Location: Port Antonio, Jamaica. (Though much written in Cuba)
Subject: Cuba: Impressions of a Locomotive,
The Need to Fight
I'm in Jamaica.
The difficulty of the fight may not be greater with increased danger of
defeat, but perhaps, conversely, with no perceived threat, the fight becomes
And we must fight in our daily lives; to do what we want; to keep doing
what we want; to stay alive.
I find that in countries like this, I get sucked down by a malaise and
lethargy brought on by the heat and humidity. The fight in me drains away.
Just walking along the street, I find difficult to do in a purposeful
manner. And writing......
Firstly, there's finding the motivation, which often finally comes when
it's an imperative.
A few hours aren't then too difficult to find, although there are always
lots of other things to do. It's Sunday, it's raining intermittently and
I have a table to sit at on the porch / verandah of my hostel in a large,
slightly run-down, colonial house. I'm looking out at the dense foliage
of a thriving mango tree. But it's not exactly peaceful. Squeezing in
the gate and over the white-wash walls and assorted bushes and between
the mango trees and up the brown-tiled pathway is the large sound of disco
and reggae music, coming from the shack shop selling beer opposite, occasionally
overlaid by the buzz of a saw or drill.
What is it with Jamaicans and their sound systems??? It's almost impossible
to escape the range of some music box or other, played so that it can
be heard miles away. "Noise Devils" was the term used by one irate complainer
in a letter to The Gleaner (a national newspaper, that I originally thought
was called The Cleaner).
I don't imagine Jamaica will ever have problems building larger airports,
since there don't appear to be any noise restrictions.
I wouldn't mind so much if it was more of a variety; but the mono-culture
of Reggae just gets to me. And I like Reggae.
The guide book says that there are a number of distinct forms of Jamaican
music, but I reckon I'm just not that fine tuned.
The mono-culture of Salsa got to me in Cuba, too, though it might have
been Son, Trova, Samba or Casino. If I could have distinguished between
them, maybe I would've had more tolerance.
As regards material to write about, after two yacht voyages and a month
in Cuba, I have plenty of that bouncing around in my head and jotted in
my diary. But my brain is battling to find a way to present it to you
in a vital and coherent fashion. This is as much my fight as pedaling
my bicycle against the elements and gradients, or almost as much as pushing
myself to be open and aware to the extraordinary circumstances of life
around me. The latter is a task for everyone, though.
The big black mama caretaker woman [in a place where I'm often called
"White Bwai" or succinctly, "English", political correctness is on a different
plain] just plodded back up the path with a 500ml PET bottle of p**si
from the shop opposite, up the few steps to the verandah, and set it on
another table over to my right, the other side of the main entrance, into
which she then disappeared briefly before returning to her bottle with
a black plastic bag of home-cooked food in a Tupperware box. She's now
sitting down eating.
I look up at the only one, young, mango that I can see on the tree in
front of me, for inspiration.
The heat, the lack of breeze, rhythmic music and the kaleidoscope of events
running around inside my head anaesthetized me and I just fell asleep
for a spell. I hope you didn't notice. How can I write so that this will
not happen to you? It's got to be alive, personal, sharp, witty, original,
compelling, topical, like nothing I've ever written before...... v I'm
going nowhere. At least some of the heat has left the day and my head
is a bit clearer. I could start at the end, and see if that will work:
A goal, a target, a destination to give you a sense of urgency and importance;
a deadline. Build some suspense; that's it! Though everyone really knows
that it's the journey that's important, not the destination.
I am fighting towards a transition, though, not really a destination.
My wife and a new life await me. How I take that transition from a life
of transitions to ....er... a life of different transitions, will measure
the man in me. I'm struggling towards my final continent, eyes out for
a fitting climax to these 14years of dream chasing. But this is not Hollywood,
though I sometimes think that the credits will roll as I gaze upon the
sunrise in the arms of my wife.
6:26pm : wind getting up. Sky gloaming. 1st mosquito. Cat stalking.
But if nothing else, this....
INTERUPTION by girl telling me about pizza place for good take-away, and
that I should go "before it rains and doesn't stop".
....this journey has taught me that I should look for a climax in everyday.
I can't say that I've always found them, but perhaps more than my fair
share. Isn't it the looking that's important, not the finding, though?
A CLOUD OF MOSQUITOES has formed threateningly at my left shoulder. Time
to retreat to the relative safety of the fan in my room.
IN BED NOW. I look sideways at the smiley face I've taped to the bar-bag
which mounts on the front of my bike. I always have a smile in front of
me, even if my bike has to look like Thomas the Tank Engine.
This finale I'm pushing for is South America, with all its range of exotic
dangers, zodiac of hazards and spectrum of menaces. But to get there,
I've been subjecting myself and my equipment to what could easily be proven
the riskiest phase of my journey to date; The Caribbean Sea in cyclone
(Writing in Port Antonio Library 24/8/04. On a shelf on my right hand
side I can see a book entitled, "An advanced Guide to Hard Times." It's
a shame it's just about the Dickens novel. )
So you want to enter the realms of popular writing: How better than to
experience catastrophe, calamity and cataclysm at the hands of nature's
fury and in the claws of the supernatural, beset by devils, enemies and
personal ghosts; to sink into the depths of despair and emerge battered,
but strengthened. Simple! (But it shouldn't be too easy.)
What do you think?
[A] The Caribbean Sea, approaching cyclone season for elemental hostility.
[B] Out in a small sailing yacht, the Cantamar, with three relative strangers;
the only puny Englishman amongst raving Canadians and an American who'd
like to be Canadian;
The yacht has engine troubles, electrical troubles and water-system troubles,
plus is, according to the Bahamian boatyard technicians, "jinxed". When
one thing is fixed, another goes wrong. When the generator set is finally
up and running, the engine rev. counter stops when the gen. set is switched
on. And they are supposed to be unconnected systems. And after weeks (which
should have been days) getting things in order, a battery explodes (fortunately
harmlessly) almost directly underneath my berth, the day before embarkation.
It filled the boat with an evil, rotten-eggs smell, which one crew, Sea
Dog Hugh, thought was me. (Thanks!!!) Anyway, that smell, combined with
the smells from the engine, regularly being opened up in the galley (kitchen,
to you land lubbers) and toyed with, brings on a mild nausea which I don't
need in my attempts to resist the onset of sea-sickness.
[C] My life vest has no emergency distress beacon.
And to top this off;
[D] the passage is to Cuba, one of Mr W. Bush's pet enemies. And who knows
where that puts us "if we're not with him, we're against him." So in the
meantime it's a potential gauntlet to run along the Straits of Florida
where we could be intercepted from either side, against a strong current.
And that's saying nothing of [E] p-p-p-pirates; either living or deceased.
I found a berth for my bicycle, after a few adjustments to make it narrower
and smaller, up near my own berth at the most-rocking end of the boat.
I bunjeed it down securely.
We overtook a tug towing a submarine kind of eerily, with nothing to mark
the long tow cable. We were on a converging course, so we tacked to port
(left) and then again to starboard (right), behind it, to avoid crossing
We were under sail at that time. Good wind. Yacht leaning stably.
The wind slackened and changed direction, to bring it from the wrong direction
for sailing on our course, so we started up the engine and put steering
My watch was 8 'til midnight, which I did with Chef Craig, the next most
inexperienced crewmember. I took hourly position-, wind-, engine- and
battery readings, not really happy reading or going into the corkscrewing
cabin where I couldn't keep my eyes on the horizon. Uneventfully.
