“You choose your destiny… And we'll indicate the right way.”
-Sage from Cuban road atlas.
If there is any advice I can offer on traveling in Cuba it would be this: Leave your expectations at home and it is better to think of Cuba as an adventure rather than a vacation. In this spirit my girlfriend and I drove to Shelton, Washington on a cold and rainy night to check up on a pair of early 1990's Montague Bi-frame folding bicycles we found on Craigslist. At the time our argument in favor of getting the two rusted and corroded bikes was their packability and at $200 they were cheap enough to ditch in case our trip went bust.
My dreams of cycling Cuba had been incubating over the past eight years, ever since I met a Swiss cyclist in Guatemala who had biked the island and raved about his experience. My Cuban cycling dream was shared by my girlfriend Annelisa which I put down as number eight thousand three hundred fifty nine as to why she is awesome and sealed the deal on my decision to try and marry her. In the days leading up to our departure I made clandestine ventures to the jewelry store and schemed about how I was going to pack a rather expensive ring through multiple countries over several months. In the end I found my answer in my belt whose attributes included a bottle opener on the buckle and a small slot in which I could sew the ring. It was both hidden and safely on my person at all times…. Genius!
Our bikes meanwhile were shaping up to be a fortuitous purchase. Despite their corroded and rusted appearance from being on a boat and stored in a garage for twenty plus years, they turned out to be in sound condition. We outfitted them with sets of mustache and cruising handle bars and they both fit into a single bike bag. We named them Lottie and Padiushi and how the love would grow. I lashed an old aluminum backpack frame to the bikes and we were set. Bikes on my back and ring in the belt around my waist, we were off to Mexico for a couple of months before heading to Cuba.
Like many Americans I had plenty of impressions about Cuba but very little understanding. The majority of what we know about Cuba is filtered through the lenses of propaganda, political bluster, the vocal exile community, and an exceptionally turbulent history. For a country hardly visited by Americans, Cuba manages to provoke strong opinions and contrasting ideas perhaps more than any other country in the world. I admit that my own naive impressions of Cuba had been largely fueled by images of classic 1950's Cadillacs and Pontiacs and the amazing sounds of Cuban music; think Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van, and Benny More. The reality, I would soon learn, is always more complicated than the idea. This is especially true of Cuba.
Arriving in the Havana airport we stepped out into the humid Caribbean air and set to putting our bikes together. It's an half hour project and we received perplexed looks from Cubans and foreigners alike, but it was well worth the twenty five buck taxi ride into the city. My initial impression of Cuba was as idealic as my imagination. We rode the highway from the airport to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) with classic 1950's American cars and buses packed to overfull flying by. Half a dozen men sat listlessly around a broke-down motorcycle and side-car, a horse and carriage merged onto the highway, and we saw a young man sleeping on a mound of boxes in the back of a dump-truck. We rode down the Malacon into Havana with waves crashing over the sea wall. To say Havana is falling apart would be an understatement. The center looks like a cross between a bombed out Soviet block city and the skeleton of 1950's American glitz deteriorating in the salty air. Even this fueled an idealic impression of Cuba, yet as soon as we stepped off our bikes in the city, a far more complicated Cuba began to emerge.
One can not know a country or a culture that is not their own, especially as a tourist and especially if that country is Cuba. But it is helpful to understand how profoundly complicated the history of Cuba is and indeed the Caribbean as a whole. To think of the Caribbean one must think in terms of spheres of influence. Beginning with the 'discovery' of Hispanola (now Dominican Republic) by Columbus, every ocean going power of the day would stake a claim on the Caribbean. This is why we have Spanish speaking Cuba, French speaking Haiti, American Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, the Dutch Antilles, even the Scottish had a brief if ill-fated dalliance in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean's largest island has been the subject of more interest and influence than any other. After the native population was wiped out shortly after Columbus' arrival, Cuba was ruled by the Spanish until the 1895 war for independence. Following the Haitian slave revolt in 1791, Cuba would host tens of thousands of fleeing French immigrants and this influence is evident throughout the country, especially in the colonial city of Cienfuegos. After Cuba's independence, the country invariable fell into the realm of American influence which eventually culminated in the mafia supported Batista dictatorship from 1952 until 1959. Castro's revolution against Batista would then swing Cuba as far from the west as possible into the open arms of Soviet Russia. And finally, in an ironic twist, Cuba would find itself largely isolated and abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990's. These days Cuba is supported largely by aid from Venezuela and tourism dollars primarily from Canada.
