Encounters in Cuba: Meeting the horse whisperer of Trinidad

“The map,” philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously observed, “is not the territory.” His words rarely seemed more apt than in Cuba: a country where the warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape belie fifty years of bad American press.

As U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba loosen up, more and more travelers will fall in love with our island neighbor to the south. They will discover, as I did, that there are many kinds of social experiments, and that the one in progress since Cuba’s 1959 revolution is in some ways better, and in some ways worse, than the one that began with our own Revolution in the 18th century.

They’ll also find that a traveler in Cuba has two main choices where to stay: at one of the clean, often charming hotels located near each town’s main plaza; or at a casa particular, the home of a Cuba family authorized to rent rooms out to foreigners. The latter is a wonderful way to meet Cubans, butcher Spanish in a forgiving atmosphere, and gain insights into Cuba’s often bipolar society.

And the equation, of course, can work both ways: Sometimes it’s the Cubans themselves who are transformed by their visitors.

This is exactly what happened to Julio Muñoz, Cuba’s best-known horse whisperer.

* * *

Muñoz comes from a line of prominent Spanish immigrants; his two older brothers are gynecologists. Their spacious, ochre-colored family casa sits on a brilliantly sunny corner of Trinidad, adjoining the maternal clinic where Julio and his brothers were born. The house has been in his family for generations, though they lost their other properties and businesses after the revolution.

Trinidad is Cuba’s tourist Mecca, a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial town founded in 1514. In 1988, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sunlight slants down the back streets at photogenic angles. By night, the plazas and restaurants are alive with music. It is colorful, rustic, and HOT. Trinidad is a town where you can sit absolutely still, in the living room of a well-shaded casa particular, and still feel rivulets of sweat running down your sides.

Muñoz brings me a cup of hot, black coffee. “Why didn’t I leave Cuba?” he shrugs. “I am a survivor. And I’m a person who loves my people, and loves my country. I find ways to be happy. With my horses, and with my friends, I am incredibly happy.”

After our coffee we hire a cab, and roll off along the cobblestone roads leading to Finca del Chino, the ranch where his horses roam free. During the bumpy ride, Muñoz describes the serendipitous series of events that utterly changed his life.

“Since I was a kid,” he says, “I’ve been interested in photography. But good 35mm cameras were hard to get. Also, Cuba didn’t have a tradition of scenic photography. Normally, Cubans take pictures of weddings, birthdays, quinceañeras, things like that. But no fine art photography at all.”

In the mid-1994, when tourism restrictions were relaxed in Cuba, the intense, wiry Muñoz turned his home into a casa particular. Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of Trinidad and his command of English, Casa Colonial Muñoz quickly became popular.

“Journalists, photographers, filmmakers; they were greedy to come to Cuba, to make films, to write articles. And Trinidad was one of their favorite places. Some of these people hired me as a ‘fixer’: to scout locations, translate, find people. That’s when I learned about documentary photography.”

Inspired and encouraged by several of the photographers who stayed at his casa (one of whom, on assignment for National Geographic, left him dozens of rolls of color slide film), Muñoz expanded his horizons. He began to explore Trinidad with fresh eyes, and a new appreciation for the city’s culture and landscape.

“I wanted to record everything.” Muñoz rolls down the taxi’s window, letting in the heat. “And one of the most beautiful parts of Trinidad is the countryside. But the only way to reach it is by horse. And when I started using horses to reach the countryside-well, that’s when I fell in love with horses.”

Muñoz falls momentarily silent, awed-as travelers often are-by how one encounter leads to another. “It was a loop of events. Because I rent rooms in my house, I was led to photography. Because of photography, I was led to horses-and through my love of horses, to horse whispering techniques.”

* * *

We arrive at the ranch (named for Chino, the rugged owner), where I accept another cup of strong coffee and a wedge of delicious farm cheese from Chino’s wife.