And that's how the voyage went, except for flying fish skipping away from
the bow in the daytime, and Hugh catching a MahiMahi (Dolphin Fish, not
a dolphin) on a drag line. When that fish is brought aboard, it shimmers
with every colour of the rainbow for a brief time before becoming dull
in death. Tasty though.
I was secretly disappointed that the U.S. coastguard didn't board us and
make a bit of a story of it. But I'm sure Captain John was happy not to
have to deal with them after all the previous delays, as were we all,
As Hugh didn't cease pointing out to me, I was very lucky that super-generous
Capt. John had taken me on and to Cuba. Grasias, Senor John.
We dodged a few lightening storms, a little nervous that we were just
riding floating lightening rods. The yacht was a schooner, and thus had
two tall masts. We caught some heavy rain on approach to Havana, following
the coast of Cuba which was almost invisible through curtains of rain
and low cloud.
No-one came out to greet us. We sailed unchallenged into Marina Hemmingway,
though not, of course, without having established right of passage, over
the radio, first.
We were met by a customs officer wearing a N.Y. baseball cap and riding
a cheap mountain bike, at wharf-side.
American Enemy. Axis of Salsa.
Cuba had been in my sights for an interminably long time. Cuba and Jamaica
had pulled me across the Caribbean, as opposed to the more straightforward
cycling way south through Central America.
Was Cuba merely a relic from a bygone era; outdated and left behind, heading
for inevitable collapse into the arms of slavering developers; preserved
by the iron fist of a tyrannical despot?
Or was it an oasis of a better period....nay, a farer, more egalitarian
order of society seen nowhere else, powered by the love of the people
for a benevolent dictator, and now un-uprootable?
I guess I wanted to see a simple, non-materialistic society, where people
were living sustainably outside the grasp of ever-accelerating commercialism
and consumerism; classless and untainted by the accumulation of wealth.
And not just because it's the law, but because the people desire to live
I hope that what I want to see doesn't determine what I actually see.
But I am aware that there is a danger of that.
My first experience of Cuba was at Marina Hemmingway which was more like
a no-man's-land, and as such, almost not Cuba; a gated, secure facility.
But it was immediately evident that we were the interface with the forbidden
or denied or unavailable fruits of the West, because officials and guards
showed desirous interest in our belongings, such as magazines and comestibles.
It didn't lead to untrustworthy behaviour, though.
Here also, the U.S. dollar was the legal currency, and Cuban pesos could
get you precisely nothing. This was glaring evidence of a gaping divide
in Cuba; those who have dollars and those who don't. And I knew which
group I was going to be lumped in with.
My lack of Spanish, I'm not proud to say, would not help me overcome this
and a host of other perhaps insurmountable differences. Cuba was my first
Spanish-speaking country on this journey. But there stand to be plenty
more, so I determined to study and learn it to a working proficiency.
First things to get round; the vowel shifts and dropped S's from standard
Spanish. Cuba isn't the best place to learn 'proper' Spanish.
I lived on the Cantamar, which was moored in the company of an assortment
of other vessels; some luxurious, some decrepit, some big, some small,
until I had acquired an onward flight ticket (owch!) to enable me to leave
the crew list. I made forays the eight or nine miles by bicycle along
avenues and tunnels of tropical trees, past people hitchhike commuting
on corners, into humming Havana.
There are no real traffic jams in Havana. Bumper to bumper only happens
when a really slow moving vehicle like a horse cart or bici-taxi is in
front, or something is broken down. But there aren't as few vehicles on
the roads as I'd expected or hoped for, either.
Talking of breakdowns, given the phenomenal age of many of the cars, they
don't occur as often as you might imagine. The cars are so old it's sometimes
surprising not to see the occupants' legs sticking out from underneath
a la Flintstones or Anthill Mob, powering the car by running along.
This brings me to the worst aspect of Cuba, and that is the dense, billowing,
choking clouds of smoky exhaust fumes belched out by just about every
vehicle; especially trucks on the uphill whine. I spent a remarkable amount
of time holding my breath. I've now got to remind myself to breathe. Ha
Ha! Not really.
Like I held my breath and time seemed to stand still, Cuba has held itself
(or been held) in a kind of time warp. Albeit a time warp where stuff
Not only the cars and technology are in the grip of the '50s, but also
most of the buildings haven't been through the demolition and rebuild
cycle in the last century. I guess this has avoided the ugliness of the
'60s, '70s and '80s and the space age since then, and has made retro entirely
unnecessary. What I saw around practically every corner and from every
vantage point, were striking views like classical paintings. Even in the
modern section! It's a living museum.
Stone and stucco; grand and imposing, four or five storeys, sturdy and
square; with a complexion of wooden shutters and ironmongery, balustrades
and balconies, for miles in all directions, swallowed me up and spun me
around, trying to take in every angle of this Other-Time. But it is weathering
and decaying and badly wanting resurfacing and shoring up. This, however,
displays the age and ages with greater emphasis.
As if being tied to the dollar wasn't insult enough, a U.S.-style, copy-cat
Capitolio building (1929) peers down two hundred years or so over the
shoulders of Cubans squeezing by each other in the long, narrow alleys
of the Spanish Colonial [really-] old section.
In the daytime, in the air-less streets, I hugged the peeling walls as
I walked, pressing myself into the margins of shade. I had to watch out
for lethal, unguarded holes underfoot and for stuff dangling from above.
People dangle ropes and baskets from their balconies to take delivery
of all sorts of goods. I even saw a dining table being hoisted.
The Colombian Connection in Havana
I met a Colombian lad, Joaquin, at an airline office, whose English was
pretty good and whose Spanish was, naturally, immaculate. We did a few
museums and sights together. Some of my early encounters with Cubans were
with him as interpreter, though he also pushed me to use and stretch my
Spanish. Thanks, Joaquin. He helped me find a 'Casa Particular' (Special
House; a kind of guest house) for a good rate and with cool people. Their
ever-readiness to offer cups of strong, Cuban coffee, was wonderful, and
quite rare, unfortunately, across Cuba.
Given his nationality, many people thought Joaquin must be a drug runner,
but, though he didn't have his bike with him, he was just a simple bicycle
enthusiast like me, just on the look-out for cultural curiosities and
exchange, good-but-cheap nourishment, and all things written in rhythm.
We heard music, so we homed in on a doorway and found, in a living room
by the street, accomplished musicians and singers brewing up a storm of
Salsa just practicing their routine; casually brilliant. The joyous sound
filled the street. This was common.
Young Joaquin navigated me through the queuing- and ordering- ritual of
Havana's supreme, one-peso- (4US cents) ice-cream establishment, and found
a restaurant, La Zorra y el Cuervo (Vixen and Crow) where they had chicken
and rice for a dollar, accompanied by traditional Cuban jazz. We sang
along, "One dollar Chicken! It's only one dollar chicken!" to the famous,
Cuban refrain of Guantanamera. [To you English football nuts, that's the
tune to "You only sing when you're winning!" or "There's only one Michael
Joaquin was also able to pass on some insights he'd picked up by being
able to engage with locals. For example; of the most common car on the
roads, the '70s style, Soviet-made Lada, government ministers apparently
owned the white ones. Fidel Castro is a little more equal than them, and
has Mercedes cars, in fact, a large fleet of them. He needs decoys because
of the likelihood of assassination attempts. I thought that if he really
wished to go incognito, though, he'd simply drive a Lada.
