Final Days, final thoughts

When the cycling portion of our trip ended on Thursday we packed a few items and headed to the white sandy beaches of Guardalavaca and loafed on the beach, floated in the water, and got our fill of pizza and ice cream. A perfect way to finish our Cuban Adventure.

We lingered with local people and struck up some good substantive conversations with a few locals about all things Cuba. We talked politics, food shortages, disparity, and the constitutional referendum that happened yesterday. Talk to a Cuban journalist and you are in for some great insights into life on the island!

Last night we hung around the town square in Holguin. There were people in the street everywhere and it felt like a festive atmosphere likely due to Referendum Day. The referendum is a big deal here, and people & conversation filled the air.

As we wait for our big blue taxi to come a take us to the airport we are hoping he will bring ropes this time to secure the bike boxes on top of the car. For the transfer from one Casa to another the other day he just threw them on top, sans ropes, and insisted all was ok, he’ll drive carefully. Speaking of taxis, while we were taking our taxi back to Holguin yesterday the driver slowed to a stop at a punto control (check point). At first we were a little concerned that maybe we would be required to produce passports to the armed guard. But the guard proceeded to hop into the car, hitching a ride to Holguin. “hola”s were exchanged and Randy and I both silently reflected. Yep, things operate differently in Cuba. Vacancies in moving automobiles are inherently expected to be offered up to others. And we are ok with it.

At the beach yesterday we were situated beside a Cuban man and his son, loafing in the sun just like we were. His son had been quietly asking his Dad if he knew where we were from. That was our conversation starter. We talked a lot, exchanged philosophical views, and it felt like we’d made new friends by the end of the afternoon. Dad worked at a cafe called Begonia near the town square so this morning we choose to sip cappuccino at Begonia. He spotted us there and big giant smiles ensued. We were all happy.

We have learned to accept all that Cuba is. Much of it is broken or dysfunctional, mysteries still remain unsolved, and it’s a fascinating study of humanity, resilience of people, resourcefulness, and living in a society where everything has its surface appearance but is multi-layered. When you have the privilege of seeing under a few of those layers you become drawn in. And the more drawn in, the more you want to see. Next stop: Toronto. Ciao, amigos!

Day 20: Floating in the Ocean Day!

Floating in the ocean, shopping for groceries, and we found water!

The cycling is all done, boxes are packed and ready to ship home on Monday. We took a 1959 Chevy station wagon taxi to Guardalavaca to spend two nights. We plan to do not much more than float in the ocean and show off our weird tan lines. Our Casa tonight is a cute little place on a secluded road facing the beach. 10 seconds to walk from door to water! We decided to have dinner at the Casa tonight and enjoyed a gigantic lobster, with some delicate rice and tomato salad.

The Guardalavaca beach is located directly in front of two all inclusive resorts (Club Amigo and Brisas), and it’s also the public beach that Cubans can enjoy. We have been to a number of all inclusives here in Cuba and the public beach at Guardalavaca is just a nice as any.

We aren’t sure we’ll ever quite understand the ins and outs of some of the service industry here. We saw a little food hut supposedly selling hamburgers and there was a group of people (I think Cubans) who appeared to be eating French fries! Oh yeaaaahh! No more rice & beans for us! So we order a hamburguesa con queso (cheeseburger) and point out fries in the picture, indicating we want them too. “No hay.” “Really?” “No hay” (we point to the table of people eating fries) “no hay”. Ok. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and fries are no hay? We accept the the only thing we are getting is a hamburguesa.

Speaking of food (as I so often do), we found a pizza joint in Holguin. Dino’s pizza. Of course nobody was eating pizza when we went in, just drinking rum and beer. We noticed that the place closes at 5. Re-opens at 6. This seems odd to us….wouldn’t you want to have the pizza joint open during prime dinner hour? We’re not sure why they regularly close for an hour but we did notice they seemed to be counting and re-counting money. We’ve seen this often. Store clerks are very concerned with making sure every itty bitty peso is accounted for. Sometimes we’ve had to wait in a grocery lineup for 15 minutes while clerks count every coin in the till.