There are many styles of “natural horsemanship,” Muñoz explains, sipping his demitasse, “but the core is the same. Never treat badly the horse. Never give pain to the horse. I don’t use spurs; I don’t use a whip. And most important, use the horse’s psychology. And when I say horse psychology, it means, how do they live in the natural world? How do they communicate between each other? When you learn to use this kind of body language, you can do amazing things.”

One of Julio’s first horses, Diana, was born and raised insidehis Trinidad casa.

“She was living in the house like a dog. She was walking throughout the house – I have videos of all that.” Diana died after an injury, but Julio has immortalized her by starting a foundation-Proyecto Diana-that seeks to educate Cuba’s horse owners about equine care and training.

Muñoz leads me past napping cats, rusted farm implements and muddied boots toward the pastures. There are spurs on a wall-proof that the other ranchers at this fincadon’t use Muñoz’s progressive method, despite their positive results. Most locals continue to train their horses in the traditional way: through pain and intimidation. This clearly upsets Muñoz. But he continues to teach by example, hoping his methods will ultimately catch on.

“It’s very difficult to change the way Cubans treat horses. They use them like disposable tools-or, how do you call it, a handkerchief. They don’t understand. With natural horsemanship, the horse is happy. It’s willing and glad to do things. There is a joy. There is a connection.”

Julio’s latest love is a filly named Luna de Miel: Honeymoon. We climb through a barbed wire gate, and Julio disappears over a small rise. He returns a moment later astride the brown quarter horse. The affection between man and beast is evident. Julio dismounts, and shows me exactly how trusting she has become. He tickles her ears, waves his hand in front of her eyes, picks her nose, and even takes hold of her thick, wet tongue.

Luna endures the routine patiently, then snuggles gamely up to me (I don’t go for her tongue) while Julio snaps a photo. It’s a cute shot, but it doesn’t compare to the pictures of him with his horse. Together, they’re practically a centaur.

“It really is like that,” Muñoz laughs when I remark on the telepathy between them. “When I drink rum, my horse gets drunk.”

Like many Cubans, Muñoz is a devout Catholic whose observances were long suppressed by the socialist regime. During my visit, thanks to policy relaxations by President Raúl Castro, a historic event took place in Trinidad. For the first time since the revolution, a statue of Cuba’s patron saint (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, akaOur Lady of Charity) was carried through the streets.

Muñoz himself arranged the horse procession. “I was the boss of the horses,” he laughs proudly.

Celebrations like this are yet another sign of how Cuba is changing, and allowing long-suppressed traditions to be openly expressed. Our own government needs to make a similar transformation. Cuba needs to be back on American’s travel maps, so we can explore its marvelous, surprising culture and territory for ourselves.

* * *

Jeff Greenwald is the Oakland-based author of Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World and- most recently-Snake Lake. He also serves as Executive Director of Ethical Traveler (www.ethicaltraveler.org), a global alliance of travelers bent on saving the world. Jeff’s critically acclaimed one-man show, Strange Travel Suggestions, is seeking out small theaters everywhere. You can contact him through www.jeffgreenwald.com.

[Julio Muñoz and his beloved horse, Honeymoon. © 2011 by Jeff Greenwald.]

Letter from Kathmandu: Brokedown Palace

Waiting at the ticket booth to Narayanhiti — Nepal’s Royal Palace — I felt like a Chinese commoner entering the Forbidden City for the first time. It’s not too much of a stretch. Nepali Kings, like Chinese Emperors, were touted as divine rulers: avatars of the Hindu god Narayana, the Great Preserver.

Ever since my first visit to Kathmandu in 1979, I had glimpsed Narayanhiti only through its high gates, or past the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in February 2009 — less than a year after the former Kingdom became a Republic — the private residence was converted into a public museum.

Nepal was under royal rule for most of the past 500 years. What we need here, just to get it out of the way, is a brief history of Nepal’s king situation over the past 50-odd years.