Later, I did notice that some white Ladas were taxis. Perhaps ministers
were illegally moonlighting with two jobs.
OLD JOKES ARE THE BEST
Man goes to auto repair workshop and says to the mechanic:
"I'd like a windscreen wiper for my Lada."
The mechanic replies, "Mmmmm....OK. That's a good exchange."
THE FUNNIEST THING IN CUBA
[Thanks to author Lynette Chiang for my partial plagiarism from her book
Stretch Ladas!!!! Very oxymoronic!
Disappointingly, though I tried to chase one or two of these down, I never
managed to get one on film. Amazingly they manage to keep them running
in Cuba. And I imagine they have no need for the heated rear windscreen,
either. [For those who don't know that joke, it's to keep your hands warm
in winter.] v I did manage to photograph several gaily yellow and spherical
"Coco Taxis" [coco = coconut in Spanish], thanks partly to the vigilance
of Joaquin, though you did miss a few, Joaquin. I can forgive that though.
Without you I'd never have known that that staff lady at the art museum
was explaining that she was a teacher like me. "A sex teacher!!" Joaquin
said she said [unlike me, though]. On second thoughts, maybe I'd rather
not have known. Anyway, both of my and Joaquin's hearts are attached elsewhere,
and we had no want to be her students.
Havana was spawned of a superb natural harbour and protected against invasion
from the sea, by a couple of impressive forts at the lips of the harbour.
It was protected against invasion of the sea by a long, formidable sea
wall on a tough shelf of wave-scarred limestone, curving off from the
western fort and snaking towards the sunset. This snake is partnered by
a wide path and a divided, four-lane boulevard. Here was the place we
found breeze, and therefore people, colour and activity. The Malecon.
In the daytime, some daring street kids took turns to do running leaps
from the parapet, to clear the stone shelf and dive into the choppy water,
sometimes targeting an inflated truck innertube. We frequently refused
rides from prospecting bici-taxis (3-wheeled, human- (usually man-) powered
carriers of two passengers), even though it would have been illegal for
them to carry us foreigners anyway, and subject to heavy fine.
Sundown was the Malecon's time for strollers, exercisers and socialisers.
Night time drew couples, canoodlers and cruisers. And we had to refuse
illicit cigars, single red roses and single women of the night. Peanut-sellers,
with fists full of slim paper cones, and guitar-toting troubadours also
plied the line of people.
I was surprised at the variety of racial types, from the blackest of African
black diamonds to the palest of Caucasian cream, with all hues, heights,
shapes and dress-style in between. But in spite of this, I stood out like
a sore thumb. Perhaps something in my movement (and posture) gave me away.
Cubans, who Salsa "from birth," seem to flow as they move, and their posture
is so proud and natural. They are finely attuned to rhythms, too.
This line of people looked out over the sea, towards the USA only 90miles
away. The breeze blew across them from the hammerhead-shark-shaped landmass
of Cuba. And that was to be my direction. How come I so often have to
fight the wind? Am I going the wrong way around the World?
The Malecon was a centre (if a centre can be linear, without saying axis
again) of community and communication. But it was just one of many, because
most of the streets and balconies thronged with people discoursing, vocalizing
or shouting to one another. One Cuban gentleman, Xavier, a Casa Particular
owner, told me that since the optimism of the revolucion, people had started
amassing in this way. To me, this was one of the most beautiful features
of Cuban life.
On returning from a two-week spell with my long-suffering wife, who visited
me in Jamaica, I landed back in Havana in the middle of an unusually complete
power blackout (Abagon!) It had silenced the clamorous TVs and radios
(the constant noise of which I only really noticed when it was absent);
it had stilled the fans and ancient, big-square-box air-cons; and it had
cut off the phones. It brought even more folks out onto their balconies
and doorsteps, and people called across the darkness using what I called
the 'balconyphone' system.
Joaquin could call my name from his Casa Particular opposite mine, and
my name would echo between the buildings and in my side window to rouse
me in the morning, or invite me out to a street Rumba.
Going Nowhere Fast
Joaquin explained how to get me and my bicycle across the harbour, since
the tunnel was closed to cycling. There was a special bus with no seats,
but cheaper and more regular was a ferry for 40 Cuban centavos (about
2 US cents). So down through the old city I went; past the whitewashed
port buildings with a colourful stencil of Che Guevara graffiti'd on,
and a little further, to the anonymous-looking, ferry terminal. The ferry
looked like a shed with a hull. But the security was tight and keen. They
swiped me and my bag with a metal detector baton and searched my bag.
They found my SwissTool (combination pliers, screw-drivers and cutters),
which I use as my key fob even though it's heavy. They immediately barred
me from the ferry! It seemed ridiculous, but they meant it, and I had
to back out embarrassingly through a press of people. Later I found out
that hijackers had taken the ferry three times in the past and set course
for Florida. Once successfully!
Oh well, at least I knew that I couldn't go that way when I finally left
Havana with bike fully loaded. And I would have to delay my visit to the
SECOND FUNNIEST THING IN CUBA; an enormous statue of Jesus across the
harbour. The funny thing about it is that it has a serious-looking lightening
rod protruding over his head. I suppose it could be Zeus who hurls the
I cycled over to Parque Lennon to find the famous sculpture of John Lennon
in ordinary repose on a park bench. Some vandal had removed John's glasses.
He doesn't look like himself without his specs.
I had been given the wrong date stamp upon my re-entry into Cuba, which
meant that I had to go twice to the Immigration Department in some out-of-the-way
suburb of shabby apartment blocks. All visitors there were kept waiting
out on the street without information as to what the procedure was. [It
was very good of you to help me with that one, Joaquin.]
I cast my eyeballs skywards in a moment of frustration.
A girl is blowing bubbles from a crumbling balcony.
I must move on.
I don't have it so bad.
Keeping on keeping on.
Returning home to my casa, after filling myself for a few pesos at an
expensive-looking vegetarian restaurant, my regular place, I pass a cat
with kitten under a monster, blue, '50s, American automobile. I make a
mental note that this would make a great photograph, when it's lighter.
It's eight fifteen; the sun has not long moved to other longitudes and
the sky is still bright. A little further, I stop briefly to examine the
state of play of the chess being played on the pavement by a small square
where kids kick a ball around. Another half block to my casa, nearby which
I salute, as I always do, an old man who invariably sits on his doorstep,
watching over goings on. His name is Peru, and when I first needed somewhere
to lodge my metal donkey, I was pointed in his direction. He took my bike
into his ground-floor bedroom and propped it against a table at the foot
of his bed. The table had the preparings of a meal on it. GrindCore punk
was gnashing out of his small radio! As out of place as plutonium in a
toy-box. It instantly transported me back to times in Japan, moshing to
the band, Godie. I wish I'd had enough Spanish to be able to ask him if
he liked it. He didn't turn it off, though. Anyway, I knew that the bike
would be well looked after here, but although Peru appeared entirely happy
with the arrangement, it was an uncomfortable imposition on him and I
would have to change it. Fortunately, when I returned from Jamaica, I
had to stay at a different casa, and there was space in my room to stash
I was learning Spanish slowly, but steadily:
'Avocado' is Lawyer. ('Aoacate' is Avocado)
'Esposa' is Wife and 'Eposas' are hand-cuffs.
