* (3,000 words)
Fifty years on from its Revolution, Cuba remains one of the last socialist nations in the world. It is also one of the most unique. A three-week bike ride through this amazing island offers an incredible insight into Cuban culture. It also gives you a great opportunity to grow a beard.
Straight from the airport, Nic, my fellow explorer, and I are taken to our casa particular, or family home, where we start our journey. We are greeted with a warm hug and a cold Rum Cuba Libre.
“It stands for Free Cuba” Mario, our generous host, tells us, as he introduces us to his mother and grandmother, as well as his cousin and his wife, all of whom live under the same roof.
Ironically, it’s a lack of freedom that forces the three generations of family to live under this one roof. No money and no freedom to speak of makes it impossible for most Cubans to move out of home, ever. Cuba Libre indeed.
Still, add music to any situation, a daily occurrence in Cuba, and you’ll see a thirst for life rivalled by no other nation.
Day one on the road sees us ride from Havana to Veradaro. Less than two kilometres into the ride, my bike pedal literally falls off in the middle of a run-down street. We haven’t even ridden out of Havana yet!
Tip number 1; when purchasing a bike, avoid buying cheaply from Walmart in Mexico. The thread connecting the pedal to the crank has somehow worn away. In a city where even a cold drink is hard to find, we fear finding a bike shop, impossible. Shops are few and far between and locals loiter on the streets as if waiting for something to happen. Buildings suggest a past of great promise but a reality of neglect and failure. The trip is already in limbo.
From the side of the street, a friendly Cuban boy approaches and without saying a word, kneels down next to my bike and closely inspects the damage. Nic and I don’t speak Spanish and he doesn’t speak English, it’s hard to communicate. The boy stands back up and leads us a few blocks to a worn iron gate on a quiet road. The gate has fallen off its hinges, so together we wrestle the bike and ourselves through it. On the other side, two men sit in the middle of dusty yard on cardboard boxes. Like most others in Cuba, they don’t appear to be doing anything. A large rusty truck sits centrally in the yard stripped of its engine and wheels. The yard is small and pieces of timber and scrap metal litter the floor. The boy points to the bike motioning the men to take a closer look. Again, no words are spoken to us. Suddenly the men are filled with energy, something is being planned. From nowhere a mig-welder is suddenly produced and we are ushered back as the bike is picked up by one of the men. The other crouches to one knee with the welder ready to fire. Seconds later, sparks fly, smoke rises and Nic and I start laughing. From near failure, our journey is being breathed new life, one spark at a time. Minutes later, the pedal again sits firmly in place with the boy proving its strength by jumping up and down on it repeatedly. It worked. A handshake and an exchange of small change signals our journey is ready to start again, but more so it highlights the industriousness of the Cuban people. In a place lacking shops, goods or services, the Cubans have learnt how to survive.
Day 1- Pedal fell off. Introduce backyard Mig Welding!
The bike ride from Havana to Veradaro takes us out of the city and along the beaches of Playa Del Esta. Field plantations and shacks soon replace the derelict buildings of old town, but the bizarre modes of transport remain the same. Large army style trucks pass at speed carrying thirty or forty people on the back as they sway uncontrollably around corners. Extravagantly coloured Chevrolets, Cadillac’s and Buicks dating back to the 1950’s instinctively beep their horns as they pass rogue farmers, who share the freeway lanes while riding ancient horse drawn-carts, beautifully unaware of how strange this seems to Westerners. After half a day of riding, we are lucky enough to grab a lift with one such farmer by holding onto the side of his cart. The horse doesn’t seem to care and so we give our already weary legs a rest for a handful of kilometres. It’s hot.
If you ever decide to cycle through Cuba, please take note and avoid doing so in July. Temperatures hit 35 degrees daily before humidity slaps you in the face for effect. It really is hot here. Between the hours of 11am and 4pm, forget about doing anything requiring energy as you will have none. This includes bike riding. The sun, like Fidel’s reign over recent decades, is suppressing. We, like most Cubans, can only work around the confines that are allowed. As we battle on, we pass numerous large street signs promoting the July 26 anniversary of revolution. A picture of Che Guevara is emblazoned across the same sign. He is everywhere.
At a glance, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 saw a group of men led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara take power from the Spanish. A time for Cuba to emerge as it’s own nation was at hand. Spanish corruption had left Cuba in a mess and so together Fidel and Che spearheaded a plan to empower Cuba by creating a society of equality. The gap between rich and poor was targeted, as was education. La Hombre Neuvo (The New Man), as titled by Che himself, was a term encouraging the ideology of the greater good, as opposed to the individual need. With this communal empowerment came an increase in support and soon the two men were being hailed as saviours. However, a failed relationship with the US and a stunted alignment with the Soviet Union crippled Cuban growth, so much so that Cuba is still struggling today.