Shopping in stores is all business. You get in, you get your stuff, you get out. At the exit door sits a security person who looks at your bill and counts the items in your bag. Every item. 6 bottles of water…they count em. “One, two, three, four, five, six”. Glancing and assessing that it looks like six is not an option. There are not many choices or options of what to buy in grocery stores. There may be meat: 3 freezers full of individually frozen hamburger patties and 3 freezers full of chicken weiners. That’s it. There is a whole aisle full of sweetened condensed milk. And there is always an aisle full of tomato paste. You likely need to hunt all over town to find all the products you need.

We found lots of bottled water in Holguin!

We have baking aisles at home. In Cuba you may find a sweetened condensed milk aisle.

Curiously, the taxi from Holguin cost us the same (25CUC) to bring us 60km to Guardalavaca as it will cost us to go 9km from Holguin to the airport on Monday. Some things make more sense than others. But it’s Cuba. And we love Cuba, even if we don’t understand all of Cuba.

Tonight we walked down to covertly investigate the entertainment at the Brisas all inclusive…..pitch black road but we had a flashlight. Good thing we did! We narrowly missed stepping on a snake followed by a scorpion.

Day 17: Pilon to Manzanillo

Dear Cuba:

We need to talk. We have travelled here from very far away and it’s 33C today. We’d really like to hydrate with something other than beer or rum, but every single establishment in the 94km between Pilon and Manzanillo has only beer and rum available. There must be some misunderstanding. Cuba, can you understand our concern? We found 4L of apple juice hidden in a small store and tried that but after while our lips were just dry and sticky and honestly our tummies hurt a little. When you deliver those beer, rum and cigars to those roadside huts out in the middle of nowhere, if you just throw a few bottles of water on the delivery truck we would happily pay twice the regular price. You could make money from us! Our ride included a 1,000m climb over one of your mountains. It was really hot and sweaty and we hoped to find water in the next town. Instead I think we found The Cola Store because it had three shelves and a large cooler all full of Fiesta brand cola. Cola is similar to water, but not quite the same. The Cola Store worker understood our concerns, as we hope you too Cuba, will understand. After purchasing two carefully selected colas she filled our bottles from the tap and we were able to use our SteriPen to help out. We really appreciate all that you’ve done for us, Cuba, but we’d like to gently suggest that you make water portable for us. We’d feel a whole lot better about things. We still love you, Cuba. Let’s work things out.

Love, Randy and Anita

PS. Sorry we took so few photos of your beautiful country today. We were too busy searching for water.

PPS. We found a most excellent Casa in Manzanillo. The owner prepared us an authentic spaghetti dinner that was perfecto. We also found water after about 92km of cycling. There’s hope for us yet.

Day 16: La Mula to Pilon

A most excellent day! Worth every bump, pothole, hill (mountain), and buckets of sweat.

Thankfully the Campismo experience is over! Honestly the campismo itself was quite all right. It was the very loud partying people next door to us who let us sleep for a few hours then whammo! On goes the music, full blast just a few feet from out hut. Frantic, repetitive “undelay undelay yeehaw!” All. night. long. It made riding in the heat today that much harder but we did it, 75km. Right around Marea de Portillo we were about to capitulate and check ourselves into the all inclusive 2 star Club Amigo resort…oh, the lure of the beach, and the idea of a smorgasbord of bread and butter to nibble on (cuz usually the food is pretty bad in those places)… we rolled in and learned it was full. No space for us. We did however enjoy ice cream and cold drinks in the shaded lobby while we probed the front desk lady for intel on a Casa in the next town of Pilon. Everybody here knows someone who owns a Casa. Casa all arranged, we headed out another 13km to Pilon where the Casa owner met us at the edge of town on his fancy electric modern racing motorcycle and escorted us to his Casa. Things always work out here. 😃

The scenery today! OMG! For the first three hours of the ride we saw three vehicles, a man on horseback and three fellow cycle tourists from France. So many times we had to just stop and look behind us to actually believe the scenery that we are beholding. The camera can’t even capture it. You need to see it with bare eyes. The only way to get there however (realistically), is by bicycle, mule, or foot. We skirted the seaside much of the time while waves crashed right next to us, always threatening to erode the road even more. There were plenty of places where the pavement just drops off due to previous erosion so we are careful not to ride on that edge.

This southern coast is exceptional, breathtaking and not to be missed! We’d say it’s best travelling it on a mountain bike. A touring bike with fairly good sized tires works too. Road bike…Ha! forget about it!

