Revelations in Cuba
The Guest family goes to Cuba by bicycle, March 2008
Written by Cathy Guest
As an alternative to skiing, and with an eye to having an active holiday in a warm place, Tristan, Taran, Philip and I decided to go to Cuba over March break this year, taking our bicycles and exploring as much as we could. Our initial plan was to use an “all inclusive” as a kind of home base: a beginning and end, if nothing else. In our research pre-trip, which was limited to reading a few guide books and studying up on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s lives, we determined that the most centrally located point for us might be Varadero, though Havana would be even better situated. In the end, waiting til the last minute to decide, we got the only thing we could: return airfare to Varadero from Moncton for four. All attempts at booking accommodation failed, but conversation with others who had been to Cuba before heartened us that we would find places to stay along the way.
The whole point of going to Cuba was to meet the people of that country. Philip had the fondest of memories about Cubans from his fisheries observer days. He once brought home the captain of the vessel, and maybe three others, and we sang and ate, enjoying ourselves immensely while the “authorities” sat in an idling car in front of the house, watching for illegal activity or worse, an escape. Since then, it has been one of Philip’s dreams to visit the homeland of these generous and animated people. You could say we went on faith: Philip was so confident that we would be taken care of.
The trip was truly an adventure, and it wasn’t until near the end of our week there that I picked up pen and paper to write a few observations. These are the first words I wrote: “Waiting for dinner. Spirits (mine) are low. I’m feeling unattractive, dumb, and disrespected by my family, by the world, and possibly, by me, too!”
My family was pretty shocked when they read that I was feeling this way. I have included this entry to illustrate the darkly pervasive mood that came over me when we came to stay at an “all inclusive” on the Varadero hotel strip. Maybe it was the absence of soul contact there that instigated a welling up of the worst in me. This place, we had all decided, was not Cuba. Lucky for us, we had gotten to know a bit about the “real Cuba” before this, and were able to shake off these feelings of unworthiness, of excess, and of sadness.
My adventure truly began with a bathroom visit at the Varadero airport on arrival. Three of the most beautiful women I had ever seen were hanging out in uniforms: these were the cleaners, and the dispensers of the toilet paper. “I have my own”, I said proudly. They pointed to the helmet and inquired “bicycle” or reasonable facsimile, then laughed and laughed, holding their sides.
We collected our bicycles and assembled our gear, then stood outside in the noonday heat, amid buses and taxis and blazing sun, wondering, waiting for Philip to change money, and talk to this one and that. Finally, a plan emerged: we would go by taxi to Havana, stopping on the way to see if we would get a room in the hotel in Jibacoa. The route was flat, and we were excidedly looking out the windows. There was much to see – old cars, palm trees, the ocean, and the run-down looking town of Matanzas – we shuddered, thankful that we were not on our bicycles. We stopped in Jibacoa, and were able to look through the glistening hotel lobby. It was cool and inviting, with palm trees and a glimpse of paradise out the other side, with blue skies and turquoise sea. Our hopes soared, then were dashed: no room at the inn (this was to be the story of our trip). It was onward to the old city.
We had heard of Havana, and tried to maintain an open mind as we wheeled our bikes, loaded with panniers, among hundreds of people, moving and mixing, en route to the hotel, where Philip had found the last room at the inn. The Hotel Florida was glorious – cool, vast, ornate, exotic. Our room was also lovely, though for four of us, and our bikes, it was a tight fit. We took over a portion of the upstairs lobby, fiddling with our bikes and relaxing in comfy chairs while caged doves cooed soothingly. Exploring for supper options, we found a wonderful old gathering place, Plaza de Armas, and strolled along the fabulous Malecon, with music, fishing, and so much to see by the oceanside. We walked the crowded streets of Old Havana, teeming with Cuban people of all ages, all sizes, all colours. The voices were loud, the smell of sewage and heat disturbing, the poverty appalling. People were dressed like us, walking like us, but seemed to live in dark and crumbling cubicles lining the narrow streets that went on and on every which way. We found a bar, which was recommended in our trusty guide book, The Lonely Planet, and were pleased to find music there. The night was festive and fun. Our welcome to Cuba was warm and exciting.