In 1955, King Mahendra took the throne. He was an interesting guy who enjoyed black-and-white photography, admired Elvis Presley, and teased his subjects with the notion of democracy. Mahendra and the former kings didn’t live in Narayanhiti; they stayed in the old palace, or durbar, in what’s now Kathmandu’s historic quarter.

Shortly after Mahendra died in 1972, his eldest son — Birendra — was coronated, and moved into the recently completed Narayanhiti. As a leader Birendra was rather like George W. Bush, but without the wit and charm. The intelligentsia got fed up and in 1990, a massive “Peoples’ Movement” wrested power from the throne. But Birendra remained on as king; he was allowed to stay in Narayanhiti with his wife and family, serving as a unifying symbol of ethnically diverse Nepal. When he was killed in 2001 (more on this below), his brother, Gyanendra, took over. Nobody liked this guy — so in 2008 there was another People Power revolution. Gyanendra was shown the door, and the Palace became a museum. Whew.

After checking my daypack and passing through security, I entered the sprawling, grassy grounds. Far behind me, beyond the silver gates, lay Durbar Margh: Kathmandu’s frenetic boutique boulevard, sort of a cut-rate Champs d’Elysees. Its taxi horns and motorcycles faded into the background.

The architecture of Narayanhiti is hard to describe. Completed in 1969, it was designed by an American architect named Benjamin Polk. The building is grand without being impressive, stately without conveying any emotion, and the first reaction most people have when beholding the building is, “Hunh?” Still, it was a thrill to approach the sequestered palace and climb the marble stairway flanked by statues of horses and mythical beasts.

Though the building is grand from the outside, the inside felt cloistered and cold, with small windows, dark paneling and shabby decor that looks as though it hasn’t been changed since Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Live and Let Die.” With its narrow corridors and stuffed tigers (not to mention crocodiles, deer and rhinoceroses), the place has a strange juju. One cannot use the word “comfy” to describe a single room. This applies especially to the bedroom for the “First Lady of the Visiting Head of State,” which features a macabre poster showing a little girl morphing into a wrinkled crone. Below, in Nepali, is the phrase (roughly translated) “Yikes! This is Our Fate!”

Knowing Birendra’s fate, it’s a poignant experience to stand at the roped-off threshold of the late king’s office — a retreat as modest as the throne room is ostentatious. There’s a large wooden desk, a middle-of-the-line bookshelf stereo, and shelves filled with a strange assortment of books: Freedom in Exile, by the Dalai Lama; 1001 Wonderful Things, by Hutchinson; Hindu Castes and Sects. There is a picture of Mount Kailash on the wall. The image of the holy mountain, long a pilgrimage spot for Tibetan Buddhists, intrigues me. Was Birendra a spiritual man? A king of hidden depths? We’ll never know — but I’m inclined to doubt it.

Perhaps the most surprising room in the palace is the office of former King Mahendra, with its art deco furniture, vintage photographs and large globes of the planet earth and celestial sphere. I’m not saying I could live in it, but it would be a great set for a sitcom about a gay Nepali ad man.

Much of it you’ve seen before, in other former palaces. There are the usual salons lined with glass cases filled with useless gifts from visiting dignitaries: bronze medallions, filigree peacocks, a crystal paperweight from New York City Mayor Edward Koch. The walls are arrayed with photographs of distinguished visitors — even the humblest of them more significant, on an international scale, than their host.

The opulent Gorkha Hall does everything it can to contradict this bit of realpolitik, with its soaring, Gaudi-esque columns and — most important — Ceremonial Throne. Every King needs one of these, and this one is a beauty. More than half a ton of silver and 30 tolas of gold (nearly a pound) were used to build the settee-sized, velvet-cushioned seat of power. Silver elephants support the legs. A canopy of nine gold nagas (snake gods) shaded the King’s head, and thick gold serpents served as his armrests.