It is impossible for a foreigner to understand the Cuban experience. But I can, within my abilities, illustrate the context that Cuba finds itself. With seventy precent of Cuba's population born after the revolution, with economic and political changes slowly taking place, it's a place where many of our old impressions no longer hold water. It is a Cuba where 1940's infrastructure, 1950's cars, and 1960's revolutionary propaganda contrasts with a young and restless population who were not there in the fighting of the wars of their grandfathers. The cars and the buildings can stay the same, but the people are always changing… that is to say, this ain't your 1960's Cuba.
After several chaotic days in Havana we bused several hours southwest to the province of Pinar Del Rio. While the cities tend to be frenetic and youthful, the rural face of Cuba is entirely different. It was here where we began our real cycling adventure through the pancake flat and gorgeous tobacco growing region for which Cuba is so famous. Our destination was Maria La Gorda (Maria the Fatty), one of the most isolated regions at the southwestern tip of the island. Like many places on the island, Maria La Gorda is not serviced by regular tourist buses which means it is only accessible via car, prepackaged tour, or in our case bicycles. As we cycled further west the cars were pleasantly replaced by cattle and horse drawn carts. Rural Cuba is a place where tourist infrastructure is virtually nonexistent, buses are for Cubans only, and often times there are limited places to stay for foreigners. Yet the rural areas are where the fabled Cuban generosity and smiles come out in force and where we were so often the recipients of the most genuine kindness. We flew a pair of Cuban flags and posted a pair of Cuban license plates which instantly endeared us everywhere we went with calls of “Cuba!” and “Adio!” greeting us as we flew through the small towns.
We rode until dark and when we finally asked about a place to stay in a small town we learned of another of the many institutionalized devisions between foreigners and tourists. Casa particulars, the rooms Cubans rent out of their homes, are divided into foreign and Cuban casas, both with strict pricing and guest reporting requirements. More often than not in the rural towns the casa particulars were for Cubans only. When we approached the owner of a Cuban only casa they would nervously weigh the options before them. On one hand the $20 we would pay nearly matches the fixed monthly Cuban income which tops out at about $20-30 per month. On the other hand, the $1000 fine they may incur by renting to a foreigner could be tantamount to loosing one's home. In the end, I believe it was not wanting to turn away two young bikers into the night that drove them to open their doors to us. It was in these Cuban only casa particulars where we had our best view of Cuban life. We feasted on lobster that night and in the morning we talked for hours over extremely strong and sweet Cuban coffee.
We beat rubber the rest of the day arriving at Maria La Gorda after eighty some kilometers under the Caribbean sun. Like most of the best beaches on the island, Maria La Gorda is monopolized by a government run hotel. We attempted a clandestine camping venture that night on the beach and were promptly eaten alive by sand flies who, like vampires, only come out in the night. We submitted to the resort that next morning. It was here where we found our own little slice of Caribbean heaven on a completely secluded beach ten minutes walk from the hotel.
Beautiful isolated beaches are a Cuban specialty, and there at Marea La Gorda I saw my opportunity. It was time for action, so I secretly cut the ring out of my belt and found a coconut on the beach. Annelisa had been raving about her coconut cracking skills all week, and after some effort I was able to pry the husk off the coconut. Using a rock I smashed a small hole in the top of the coconut to drain the water out and I quickly slipped the ring inside.
“Show me your skills,” I said tossing the coconut and a large stone to Annelisa. She started smashing away and the following scene went a little something like this: Smash, smash, smash, smash, crack, pry, crack again, look of astonishment, lots of kissing and declarations of “Hell yes I will!”