'Casado' is Married and 'Cansado' is Tired.
Was Spanish invented by men, by any chance??? Or by women?
And 'Fruta Bomba' is Papaya, but 'Papaya' is pussy (except in the east
of Cuba where it is Papaya).
So if you say Papaya wrongly, you might end up needing an Avocado!
It was coming into avocado season.
The first day of summer arrived, even though every day had felt like high
summer so far. It was heralded with an enormous party. The whole Malecon
was closed to traffic, and there were sound-systems, food-stalls and a
motorcycle race in the daytime. Joaquin and I were amused at the slowness
of the 125cc motorcycles, but when some demonstration 600cc machines razzed
up and down, we wondered how on earth anyone had been able to acquire
such things here.
I was actually more interested in looking at some people's motorized bicycles.
Quite a few people mount tiny petrol-engines on their ordinary bicycles,
so that they can ride, well, about as fast as I can when I'm working hard.
They are great examples of home engineering.
That evening, the crowd swelled to a shoulder-to-shoulder river along
the whole Malecon, for live music on several sound stages at kilometer
intervals. I hadn't realized there were going to be so many stages, and
I couldn't find Joaquin at "the stage" where I thought he was going to
be. Couples salsa'd everywhere and rum flowed freely. There was not a
hint of trouble and there were very few police. At least uniformed ones.
There are very few places where this could be done in such a relaxed manner.
Our Man Out of Havana.
Joaquin, after a couple of scares concerning full, or non-connecting,
flights, managed to fly back to Colombia via Venezuela, in possession
of one hard-fought-for Venezuelan visa which he never needed in the end,
because he easily got a connection and didn't need to take a bus from
Caracas to Bogota. He enthusiastically bade me visit him.
The British Ambassador wished me good luck. He was the first ambassador
to ever receive me, and he and his staff nicely made me feel important.
I'm not, of course, but I do need a boost every now and again. It was
a little extra impulse to get me out of Havana.
I left Havana without ticking off everything I wanted to do there. There's
so much! I didn't manage to photograph a camel towing rollerbladers. [If
you want that explained, then either write to me, or go there.]
I loaded my pack-mule onto the special bus, under the lens of a photographer
from Reuters, to pass under the harbour entrance, and headed back towards
Havana because the bus drove too far before letting me off. Then I headed
off across Cuba, confidently expecting a cyclist's paradise. Laughter
was still ringing in my ears, from a group of three Cuban lady dancers
who had laughed uncontrollably at the idea of bicycling to Santiago de
Cuba, when they thought it was difficult by car. But I don't think I've
seen the kind of muscle control that Cuban dancers have, anywhere else.
Every turn of the wheel is a revolution.
In Cuba, they have kept many vintage cars chugging along, though often
missing side-windows, and likewise they've kept the revolucion going,
though I don't think that the optimism is present in anywhere near it's
original degree. But it's still going.
Perhaps the elements that have kept it going are that it is young, sexy
and poetic; embodied in its icon, Che, and inspiration, Jose Marti. Che's
early death has preserved the youthful face of the revolucion.
Of course, it was people-driven and still must be. Eighty or so rebels
came over on an overcrowded boat from Mexico. About half were killed within
a very short time. The other half took over the country. That's got to
be difficult to do without the will of the people.
It was, and still is, all about heroes, too. Many billboards across the
land remind everyone of this.
Over a camp-stove, way back in Utah in the USA, I listened to the tales
of one who had traveled sometime before to Cuba. He told me that Cubans
were so disillusioned with the situation they lived in, that they were
refusing to have babies. As a result, there was a marked absence of baby-strollers
(prams or pushchairs) in the streets. A huge step to take for Latinos.
But that doesn't look to be the case now. Whether due to any change in
situation, political or otherwise, or because nature is just too strong,
I couldn't tell. I saw plenty of kids, though not many baby-strollers,
likely due to a lack of imports. Maybe that time was during the 'Special
Period' just after the demise of their benefactor, the USSR. Which brings
us to the un-neighbourly neighbour to the north; the USA.
Unfortunately for Cuba, the USA election was won, or stolen (as I was
informed by many Americans) in Florida, where a large contingent of discontented
Cuban exiles holds substantial sway. The outcome is that the few control
the many. Some democracy! (But who ever said that democracy was, or could
And they have tightened the screws on an already under-pressure Cuba.
Being an underdog fan at heart, I say "Good On Cuba!" for standing up
to the bully.
Hardship and depression may at times have come from Castro's policies,
a massive skill-and-brain-drain to the USA, and/or an over reliance on
sugar crop or the USSR, but they don't exist in isolation and World-policeman-judge-and-jury,
USA, have not exactly helped matters. Trade embargo, lawsuits, a tempting
free citizenship to those who make it to US soil, and a block on US citizens
going as tourists to Cuba [technically, US citizens spending US currency]
are not small business.
I was told of a 75 year old American grandmother, from San Diego, CA,
who bicycle-toured in Cuba. After returning to the USA, she was fined
US$7,500!! Something to do with a "trading with the enemy" act. The section
of the Treasury Department that levied the fine, is also supposed to track
terrorists'money and finances. They increased her fine to over $10,000
because she missed a mailed notice when she was away caring for her dying
son! The maximum fine is $55,000. But if you are American and you receive
such a fine, you can claim your right to a hearing, immediately you receive
the notice. They haven't employed judges for the hearings for years, so
you just go on a waiting list and you keep your money. At least for now.
For one reason or another, the destructive bombs of fast-food restaurants
[McBombs] with its cousin, trash-along-the-roadside, and homelessness,
have not fallen here in Cuba. But ironically, when the USA finally see
sense and release their fingers from Cuba's throat, maybe it will be the
DELLuge of consumerist, commercial, materialist crap that will be Cuba's
There are some smile-less, sullen people here, who seem to have no enthusiasm
for their jobs. Of course, they exist in every society, but I feel there
are more here than in other places I've been. Maybe there is a nationalized-industry
syndrome. When assured of a job, food, water and housing, people find
it difficult to motivate themselves to excellence. Especially when accumulation
of wealth is illegal.
From Joaquin's grapevine in Havana, I gathered that the monthly salary
for a job such as police officer or teacher, is somewhere between US$8
and US$12. But a teacher of teachers in Santiago de Cuba mentioned that
he received US$27 or 28. He also said that doctors could make a bit more,
but a street cleaner earns about US$15. Skill and difficulty of job are
factors. [By the way, wages are paid in pesos.]
US$1 is roughly 28pesos. And the food rations that every person is entitled
to, cost of the order of 1peso or maybe less.
But the law is one job only, and for some positions, such as harbour master
at the marina, it's a 24hour shift followed by 3days off. Lots of time
for the family, eh?
Crowning all this is a lid on leaving the country, which is political
rather than economical, and imposed from within, as opposed to by foreign
immigration policies. All that's needed to be allowed to go to a foreign
country is an official invitation, but many people don't apparently know
this and, if they do, it's not easy to obtain one.
