Writing is a funny thing. Or maybe bike tour is a funny thing. Actually both are. During the day as I pedal and explore the world with all my senses, I’m positively a-twitter with poignant observations, and clever sentences I just can’t wait to share. Sometimes it feels like my head could explode with them all. Predictably however, when my day comes to an end and I’m sitting on the still tightly-made bed of the casa-of-the-day gazing at my laptop…. It’s like trying to recall in detail the plumages of so many tropical birds who have long since flown out of sight. Words morph from the descriptive quicksilver that dances through my head on the road to dense lead.
But I can’t write on the road, so I’ll have to become an alchemist tonight and transmute that lead back to gold.
The past couple days I’ve been thinking I’d like to share more some observations rather than simply a journal of my comings and goings. NOT that the journal is by any means boring. This trip is jam-packed with excitement. However the subtle nuance of cultural observation paints a more lush background for the stick figures of my personal story to cavort upon. And I’m sure the stick figures will get some mention too.
Where to begin? Firstly I would like to acknowledge the sweet dewy-eyed creatures of daily life in Cuba. Horses and Oxen are still absolutely essential to transportation and agriculture here. It’s kind of funny how quickly I got used to horses and horse carts everywhere, the sound of hooves echoing up the streets, their drivers encouraging them with their own names, “Cab-A-LLO!” And oxen. Teams of two tied together at the head as they pull carts of sugar cane and tobacco. It seems that rather than pasture their animals when not working, the habit here is to tie them to a different spot each day, so I’m constantly finding horses right along side the road with ropes around their necks, and oxen laying in the shade, secured by a tether through a ring in their nose.
And dogs. So many dogs! Cuban street dogs are at once absolutely feral, and totally used to people. They’re everywhere, especially when folks are eating, but largely ignored. However if you show them the least kindness almost without exception they become absolutely enthusiastic and social, totally good-natured. I’ve never been growled at. They’re just WAITING to be acknowledged. But without humans to leash or pen them, they do whatever they please and honestly look like they’re having full, fun lives all on their own. Interesting observation: because spaying and neutering is not a thing here one can observe how the price of reproduction is so much higher on the female body. Male dogs remain sleek with age, their scrotums bouncing jauntily as they run along. Without exception all the female dogs seem gaunt, save for the undulations of their pendulous teats.
Moving on. Food here has been slightly problematic for me in that I can’t seem to find enough of it that I want to eat to not be hungry all the time. I’m hungry right now writing this. Food is very simple, vegetables are rare delicacies, and supermarkets are nonexistent. I’m a drinking a lot of beer and putting a lot of sugar in my coffee to augment calories.
The saving grace on the food front is fruit. Those tiny bananas that taste so much better than the ones we have in the states. Pineapples, guavas, papayas. I eat as much as I can.
Fruit seems to be more of a country thing though. As I moved into the city, I began to eat more little ham sandwiches and burgers, which while insanely inexpensive due to the dual currency system here—there are 25 Cuban pesos to the dollar whereas the Convertible peso used by tourists is pegged one to one to the dollar and a burger from a tiny window on the street is about 6 Cuban pesos (while eating at tourist restaurants the same burger might be six Convertible pesos!) –my digestion prefers the fruit of the countryside.
Santa Clara was fabulous for street food. I had my first churros there. Love at first bite.
From Santa Clara I had planned to go 30 miles East to the town of Remedios and then arc northwestward beginning my return to Habana. This would have me in the smallish town of Sagua la Grande on the second night out. I looked at the map. The town seemed to have a suspiciously simple layout. And conspicuously absent were any hotels or casas I could see.
Now if I had just arrived here I would have just assumed there would be somewhere to stay, and that it would all work out. However having ridden through a seemingly similar town on my way from Topes de Collantes, where there was literally not one place I could see to stay, and I felt very unwelcome as it was not a tourist town; having witnessed this possibility, I was more careful. So I went to a tourist agency. I asked about accommodations in Sague la Grande. The woman looked at me quizzically. “Sague la Grande? No. Nada.” We did some calling around and yep: nada. Good lesson in not making assumptions.
The alternate destination I devised was 70 miles northwest rather than the 30 I had planned that day, so I took another unscheduled layover night in Santa Clara as it was already noon, and took off bright and early the next day.
Bonus of the new plan: now I’d be going almost directly with the prevailing East-West Tradewinds! I patted myself on the back for the not only new but improved route. I was excited for the swift ride with sweet tailwinds. As I set out I began to feel the stir of breezes as I coasted down the side streets and outskirts of town, as the horse carts and their drivers yelled the day’s produce offerings into the pink sky. The Carretera Central curved a bit and then got its heading northwest. The breeze picked up. Wait. The breeze is into my face, not behind me. Wait, am I going the right way? Yep. So that means the wind is now coming from the West? The “constant” tradewinds spoken about in every guidebook and from the mouths of every biker and Cuba aficionado—they’re running backwards today? Good Lord. I’ve chosen to ride 70 miles today against the wind? Bloody hell. And I know it’s still early and that whatever breeze I feel now will only escalate as the day progresses. So I better get moving.
