Molasses Air: Stepping Off the Beaten Path in Cuba

The clip-clop of hooves on concrete breaks the evening silence in the small town of Brasil, Cuba.
The clip-clop of hooves on concrete breaks the evening silence in the small town of Brasil, Cuba. Jess McGlothlin
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The late afternoon sun dissolves into a steamy haze as the beat-up old car trundles down the pockmarked road into the little village of Brasil, roughly 280 miles southeast of Havana. I poke my head out the window, taking a deep breath of heavy, molasses-scented air and watch local school children head home, laughing as they make their way down the quiet streets of the town.

The ride from Cuba’s lively capital city has taken nearly all day; my driver and I started in the early morning hours, and now it’s nearly dinnertime. The landscape becomes more rural along the way. Horse- and ox-driven carts block the cracked asphalt roadway, and farmers cut crops using scythes, just as they have for centuries. Every so often we pass a large, covered "box" of a vehicle pulled by livestock or a battered tractor; it’s the local taxi, carrying workers to and from the small towns that dot the countryside.

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Moron, about a 30-minute drive from Brasil, is a larger community with more amenities. Even so, visits to the fruit cart and meandering walks down town streets seem to be the measure of each day. Jess McGlothlin

This region of the country attracts very few tourists and rarely grabs travel-story headlines. Modern technology, including internet, is largely absent; days are measured by the trudge to work harvesting crops in the fields under the sweltering Caribbean sun before the journey back to simple, open-air abodes, often tucked under rare copse of trees. The air smells of dust and humidity, as thick and heavy as the tumultuous history of this island nation.

My home for the next few days, the Casona de Romano, is tucked on the edge of Brasil. The town was was once the site of a booming sugar cane factory, and the Casona was built in 1919 for the factory’s owner. The factory closed decades ago and the town became a quiet shell of what was once a bustling agricultural community. Now, the sprawling old factory is slowly coming back to life as a sugar mill—I never could get a real idea of why, but its resurgence is evident by the rich, thick scent of molasses on the air.

After waving goodbye to my driver, I drop my luggage in my second-floor room at the stately Casona and then set out for a stroll under the waning sunlight. Locals on their way to evening meals stare openly at the sight of a rare foreign outsider on their streets. Most offer a tentative smile in response to my smile and nod, often taking a longer look at the DSLR camera in my hand.

I walk through the tattered, gravelly streets, through curiously well-manicured gardens in front of the cathedral and down dark alleyways that are cooling quickly in the evening. In one, I startle a roving cat and her kittens; in another I meet a lounging group of locals who ask to have their portraits taken. Every nook and cranny of the crumbling village seems to hold a prize, something small and gorgeous in its own way.

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Local women work the small pharmacy in Brasil. Files are meticulously kept on aging, curled paper, and medicines are kept under lock and key. Jess McGlothlin

I stop in the pharmacy, where I’m greeted by four cheery women in languid Spanish, expressing their collective surprise that a young gringa would be wandering the streets on her own and wondering what could have possibly brought me to Brasil. We laugh and talk against a backdrop of small bottles of medicine, which are difficult to come by in this Communist-run government, lined up in turquoise cabinets towering overhead.

My next stop is the sugar cane factory, where the workers pause from their work, stare, and offer a catcall or two, but their smiles are more curious than threatening. I hold up the camera, asking if I can take a few images, and they pose, curiosity outweighing their hesitation. A few wander over and I show them the LCD images of themselves, glowing in the fading light. They laugh, exchanging rapid Spanish among themselves, and then go back to work.

Afterward, I find my way back to the Casona; it’s easy to retrace my meandering footsteps and seemingly impossible to become lost after an afternoon of wandering. This grand building, which feels like a history book come to life, should receive more visitors than it actually does. Travelers are still rare here, and the staff is happy to see a new face.

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The small market in Brasil is carefully stocked and monitored, including the large bins of rice lining the bottom rows. Food is extremely simple in Cuba, with residents often subsisting largely on beans and rice. Jess McGlothlin

The lower floor of the Casona encompasses an open-air great room and bar, a dining area filled with rickety chairs and small tables, and a courtyard brimming with blooming tropical plants and a shy yet curious cat. My second-floor room is simple but huge, with a covered porch, work table, and two small twin beds. I wonder how many feet have trod over the cracked tile floor, cool and remarkably clean, over nearly 100 years.

I step onto the small balcony and take in my view of Brasil. Across a well-manicured central village lawn, the local chapel is tinted pink by the evening light. School kids play along one alley, and along another a horse-drawn cart clip-clops with its load of goods to the small market several blocks down.

Life at the Casona shares the same relaxed vibe. Meals are predictably simple—often a tasty mystery meat (I often suspect goat) in a brown gravy, with root vegetables and rice on the side. It’s hearty and filling yet decidedly workaday; we’re far removed from the fancy restaurants of Havana and its upscale coastal resorts. Sometimes I eat in the small, simple dining room, but in the evenings I often choose to take meals at the tiny table on the porch, enjoying the heavy air and watching the town’s comings and goings.

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Many of the residents of Brasil and the surrounding communities can remember the heady days of Che Guevara and look back on them with fond memories of nationalism. Jess McGlothlin

Brasil—with its curious but welcoming locals, crumbling buildings, and history around every corner—is a snapshot of Cuba as it has been for decades. I had come here on a photojournalism assignment for a fly-fishing travel company, to scout out potential sport fishing destinations for clients. Over the course of two weeks I explored various aspects of Cuba—from the tiny village of Brasil to the bustling streets of Havana to the European-style resorts along the coasts. I soon became fascinated with the day-to-day lives of the people behind the island nation we’ve all heard so much about. For me, none were more intriguing than the rural families whose daily lives were lived in rhythm with the sun’s rising and setting.

Away from Havana’s salsa clubs and streets full of Instagram-happy tourists, the simple life in the country offers an adventure of its own kind when you immerse yourself. The locals exude a quiet peace; the rhythm of the village is measured and slow—no hay prisa, there’s no hurry, for the work will still be there tomorrow. It’s a good reminder of the important things in life: that, all too often, the bustle does not equal happiness. Sometimes it’s the quiet clip-clop of horse hooves on broken pavement, the laughter of school kids returning from classes, or the heavy smell of molasses in the air that make a memory stick.

Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated.

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