Mi Casa Tu Casa [My House is Your House]
Something ?that is, I'm convinced, essential to human well-being, is the
ability to give. Particularly for someone to say, "Come and stay at my
house." Whether they be rich or poor. But in Cuba, to control who gets
the tourist dollar, and that they don't amass too much, and to ensure
that a large chunk of it is channeled to the State (from whence it should
be evenly distributed, in theory), only licensed casas particular are
permitted to accommodate tourists in homes. The licenses can cost US$200
or US$300 a month! So those who can invite travelers, HAVE TO get dollars
from them. Usually between US$10 and US$30 for a night.
Of course I am biased along these lines because I'm just about always
happy when someone invites me into their home. And knowing the importance
of balance of things, I want to be able to do the same for others one
I felt that this was another obstacle between Cubans and me. But whatever,
I was going to put myself and my bike amongst them and see what happened.
Rider meets Jockeys
East of Havana; through some oil-fields and by a couple of power stations
that I'd spotted through the fog on the inbound yacht.
I pedaled along the billboard trail. Advertising was replaced by propagandizing.
Is there really any difference? I was heartened by the clean, clean roadside
verge; an incredibly refreshing change. In every other country (so far),
roadside rubbish has been an annoying, disheartening eye-distracter.
Very soon I noticed that the head- and cross- winds provided very welcome
cooling in the crucible temperatures. Then thunderheads built, flashed,
rumbled and, ultimately, dumped their reservoirs of water all over me.
The first of many, daily, late-afternoon storms. The Spanish for storm
is tormenta. But the cool was a relief. Until the sauna steam rose. Though
this didn't happen on the first day.
I dropped down off a coastal ridge at dusk, still wet, into a town called
Matanzas. My guide book said there wouldn't be, but there were, jineteros
[pronounced 'hin e ter o'. Literally; jockey]. They are lads who tout
for casas particular and make a commission if they take you to one. They're
an irritation more than a danger. They try to divert you from where you
are going, or try to pretend they've taken you where you're going when
you arrive. And they reduce your bargaining power, and sometimes force
the casa patron to increase the price. Now began a long-running battle
the length of the country. I had to be very firm, and know where I was
going, or at least pretend well. They would be very difficult to shake.
Jineteras (female 'jockeys') were often very pretty, and usually tried
to persuade me to be unfaithful to my wife, saying, "No problem. It's
OK. She'll never know," in response to my showing them my wedding ring.
I replied that she would know, because I tell her everything.
Jineteros would also try to get a beer from me and commission from a restaurant
if they managed to accompany me inside. Since I was always after the cheapest
rice and beans (congri, if mixed), for one or two pesos, I had to dash
their dreams of dollars.
No Toilet Seats 'till Camaguey.
The hunt for loo seats had already begun in Havana. There just weren't
any!! And moving along Cuba, I realized it wasn't just a local phenomenon.
I haven't come up with a theory to explain why there WERE toilet seats
in the city of Camaguey and nowhere else, but I discussed the matter with
the teacher of teachers in Santiago de Cuba, who had become a good friend
and close enough to call familia [family]. He said that toilets were items
bought with dollars and also very difficult to obtain. "If you break the
toilet in your house, it's a major disaster!" I assumed from that, that
toilet lids, having the potential to crack your bowl, were largely removed.
I wonder if anyone knows where.
On another tack, entirely unconnected with that slippery subject, beans
and rice is very often served with a salad of cucumber slices mixed with
cucumber slices, or of green beans mixed with green beans.
And since I'm going on about food; They've taken Billy Joel's lyrics to
heart; their indicator that they've made it into the uptown, high-class
league , is that they're all living in a white-bread world. I didn't see
a brown loaf anywhere. That's a first world, culturo-dietary swap-about
that has gone unnoticed here. Or maybe they see whole-wheat as a capitalist
Brake Shoes, Shocks and Dodging Death
I used the Carretera Central, route 1 (I think), the main town-connector,
plus some smaller lanes, to cross Cuba without getting lost, and avoiding
using the Autopista. The Autopista is usually the quietest road, though.
But it's largely devoid of places for refreshment. I regularly needed
numerous glasses of sugar-cane juice, fruit juice or 'refresco', even
if they came with ice that, likely as not, had been dragged along the
ground and broken up on the floor.
People marveled at my capacity for these drinks.
I drank a lot of something called 'mamey' juice, which has no English
translation that I know of, and I'd never heard of before.
At times I rode a few kilometers with a local on a bike Mostly they were
male, though I did see women cycling, usually in towns, and once, a girl
riding hard with a young man sitting on the luggage carrier behind. A
farmer here, a ponchero [puncture repair man] there, a student here, an
agricultural worker there. Or maybe a teacher. But generally Cuban people
don't use their bicycles to travel long distances. The fact that they
lack brakes, and have to use their shoes either on the road or against
the front tyre to aid deceleration, or that the chains regularly jump
off the gears, could be reasons. But they were strong, and could sometimes
ride three to a bike!
Up and down easy gradients, fields of sugar, maize, potatoes and tobacco
flew by. Tatty banana trees in huddles or plantations, and upright, proud
Royal Palms, with slender, but bulging, trunks, ignored me. Horses and
cows with prominent ribs displaying their hunger, in some areas worse
than others, tracked me with their faces.
Slack-skinned, white bullocks were still vying with prehistoric tractors
for the ploughshare.
Cows and goats wore long-stick, wooden contraptions about their necks,
to prevent them going through fences. v This was a busy road; I could
usually see at least one vehicle on my stretch of road. Not counting horse-drawn
carts or horse-riders. Horse riders with guitars smoking fat cigars.
Calls of "Buena!" [Good, with the 'afternoon' or 'day' missed off] and
"Hello, friend!" and "Amigo!" greeted me, along with "Cargao!" [luggage]
"Camion!" [(It's like a) truck!]. And from kids; "Chiklet!" I think a
call for bonbons.
I overnighted in the smouldering towns. Towns breathing out the heat of
the day from thick, red tiles and chunky walls. I haggled with the owners
of once well-to-do residences. I slouched in their caned-seat rocking
chairs, sought breeze in their courtyards next to giant pot plants (giant
plants in giant pots), and slept behind their louvered shutters and lattices
and beneath their high ceilings, avoiding use of air-con, preferring a
simple fan. I wrote my diary under bare bulbs or fluorescent tubes, or
sometimes under a nifty, touch-sensitive lamp. Just touch it and it lights
up or changes brightness.
By the way, if the slippery toilet doesn't get you, the electric shower-head
Trailing a tractor through the sugar belt one day, a sack of farm-produce
bounced and dislodged itself from the rear of the tractor and dropped
on the road dead ahead of me. I braked and swerved and, to my surprise,
didn't hit the thing.
Shortly afterwards, I passed a road kill something, with its attending
court of red-headed, Turkey Vultures. That could have been me!
In the towns, the greetings were more often, "Casa!" "Cigarros!" "Chica?"
[(Do you want a) Girl?], "Ron!" [Rum], or "Taxi!" And one jinetero on
a bicycle went so far as to call me "A**hole!" for not allowing him to
take me where I didn't want to go.
Patria o Muerte
I guess that Cuba is as inward looking as any other country, but still,
the dollar is always greener on the other side of the Florida Straits.
There are only two TV stations, usually the same.