We arrive three days later at Trinidad on the Southern Coast of Cuba. Quaint, charming and without a thriving sex trade, it’s a world away from our start point.
Nic and I immediately jump on horses and embark on a 3-hour group ride to the base of the serene Cubano Waterfalls, located in the surrounding mountains. Two hours into the ride, we discover that we’ve been led up the wrong path by a corrupt guide who has literally taken our money as part of a scam. A heated argument only confirms that our Spanish is too poor for us to argue in Spanish but luckily we end up being led by a friendly local to the correct waterfall on new horses. Six hours after commencing our ride, we reach our final destination, sunburnt and exhausted.
Along the way, our new guide tells us that the average wage of a Cuban is about 15 pesos per month. Bear in mind that a large bottle of water costs around 2.50 pesos. Tourist dollars are therefore vital for survival, and obtaining additional income, legally or not, is a part of life that takes precedence in Cuba. It’s the bi-product of a government that insists on taking all profits of business to re-distribute to the community- La Hombre Neuvo.
Interestingly, this need for additional income had developed the ultimate salesman in Cuba. Every man you see will at first offer you a cigar. Of course this cigar is the finest in all of Cuba at the same time as being the cheapest. A firm no in response will lead to the offer of a taxi. If a taxi is not required, a horse will then be offered. Just when you thought the conversation was over, you are then offered a hotel, and if this is again declined, you will finally be offered a girlfriend. Prices are fairly standard for all the above, but can be bartered down, apparently!
Since leaving Havana, our bike injury toll is heavily mounting. The brakes on my bike fail to respond in most situations, Nic’s tyres insist on leaking and both of our bikes now offer only three separate speeds of the original twenty-one promised. Even with a custom spray paint job acquired during some down-time a few days prior, our bikes are appear near-dead. Times are tough and with a ticking clock we decide to combine bike riding with other traditional forms of Cuban transport; horse back and Cadillac.
On the road out of Havana (Nic's in black)
The road from Trinidad to Cienfuegos takes us along the tropical Caribbean coastline. Small bridges close to the ground present beautiful views of beaches and bays teaming with local activity. Boisterous children throw a ball to each other in waist deep water as crouched mothers wash dirty linen against large rocks on the shoreline. Brave men swim far off shore to impress the locals girls while closer in a farmer bathes his tired horse. It’s Cuban efficiency of the highest order.
Our host in Cienfuegos introduces himself as Doctor Victor, a title strangely shared by many Cubans. Naively, we ask as to why this is, and are met with a surprising response,
“A lot of people in Cuba are actually qualified Doctors. In fact we have some of the best medical schools in the world, you know!”
One of the best things to come from Fidel’s socialist regime is free university study for all Cubans. Empowering Cubans through education allows opportunity for work, which in turn fuels a better running community. In fact talk to anyone in Cuba, whether it be a young women sitting on the side of the street whilst cradling a baby, or a young man trying to sell you cigars, taxis or girlfriends, and you’ll probably find that they are more qualified than you. Of course the catch for Cubans is that a qualified doctor, dentist or economist working 70-hour weeks will earn less money then a taxi driver who interacts with tourists all day long. Greater good over individual need, the trade-off seems unfair.
Cienfuegos showcases the beauty of Spanish architecture and Cuban hospitality. A casual bike ride through town soon ends up with Nic’s pedal falling off exactly as mine had done a week previous. I angrily mutter the name Walmart under my breath. Within one minute of this happening, a young man approaches us. An English Professor at the local University, this friendly man starts to lead us down a road. We’ve been here before. Enter man sitting on cardboard box with mig welder at the ready. Ten minutes later, we are on the road again. Our friend asks for no money, instead we buy him a drink. Does everyone own a mig welder in this country?
Pushing towards the West side of Cuba we cycle into a Vinales, a small town set in a valley full of lush fields, tobacco plantations and wild pigs. Picturesque mountains lay near by creating a truly beautiful picture.
Cheesy promotional shot in Vinales
A lively salsa bar, common to all towns in Cuba, is the major draw card here. Competing against two cafes offering three dishes between them, there is no real contest. The dancing is incredible and locals thrive in this environment. Nic and I however, don’t, and no doubt offend locals with terrible variations of Salsa on our first night. Later the party spills into the town plaza.
The ghosts of Salsa
Again we stay in casa particular and are introduced to the mother, husband, grandfather and grandmother who all share a room at the back of the house. Over dinner we notice our host, a dentist by profession, refer to Cuba as a dictatorship. She explains that government corruptness leaves the country poor. Over control and a failure to update an outdated regime is crippling the everyday Cuban person. A regime that 50 years ago made sense is now working against the people. Of the 30 pesos we pay for our room, the majority will find it’s way into government hands. The remainder will mostly be spent on food and drinks for guests. The small left overs will afford crucial items for the family such as soap, medicine and food. It’s a sad but unavoidable truth that echoes everywhere we go.