But even these nagas, despite their best intentions, could not protect Birendra from his own son. On June 1, 2001, during a social function at the Palace, the drunk and besotted Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly went insane, and gunned down his entire family — the King, Queen Aiswarya, his sister, and several other relatives — with automatic weapons.

The venue for the infamous Royal Massacre, it turns out, was a separate building: an older complex of rooms on the grounds behind the palace. That structure has now been demolished. Only the foundation remains, as if it were an ancient ruin. Cardboard signs indicate, by number, the overgrown sites where the murders occurred – including the little garden bridge, still standing, upon which Dipendra reportedly took his own life. These landmarks are weird abstractions, and a sobering reminder of how the new government immediately destroyed every shred of evidence that might shed light on the real motives for (and perhaps the real perpetrators of) the killings.

It’s often true in Asia that places look better from a distance. I left Narayanhiti feeling underwhelmed and a bit sad. Partly it was for the palace itself: a place that seemed devoid of any warmth or vibrancy. But I was sad for Nepal as well. The one thing the floundering country most desperately needed, and truly deserved, was a great king, a leader who, like Thailand’s King Bhumibol or Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck, inspired their subjects by example.

Instead, Nepal got kings like Mahendra — who told one of his engineers during Narayanhiti’s construction, “It is worthless to give grandeur to my palace, because the people will never be ready to admire it even if I make something as grand as the Taj Mahal.”

It’s bad practice, among kings, to blame your subjects for your own lack of imagination. That was Nepal’s story for the past few centuries. Today, the new republic’s commoners stagger out of Narayanhiti in a daze, having spied at last the man behind the curtain. He put on quite a show — but the show is over. I hope they find the heart, brains and courage to take over from here.

Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.

Bangkok nocturne

One of the great pleasures a traveler can have is to re-discover a place that has become a little too familiar — a once exotic city where the thrill of visiting long-loved shrines and favorite restaurants has devolved into pleasant, predictable routine.

My great friend Annie, a brilliant artist who has worked as a graphic designer in the Thai capital for 20 years, had set herself a challenge: to give her husband Jock, as a 10th anniversary gift, a new perspective on the metropolis they’d lived in together since the 1990s. She was one of the few farangi who could pull off such a feat. Fluent in Thai and enthralled with the culture, Annie is intimate with facets of old Krung Thep that most travelers never get to see.

A few weeks later, I visited Bangkok for a few days on my way to Kathmandu. The anniversary had passed, and Jock was out of town. But Annie, bubbling with the glee she brings to every activity from painting to shopping, offered to reprise their expedition.

It was an autumn evening. We met at 6 pm at the Black Canyon Coffee stall in the Phrom Phong SkyTrain station, and set off on a journey through the nocturnal byways – obscure and otherwise — of a maddening, fascinating city that, after three decades of following a Habitrail, I comically thought I knew.

Annie (or “Plannie” to her friends) had mapped out our route. We rode the sleek SkyTrain to the dock at Silom, and boarded the river ferry. As we motored down the Chao Phrya river, the sun set through the haze behind Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. The four spires of the Buddhist pagoda soared into the sky, one of Bangkok’s most breathtaking sights. I spied what looked like a beautiful private home, or boutique hotel, on the far shore. “Hey, Annie,” I remarked, “that place looks interesting….””I’m glad you think so!” This was The Deck at Arun: the first stop on our itinerary. We climbed to the patio roof, ordered drinks, and absorbed a bird’s-eye view of the Temple of Dawn, a crescent moon hanging above.