And one 26th July night (their national day), as I was searching for some
English news on my short-wave receiver, I found out that almost all the
radio stations are the same Cuban national, too. I know because the TV
was broadcasting a live speech by Fidel himself, and all up and down the
radio dial were the same words coming out of his mouth. They totally swamped
all the normal frequencies for BBC, VOA or Radio Australia.
Only a couple of Christian stations made it through. I think the evangelists
have the most powerful transmitters in the World.
Fidel, as much as I could tell, spent most of his time 'Boosh'-bashing,
referring a number of times to alcoholism. An easy target. And someone's
got to do it. He will probably not be listened to outside Cuba, though.
Now if Che was alive.......
[Actually quite a lot of people are Bush-bashing in Cuba.]
My birthday falls on a famous date in Cuba. The same date four years after
I was born, Che Guevara was captured in Bolivia. I had to show my passport
every time I checked into a casa particular, and time and again someone
would remark that it was the day Che died. But actually he was executed,
with U.S. complicity, the day after.
His is one, if not the, most recognizable, iconic faces in the World.
Although statues and images of Jose Marti are more ubiquitous around Cuba.
(That's if there are levels of ubiquitousness).
My life overlaps Che's in another way too; he did some noted pedal- and
motor-cycle touring in South America in his younger days.
But his was a military struggle against imperialism, whereas I am more
of a pacifist. And I am an intellectual midget in comparison, he being
a doctor. And, of course, I am nowhere near that good looking. Thank god.
This country persistently presses the questions upon me; "What would I
fight for?" and "What would I die for?"
In the absence of a national religion, though revolucion could be said
to be that, the prime motivator used is 'Patria,' or Fatherland. But I
am not a fan of nationalism. It's too often used to make enemies, with
religion commonly subverted to its cause. More, I'd like to be proud to
be a member of the UN, of the World, of humanity. Then again, maybe Patria
can be used to limit our range of interference with other people or peoples.
In the Museo de Belles Artes [Museum of Fine Arts] there is a large mosaic
exhibit in the form of a map of the World. When Joaquin prompted me to
look closer, I realized that it was constructed entirely from small wooden
shapes of the island of Cuba. It's only art though. Or is it?
And how many other countries wish to shape the World in their likeness?
If we really allowed Cubans to fashion the World, it would more likely
be made of dominoes in a sea of rum.
Crabs and Itches
Agricultural miles and stares from brown and black faces and busy bus-shelters
and dusty crossroads and brushes from butterflies and glances from lizards
and billboards and billboards, streamed by into hazy memory. Some moments
fused into distinct knots of memory. A welling up of ecstasy on being
buzzed by a humming bird, whilst riding. Soppingly riding out a storm,
through inches of road surface flood, awash with swirling rainbows; oil
from leaky engine blocks! Accidentally crushing crunchy crabs crossing
the coastal carriageway. They look hilarious running sideways waving their
claws, as if threatening passing cars. Mostly I only ran over ones that
were dead already. A butterfly flew down into my front wheels and then
made me happy by appearing on the other side and flying away. One not
so lucky, flew into the exposed moving parts and drive-belt of the engine
of another tractor close ahead of me, and came out as confetti; briefly
beautiful in death, too.
Mostly the humps along the island were gentle, but it was the height of
summer oven and my sweat just built up and wouldn't evaporate into the
humidity. A long way from the Pennsylvania ice storms!
I longed for the day's end shower; shower-head switched to cold, for safety
and for relief. But too often, the pressure was wanting and it was difficult
to get a proper wash. And if anything makes a cyclist's life hell, it's
not getting properly clean in the ....how shall I put it politely?.....the
saddle area. Itchy at night. Itchy and sore in the day. I know this is
a delicate subject, but I just have to say it. You might think that I
have a cruisy life pedaling from country to country; ?you who work 9 to
5 or do shifts, in swivel chairs, or on your feet, slaving away, with
a zillion tasks to complete and deadlines or targets to meet, or, do any
job, for that matter. Mmmmm... I think you are right.
In a town tastefully named Colon, which had no tourists and so no casas
particular, I stayed in a US$2 hotel with a thriving cockroach population.
One woke me up as it walked over my hand during the night. After arriving,
lugging all my gear up to my room, and showering, I walked out to explore
the streets and see if I could find some rice and beans, and something
sugary to drink and replenish my energy reserves. In a backstreet I found
a stall selling drinks-cans, shampoo, cosmetics and canned foods, but
it was a dollar shop, only accepting US dollars, and over my budget. Just
then, a crowd of people came running down the road. I was initially alarmed
until I saw that many had excited, laughing faces. I looked at the dollar-store
keeper for explanation, and he put up his fists and mimicked boxing. I
sought further clarification and used the fairly universal word, "Sport?"
He nodded. I decided to latch on to the crowd still running past, to see
what entertains a small town like this. A couple of blocks on, the crowd
halted briefly and then moved on a half a block following an agitated
woman, to where the street was already blocked with about a hundred people.
Others spectated from rooftops and windows. All that fascinated these
people was a domestic dispute between two large, angry, neighbourhood
women. Ms. Agitated, a heavyweight, banged and yelled at the other woman's
door and window. The second woman, perhaps a light-heavyweight, eventually
came out to save her windows, with some friends or relatives, and the
two protagonists set up a screaming and shoving match. I got the feeling
that some infidelity was involved, but the reasons weren't really my business.
Nor probably were they the business of most of the people there. And no
police officer or unit showed up to make it their business either. I took
a few crowd photographs and wondered off. Just before turning the corner,
Ms. Agitated confronted me, having separated from the fray, and started
going off about "photo" and "camera". I thought she was trying to get
some money from me, so I pretended to think she wanted me to take her
picture, pointing to my camera and then at her. It only took a few minutes
for her to give up.
I headed back towards the main strip of Colon. On the way I came upon
a group of kids on a doorstep in front of a verandah, and they grinningly
motioned to me to photograph them. I was only too happy to oblige. Gathered
there, they were already a real picture. And I made some new friends,
showing them some of their photos and others I'd taken in Cuba, on the
back of my new-fangled digital camera. They kept waving goodbye the whole
couple of hundred metres 'till I turned the next corner.
Later, I was sitting outside at a fly-blown restaurant on the main street,
eating five peso pizza, and three of the kids happened by. A begging man
was, at this point, hanging around in front of me, waving an angry, red
sore on his elbow at me. One of the boys, though still small, got aggressive
and protectively shooed the beggar away. I'm not sure that that's what
I wanted, but thanks, kid, all the same.
Darkness had descended and it was time to head back to cockroachland.
But before I got far, I was accosted by a couple of teenager lads in white
trousers and aprons, outside the bread bakery. They eagerly invited me
in to meet their colleagues and watch the dough kneading. The bread would
be fresh very early the next morning. It was here that I found out that
the bread makers were about the most helpful, questioning and conversational
set of people in Cuba, yet the least demanding for money or gifts. And
this was borne out in other places, too. I was often given bread with
Imaginary Marco Polo.
An enormous statue of Che Guevara stands on a stone platform over his
mausoleum and museum, overlooking an expansive parade ground and some
Royal Palms, on the outskirts of Santa Clara. As luck would have it, the
day I rested to go and visit it, happened to be the day of the week it
was closed. So I took another day, but it was again closed, for some renovations.
