It was a long but good day of bus travel for the team, staff and fans.
We left Havana at 8:30 a.m. ET and headed for the northwestern hill country of Cuba. Our first stop was a tobacco farm in Vinales. There the team visited Empresa Tabacalera, where they learned about the whole process of making cigars — from receiving the lab-modified seeds from the government to sending the leaf bundles to companies, to the final product you see on the store shelves. They also learned the economics of being a tobacco farmer in Cuba — tobacco is one of the nation’s top industries. For example, most growers own their own land but provide 90 percent of their crop to the government.
Mouse over the picture below to open the Flickr photo gallery arrow buttons and view more images from the day.
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After a short drive, the Owls found themselves overlooking the Valle de Vinales, a tourist stop with a great viewing site of the hills of Vinales. In the flickr photo gallery, take a look at the team photo, along with a human statue that joined the shot.
After a brief box lunch, the two-bus caravan visited Cuave del Indio, which means “Indian Cave.” There the guys had fun with a man re-enacting a native Indio outside his living quarters. They also got to partake in a hands-on exhibition of real wildlife — they handled a hawk and a tree rat. (Yes, a tree rat, which is also known as hutia. According to Wikipedia, hutia “are hunted for food in Cuba, where they are often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.” Dinner anyone?)
A short walk away, we entered the remarkable Cuave del Indio that led to an underground river. From there, the team took a short ride on the river in small motor boats to view more of the cave before exiting back into the sunlight.
Back in Vinales’ small town center, the traveling party took an hour to stretch their legs and do some street shopping. In the town’s square, which includes the only Catholic church in the area, one of the buildings had a walk-through memorial set up with flowers and pictures of Castro for citizens to pay their respects while official events were happening in Havana today. The exterior of the building was also adorned with Castro pictures. As town people exited the memorial, they were directed to a book to sign. By signing the book, area residents were showing respect to Castro but also reaffirming their commitment to Castro’s revolutionary vision and the country’s beliefs. In the Flickr gallery, we have posted a picture of the pledge and a photo of someone signing the book.
In town everybody dispersed and did their own thing. Cody Staab told us about how he and his teammates had fun with youth baseball players, so we asked him for more details when we got back to the hotel. Here’s Cody’s account and photo:
“A group of us, (Dominic DiCaprio, Dane Myers, Khevin Brewer, Ryan Chandler and Michael Kidd) were walking down the main street of Viñales, and at the end of the block we turned a corner to check out some of the neighborhood. It was totally random; I don’t know why we did, but we did, and after a short while we came upon a little league field with two kids playing catch. They had gloves and a bat and, using the best Spanish we could, asked if we could all play ‘pepper.’
“The Rice players and one Cuban kid spread out around the infield, and the other Cuban kid stood at the plate and proceeded to hit the ball to each of us. In fact, he hit it perfectly each and every time with some of the best mechanics I’ve ever seen from a 10- or 11-year old. He never missed the ball we threw back to him, and he batted every single one of those throws to the next guy we had placed around the infield. Around the horn, you know, it was a normal game of ‘pepper.’
“If that wasn’t enough, then about 15 minutes later a kids’ team from the area showed up for their scheduled practice and all of them, I mean all of them, wanted to join in and play a game with us. It got crazy. As we left to get on the bus to head back to the hotel, I was thinking, ‘Who knows? We could have been playing with the next Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman or Yasiel Puig. We’ve had a great time, but this may honestly be one of the best experiences we’ve had this whole time in Cuba.”
From there, we took about a 30-minute bus ride to Pinar del Rio, which is about 102 miles from Havana and is the capital of Pinar del Rio Province. It boasts a population of 140,000 people — or as they say here, inhabitants — and it is the 10th most populated city in Cuba. We had dinner at Rumayor, which is known for its succulent pollo ahumado (wood-smoked chicken). Everyone had it, of course!
With full stomachs, the team then headed back to Havana. During the 2.5-hour bus ride, Professor Luis Duno-Gottberg held a portable class with give and take with the guys. He asked them to get the sight and feel of the agricultural aspect of Cuba by thinking about how tobacco and sugar help drive the nation’s economy. We rolled into the Melia Habana around 10 p.m. ET. I think it’s safe to say everyone will sleep soundly tonight. Ciao.
Fun (but not confirmed) fact of the day: We (Sully and David) have been paying close attention to how Cubans get around Havana and rural areas. We have been in Havana, Old Havana, down Cuba’s National Highway and back roads. We believe there are a whole lot of Ladas. The Russian-made vehicle is still a big hit here.
Proof is in the pudding. Believe it or not, when I told Sully I had this idea for the fact, he had a graphic ready on his computer from photos he’s been taking since we arrived here.