We arrived in the small village of Caibarién after a long taxi ride from the resort and across the causeway. It was like we were transported somewhere else, or back in time. Horses and carts filled the streets and the few cars that were around were older models. I don’t know my cars, but I recognised some from the 50’s and maybe others were from the 60’s-70’s. Streets were generally unpaved, or in need of repair. Brightly coloured houses with peeling paint, or bleached from the sun lined the streets. The houses were all connected and few had a yard. One thing each house did have was a front porch where many people gathered and chatted whether sitting on the steps, or in rocking chairs. A real sense of community, friendship and togetherness emanated from each doorway.
The doors and windows to most houses were open. It seemed to welcome visitors and to announce someone was home. We were invited to go to one of the hotel staff’s house and Y told the driver where to stop and we were left off at a meager dwelling with a weathered and greying facade. Y announced this was his place and shared with the driver what time to return to pick us up. We exited the taxi and Y’s wife greeted us with open arms and hugs and cheek kisses like we were family. They ushered us inside and I looked around a scantily furnished room that was their home. One room with a bed, wardrobe, 2 dressers and a few chairs is all I saw. A small rice cooker, TV and DVD player that also played music through a USB were their only appliances. Chairs and a corner of the bed were quickly offered for us to get comfortable while Y went to change and have a quick shower. The bathroom didn’t have any plumbing, but a tank that would be filled every few days provided running water for a shower. Y quickly was ready and proudly displayed a t-shirt with Niagara Falls New York to honour where we come from. We are Canadian, but he knew Niagara Falls and had the shirt to prove it!
Outside we went to Y’s mother in law’s house which was slightly bigger and her sister, brother-in-law and baby also lived. Food was cooking on the stove and a small cat was curled up in the corner. They welcomed us and said hellos before we went off to explore the town. It was hot and we tried to stay to the shade. At the corner we flagged down a horse and cart taxi to take us to our next destination. When we got close Y told the driver to stop and we got off and walked along the street. Small chickens and goats ran free in the grass along the road. People stared at us as we went by. Small shops were located in houses. So many people were out and around busy going about their day. Most houses were simple wooden structures while others were older colonial style stone that was slowly crumbling and decaying. In places you could see rusted steel supports. It was clear that most people living here had little income and survival was probably more important than frills and upkeep of their houses. Most people, 40%, work at the few resorts on the Key and earn local currency and a small fraction of the coveted CUC which, is the currency tourists use. It is on par with the American dollar. Everyday needs are scarce at times, but available using the local dollars. Imported items and larger luxury items are bought with CUC. Jobs in tourism are very important since it brings them into contact with CUC. Some earn them in tips, but our resort collected the tips and shared it with all the staff. Y said he was earning about 100 CUC a month and the remainder of his salary in local currency. It takes a long time to save at that rate. Luxuries seem inflated, but necessities are much cheaper than home.
We walked to a government shop for a cold water to cool down in the heat. You could also buy other food items, ice cream, beer, and rum. Prices here were much cheaper than the resort, but a luxury for them. From here we went to a local restaurant for lunch. We lucked out since it was air-conditioned. We walked down a narrow corridor to an unmarked door. Inside was a few tables. It appears to also be a house and this would have been a front living room at one time. Lunch was very good with rice, pork, fried banana and homemade banana chips. Fully stuffed we went back into the heat and walked around the streets and down towards the shore. I enjoyed watching the people gather just spending time together. Children played soccer in the streets and dogs barked from a shady spot.
My camera was busy snapping all the sights. The interesting doors caught my eye with the intricate metal patterns. As we walked by houses we could see inside other people’s lives as their home was open to view. I felt like I was intruding, but at the same time I was so curious I could not help but stare or dare to take a peek. Each corner brough a new site and I had to stop to soak it up. More than once John would stop to see me a block behind and hurry me along. We wandered into the centre of town and Y wanted to show us the grandstand where music would play for everyone on occasion. He noticed the town museum was open and instead took us inside. We were admitted and lead up a stair case to a dusty long room filled with numerous display cases. Birds occasionally flew past since many of the windows were broken and the only protection was from the spider webs. The museum employee was very excited to show us around and told us about each display case, all in Spanish. Y would translate a few key points before we moved on to the next item. Old faded photos, a town plan and model, school desk, skeletons and stuffed local animals were a few of the items on display.
After our museum tour we needed to return to Y’s house because the taxi would soon be there waiting to take us back to the resort. We said our good byes and entered the car to be transported back to our life, culture and time. The town was not flashy and exciting with well know landmarks, museums and monuments. It was dusty, grimy and the smell of animals wafted through the air made only more pungent by the heat. To most people they will have never heard of Caibarién, or put it on their traveller’s bucket list. To me it will always be a memory of a life time because I was invited in to have a peek of something few will ever experience.