Day 13: rest day in Santiago de Cuba

The heat that threatens to defeat us, the final resting spots of Fidel, and Compay Segundo (Cuban guitarist) and the hustle and bustle of a big city. It was a well needed rest day so we spent it on foot in the city.

The day heats up past 30 and with the sunshine and humidity it becomes our greatest challenge. Staying hydrated is a constant effort and I in particular, never seem to stay ahead of the game. The route, the terrain and the hills are all secondary.

We hired a human powered bicycle cart (we felt just a little wrong having someone pedal us around in the heat, but he was quite insistent) to take us on a small tour up to the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia to view the massive important cemetery and it’s most revered occupants. Fidel Castro lays in rest next to the mausoleum of national hero José Martí. Fidel is reported to have requested no monuments or statues in his honour, and thus a very big boulder marks his place with just “Fidel” inscribed on a plaque.

There is so much busyness in the city and so much “urban” atmosphere one feels far away from the banana groves of rural Cuba. Loud music blasting from every direction and ice cream parlours everywhere! Sidewalks are narrow, full of potholes & broken cement and all kinds of hazards (as everywhere in Cuba it seems). If you walk without looking down at all times you do so at your own peril. Shoe stores, tailor shops and other stores lined the streets in the tourist area. We saw perfumes, people lined up to buy cakes, and barbecues we’re fired up everywhere. We bought Churro’s. They are deep fried dough with what tastes like cream cheese filling. Really greasy but it went down fine. (Well, not really, but we aren’t talking about that).

Our Casa owner/operator is named Manuel. Randy tells me he is a cardiologist who has practised in other countries but has returned to Cuba to help his parents with the Casa.

We are now in the second half of our adventure and really dreaming ahead to a few planned beach days at the end.

Day 9: Non-cycling day in Baracoa

Rum, bloodsports, bikes, homes vs houses, and a birthday dinner with friends. The sights and sounds of our non-cycling rest day in Baracoa were colourful.

We started our rest day by heading to the center of town for a coffee to see what we see and people-watch. We sat beside a table of exuberant young well-dressed men happily drinking rum from a bottle at their outside patio table as we sipped coffee just trying to fully wake up. Full on Salsa music blasted from the establishment behind us. It’s not a subdued atmosphere here. By the way, we made the curious observation that you can purchase rum in tetra packs, the size of single serving juice packs. Not quite sure how they’d re-seal in the event that one doesn’t wish to drink 5 oz of rum. Nevermind. We aren’t Cuban so it’s not for us to know.

Later we meandered along the towns edge admiring the architecture, the sights and sounds. Into my peripheral awareness came the sound of squawking chickens. I glanced over and my immediate assessment was that two chickens were “having an argument of sorts”. Randy, being much more astute than I am in the early morning hours, quickly informed me of a far more barbarous reality. They were cockfighting. Cringing and wanting to unsee it, I wished I could somehow run over and set those chickens free.

The bicycles we see everyday would be worthy of their own photo essay. By necessity, people creatively repurpose bicycle parts to make them function. Just stop and look closely at any bicycle and you’ll appreciate their resourcefulness. There are little shops scattered around with the odd bicycle part for sale, but it’s clear that the bicycles are much like the cars. Ancient, well-loved and utilitarian.

We’ve noticed that during the day almost every house opens its front door and it remains open all day. We hear laughter and chatter both inside and out, grandma’s and grandpa’s are rocking grand babies on their laps, kids are playing ball, and neighbours are talking. Frequently buildings appear dilapidated and one is left to wonder about building code requirements. But no matter….these Cubans make real homes out of these houses.

Tonight, in honour of Randy’s Birthday we had dinner with what now feels like old friends Warren and Sarah and their two beautiful daughters Sophia and Charlotte. We laughed, talked and I commiserated with Charlotte about how each of us has a mental block around eating Cuban pizza now after our own independently experienced Episodes. The crust however, was good. they shared their story about how they’d been newly arrived in Havana during the recent tornado that struck so they’d experienced it and witnessed the damage firsthand. We had to say goodbye to our new friends tonight as we are rolling out tomorrow and they will stay a few more days. We’re hoping they’ll come visit us in Cobourg some day so we can hear about their upcoming adventures in Equador.