Cuba is not a cheap place to travel for a foreigner. Prices generally are comparable to most other hot spots and tourists are charged more than double on most occasions. With an average lunch or taxi ride costing equivalent of 2 weeks pay for the average Cuban, you can only hope that the government is using this the tourist dollar wisely. Sadly, crumbling buildings, gaping manholes in the road, exposed wires and a lack of infrastructure suggest this may not be happening.
We leave the next morning but not before the mother offers to buy one of our bikes. Her ageing father is finding walking in this heat a challenging task and a bike would make life endlessly easier. Nearing the end of our journey, we have realised that our trip has changed from a cycling adventure to one of cultural discovery, and although she argues valiantly, Nic insists that he will not accept money for his bike, instead he offers it as a parting gift. Even though we warn of the bike’s terrible quality, she is most appreciative. We leave Vinales one bike lighter.
Flags, posters and barricades decorate the Malecon, Havana’s famous stretch of ocean road, as we arrive back in the capital on the morning of the 26th July, 2009. We re-acquaint ourselves with Mario and his lovely family and share stories of our travels. They are happy to see us.
Mario’s family have been wonderfully kind to us over our time in Havana and as a sign of appreciation, we offer to take the family out for a day of deep-sea fishing, a popular tourist activity. Our hearts sink when they tell us they can’t come.
“Cuban’s are not allowed on boats” Mario tells us. The reasoning is as short as it is aggravating. “They think we’ll try and escape!”.
A governmental fear of Cuban’s interacting with foreigners or indeed fleeing to international shores has led to strict rules impacting on freedom of speech and travel. Aside from marrying a foreigner hence obtaining a second passport, it is near impossible for Cubans to leave their country, and attempts to sail to US shores under the darkness of night has led to huge boat restrictions for all locals.
On a previous night in Havana, we befriend a local Cuban man sitting by himself outside a restaurant. He soon realises that we would rather chat than buy cigars from him and happily he sits down. By doing so he will practice his English. Moments later, a police officer grabs the man and starts questioning him. Nic and I watch in amazement. After giving the officer all of his details, the man tells us he can’t talk any more, it’s simply not allowed. He walks away slowly. Law prohibits illegal selling on the streets and any conversing between Cubans and foreigners is seen as a crime. Policed in such an aggressive fashion it’s plausible to think that the powers that be are also trying to put blinkers on Cubans to hide an outside world that may inspire individual thinking. It’s strange to think that it’s actually foreign trade that holds the key to a financially stronger Cuba.
Mario’s family, like many others, are victims of La Hombre Neuvo, the greater good and not individual need.
Our last night in Cuba is one of the best. A huge street carnival evoking music, dance, happiness and for a while, freedom, stretches late into the night. Ironically it’s the revolution that we are celebrating. Thousands of people line the Malecon, although from sight alone we could be anywhere in the world.
During the night, two beautiful Cuban girls are brave enough to avoid the police and talk to us. They are lovely and we spend some time together over dinner. Nic and I happily pay the 10 peso cover charge for the girls as not many Cubans could justify three weeks pay on dinner. One drink later, one girl asks if it is OK if she joins me back at my casa. Something’s not right. You see, over the course of the previous three weeks I have managed to grow a beard, a filthy black beard which in no way would appeal to the opposite sex. With this in mind, I fear the worst. The girl then produces a picture of a baby and gestures that it needs food. The other girl who speaks slightly better English then asks if I will pay for sex so that the baby can eat. These girls are professionals.
Nic and I look at eachother with confused looks. I rummage through my pocket and gather 10 pesos, Nic does the same and finds another 5 pesos. I place the money on the table and point to the photo.
“Food for baby?” I ask,
“Si” replies the friend.
With that we give them a hug goodbye, and leave the table, hoping that we have at least helped a little bit.
Three weeks in Cuba will open up a world that if you’re like me, you could never have imagined. Cuba has so much to offer, yet not quite the system to embrace it. I am by no means a voice of political reason, and so I’ll leave it at that, but 50 years on from Fidels famous revolution, it seems that the country battles many of the same problems that it did back then. Perhaps another revolution is needed.
With the ageing and poorly Fidel now handing power to his brother Raul, and a new US president willing to make changes, perhaps there is a new chapter around the corner for Cuba.
I for one certainly hope so.
We leave Cuba with huge smiles on our face and a head full of memories.
On the plane I start jotting a letter to Wamart.
As for my bike, I left it to Mario, with a warning of course.