Valley of the Sugar Mills

Valley of the Sugar Mills (Lauge Sorensen/© Lauge Sorensen (www.laugesorensen.com))

This is definitely horse country! Far beyond any paved roads – a farming community largely dependent on sugar cane crops and livestock. Getting there on a horse carriage is like a time machine – bringing you back to the 1850’s, which seem to be when the clocks stopped and time decided to stand still. I’m in Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) outside Trinidad, Cuba.

The horse carriage brings me from beautiful spanish haciendas in disrepair, to the deserted residence of a wealthy sugar plantation owner, to the ruins of one of the many sugar mills once in operation here – and to numerous modest farm houses in the area. In home after home – I’m equally surprised how we are always warmly welcomed. Remember – I’m a complete stranger arriving unannounced – with a camera in hand. I doubt this would work in my own home neighborhood. My local assistant, cleverly engages in storytelling everywhere we go. Cuban people loves a good story and the act of discussion itself – eagerly talking about current affairs, politics, sports and daily chores. I suspect our short visit acts as a rare link to the outside world.

We make our first stop at a large house, once a kind of hotel – now inhabited by a little old lady who graciously invites us inside. “It’s caving in” – I’m told by the local handyman – as we peer through the large open gap in the wooden roof. His task of restoring this old house to good living conditions is a “mission impossible” due to the lack of building supplies – on top of the fact that the little old lady has no money to pay him. The handyman is tiredly leaning against a beautiful old textured wall – where you can easily see the last four paint jobs and you have years and years of rainwater, spiderwebs and plants adding drama to this uniquely Cuban backdrop.

An abandoned sugar mill and a plantation owner residence tell a story about tremendous wealth, brutal slavery and an industry which made Cuba the dominant sugar producer of the world during the 19th century. Part of the plantation owners residence is still standing – while the slave quarter ruins at the sugar mill are slowly being overtaken by vegetation. We are breaking through a barrier to get here – definitely not a destination on the usual tourist map. It’s eerily quiet but a breathtaking view.

The contrast is stark as we move through a sugar cane field to our next few stops – the more regular sized Cuban farms. These are typically small and primitive wood sheds – with only one or two rooms and an outside kitchen/fireplace. Pigs, chickens, cows, goats and dogs roam around freely. As I hand a small polaroid portrait to an old farmer – he completely forgets about his coffee-bean roasting in process on the fireplace and eagerly runs inside his house. He quickly reemerges with his beloved guitar to have another picture taken while singing us a song. Cuban people loves music too.

This farming and village community has little access to tourists and to the relative richness provided by Pesos Convertibles (CUC) – which is the dual currency introduced in Cuba mainly to serve the growing tourism industry. This village community seems left behind where other parts of Cuba’s fragile economy benefits from the buying power of the CUC and the somewhat increased opportunity for individual, free enterprise. However – while the farmers largely rely on exchange of goods and favors to survive, and while their material situation might seem desperate – they still appear surprisingly happy. Makes you wonder!

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