez Enrique held up a photo of Kati and I holding a bundle of freshly harvested garlic, with the Wasatch Mountains of Utah pink with the alpine glow of sunset and said with gusto, “These are the same as our mountains above our garlic fields. You think I am joking but you will see, we are the same people, farming the same beautiful plants beneath such similar beautiful mountains. Pedro, you and your wife Kaaati are good people.” We described out beach wedding ceremony, the surfboard and the dolphins, our bicicleta double, our moms and dads and sisters and brothers and we all laughed in the unexpected joy of our many similarities and newfound friendship.
We learn Cuban Ajo Criollo is planted between October and November and is harvested by April 1, a growth cycle of about 5-6 months. Bulbs are generally quite small but exhibit a deep, biting, picante flavor that builds on the tongue and builds in intensity inside the stomach, with a clean, pleasing finish. The group of garlic and onion farmers that have surrounded us erupt in laughter when Kati tells them that our mountain grown garlic takes 9 months to mature, just like a baby. Of course, that prompted the question, since they all knew we were Honey Mooning, “When will you have your ninas and ninos?”
We tell our new friends from the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, our nuevos amigos de Banao, that soon we will return to visit. We tell them we will return very shortly on our bicicleta double, with our ajo from los Estados Unidos to plant in their fields. The women all invite us to stay in their homes with their families when we return so we may tell more stories and laugh and dance. We will begin our first Farmer Profiles for The Plants and People Project and with the youth of Banao, push the first experimental Porcelain cloves from the Mountains of Utah into the Caribbean soils of Banao, Cuba – in the allium growing center of the island. Sometimes, for unknown reasons, the realities of life far exceed our wildest dreams. This has been one of those sweet, unforgettable times.
Too soon, the time comes that we must leave the smiling faces of Banao. A last dance circle is enjoyed by all with music blaring into the night’s darkness beyond the street lights. A lengthy farewell ceremony follows in which many kisses, handshakes, long hugs and countless “much gusto”s are exchanged. We wave, kiss on the cheek, hug again and again and again, trying to prolong the moment of friendship as long as possible. We board the bus with beaming smiles on our faces and deep within. Tonight, maybe we will all dream of this love-filled exchange, not as Americans or Cubans, but as fortunate human beings whose hearts sing the song of unity, while warm breezes of friendship refresh our collective spirits.
The Cuban people we have met so far have such sincerity in their actions, emotions and gestures of cultural communication. We feel appreciation and respect for our new friends, and are humbled to meet people whose essence is genuine and pure like the light of the moon.


  1. good morning sweet world travelers--
    what an amazing series of coincidences, warmth and community. your interactions seem like a human garlic braid!
    love you love you

  2. Hi Pete and Kati,

    Your journey is very inspiring!

    It feels out of place to ask for practical advices after such a touching text, but I don't know how else to reach you...

    We (a couple on a tandem with a 15 months baby) are planning a little cycling trip in Central Cuba, and we would really appreciate to have your input on Banao.

    As we don't want to leave our son in the bike trailer too long, we are trying to keep our daily cycling short. So we would like to stop in Banao (even more since the lecture of your text!) on our way from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad. It appears we could stay in an ecofarm named Jarico in the Alturas de Banao (near hiking trails that lead to a refuge named La Sabina in the mountains), but we are wondering if it's possible to ride from Banao to Jarico by bicycle.

    Did you had the chance to visit the Alturas during your stay in Banao? If so, how was the road from the village to Jarico? Alternatively, is there other lodging options in Banao (casa particular, campismo, etc.)?

    Thank you very much for your help,