I honestly can’t believe I’m sitting here writing this. I’ve spent the majority of the day in front of a computer screen of some sort. It is a labor of love to write a blog, more emphasis on labor when wifi is only spottily available in public plazas and you’ve got writing and pictures spread out over three different devices.
And yet it feels really good to have put in the time and created something (hopefully) original and interesting to share with friends, family, and the curious.
Tomorrow I go to Trinidad, a Unesco World Heritage site. It is roughly 60 miles against the wind and uphill. I am optimistic however, that this will go well, as I plan to leave very early to beat the wind, Kansas-style.
Yesterday’s ride was indeed full-on. Full-on, but by no means impossible. I chose to follow two cute Spaniards on rented bikes with their clothes bundled with string on the back racks, because believe it or not I still get nervous on long ride days, and prefer to have company. This lead me to take a route I would not have chosen otherwise, leaving Cienfuegos to the southeast and then making an acute turn to the north, almost northwest to meet up with the Carreta Central, instead of simply taking the Carreta directly out of town. While it’s never my practice to add miles without good reason, this route was delightful in many ways. Nearly carless, and the section of steep climbing had spectacular views; the road lined with pink flowering trees with (again) a nearly prehistoric vista rolling outward with layers of palm trees and purple mountains in the morning mist and smoke. And before I knew it, we were back on the Carreta.
The stillness of the morning gave way predictably at 10:30 sharp to my new constant companion: the Trade Winds. They run from East to West in Cuba, very reliably and quite strong this time of year. Guidebooks suggest taking transport to Sancti Spirtus to the West and riding the winds into Trinidad, but I prefer to keep transport to a minimum on these trips. And if Adventure Cycling doesn’t shy away from 11 days against the wind in Kansas on the TransAm—I’m certainly not afraid of a day against the Trades here.
Ultimately, the Trades were worst at the midpoint, and the last fifteen miles were actually pretty mellow. I arrived around 2pm in a town perfectly chaotic, picturesquely ramshackle, divinely disintegrating.
Trinidad is Cuba’s dragonfly in amber. Somewhere around the mid-1800’s this town ceased to change, aside from accommodating tourists. The streets are steep cobblestone affairs, lined with pastel buildings at all angles to eachother. There are chapels and colonial houses you can visit, as well as painting studios and shops selling woodwork and white cotton clothing. Old cars bounce up old streets. Old dogs lie in the shade. It is an old place, but very much alive.
There is a large staircase leading to a music venue which also has wifi, and it is a mecca for the tourists from all over the world. We sit on the steps accessing out little devices, glancing up every now and then to see who’s around. I notice there are really very few Americans here. Hardly any English spoken. The music is nonstop, and as the night descends the streets fill with people holding plastic cups of rum drinks (every restaurant claims they have the best), and the waiters in white shirts with black vests stand on the streets offering menus to peruse for the evening meal. So many choices!
Sitting on the steps of the plaza checking my email, a handsome man sits to my right, and we begin talking. My Spanish is just good enough to get me into some interesting situations. He says he’s a dance teacher—I love dancing! So we sip rum, and dance a bit. Then we run into his older sister and cousin, and somehow I end up back at their house eating dinner with the family, lovingly prepared by their mother. Then music begins in the living room, chairs removed, and we’re dancing again. And here’s where Cuban culture diverges quite a bit from my understanding. After ten minutes of dancing he begins to kiss me—in front of his family and mother! And no one seems to think this is strange, to move so very quickly with an American brought in from the plaza that night. I, of course, get weirded out. “In front of your mother?” I ask. So we move to the rooftop, of course.
The subsequent exchange of fervent kisses and broken Spanish that transpired under the stars was a serious learning experience for me. And not simply learning about this passionate Latin culture. Truthfully, I am familiar with this expressiveness. When I was fifteen I had the good fortune to live in Brazil for ten months, and kisses were as plentiful as handshakes there, maybe more so. Being a teenager in such a fun and easy culture of romance was indeed a great gift which continues to give. My learning experience last night came from feeling a change within myself. While part of me is delighting in re-living the free lovin’ vibes I haven’t felt since back in Brazil—feeling alive and juicy yet very safe because nothing is expected of me that I do not want to give; and whereas I could have a different encounter any night I’m here, and the men are all handsome and charming, intelligent and respectful–Christ, they bring you home to their mothers!—Somewhere in the 18 years between Brazil and now my desire to taste the rainbow of romantic experience has quietly been traded for a richer experience of my own energy, and a more careful stewardship of that precious light glowing within me. So interesting!! I could posit all sorts of theories about how this coincides with “growing up”—but I hate labels. I prefer to see it as the continued fine-tuning of my being towards my own highest good. Which makes it a perfect trade indeed.
Today I am hoping to rent a motorcycle to check out the mountain route to Manicaragua. I’ve heard this route described as like “a stiff section of the Tour de France”, which is all well and good except that I’m riding loaded. So I’d like to get a preview on this layover day in this city of cobblestones and pastel churches. Plus: motorcycles!!