Day 7: Moa to Playa Maguana

Decay, followed by hell followed by paradise!

Moa is a nickel mining city (not copper as reported yesterday). Little could have prepared us for the sight of the smoggy, dark, rusting, decrepit industrial apocalypse…it could be the setting for a sci fi movie. There were large swaths of land and buildings that need to be seen to be believed but we respected the “no photos” warnings. Dusty and dirty. The apartment buildings that were on the outskirts were grim to say the least. But we came to Cuba to see it all, not just palm trees and ocean.

After leaving behind the mess of Moa began the hell that was today’s ride. More than 1,000m of climbing up mountains where the road doesn’t even qualify to be called “road”. Rocky & pot-holey, and not a spec of smoothness it necessitated us climbing endlessly in 30c and no place for shade breaks. We found a log at the side of the road and busted open a can of peaches for breakfast, then several more hours of demoralizing roads. While bouncing and jerking and holding on for dear life I kept hoping that my bike frame is strong, and feeling particularly happy that my Schwalbe tires held out. Small miracle! The route was desolate and we only encountered one other cyclist–Edward from Belgium, who apparently has cycled this route three years ago (and apparently chose to do it again!). Beautiful mountain scenery if you could take your eyes off the road for a second. I didn’t. I’ll shamelessly admit that it brought me to tears more than once. The pictures don’t even do it justice. Even the downhills were brutal to say the least.

We wanted to reach Playa Maguana as early as possible to try and maximize time on the beach we’d heard about. As we approached the village there was a Cuban on a motorcycle who spotted us. “Randy!” He called out. Indeed it was our Casa host awaiting our arrival and he escorted us to his beautiful Casa. More like a villa. Complete with a hammock, a private covered porch, and surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. Yep. Our day changed dramatically! Settled in, we headed to the ocean which was just a 5 minute walk away. Now we were in paradise again.

PS. In a remote part of today’s route Randy saw a little boy around 5 years old galloping up the side of the road toward home. He was looking back at us curiously. We called to him, and Randy gave out another Hot Wheels. The little boy was so happy he streaked home like lightning, toy car waving. In my rear view mirror I could see him and his older brother excitedly looking it over like it was Christmas. Happiness.

Day 6: Sagua de Tanamo to Moa

Today is the second half of the distance we had planned to complete yesterday. We are glad to have split the distance up because the hills today were quite long and laborious.

The beautiful vista that we woke up to this morning changed as the day progressed. As we approached Moa the landscape changed from lush greenery to brown and rust-coloured hillsides. Moa is a copper mining city and we have heard about it being an unrewarding experience. Not so! Despite the fact that as we entered the region we could see the big black plumes of smoke in the distance.

Prior to reaching the city the new friends we made the other night in Myari passed us with their four bikes all piled on top of and inside the trunk of their 1950’s taxicab. On their way to Moa. We stopped roadside and talked in the shade and we’ve been staying in touch via email. We’ll meet up with them again in a few days in Baracoa.

As we reached the city’s edge we came across a gas station complete with ice cream! One flavour of course. Today was caramel. Oh, how lovely that tasted!!

In central Moa we were happily surprised to see a Commercial Center. Tomorrow we want to get to our destination as fast as possible because we hear there is a beautiful beach so we bought a few items that will be our breakfast. Two cans of fruit cocktail, a pack of 4 cookies (first time we’ve seen those!), 5L of water, one Cerveza (beer) and one Refresco (soda). Felt like we struck a goldmine! Here’s how it works; you pay the lady, she gives you a receipt and you show it to the guard at the front door who closely compares the items to those on your receipt before letting you exit. Standard procedure.

The children are precious here! Randy spotted a little boy in our street tonight trying to fix a home-made kite that had broken. He gave the boy a Hot Wheels car and the boy was very emotionally moved by the gift. So little but it means so much. These are the moments we love most. Earlier in the day I saw two young boys playing catch on the side of the street. One had a baseball glove that was far too big for his hand, and the other was throwing him rocks to catch. Next time, we bring baseballs! Tonight as we walked the streets we discovered a small group of young children following us, laughing and giggling, running ahead from time to time to get a good look at us, then quickly retreating back.

