Sitting in the shade of the only tree on an otherwise barren hillside on the edge of Trinidad, Cuba’s loveliest city, an old woman selling an assortment of trinkets smiled as we passed. She told us she lived in the shack across the dirt path. Every day she waited beneath the tree for the occasional tourist to walk up the hill. After we chatted a bit, she asked us for soap.

We weren’t carrying any, but we returned the next day with two small bars for her. Her thanks were effusive. My wife I have traveled in some of the poorest countries in the world and encountered thousands of beggars, but never before been asked for soap.

Although most Cubans seem to live hard lives, sometimes unbelievably hard, they do not appear to be a grim or unhappy people. Like the old woman in Trinidad, Cubans seem to go about their lives as do people everywhere, with grit and a grin. Even with arms laden with goods they must carry because there is no other form of transport, they take time to lay them aside and give an American tourist an abrazo. And that is the true miracle.

Although life may now be getting a smidgeon less hard for some, the improvement is so tentative, recent and partial that no one seems to trust it. Hope, yes, there is a good bit of that, but tempered by distrust.

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Horse with a heavily laden cart on a cobble-stone street in Trinidad. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

I was jolted into the reality of ordinary Cubans a few days into our trip while visiting the fishing village of Gibara, an un-touristed little port on the northern coast that was my favorite place in all of Cuba, quaint and peaceful and, in its old colonial core, prosperous despite hurricanes in 2008 and 2012. The Guardian newspaper once called it “Cuba’s best-kept secret.”

It seems to exist out of time, as far from the 21st century as from the three huge cruise ships anchored in the harbor next to La Habana Vieja.

In the village we met a quiet young man, an English teacher turned guide, who took us to the vast caves a few miles outside of the town. They are called Cavernas de los Panaderos, Bakers Caves, because five bakers once lived there. Our guide, Leone, ran away from home at the age of 7 and spent a night in the cave. An explorer himself, he accompanied German speleologists who descended 100 feet by ropes into nearby caves. There are 29 cave systems in the area, with four species of bats as well as shrimp and fish.

The night before visiting the cave, while taking a coche caballo to a nearby restaurant called La Cueva for a fresh crab feast (Gibara is known as “la villa blanca de los congrejos”), we had passed an enclave of high-rise barracks-like buildings. They were gray, with peeling paint and plaster, broken windows and slabs of roof and cement collapsed onto the ground. Between the buildings were piles of garbage and patches of high weeds.

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In Central Havana, the Capitolio Nacional, built in 1929 and resembling the U.S. Capitol in Washington, now houses the National Assembly and is off limits to the public. As carefully restored as the classic cars parked in the foreground, the building and the cars are noted symbols of Havana, visible all over the city. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

These apartments, home for the local campesinos, were about as ugly and depressing as anything I had ever seen anywhere in the world. Coming from the pretty and rehabilitated colonial heart of Gibara, it came as a shock.

I asked our guide, who is also a teacher, “Do all Cuban cities have apartments like that on the outskirts?”

Probably,” he replied, “I think so. Cubans are poor.” The buildings looked to me like the soulless Stalinist projects the dictator built in the 1950s outside Moscow. “Did the Russians build these in Cuba?” I asked our guide.

No,” he said, “they were built by Cubans, but the Russians were the model.”

Afterwards, I saw such projects everywhere we went.

Later, too, we took an old train with a steam locomotive to the Valle de los Ingenios, where we visited a former Spanish sugarcane plantation whose mansion is now a restaurant and museum. The cane was grown and harvested by slaves. The old slave houses still exist on the other side of the road. Today, the campesinos who work the sugarcane fields and supply the island’s No. 1 export product, live in those old slave houses.

The differences between conditions in Cuba’s old center city colonial mansions and in the campesino barracks on the outskirts could not be more stark.

We saw some homelessness in Cuba, not a lot but some. A young woman there, a man here sleeps at night in a doorway. And beggars set up shop on many sidewalks, at tourist sites, in front of churches, on pedestrian shopping malls.

When you first come to Cuba, you think: Clocks stopped ticking here. Time halted. This is 1958—or maybe 1758 or 1558. It takes a while to realize the depth of the illusion—that time in fact has ground on, agonizing year after year, tragic century after century. This is a country with railroads, but almost no one uses them. They run a couple of times a week on erratic schedules. One Cubana dismissed them as “folklórico.” There are multi-lane highways but filled with potholes. There is running water in all the cities, but only in the tourist resort of Varadero is it potable. Cubans elsewhere have to boil or filter their water.

The truth is that Cuba does contain real magic, the kind of magic that seduces tourists like my wife and myself, but if that is all you see, you are not seeing Cuba. Cuba has many worlds.