Sleep for me was difficult. In addition to the intensity of the still heat, the streets seemed to be crazy with music and dancing. I longed to go outside and be part of it, but fear overruled: not knowing the language and being alone were too daunting. The party went on and on into the night, so I awoke tired and hot.
We packed and loaded our bicycles early the next morning and pedalled out of the hotel lobby into the seething humanity of Calle Obispo, down to the Plaza on cobblestones, then left, out along the Malecon. What freedom! What joy! People waved, and called out “Ola!” One man, across the wide divided road, yelled over his encouragement, blowing kisses, arms wide as if he was trying to hug us as he ran along the road. I wept tears of joy and gratitude for this tender kindness.
The fumes eventually began to overpower us, then the heat, and then, the slime got Taran. When waves crash over the concrete wall along the Malecon, the sidewalk becomes green and slippery. Taran went down, and so the epic adventure truly began.
We cycled about 40 km, and by 2 p.m., we were baked. Our destination, Playa Baracoa, was an oasis that we longed for. But Playa Baracoa was no oasis. The “book”, our guide, talked of the one kilometre long beach with white sand and friendly casas. We rode from one end of town to the other, wondering where in the world the beach was. Instead, the sea was rough, the coastline strewn with garbage, the water’s edge littered with concrete slabs and demolished structures. People began appearing on the sidewalks and calling out to us from their homes: “You need a room? Come and see!” and so we viewed many fine casas, all inappropriate because there weren’t enough beds for us. We chose a place with two beds and a sofa, with a promise of supper and breakfast. The family was lovely. We learned soon that only three lights worked, that the water (cold only) operated occasionally at best, that the beds had one sheet on bare mattresses, that the pillows were made of knotted rags (I guess…), and that outside our window, the noisy, grunting, fuming, hulking bus stopped often. Ear plugs in, nursing sunburns, we did our best to sleep, and were able to get riding by 7 a.m., in the earliest light, after a scary breakfast of slimey eggs on yellow buns with rancid butter, undrinkable sweet coffee with powdered milk, and thankfully, some fruit. A big journey lay ahead – 60 km to Las Terrazas – paradise, said the book. A five star hotel was sure to have room, and if not, casas abounded. Taran had been suffering with severe burns, sore bum, and general exhaustion. It was a very difficult ride for him, and it went on and on and on. The rest of us enjoyed it, but we were tired as we neared our destination, and ready for rest. Las Terrazas had no rooms for us…but we did manage a delicious swim in the river and some English conversation and sympathy before loading up and vanning it to San Diego de los Banos, 60 km away. In pouring rain, we arrived at the tawdry but welcoming El Mirador. This was heaven for us: space, air, a charming and helpful bellman who looked like Denzel Washington, decent food, Cuban ‘son’ music. The air seemed clearer and fresher. We became rested, reading our books, Taran with Scar Tissue, Tristan with Electric Kool aid Acid Test, Philip with Deep Storm, and me with Before Green Gables.
Tristan was sick, and all plans were off. We didn’t know how to proceed, so let him sleep and sleep. Later, he seemed well enough to travel, though not ride, and we had to give up the 60 km “most interesting ride in Cuba” (said the book), much to Taran’s delight. We cabbed it again to the backpacker’s haven of Vinales, and had a driver who lived there and knew everyone intimately. We were poured into the welcoming arms of the Leon Leon Hernandez family for two days, fed and cared for. Hotels, of course, were full. Carnaval was on, and Thursday was ‘pre Carnaval’ – craziness ramping up. Again, the streets were noisy with music til 2 a.m., then full of drunken rants and song.
Friday brought fabulous cycling and adventure in the big cave. We were thrilled with the massive cave interior and its beautiful spaces, charmed by tiny ‘pine forests’ of the stalagmites, the glistening walls encrusted with rock like diamonds, views out of holes into green and blue, the helping hands of our competent guide, and making musical bongo sounds on stalactites.
After the ride – a glorious downhill with tailwinds – back to town, lunch of ‘jamon y queso’ (ham and cheese) sandwiches was disappointing, but determined to make the most of our stay, we were lured into renting horses and exploring a small cave with clear pools for swimming (“…well worth the trip,” said the book). The horses were near starved, with no energy, the ride mucky and thorny, and the caves dirty and mosquito infested at the entrance. A highlight for me, however, was the capable lamp holder, an old Cuban with rubber boots and straw hat, sure-footed and kind. With his encouragement, I was the first into the questionable pool, and I found it refreshing and uplifting.
