That One Time I was an Animal Whisperer in Cuba
Anyone who knows me (Mrs. Nerd) well knows three essential things:
1. I love tea, and I always want more ... even when I'm drowning in 300000000 varieties.
2. Books are life, writing is life, words are life. If I'm not talking to you, I'm probably lost in a sea of inky pages.
3. Cats. Cats everywhere. Cats all the time. Cats. =^.^=
In May, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana from MVMTblog in person. We'd talked a lot online and participated in several Twitter chats together, even going as far as to co-host one about Thanksgiving travel, but we only met face-to-face when I flew to Chicago as a Cuba tag along.
As it turns out, she learned #3 of the above essential things far too quickly once we landed in the sunny Caribbean. I soon became known as the CUBA ANIMAL WHISPERER. Why? Because during our five day trip to Havana and Viñales, animals wouldn't leave me alone.
Cats, dogs, birds, you name it. No matter where we were, they'd find me (or I'd find them. I'm not entirely sure which statement is more accurate). And since I promised to write about the experience afterward, here I am. Three months later. With dozens of animal photos, and photos of me taking photos of animals, to show for it.
Yep, I'm a self-proclaimed crazy cat lady. Yes, I'm OK with that. To the post!
• Cats •
Cats, cats, cats. Who doesn't love cats? (Diana, that's who.)
I must say, I was really surprised by the number of stray cats we came across in Havana. Not because they have tons of kittens, mind you; I know that happens. But I was surprised they weren't chased out of the city area. I don't think the locals noticed the gaggle of cats running amuck down the streets, lounging on beautiful old verandas, sleeping underneath cafe chairs... In fact, they seemed welcome—as if there was some sort of unspoken treaty between human and feline.
Take these cuties, for example. We walked from Vedado to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) via the Malecón, which almost took all morning but is a great way to see a bit more of Havana than you might otherwise (fishermen, old buildings, graffiti, birds, old cars, statues). Needless to say, after two hours baking in the sun, we sought out a tiny cafe for some water and drinks.
The waitress seated us under an awning of thick vines and brush. Very welcome after the heat. But as we drank our refreshing mojitos and soaked in the culture around us, we spotted one cat ... and then they were everywhere. In the bushes. Above us in the vines. Wandering around our chairs. Sitting on pieces of abandoned cardboard.
No one seemed to care that they were there. I absolutely loved that.
There are plenty other cat stories I could share from Cuba, but in the interest of time, here are a few of my favorites.
A family of orphans, having a garden party.
We found these cats hanging out in a garden patio next to where our host lives. I think I counted 15, but I bet there were more! They all seemed so happy to chill together, grooming and sleeping next to each other in the shade, rummaging for scraps near the gate. We saw all ages from barely eight weeks old to a few years, if not older. I felt sad and warmed by their scrappy little family. Guess you could call that bittersweet?
Ginger. My little buddy, the one that got away.
Occasionally, during worldwide travels, you find an animal companion you just fall in love with and don't want to leave behind, no matter the logistics (how to get it home? Will the spouse allow it? Does it have diseases? Can you afford it?). This was one of those times.
The three of us returned to our host's apartment after a long day of exploring Havana, only to be surprised by a handsome orange kitten cowering, terrified, by our door. The apartment in question was at the end of a hallway with no accessible doors, and the rest of the building was a complete maze. Where did he come from, we'll never know. But he (quickly named Ginger by yours truly) was probably six months old, and I didn't feel right just letting him sit there.
We glanced out the open hallway window. Sheer drop, two stories, with no nearby railings for him to climb along. Strange...
As we dressed for dinner, I decided I couldn't leave Ginger there for someone else to find. So I scooped him up and took him outside, where he hid behind some metal grates in a window around the corner. Poor guy; he was trembling so hard. :( I felt terrible.
It was hard to forget him, but I figured he'd calm down and find his way home. That is, until we returned three hours later. He hadn't moved an inch. In a panic, I carried him back inside. Not my best move... He freaked out, jumped from my arms, and made a beeline for the windowsill—where he proceeded to crouch miserably and stare at me with his big orange eyes.
