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Mi Tocayo

There’s this magical, hard-to-reach place I’ve dreamt of seeing for years. Atop my ‘to visit’ list, I tacked Technicolor postcards of this glorious spot on my office wall and gazed upon its grandeur whenever writer’s block or boredom hit. Admittedly, a visit there takes considerable preparation and determination, not to mention luck – when the weather turns for the worse, my dream destination becomes inaccessible.

I’m talking about Waimanu Valley, the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Waimanu is so birthing-the-earth beautiful, so seductively tropical, tears have sprung to my eyes simply gazing upon that aforementioned postcard. This mana-packed valley (see note 1) is also sacred to native Hawaiians and is occasionally still visited by ghosts of gods in the night. Truly a godly place (no matter what that means to you), Waimanu’s towering falls and steeply sculpted walls beckoned me.

There are certain places on the planet that are rightfully hard(er) to reach. This is their protection, helping maintain their natural and cultural integrity to an extent. The Galapagos for instance, or Bhutan. Cuba, too, is in this harder-to-reach category (for Americans at least) keeping that island from the north’s greedy grasp – somewhat anyway, for now anyhow.

There are only three ways to reach Waimanu Valley: by foot, kayak, or on a helicopter tour.

The last was never an option since helicopter tours run at least $200 on the Big Island, and so are way beyond my means (see note 2). More importantly, watching these grand waterfalls (or flowing lava for that matter) from behind glass seems too much like porn and masturbation to me. I wanted to taste, touch, and smell the valley. I wanted to earn the climax.

Kayaking into this part of the Big Island’s windward coast, meanwhile, is a complex proposition. The changeable weather, combined with the fierce, surgey ocean with its rips and undertow, advises against paddling in. Conditions need to be just right and although I’d sea kayaked 18 miles of the inimitable Na Pali coast on Kauai, local kayakers told me this wasn’t really practical for Waimanu Valley.

That left the hike. It’s not long – just under eight miles one way – but compensates with difficulty what it lacks in length (see note 3). And with no foreplay: the first mile is 1200 feet straight up. It’s a knee shaking, thigh quaking ascent from legendary Waipi’o Valley and not even the azure sea pounding the black sand beach below makes ‘The Z’ trail enjoyable. My hiking buddy rated The Z (so named for the precipitous switchbacks that carve that letter into the valley’s emerald cliffs) a B, for Brutal. Once you crest the switchbacks, sweaty and panting, there are a dozen gulches to maneuver through, making for a foot-propelled roller coaster ride.

It was hard. It was hot. At times it felt interminable. But the final descent into Waimanu Valley: therein lies the rub. It’s just .9 miles, but it’s an ‘okele kicker (see note 4). Slippery even when not wet, and as narrow as Sarah Palin’s mind, this is a seriously steep and treacherous stretch of trail. With a tent, sleeping bag, and four days of provisions strapped on my back, I had my work cut out for me. One slip and I’d go tumbling 1200 feet into verdant valley.

—–

We managed the descent and I wasn’t surprised the valley was more glorious than the postcard tacked up in my office back in Havana. The black sand beach fed by a freshwater stream teeming with fish and prawns; the deeply-carved, rice paddy green of the valley walls; and the forest full of wild guava and coffee, breadfruit and feral pigs – it was beautiful. But most captivating of all was Wai’ilikahi Falls – a 1100-foot high set of double falls tumbling over the valley cliffs into an idyllic pool frequented by few.

Following a day of rest and play, I set out to tackle the (officially closed, but fairly clearly marked) trail to the falls. I considered turning back after crossing paths with a feral sow and her piglet. I’d been treed once by a pack of peccaries in the Costa Rican jungle; I know not to mess with wild swine. I almost turned back a second time too – where an ugly invasive choked off the ‘trail,’ obscuring my way for a while.

But I kept on. After an hour or so, the trail began meandering along a rock-strewn stream. I could hear the waterfall clearly now and feel it’s windy swoosh. The trail dipped suddenly and I was dumped at the base of Wai’ilikahi Falls, a pool the size of a helipad at its base.

I threw my arms heavenward, praising its beauty and feeling like a goddess – so blessed was I to be there, living my dream. I was struck dumb by its natural beauty. I swiped a tear dropping from the corner of my eye when I heard a rustling from the trail. It wasn’t a feral pig as I’d imagined, but a young couple, tattooed and tie-dyed, emerging from the wood. I had only been in my dreamscape for five minutes. I was surprised I hadn’t heard them on the trail, that’s how closely on my heels they followed. More surprisingly still, I wasn’t disappointed to have my solitude broken, to have to share this special place with strangers.

We chatted, basking in the falls’ beauty. We voiced our appreciation for this sacred place, so remote and hard-earned. As the young woman washed their clothes in the pool (see note 5), I ‘talked story’ (that most Hawaiian of pastimes) with her husband: Where are you from? First time on the Big Island? Where have you been? The usual travel patter. They were young and adventurous and had been whirling the world for over two years. I took a quick shine to them – especially the guy.

