May 19, 2015 at 9:38 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
‘Proud to be Cuban’

Cuba, Ciego de Ávila, gay news, Washington Blade

Two men in Ciego de Ávila on May 17, 2015, transport peppers on a horse-drawn cart. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — One can certainly make the case that Havana makes a great first impression for anyone who has not been to Cuba. It is colorful, lively, loud and above all full of people who are muy orgulloso de ser cubano (very proud to be Cuban.) The true identity of any country, however, can often be found far away from its capital city.

The drive to and from Havana to Las Tunas where the events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia took place provided a glimpse into what one can easily describe as the heart and soul of Cuba that most travelers will likely never see.

Horse-drawn carriages taking people from town to town are a common sight along the two-lane Carretera Nacional between Taguasco and Las Tunas that is a bone-jarring and very lonely stretch of highway in many places. The only things that kept me company as I drove between Camagüey and Las Tunas late on Friday night were the lighting from dying thunderstorms in the distance and dance music on a Cuban radio station. I also heard a spot that highlighted the events around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that the National Center for Sexual Education, which is directed by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Byron Motley, a very talented American photographer who has traveled to Cuba 17 times to document the country’s LGBT rights movement and its love of baseball, on Sunday joined me for the drive to Santa Clara where he spent the night. We frequently pulled off to the side of the road to capture snapshots of life in the Cuban countryside: Two baseball teams playing against each other in a dusty field outside Camaguëy, a Cuban man wearing only a pair of yellow swim trunks who was sitting inside a van that parked next to our car at the paladar (privately-run restaurant) where we stopped for lunch and two men with peppers in their horse-drawn carriage on the outskirts of Ciego de Ávila.

I dropped Byron off in Santa Clara’s main square before I headed to the nearby town of Sagua la Grande to meet a source. A flat tire delayed my trip for about half an hour, but a young man directed this wayward yuma (foreigner in Cuban slang) to a local mechanic who changed it as some of his neighbors looked on.

“Somos cubanos,” the young man told me after I profusely thanked him for helping me change the tire so quickly. “We’re Cubans.”

I arrived in Sagua la Grande around 6:15 p.m. and the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean was a very welcome respite from the heat of the Cuban interior. As my sources and I said goodbye inside their apartment building near the town center, I noticed a man was washing my car with a bucket and I sponge. I paid him a few Cuban convertibles, thanked him profusely and was once again on my way to Havana with a soundtrack of Cuban salsa and reggaeton from two homemade CDs I bought from a man selling them at the paladar where Byron and I had stopped for lunch.

Cuba, Revolution is Unity, gay news, Washington Blade

A sign on the road between the cities of Santa Clara and Sagua la Grande reads “revolution is unity.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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