In the end, I had to let him go. Don't get me wrong, leaving him there was agonizing. I desperately wanted to adopt him, but there was no feasible way to, and I didn't know what else to do. So I went to bed.
In the morning, he was gone. I don't know what happened to him; I guess I never will. But I hope he's okay, wherever he is, enjoying garden parties with his friends.
Oh, little Ginger. I'll never forget you.
Little miss paws, who needed a nap.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention this skinny black cat we found in the countryside. We'd been riding horses for about an hour and stopped to tour a coffee plantation, when she came out of nowhere and took an immediate liking to me.
Needless to say, I was used as a pillow as we leisurely drank rum in the countryside. No big deal.
(Lies. It was a big deal. It was a very big deal.)
• Dogs •
Despite my love (*coughobsessioncough*) of cats, I am no foe to dogs. They're just not as fond of me as my furry feline friends are. In Cuba, this was no exception. We came across dogs of all ages, but they just gave me slightly annoyed side-eyes as I tried to usher them into their future modeling careers.
They'll understand someday. I wasn't crazy, I was just trying to help them reach stardom. Right? Right.
Dogs were fairy commonplace in Cuba, but we didn't see many strays. Instead, they were always accompanied by their human or kept on a farm to herd the cattle—which meant they were happier than the cats, and often better fed. Several older men sat in the shade and chuckled as I crouched down to befriend their constant companions. I was too serious at the time to appreciate their lazy, loving vibes, but it sure makes me smile now.
Not to mention, it's just warming to see dogs so integrated with Cuban families, tagging alongside farmers and playing with kids in the streets.
Which makes a better chicken? This guy, or this guy?
I love the statues in Cuba... :)
Chickens reign supreme in Viñales (and in random Havana plazas, haha). All the ones we saw were free range, meaning they weren't kept in farm buildings or cages. Instead, they littered the hills and valleys we rode through; a lone coop was often all they needed for sleep, but the rest of the time, they were enjoying the freedom of a life outdoors.
Which means we often saw chickens walking into the strangest places—including right up the steps of a cafe we stopped at in Viñales, where we grabbed a couple cold beers and overlooked Cuba's beautiful landscape.
Still, they never strayed too far. They always knew where home was. To a girl who barely knows what time it is, let alone which city she's in, that's pretty dang impressive.
• Horses •
If there's one animal as common as cats in Cuba, it's the horse. They're a symbol of power and hard work, helpful aids for farming, easy transportation in the countryside... Jumping and racing on purebreds are popular sports in Cuba too, apparently, though almost exclusively for wealthy families.
We met a few horses in Havana, but they were mostly kept to private properties right outside the city center (of which we saw several as we drove to Viñales). Outside Havana? They were everywhere: on every functioning farm, in every field, by the side of every road. Even as we sat on the roof of our host family's home in Viñales, we waved frequently to locals who rode by on sturdy, country-born steeds.
Why the popularity, you ask? Well, I had the same question, so I asked our lovely host from Havana. It turns out that cars in Cuba are incredibly expensive—often costing as much as a house, and not for a new car, either. Since many Cubans can barely afford a vehicle of any kind on an average wage of $20 a month, many more choose to use horses for a cheaper, more reliable method of transportation.
And, you know. Horses are also super cute and friendly.
• Wild Pigs •
I didn't see these guys too often, but if I'm honest, I wasn't expecting to see them at all. Finding a family of wild pigs foraging through the woods as we followed our guide to one of the largest natural caves in Viñales? So crazy! They frolicked through the rice fields, probably looking for truffles and other vegetation to eat, and paid not a lick of attention to us.
Frankly, I'm still surprised I was able to walk right by them. Other than being a little gun-shy, they weren't aggressive in the slightest.
If you happen to run into them during your visit though, don't get any closer than I did. A quick Google search suggests wild pigs in Cuba have very sharp teeth and can be dangerous when cornered. Just leave nature to nature (aka appreciate it from a distance), and you'll be fine.