"Manana," [Tomorrow] a security guard assured me, so I stopped another
day. But guess what, it was still closed. Fidel was to make his 26th July
speech [which I mentioned before] in Santa Clara and work had to be done
that couldn't wait for the visit of someone who'd bicycled 35,000miles
around the World to get there once in his life. In fact, much of Santa
Clara was receiving a new lick of paint and fumigation, about a week before
Luckily, during my delay, I was able to spend more time with Polo, a friend
I'd made in Havana, and his family. As I commented on before, I wasn't
able to stay at his house, but I felt like real family as I was permitted
to sit through the 3hour video of his daughter's 15th birthday celebrations
two times. The 15th is an extravagant affair for girls, when they are
made up and photographed like models in swim suits and fine clothes, culminating
in a wedding style dress, and then have a big party bash in their honour.
A number of times across Cuba I saw these 15year old princesses being
photographed in exotic locations; marinas, castles, gardens or viewpoints
over the sea.
Polo's son is a trained dancer. Most Cubans are, or seem to be, but he
is much more so. The highlight of the video was when he partnered his
sister and dance-serenaded her, and swung her gracefully about the dance
Polo also introduced me to a skilled oil-painter whose real job was truck-driver.
He brought a large, beautiful landscape canvas for Polo to keep at his
house; a fine and costly piece of craftsmanship, which I think he transported
on his small vintage motorcycle! At least he left on the motorcycle.
There seems to be some sort of connection between truck-drivers and the
arts in Cuba. Famous, Cuban ballet dancer, Carlos Acosta, in the Royal
London Ballet, is the son of a Havana trucky, too. I know because Polo
also showed me a video about Acosta's life. It made me nostalgic for the
There are a lot of people in Cuba who, when they realize you aren't going
to spend dollars with them or give them dollars, want nothing more to
do with you. Thanks, Polo and family, for preserving my faith in humanity
and keeping interested.
Polo amazed me with his geographic knowledge. He said, "People say I never
travel, so what's the use of such knowledge? I say they are wrong; I've
traveled all over the World in my head!" I hope one day you really get
out there, Polo. I'll miss the banter with you and your buddies on your
balmy balcony, and your rocking chair by the fan, when the rain is slamming
on the ochre tiles all around.
Also, much appreciation to Polo for directions to my next town of Cienfuegos
on the coast. I got onto the Autopista, for once, near the parade ground,
and the statue of Che watched my back as I trundled away, for quite some
distance. It was as if he was taunting me for having failed to enter his
mausoleum. Che lives on! At least in the revolucion and the 3peso coin.
A few hills.
One final look back at the distant Che.
And then it's just me and the holey road and the punishing Sun.
Lows and Highs.
I remember Cienfuegos for an excursion into the poorer, rough-edged, grey,
concrete-apartment-block district. People were watchful and wary, and
I felt somewhat vulnerable, but I had no exact reason for that. The patron
of the casa I'd aimed at was out. The neighbours were so friendly that
I was inclined to wait and stay there, but my 150lb iron bull was rebelling
at a trip to the third floor (no lift/elevator) after a hard-slog day.
Also, with only an hour of daylight left, waiting around could leave me
with no choice as to whether to stay there or not (a major bargaining
chip), or worse, it could leave me stranded if the owner didn't return.
I reluctantly turned away and rolled back downhill towards the older,
classier middle of town, which was beginning to relax under a sky turning
pastel oranges and blues.
I found a casa run by a tough-looking guy, with shaven head and like an
overweight ex-boxer, who kept Dobermans on the roof, near the well-barred
passageway to the room that was mine. Contrary to appearances, Mr. Tough
was a pleasure to deal with, polite almost to a fault, very friendly and
just as helpful. A total softy, really, and almost fearful of doing anything
that didn't please. The place was owned by his mother, who generally kept
herself to herself, unless I approached her directly. His little schoolgirl
daughter, inquisitive and enquiring, brightened up the dark-wooden-furnished-house
beneath my room and my trips down the stairs which flanked two sides of
the living room on their way to the front door.
Public-transporting horse-drawn carriages stopped outside that door, to
pick up or deposit passengers. Usually those carriages were full to bursting
point, like virtually every other form of conveyance in Cuba, from the
scoops of earth-movers to the trailers of trucks. At night each carriage
burned a kerosene-oil wick behind the rear axle as a safety light.
The main square of Cienfuegos is rimmed with attractive, classical buildings,
and at one end a cute, domed corner-tower tops one of them, with an imaginative,
iron-work, spiral stairway climbing inside it to a lookout at the very
top. At ground floor the building has some kind of offices, and a girl
sat behind a desk and phone in the entranceway. The building was closed.
[Cerraado!] But with a small amount of verbal and monetary persuasion,
she let me in. It had been a veritable palace indeed. Everything whispered
of grandeur, even in disuse; one room that still housed two hulks of grand
pianos; ornate ceilings; intricate floor patterns; lavishly decorated
walls; marble and alabaster. The metal cleats of my Shimano bicycle shoes
clacked across a still-proud stone courtyard on the roof, and clanged
up that stairway. To the pinnacle. My pinnacle.
I surveyed yet more red-tile-scape, and every shade of sagging, weathered
red, to mountains where a lightening storm was flashing warning signals;
to a placid, blue Caribbean; down to an avenue where a young man rode
a lady on his bicycle crossbar, perhaps his lifelong Salsa partner; and
down to the square where a solitary policeman with a clipboard watched
I could've stayed up there for hours, but I didn't want to get the girl
down below [Not to be confused with GalFromDownUnder, Lynette Chiang]
into trouble. As it was, she was on her way up to find me as I was passing
the grand pianos again.
I was very satisfied with my sightseeing for the day and now I wanted
to attend to a bit of a neck ache and stiff shoulders, as sometimes happens
when riding flatter or bumpy terrain. I wanted a good professional massage
[masahito]. It only took a mention and desk girl discussed it with another
girl there, and soon she was on the phone to a local sports medicine man
who, five minutes later, materialized on his bicycle to accompany me to
his house. There he performed a very dextrous, full-body massage for 30pesos
(just over US$1).
He used baby oil, to reduce friction, and rubbing-alcohol mixed with a
secret, herbal formula, to give cooling and an all-over, pleasant, tingly
I like Cienfuegos!
I was overtaken by a few rare racing cyclists on some grinding gradients
up and slightly inland as I headed for Trinidad. I nearly caught them
at a rest, but they remounted and were gone. Later the road took me back
to the coast for a dousing by a squall and then it brightened up for the
crab run. After a few busy, little, beaches, another uphill told of the
approach to Trinidad. With a few kilometers left to go, I spied some big
mangoes and avocadoes for sale under a shade tree, in front of a short
row of houses on the right.. I chose a luxurious-looking mango and tried
to bargain for it, but the kind people wouldn't accept a cent! However,
the mango left me with the most terrible after taste that had me gagging
for water, just when I'd run out! The first residence I found, about 1Km
on, I stopped and pleaded for water. They filled my water bottle with
ice-cold life-saver and I downed practically all of it in one go. The
best tasting water since the southern Californian desert!
I spent hours in Trinidad trying to find a reasonably-priced casa; from
4pm 'till gone 9pm, well after dark. Up and down a grid of streets; some
cobbled, some smooth but with puddles here and there; and several times
past a butchers'with a pig's head hanging at the barred window. At last,
with my second pleading of the day, I found what I needed. But that's
where I got a head shock from the shower-head!
In Sancti Spiritus.
