Music blasting, laughter, cheers and chatter. The sun may have set, but that Tuesday night stayed vibrant for a group of tight-knit neighbors just outside of Viñales, Cuba. It was Felicia’s 50th birthday and her son threw a party: chicken on the grill, dominoes splayed across the table and rum flowing freely. The invitation for my boyfriend and I came when we arrived back to our room after a tour of the tobacco farms, horse trails and small-scale coffee production. Already two rum shots in thanks to a stop with our host Fernando’s friend, we were greeted by Fernando’s wife, Marisel. She was eager to know when we wanted the elaborate dinner she had prepared.
That afternoon we had found the casa particular we had reserved through Airbnb down a bumpy dirt road. It wasn’t so easy. On a map, it looked as if there wasn’t much surrounding their home, but as we arrived we noticed many homes lining hilly pathways. It took asking a string of neighbors standing on their front porches for our taxi driver to find the right spot. At first, one woman directed us to a guest house with a sign on the front, “Marisol’s Paladar.” Our taxi driver walked in to inquire. Nope – we soon learned that our host was Marisel, not Marisol.
They included me, laughing at their spouses and the guys who drank too much, and bemoaning their older figures that didn’t carry dresses as smoothly as they used to.
As soon as the taxi pulled up to the correct address, an orange single-story building with neon red steps, we met Marisel. The 31-year old opened her arms wide with a grin, gabbing in a quick-paced Spanish, only some of which I picked up. She soon realized she must speak slower, and she did so graciously. She dragged us up the steps to the roof-top view of her town, presenting fresh guava juice and soon, espresso, ground straight from coffee beans grown on her property. She enthusiastically set us up on a tour of their town, led by her husband.
“Tengo un error…. Hacer un error?” After a brief time settling in our room, I used my translator app to help me tell Marisel that we accidentally booked only one night at her home instead of two. I asked her if we could stay for two. Disappointment swept across her face as she explained that the room was already booked for the next night, but within seconds she lit up again. Her neighbor, Felicia, lived directly across the dirt path up a slight hill. She pointed to the home we could see from the front porch. Felicia and her husband happened to be renovating their back bedroom to rent out, so Marisel explained that we could stay at Felicia’s for a lesser price, but still eat meals at hers.
“Solo para dormir,” Marisel explained – we would only need to sleep there. She showed us the room that held a double bed, shower, and a toilet with no seat. Simple, but clean. That worked.
We didn’t realize that we would soon get to know Felicia well, at her very own birthday party, before sleeping at her home the next night.
They welcomed me into their girl-chat, encouraging me to drop my inhibitions and dance more flamboyantly.
Once we were back from the plantation tour with Fernando, Felicia and Marisel stood outside our room, eagerly inviting us to the party after we had dinner. I translated the proposition to my boyfriend, who agreed that it sounded fun. Felicia’s eyes lit up as she grabbed my arms and danced around in gleeful anticipation.
Fast forward to girls against guys dominoes: we don’t even remember who won through the music, cheering and swigs of cheap rum. It was loud – conversation meant shouting, but most interactions were non-verbal. Eyes and facial movements expressed excitement for good (or lucky) domino plays, disappointment when the guys scored points and confusion a lot more of the time. I sat across from my teammate, Felicia, at a simple square table. We competed against my boyfriend on my left and Fernando on my right. I was thankful Marisel stood behind me, giving tips throughout the tile game, since I’d never actually played before.
In slowed Spanish, Felicia introduced us to her son, whose home we were enjoying. He and his boisterous friends stood by the barbecue to grill chicken and they joked with their young children who ran around the courtyard.
Felicia and Marisel acknowledged that this wasn’t a typical Tuesday on their street, so they were particularly excited to dance and let loose. They welcomed me into their girl-chat, encouraging me to drop my inhibitions and dance more flamboyantly. They included me, laughing at their spouses and the guys who drank too much, and bemoaning their older figures that didn’t carry dresses as smoothly as they used to. It felt like reconnecting with distant cousins: new, but familiar.
On just a two-night stay in central western Cuba, we imagined we’d see the famous prehistoric landscape and learn how cigars are made. We did enjoy those moments, but learned much more. We never anticipated becoming part of the neighborhood crew, but now grateful, we know the local connection enhanced our stay and etched the little valley town into our hearts forever.