And then it was off again, farther up the river to the funky wooden pier at Ta Thien. A winding path led us to a broad avenue, and the entrance of Wat Pho. This is the oldest – and largest – Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Reconstructed during the 18th century and recently restored, this has long been one of my favorite stops in Bangkok. During the day there’s a real scene at Wat Pho; a school of traditional Thai massage draws long lines of jet lag-addled tourists. But it’s also a great place to wander. The immense, labyrinthine compound is filled with more than 1,000 buddhas and scores of small shrines, many decorated from top to bottom with mosaics made from shattered plates and ceramics. Dozens of cats wander freely amid these spiky viharas, lapping from small bowls provided by the resident monks. In the Wat’s central shrine is a stupendous reclining Buddha, 150 feet long and nearly 50 feet high. The soles of its feet are a marvel, each one the size of a billboard and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.I’d been to Wat Pho many times; it was a staple of my visits to Bangkok. But I’d never seen it by moonlight, when the empty marbled courtyards and the soaring, mirrored spires made the place look like a time traveler’s fantasy. Even the cats — all Siamese, by citizenship — seemed otherworldly.

A block or two outside the gates of Wat Pho is a strip of wood-framed shops and stalls selling traditional Thai staples, from dried shrimp to medicinal herbs. We strolled down the street until Annie spied our destination: a humble wheeled stall offering what locals consider the best kway thiew (noodle soup) in the city, ladled into porcelain bowls by an elderly man whose mild case of Tourrette‘s made every successful serving seem a miracle of coordination.

I protested when Annie ordered only a small bowl, for both of us to share. “We don’t want to fill up on soup,” she warned me, hinting at a culinary climax yet to come.

From there we dropped into a taxi, and wove through the relatively empty streets and over a few small khlongs to a huge quayside vegetable warehouse. Eggplants, kumquats and mangosteens formed ceiling-high pyramids, and seas of coriander filled the air with their roasted chlorophyll scent. Hidden away in this agro enclave was a ramshackle bar, built of plywood and cloth, on the theme of an Old West saloon. Annie had hoped to drop in for shots of a potent liquor called yadaung, but the swinging doors were chained and the lights out. I could barely make out the pictures of gunslingers inside.

We left the warehouse and walked a few blocks farther, emerging into a district I’d never even imagined. This was Pak Klong Talat: Bangkok’s astonishing flower market. We wandered up block after block of bulb-lit street stalls overflowing with orchids and chrysanthemums, marigolds and birds of paradise, a thousand Technicolor varieties exploding across the sidewalk. Hundreds of Thais wove between the displays, bargaining over dizzyingly fragrant bouquets. I often think of myself as a jaded traveler, and wonder what a vast, gray city like Bangkok can turn up to surprise me. But Annie had led me through the looking glass, into a kaleidoscopic world that I’d managed to miss during uncounted visits.

Our ultimate destination lay a short distance farther, on Mahachai Road. Though it was nearly 11 pm, the street was packed with pedestrians – all of them eager to drop their baht at one of the bare-bones, fluorescent-lit eateries selling one thing and one thing only: noodles.

Annie led me directly to a shop called Thipsamai, where a fast-moving line of locals waited patiently for the best pad thai in Bangkok (and, therefore, the world). We sat at a rickety square table in blue plastic chairs, near a battalion of blackened woks sizzling atop propane burners. The pungent smell of hot oil filled the air, and the menus were covered with stains — but in Thailand (unlike Nepal, my next destination) one can eat without fear.

We ordered the traditional version. Two minutes later, our dishes arrived: piping hot, perfectly spiced and loaded with succulent shrimp, with a fried egg and dash of onion on top. We dug in our forks, releasing clouds of steam. Annie grinned and raised her eyebrows, her irresistible way of taking a bow. I clapped in admiration. She’d outdone herself, from start to finish: Our plates of mile-long noodles were the crazy country cousin of a dish that, just yesterday, I’d considered a cliche.

It was too late for the Chao Phraya River Express. After our midnight dinner we took a cab back to Jock and Annie’s, where I’d stay the night. As we navigated the anonymous streets, I thought of that wonderful line by Lawrence Durrell — “A city becomes a world,” he wrote, “when one loves one of its inhabitants.”

Lucky me: For one unforgettable night in Bangkok, a close friendship was as good as love.

Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit Jeffgreenwald.com.