Waterfalls sprang from the gutterless rooves in a downpour that caught
me off-guard and splashed up at me as I pressed myself and my bike against
a townhouse wall under wide eaves, in a deserted street.
The storm relented and I found a casa that had the best orange juice in
the world, but no room.
It only took me three attempts to find reasonable lodging this time, though.
Plenty of time for me to get ready for the lively celebrations of the
end of week-long carnival, in the town square that evening.
In the kitchen at the cool heart of my townhouse casa in the centre of
Sancti Spiritus, in the downdraught of a tri-bladed ceiling fan, I feasted
on cold, sliced mango and listened to the casa matron's woes. Though still
strikingly beautiful and youthful for a woman with children in their late
teens, and though she would be the envy of many an occidental narcissist,
she lamented the passing of her youth and beauty. She also didn't hold
back in expressing her dissatisfaction with the political system and Fidel
Castro, whom she referred to by making a beard sign with thumb and forefinger
to her chin, and placing two fingers to her shoulder to denote military
rank (he almost always wears uniform). She did this in the way you might
if you thought walls had ears, except that she didn't refrain from saying
his name out loud. Of Che, she complained, "He was too much of a volunteer.
Just because he worked for no money, doesn't mean everyone can."
There are some people you can never impress, eh?
Forging into the eastern part of Cuba, the road flattened; the calm before
the climb over the last barrier; the Sierra Maestre Mountains. Cacti became
more prevalent; notably, thickets of a special cactus grown as animal-proof
fences, in this hotter, drier region. However, those late afternoon storms
The province of Holguin, not far off, was having drought problems. So
much so that a CNN reporter was sent to the scene. When she got there,
it rained every day!
Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, then Bayamo. Places few of you will have heard
On the run in to Bayamo, one of those storms was spreading across the
sky before me, dark, inky and ominous. It was close to 180 degrees from
right to left, so I knew I was riding into it, but I only had two or three
kilometres to go, so I thought I might be able to find shelter before
the worst of it. I raced by a small township with a few shops and thought
about stopping, but I didn't want to relinquish my pace. "I can make it,"
I tried to convince myself. Just as I made this decision, I felt an itch
on my left thigh, and I brushed it with my left hand, absentmindedly.
Then PAIN! And I looked down to see a bee stinging me through my Lycra
shorts. INTENSE PAIN! I picked it off and slung it away frantically. INTENSE,
PERSISTENT PAIN! But I had to go on. However, it felt like a warning that
I should've stopped for shelter. I also started thinking about bee sting
allergies. I could only remember having been stung once before, in childhood.
I knew that severe reactions often only occur upon a second sting. Was
I about to swell up and die right here? But I didn't have much time to
think about this as suddenly the promise of a storm became an I-told-you-so!!!
The clouds ruptured and unzipped in blinding rips and a preliminary volley
of water bullets made me halt and head straight for the nearest semblance
of shelter. I rode the bike down the verge, through a gap in a wire fence
and across a small field to a small shack with a corrugated iron awning
out front. Whilst uttering apologies in Spanish to the occupants, I pulled
the bike up onto a patch of concrete and tried to position it where rain
wasn't driving through gaping holes in the awning. Some boys without shirts
or shoes continued to play with a soft football out between the fence
and the road. An old lady welcomed me at the house and a couple of boys
and girls came out with sheets of plastic to cover up my bike. I held
my bike and stood and watched the rain and the boys splashing about, carefree.
Then the lightening came dangerously close and they headed for the house,
too. They invited me inside. I was wet and declined at first, but they
insisted, so I propped the bike and I dripped inside. I needn't have worried
about me getting the house wet, because rain was coming into the house
anyway; through the cinder-block windows and the roof. Here, my eyes were
opened dramatically to how meager existence could get for the country
people of Cuba. Though maybe this wasn't the nadir. Bare concrete floor;
bare brick walls; bare corrugated roofing; bare light-bulb, fed by bare
wiring, switched by hooking two naked wires together, but which the weather
had extinguished. I was provided the best chair, which means it didn't
fall apart if sat on in the wrong way. It was in the driest portion of
the .....er.....living room. The nine or ten kids stood around, sat on
the floor, or shared three or four other chairs, mostly in boisterous
and humourous mood, despite regular shivers as the rain blew through.
One boy was on a chair supported against a wall. Whenever he laughed,
the leg fell off, and a number of times he came close to collapsing on
top of it. This would set the others off giggling. The old lady, Isabel,
went to a kerosene stove in the 'kitchen', the other side of a flimsy
dividing wall, and concocted a large cup of powerful, Cuban coffee for
me. I felt guilty.
I asked round all the names and found out their relationships. Only one
or two were related to Isabel. I told them as much about my life as I
could and answered as many of their questions as I could understand. I
left feeling decidedly humbled. I took a couple of group photographs outside,
and promised to send them copies. My comfortable casa accommodation would
take on a new look from now on, and I'd have less sympathy with the casa
owners who whinged about the US$200 license fee.
I was sick in Bayamo. Loose motion. 'Nuff said.
The east end of Cuba was serving up the friendliest and most generous
of people. When I was toiling up hill one time, getting my lower gear
teeth into the Sierra Maestre, a car stopped in the middle of the opposite
lane, and two men jumped out and handed me a plump, ripe avocado and filled
my bottle with iced water. They didn't worry about blocking the traffic,
though there were only a few cars. Also, however, and this includes these
two guys, people were more and more inclined to call me 'loco' [crazy],
when they learned I was riding across Cuba.
Some people are impossible to impress, eh?
I finished off pretty much where the revolucion started in Cuba; in Santiago
de Cuba. A mere block away from a school that Fidel attended.
I can't remember having waited so much so often for so many different
reasons, as in Santiago de Cuba. Usually it was associated with power
outages. But again I profited from waiting by staying longer at Giovanni
and Esther's casa of fun, next door to their good neighbour, Louis's little
casa of fun. OK, so it was raining in my room a couple of days. But you
did fix it quickly, Giovanni. Though was it really because of the cat
on the roof, like you said? It must have been a Catzilla to make those
holes in that rusty metal sheeting the repairman took away! I guess it
was just another of your many jokes. I can take them, my friends, in fact,
I loved them. Keep the Spirit! Teacher of teachers, joker of jokers.
The waiting also brought success. Instead of heading back to Havana, I
was able to dismantle the bike and pack it in flour- and rice- sacks in
a cubby hole on a tiny four-berth yacht to Jamaica. Yeehaaaa! I was quadruply
lucky; it was the only yacht going, and one of the crew left, making just
enough room for me, which Captain Lothar surprisingly let me fill.
Lucky, I thought, 'till the engine failed mid voyage..........
By the way, those flour sacks were imported from USA. I'm impressed with
whoever's doing that.
Hasta Luego! See You Later!
Keep the Spirit!
Regards and Respect,
Special Thanks to:-
Lynette Chiang. For hints on Cuba. http://www.galfromdownunder.com
Check out her new book
John of Port Antonio Marina. For the facilities to type this.
Greg & Pattie of Freeport, Bahamas. For tolerating me, looking after me,
entertaining me, letting me help the with painting, and finding me the
ride to Cuba.
Captain John of the Cantamar. For getting me to Cuba FREE, plus some excellent
Cantamar Chef Craig and SeaDog Hugh. For assistance.