That evening, we watched dancers in the town square. I was truly inspired by those fabulous bellies, tight and slithering – glitter, feathers, high heels (for the women only!), bright colours and big smiles. I vowed to work my belly and hips like that every day.
We were ready to leave town the next day after another raucous night in the streets that surely went on until 4 a.m. After much deliberation, we settled on Varadero as a destination, figuring an all inclusive would repair our tired muscles and satisfy our need for comfort. After six and a half hours in a hot and dusty taxi, via Havana – with a bonus dancing and music break – we arrived on the Varadero strip. After our lovely taximan left us, we went from inn to inn, wheeling our bikes, with sagging spirits until we were finally welcomed into Sol Melia Coral; I felt like Anne Shirley, praying with all my heart for someone to take us in. When we got “the bracelet” and finally “the room”, we dashed into the warm salty ocean and watched blissfully as the sun set into the stunningly blue sea. Next, a mohito (I didn’t like it), leading to a pina colada, and dinner. That is when I wrote my first entry (before the mohito). The thrill wore off quite soon, surrounded as we were by large white people with tiny bikinis, burned crispy, everyone, it seemed, smoking. People were not friendly, and kept to themselves. The Cubans smiled ingratiatingly – lacking the sincere, beautiful warmth we had grown to love. Nonetheless, we did well the next day. I enjoyed doing yoga on the beach at sunrise, then a big ocean swim and breakfast. As the boys relaxed, Philip and I bicycled to Xanadu, soaking up the beauty and civilized comfort of that place, having delicious coffee by the ocean. We snorkelled and swam some more, ate burgers, baked on the beach, snoozed in the shade, saw a Cirque de Soleil style show, and were blissed out in relaxation. The next day, we hung onto our bracelets until the last moment – about 1 p.m, then set off into the last unknown, towards the airport, 40 km away. Our destination was the snorkelling haven of Playa Coral. The wind was crazy, and blew behind us, sending us soaring dizzily at water’s edge with palm trees leaning, skies blue, waters turquoise with white caps. Playa Coral arrived too soon. We had hours ahead of us to hang out, but made friends there: fixed Joseph’s bike, ate lobsters brought to us on plates through the woods from Mom’s kitchen, read our books, chatted, hugged our friendly gatekeeper with tears of gratitude, and eventually made our way to Varadero Airport for our 1 a.m. departure. We rode in darkness under stars and moon, soft air, still howling tailwind, happy to be on our way, glad the last day had been perfect, finding the airport assimilation unfolding without a hitch.
Arriving in Moncton 6 a.m.ish, with cold and clear air, clean bathrooms and rude customs officials, we were completely happy to be home, even more so to step into our beautiful beautiful house on the hill.
It’s taken us days to recover – laundry, some queasiness, bone tiredness, and settling our active minds.
So what is Cuba, everyone wants to know. And what do we know, with only eight full days there? Yet, we have all been touched by the spirit of this country: we have seen optimism and joy in the midst of darkness and dirt, glaring noonday sun, dusty potted roads, empty shelves in tiendas, garbage and slime. We cling to our exquisite surroundings here in on the edge of St. Margaret’s Bay, revelling in the quiet peace, clear cold, luxurious furniture, bedding and temperature, and satisfying, wholesome food. But how close is that scene of disintegrating buildings and run-down architecture to us? How soon before the cars are heaps that we coax into running with bits gleaned from this and that, fuel coming from ‘black market’ sources, chickens, pigs and fish giving us food that we ourselves must nurture, catch and kill? Lettuce that we grow in own front gardens, carrots, cabbage…How would we survive as a people if poverty prevailed, each of us as poor as our neighbours, having to share, count on each other, since to be alone is to perish?
The boys think they will not return to Cuba. They may choose not to ride bicycles with panniers again either. But for Philip and me – our hearts grow fonder with retrospection. There is much for us to learn there, and much that we can bring to that country. The prospect of an incredible sharing of human spirit beckons. We are grateful.