It was indeed a challenging ride, and a desolate one at that. Blessedly flat, yet the combination of wind and endless miles of straight pavement cutting through sugar cane fields and timber plantation does wear on the soul.
Cuba is a perfect combination of Brazil and Zambia, my two other forays into international living. The culture is definitely like Brazil. Its a Latin heat and constant dancing, wide smiles and open affection. But the landscape outside the shining jewels of major cities here is surprisingly like Zambia. Red dirt roads branch off the main highway, the dirt yards of small slab houses with heavily shuttered windows are ringed with goat-proof cactus fences. Chickens and pigs wander the streets freely. And damned if it doesn’t feel like I’m in Peace Corps again as I ride through this new yet familiar landscape.
A bit grueling, yes, but I did ultimately make it to my destination: Hotel Elguea. Apparently in the days of the sugarcane plantations a sick worker immersed himself in the natural hot springs here and proclaimed himself healed, and a health spa occupies the space to this day. It’s a no-frills soviet style health spa, but the waters are the most tangible, pungently full of minerals I’ve ever experienced. It’s effortless to float in them. I felt like a cork in a sensory-deprivation tank. Divine. They also offer fango which is black sulfurous mud, applied with a paintbrush, and once it’s dry they open a fire-hydrant of geothermic water on you to blast it off. Proper soviet style. Top it off with a $12 full body lymphatic massage, and I felt like a million bucks leaving that place. Totally worth going against the wind for. And also worth the sixty some-odd no-see-um bites I received while the mud dried. I try not to think about (or scratch) that part. It’s still worth it.
Next stop: the Cuba most popularized in American travel culture: Veradero. The thin spit of land jutting seven miles northeast out to sea from Cuba’s north coast, it’s famous for brilliant white sand beaches and big fancy all-inclusive resorts. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was curious.
Before I got a chance to sample the beaches, I had the very novel experience of not being able to find a room. Everywhere else I’ve been, people are yelling at me that they have rooms for rent. Here I spent two hours knocking on doors, only to find them all llena. Full. Friday in the high season. This whole town was FULL. I began soliciting hotels. Nothing. Fatigue was setting in, as was darkness. I knew I would eventually find something but my patience was wearing thin. Eventually I did find a room in a hotel, a plate of French fries, some killer dance music and a kiddie pool’s worth of mojitos, so all became well with the world again.
The next day I wanted to sample these famed beaches, so I had a “rolling rest” day. One in which I luxuriated in the soft white sand and floated in the impossibly clear and wonderful turquoise swells of Veradero–quite a magnificent beach, totally worthy of its fame—and took off for Matanzas 25 miles away as the sun began to turn orange.
This riding once it’s cooled down is a marvelous thing. The light is perfect, the air is a delight on the skin, everything feels most perfect. I took the scenic route, watching the iridescence of water and changing light as I coasted down empty one lane roads along the bay. The bliss from my day on the beach carrying over to the ride, and multiplying. The air temperature and humidity more akin to an amniotic atmosphere… like swimming on a bike in a dream before birth. A time when there was only presence and in that presence is only joy. And in that presence is also only profound gratitude.
[wpvideo z5OmnDU6]Somewhere after I went through the sweaty baptism of the mountains north of Trinidad something has shifted for me. Whereas the first half of my journey has been absolutely amazing and also peppered with deep pangs of loneliness and a desire to share this incredible experience with another human I care about–somewhere after that mountain the pangs became less. And in their place came… peace. A rich, full sensation of nothingness. No desire to change things. Appreciation of things exactly as they are. Sitting alone watching people in the square. Riding against the wind. Staring at the ceiling above the bed of my casa. Savoring the tiny plates of fruit at breakfast. In silence mostly, and in peace. What an unexpected gift!
I want to mention here that I intuit that peace comes at least in part from a total lack of connection to the internet and social media. No needlessly filling my time and head with “important articles” concerning the puppet show we’re all tuned into. No checking in and comparing my life and accomplishments to my friend’s. And no wifi signals running through the ethers and my brain even when I’m not on a screen. Just life. Real life, as it’s happening. It’s so much slower and simpler and sweeter this way. Again, nothing but profound gratitude for this experience. A million times over.
And I sit here writing from a restaurant in Playa Santa Maria. I came here after rolling through Matanzas, a city I really dig. It wraps around a bay and is both cosmopolitan and simple at the same time. I couldn’t help but find it a little European in its aesthetic along the water as well.
Playa Santa Maria is the beach getaway for those living in Habana and tourists alike. I packed my backpack with goodies for all occasions—sunscreen, book, sleeping bag/beach blanket, my remaining 20 CUC and this laptop—and set off from my hotel. The beach is classic. Palm tree lined and windswept, dotted with thatched huts and populated by groups of beautiful boisterous young folks. I walked for a half mile, letting the waves of reggeaton and laughter wash over me as I passed like the waves also washing over my feet. I smiled and waved back to those who bid me to come talk, but had no desire to engage. This peace thing is too special. The colors on the water too impossibly precious to break away from and make small talk.
Tomorrow I make my way back to La Habana It is with a slightly heavy heart that I do so, but honestly my heart is so full of goodness right now there’s really no room to dread what’s next. Just gratitude and a step forward. Over and over.