Here’s how we found a Casa tonight: our host last night made arrangements then told us to “go into the city, and at the rotunda (roundabout), ask someone to show you where Jessica’s Casa is”. (In Spanish of course) Ok, a little vague (Moa’s population is 80,000), but it worked out. Things always have a way of working out.

Days 3 and 4: Banes to Mayari

Day 3: Internet Lineups, $.12 coffee, Street Pizza, and the Magical Casa Network

We take the Internet for granted. Most Cubans do not have wifi in their homes. They wait in line at the Telecommunicacion Center in town to buy an internet card (about $1 for an hour). Then they login with a whole series of numbers and a password. I bought an internet card, which entailed me handing them a passport and they documented it very carefully. I also discovered that the wifi zone operates during business hours. When it’s closed, so is the wifi. Using cell data here is totally unreliable.

Randy wandered into an establishment to buy coffee. No cream. No options. Just coffee. (No biscotti, no cookies.) Okay. We hand over pesos. We do the math and it works out to $.12 for the coffee. Not bad!

Cuban fast-food = street pizza. And it’s cheap!! We each ate one, and had two glasses of fresh squeezed papaya juice. Total: $.70 cents. (Yes, for both of us).

There is a well-connected network of Casa operators here. They all know someone in the next town and are more than happy to call ahead to arrange our next destination. We rolled into Mayari and found no street names, despite having an address. We roll up and down some streets looking for anywhere to stay cuz it was hot and we are tired. Suddenly we hear, “Anita! Anita!” our host Marcia from the previous evening had arranged a Casa for us. Sonya was magically calling out to us on the street like a little angel! We have a beautiful Casa for two days. Within minutes we had fresh papaya juice in hand and I downed two BIG glasses.

We happened across two Canadians who we had spotted the day before in Banes and they’d spotted us too. They are cycle touring around Cuba for more than 6 weeks with their two children (I think 14 and 10), homeschooling along the way. We met for dinner in Cuban restaurant and exchange travel stories. They had also noticed the restaurants with no food yesterday. I, unable to summon up an appetite had to depart dinner, feeling very much “off”. Randy stayed for dinner with our new friends.

P.S. the wonderful adventurous relationship I was having with food came to a screeching halt in the evening. Let’s just say that I am feeling violently dehydrated. ‘Nuff said! From here on, we’ll refer to it as The Episode.

Day 4: “The Episode”

Today was a scheduled non-cycling day, and for that I am happy. And for our host Sonja I am grateful. Apparently she is a doctor and upon learning I was not well she gave me some elixir and some easy to digest food then later checked on me. After some conversation we came to a conclusion. She said never Ever EVER drink the juice they make at those roadside pizza stands. Don’t I know it!

Day 2: Guardalavaca to Banes

The Rich lives of Cubans, Big Hills, Restaurants with No Food

That is what characterized our day. It was a fairly short cycling day, just 36km, 480m of climbing. But the heat just made it tougher than one would think.

There was just so much to look at along the way. Tropical trees in bloom, lush landscapes, and trying to guess what fruits were growing on the trees. It left a lot of time for conversation and we are both in agreement–Cubans lead rich lives. Not materially of course, but everywhere we look there are happy people making the most of what they have. Imagine the richness of community when there is no internet. It appears that what people do creates happiness, not what people have.

We stopped to admire a home with beautiful gardens and a spotted a very young girl looking at us curiously. We reached into our bag and gave her a Barbie doll. She ran like lightning toward her family, waving it high in the air back and forth. She was thrilled and so was her whole family who waved to us from afar.

How did we find our Casa today? Well, we rolled into town, cruised up and down a few streets looking for a Casa symbol (blue ones are meant for Tourists, red ones for Cubans only). A kind young man showed up on an old Cannondale bicycle and said we could stay at his aunt’s Casa. So here we are!

Speaking of Cuban cyclists, we have made friends with Alex who is a bike mechanic in Holguin and is training a racing team. We met up with him on the road again today. He’s training for a competition in June and was putting in 160km today.

Food talk again (cuz it’s fascinating!): population 80,000 here. One would expect to find a variety of food opportunities. We wander about looking for food but everything is different here in Cuba. There are, believe it or not, establishments that are open, have tables & chairs and menus but no food. Not quite sure why there are even any workers on duty, but we just accept it and move on. There is an endless supply however, of places to drink rum and beer.