Christopher Columbus and Che Guevara were unlikely characters with whom to share our story, yet their ghosts seemed to ironically weave in and out among us on several occasions during our travels. In fact it became a family joke. We would alight in certain places and there would be a monument here, a marker there...Columbus landed here, Che passed through there...We passed through Cadiz, Spain: Columbus left from there on one of his voyages of discovery; in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, we were drawn to a cathedral said to hold some of Columbus' remains; Columbus had landed in Cuba; in Buenos Aires, Che was a favorite son; and then of course in Cuba, he was a saintly figure, with memorials to him all over the island and a constant invocation of his handiwork and deeds everywhere. The infamous revolutionary red and black flag and poster image of Che from the 60s and 70s was a billboard staple.
Anchored in the village inlet of El Portillo, Cuba, not far from Santiago, we were at the foot of the Sierra Maestra mountains—Che's and Fidel Castro's fief, hideout, and headquarters when they launched their guerrilla warfare revolution, eventually toppling the Batista regime.
It was indeed a very rural setting, and with the mountains so close, we were tempted to try a little camping trip. The boys were old enough now and capable of some hiking. However, we were in Cuba after all, so could we just up and go camping, freely as foreigners—without a chaperone or guard? As it turned out, it was very possible. The local authorities were open to the idea, and they even offered to provide us with a local "guide" so we could find our way to a certain spot they thought we might like. We realized, of course, this was a disguised and polite way to keep a watchful eye on us, but it was all very congenial.
El Portillo itself was something out of the 1800s. Horse drawn carts and wagons plied well-trodden dirt paths that the locals shared with roaming pigs, cows, and chickens. Thatched-roof dwellings dotted the landscape and peasants had latin flair with their signature big wide-brimmed straw hats. Life was calm in this tropical bay as mangroves hugged the shore, tall coconut trees sketched the foreground skyline, and the Sierra Maestra foothills rose just beyond main street and the beach.
Sean and Brendan didn't waste any time making new friends in the village. Using more of their baseball diplomacy, they were quickly ushered into a pick-up game with some of the village kids followed by some frolicking in the water.
The next day we hit the trail, with our backpacks and a necessary minimum of food, water, clothes, and two tents for just a night or so. Led by our guide, we hiked up two-and-a-half hours on uneven rocky trails to a magical secluded oasis: an aqua blue-green lagoon fed by a waterfall and surrounded by high cliffs and palm trees. Bidding good-bye to our guide, we set up camp on a perfect flattened out patio area, shaded by a standalone thatched roof canopy. The boys reveled spending the afternoon swimming in the cool lagoon, and we savored our evening around a campfire.
It seems the local farmers' pigs and sheep also had the run of the place and in the deep of night, snug in our tents, we heard the shuffling of their hooves and the munching of the grasses as some of them occasionally passed through our camp. They were here first, and they couldn't be bothered with us.
The next day a small group of Canadian tourists arrived around mid-morning on horseback. It seems this little secluded paradise was also part of the itinerary for a regular trek hosted by a local resort. Their entourage transported all the trimmings for a noon buffet pig roast, and we were graciously invited to partake with them. To this day I have distinct memories of the most delicious pork I had ever eaten—roasted several hours over the open fire.
We befriended the actual "roaster"—the one who turned the pig on the spit for a good four hours. With our rudimentary Spanish we were able to have a simple conversation. He invited us to visit his home and farm on our way back to El Portillo, since it was right along the trail. On our hike up we had passed the occasional isolated farm—beautiful and quaint in their simplicity: thatched roof huts, earthen floors, no TV, no phone, no electricity, no running water, no access by car. Such was the farm of our newfound friend, Pita. He and his wife were most gracious, offering us fresh cut sugar cane to munch on, coffee, and delighting in showing us photographs of all seven of their grown children. They also invited us to spend the night.
Not wanting to be a burden for their simple means and undoubtedly a meager larder, we declined the invitation. We were, however, interested in purchasing one of their chickens so we could have fresh meat ourselves later back on the boat. They adamantly refused payment and we refused to take advantage of them. Once Michel had the chicken strung across his backpack, we quickly left some pesos on their kitchen table as we exited for the hike back. It had been a truly unique experience to be invited into a private family's home, and not subject to any outside surveillance.
Once back on Cowabunga, Sean and Brendan were visibly content with our outing and we were pleased to have been able to offer them this unique experience. Then Michel set about preparing the chicken for our dinner.