After a brief silence, the falls’ chill misting us softly, I stuck out my hand.

“It’s nice to meet you way out here in this beautiful place. What’s your name?”

He took my hand and smiled. “Connor.”

I was stunned silent, literally struck dumb for the second time in ten minutes. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere and the center of everywhere, at the heart of my Hawaiian dream and who should emerge from the wood without warning but my tcayo (see note 6).

Very funny place, this big island.

Notes

1 In Hawai’i, mana is the island’s life force, the spiritual mojo that pulsates within the volcano, the sea, and deep in waterfall-cleaved valleys like Waimanu. If you’ve been here, you’ve likely felt it, that’s how palpable it is.

2. Even though I’m on the Big Island updating a Lonely Planet guidebook, the payment structure, combined with the company’s policy that we can’t take anything for free in exchange for positive coverage, puts most of these activities beyond my reach.

3. There are four emergency helipads strung along this hike to give you an idea of the difficulty.

4. This, my third time on the Big Island, I’m making a conscious effort to learn more Hawaiian; ‘okele (if you’d hadn’t already guessed) means butt.

5. Note to the valley gods and goddesses: forgive her, she knows not what she did.

6. Like descampar (to stop raining) and buen provecho (have a good meal), tocayo is one of those Spanish expressions with no real equivalent in English. It means to share the same name. Except for my goddaughter Conner, who (although a spectacular and special kid) doesn’t really count since she was named with me in mind, I’ve never had the opportunity to hang out with my tocayo. And certainly not in such a spectacular spot as Wai’ilikahi Falls.

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Filed under Cuban phrases, environment, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Writerly stuff

Wild Camping in Cuba Part II

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I dared say it but the shocker was our Río Hondo campsite proved to be perfect. Or quite nearly so, which for Cuba (that land of many problems and the tendency to exaggerate the possibilities, +/o progress of the solutions), is close enough.

By day, we fished and snorkeled to the throwback sounds of horse carriages clip clopping across the bridge overhead. By night, we made Godzilla-sized shadow puppets to candlelight on the underside of that same bridge. It was especially marvelous at night, that beneath-the-bridge spot: as shiny cars sped turistas (see note 1) to Trinidad and pre-Cold War trucks rumbled towards Cienfuegos, their headlights picked out the arches of the cement span’s railing. Each individual arch illuminating and darkening in quick succession made it look like zippers of light revealing and concealing celestial secrets too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. It was a rapture of sorts.

Our food situation, on the other hand, was nothing short of dire. This area of Cuba, like others, is experiencing severe drought (see note 2). Even under the best of circumstances the only things that grow around here are mamoncillo, anon, and maribú (see note 3). What’s more, in spite of having all the right equipment and being the most enthusiastic fisherman to ever draw breath, my better half can’t fish for shit. Fit for bait was all he caught after days and nights of determined fishing. Pobrecito.

Luckily, we were saved by a combination of Cuban solidarity, which is de rigueur, and honesty, which is anything but. The first came in the form of chilindrón de chivo brought to us in a pint-sized ice cream container by our neighbors. The hubby had been fishing with them a couple of mornings already so they knew what we were up against. It wasn’t until we were licking the sauce from our fingers that my guy clued me in: we were eating that goat thanks to a bus that had brought the poor fella to its untimely (and hopefully swift) end earlier that day. A tip o’ the hat to the cook (and the driver) – that was hands down the most succulent goat I’ve had since Morocco and the tastiest road kill ever.

Cubans are, how shall I put it? Infamous for their honesty. It’s a complicated issue; way beyond the scope of this dashed off post about our little camping escapade, but let’s just say that my husband – he of the rough and tumble Pogolotti neighborhood – was skeptical at the prospect of abandoning camp in search of food.

‘The propane tank is going to get vicked. We have to camouflage it.’

I hated to point out that we could easily replace that standard tank on the underground market in Pogolotti or any number of Havana barrios just like it. Meanwhile, our killer Sierra Designs tent (over a decade old and still going strong) was quite another matter. Not to mention the ThermaRest mattresses, the snorkel sets, and Stew Leonard´s cooler which may be better traveled than you.

But hunger called, which was how we came to walk away from our temporary home, its entire contents free for the vicking.

We waited until the sun headed towards the horizon, when families 15-strong started carrying their giant iron pots crusty with chivo and congris, domino table and chairs, inflatable toys, and sleeping babies off the beach. Despite our growing anxiety at leaving camp, it was fun bearing witness to these end-of-day operations. I watched as one drunk grandpa had to be hefted onto to his son’s broad back from where he lay passed out on the sand. The old sot hung there slack as a grade school backpack as his son picked his way up the vertical rusted ladder that connected the bridge to the beach.

As the sky shot pink and purple through the fading blue, we made our move. Jumping in the car, we drove a handful of kilometers up the road, to the seaside hamlet of Yuagananbo. There, high above the road built into the side of a mountain of rock, is a casa particular with rooms for $6 a night and meals for two.

My husband was as nervous as a guajira touching down at MIA, her packet of ‘definitive exit’ papers in trembling hand, the farther we got from Río Hondo.

‘Should we go back?’ he asked.

And eat what?

‘Let’s get the food to go,’ he said.

We’re already here. If they’re gonna steal stuff, they’re probably already at it. Let’s enjoy ourselves.

Which is exactly what we did: gorging on pork chops and rice, salad and plantains, washed down with provincial tap water that would undoubtedly reacquaint me with my old friend giardia (see note 4). I didn’t care. We were gone about an hour and a half. Upon our return we peeked around the pylons. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you bound down the stairs and through the door in New York or San Francisco to find your bicycle no longer chained to the pole where you left it. We held our breath briefly, unconsciously before realizing not one tent pole or pot holder in our camp had been touched.

The next day, we took it a step further. We had to. This time we left early in the morning and made our way 20 kilometers down the road to Trinidad and the promise of a market. It was a dicey proposition not only for the length of time we’d be gone, but more so since it was Sunday. Markets close early on Sunday. Worse, every single Cuban that is able to get to the beach on any given summer Sunday does. Río Hondo would be mobbed. Already the ’56 Chevy’s and loaded down horse carts were disgorging baseball team-sized families near our camp. But we are, when all is said and done, people of faith (which can probably be said for the majority of people who choose to remain in Cuba -although they might not call it that). So we left.

Trinidad was good to us – which isn’t always the case. In spite of being a gorgeous colonial town and World Heritage Site with white sand beaches within easy cycling distance, it has a rep. Women hold infants begging for milk (in spite of state rations until age 7 and a nationwide breastfeeding program with WHO-certified hospitals for teaching same), children plead for pens and candy, and spousal-hunting is a recreational sport – in Trinidad, they’re on you like white on rice. T plates or no. But we laid in a slab of pork and some okra, a couple of avocadoes, onions, string beans, and limes with nary a ‘hey fren! Where you from?’ to be heard. A few stares gripped me as I wolfed down a paper cone of chicharrones, (my guilty pleasure), and a strapping dude offered my husband a private room as he sucked down a cold Bucanero, but that was it. We even visited my old friend who’s living large since I listed her house in the edition of the Lonely Planet guide I wrote.

But after four hours, it was time to head back to camp. When we got there the beach was in full summer swing with folks launching themselves off the bridge into ‘Deep River’ and couples necking in the shallows between pulls on a plastic bottle of cheap rum. Hubby’s foot was heavy on the pedal as we neared. I laid a hand on his thigh.

‘Don’t worry.’

Famous last words, which in this case turned out to be true: our camp, once again, was undisturbed though scores of people frolicked about. My guy prepared a tasty pork chop feast and as I dug in watching the lightening storm on the horizon, I was happy that the human race could surprise me like that and happy still, that I live in Cuba. Now had we been camped 20 kilometers from Havana…

Notes

1. In Cuba, rental cars brand tourists via telltale scarlet letter ‘T’ plates. There is no “passing” with one of these babies, though I often wonder what happens to Cuban Americans who roll up with T plates. Do they get the same hustle and show as the rest of us? The same offerings of lobster dinner, private rooms, and pretty young girls from ‘frens‘ trotting alongside the moving car in bad Ed Hardy knock offs? More interesting still, what happens to Cuban Cubans – those who live here – who pull up in a T job? It’s only fairly recently that these folks have been allowed to rent cars and I wonder whether it’s splintering the social hierarchy even further? And if so, is this is a move towards normalcy or away?

2. Ironically enough, three of the 10 (or 12 or 16, depending on your source) golf courses underpinning Cuba’s new tourism strategy are strung along the coastal stretch of which I write.

3. The last is a nasty, invasive, thorn-studded mess that reaches tree proportions and blankets huge swaths of the island’s arable land. Anón (which tempts me to make a writerly joke about unattributable fruits or nameless queers) is something you can find in your exotic fruit section but for which the name in English escapes me. Readers? Mamoncillo, on the other hand, I have only seen in Cuba. It’s a cherry-sized fruit encased in a thin green shell; its slimy texture and unremarkable flavor is reminiscent of a lychee nut. In the summer, Cubans of all sizes and stripe walk the beaches and streets clutching leafy branches heavy with the fruit; they peel and suck (mamoncillo literally means ‘little sucker’) the flesh around the pits which they spit out wherever.

4. I’ve had giardia twice already in eight years here. To be fair, once I caught it in a Pakistani tea shop while covering the Cuban docs working there post-quake so that doesn’t count, but this nasty microbe does like our water. Most Cubans I know have had it. So my traveling friends: don’t drink the water unless it’s treated, boiled or bottled.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, cuban cooking, environment, Travel to Cuba

Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

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The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.

But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.

Our target was the Bay of Pigs (see note 1). The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.

—–

As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.

We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.

We kept on exploring.

Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.

The site was, I dare say, perfect.

To be continued…..

Notes

1. You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, environment, Here is Haiti, Travel to Cuba