Oh if only it weren’t Sunday I had the idea to get a motorcycle. Sunday apparently is the Lord’s Day to not rent motorcycles or other vehicles. I could have gotten a taxi, I checked prices– $50 round trip to see the route—but I stubbornly decided to just do it. I mean, everyone said I could do it, so why was I nervous?
You know, I have to say my nervousness was totally warranted here. Even if I hadn’t spent the previous night dancing sweatily in an underground nightclub (literally underground in a cave) with two American men whose wives and children had gone to bed and I suspect were reliving their past days of freedom vicariously through going out with me; even if I’d eaten my proper Wheaties before embarking on yesterday’s journey… I’da been fucked no matter what.
But I mean, it was a cave:
[wpvideo QTpbIQ8d]Looking at the topo maps (3500 feet of elevation gain in 10 miles?) I suspected as much, but each person I encountered including the Canbicuba guy who seemed to know everything about biking in Cuba said it was totally possible. The alternative was to ride another day against the Trades to Sancti Spiritu and then north to Santa Clara. Somehow this just didn’t excite me as much as climbing the second-highest mountain range in Cuba, really seeing the diversity of landscape on this small island. I thought our Adventure Cycling clientele would appreciate this too. So I threw caution to the wind and just went for it.
It only took three or so miles outside of town until my gearing slipped on an incline and I lost momentum enough to have to push to the top of an enormous hill. And then I road for about a quarter mile more before I had to push again—no blaming the gears this time. And the pushing just didn’t stop. The sheer incline of this hillside, its sinuous curves and ceaseless, ceaseless climb. I simply couldn’t do it.
Pushing a loaded bike is the stupidest thing ever. You take a marvelous machine, perfectly designed to bear loads over thousands of miles with style and grace and turn it into a really shitty wheelbarrow. Top it off with now you’re wearing the worst shoes ever to push anything up a hill, the little cleat in the center always slipping on the pavement causing you to lose what little torque you have as you huck your full weight against this off-balance beast—sweating, cursing, slipping… Fun times, right?
For perspective on the intensity of this hill I would like here to mention that in the 4500 miles of the TransAm I did not push my bike once.
(I had one rider on that trip who could push a bike up hills faster than I could ride them. Bob, if you’re reading this—my hat is off to you, Sir. Would that I could have had half your grace while grunting up this hill yesterday.)
So after a few hours, many rest stops, and a little angel boy who decided it was his job to help me push my bike the final .75k to the top, I made it. Something like 10 miles in four hours. Seriously. The view at the top was indeed fantastic.
And I wish I could say it was “all downhill from there”, but anyone who’s ridden long distance knows the folly of that sentence. It’s never all downhill anywhere. Ever. This was especially-not all downhill. There were indeed many more pretty gnarly hills to come to reach the next town, but I remained on the bike albeit slowly for all of them.
Here’s where this story takes a turn for the lighter, thankfully.
So unbeknownst to me, there was a national Cuban cycling race that very day on that very section of ridiculous hill I was slowly ascending. And somehow the way I timed it I ended up tooling along at 7mph just in front of the major pack of elite athletes. As I got closer to the town, police cars started riding by announcing the race coming up behind me on megaphones, and then I started finding people sitting on the roadside waiting to see the race. And here I was: a cyclist, on the racing route, and apparently in first place from what they could tell. They’d all start waving and cheering and I had to wave my arms, point to my panniers and say “No, no! No estoy en la competiciòn! Soy tourista!” This happened many times. My favorite being when an entire school of small children were sitting on either side of the road cheering and waving colored scarves as I went by. They couldn’t know any better so I just cheered with them.
Soon the actual racers started coming up behind, so I had the decency to pull over and cheer them. They were like the real deal, full kits, carbon bikes, with coaches on motorbikes yelling encouragement alongside them; cars full of spare bikes in tow too. My favorite was the racer who’s support vehicle was one of the classic American cars with a bike rack on the trunk, spewing black smoke in his face as they rode.
The lead riders rode by for 15 minutes or so, and then it calmed down a bit. The back of the pack was still riding up, but I figured it’d be ok for me to get back on the road too. The look on some of their faces when they saw me out there was priceless. Shock, disdain, a few a tiny bit interested in a few words of banter, but most simply ignored me.
Incredibly, I ended up finishing within minutes of the last racer, which meant I got to cross the actual finish line and they waved a checkered flag as I did so. No joke. I couldn’t make this shit up. I finished this big-ass race route, with the racers, loaded. So I started three hours before them. I still did it. And I might even be on TV somewhere doing it.
Unfortunately I have no photo documentation of this crazy occurrence of my own, as it was just so much to be there, and I was glad for the flag and also trying to get out of there as quickly as possible to not ham it up as an American playing a game of a serious Cuban race. Truthfully though they did wave the flag, I was almost totally ignored by racers and spectators alike. So I didn’t whip out my camera. I think that’s ok.
I gotta say the whole race thing WAS good for my morale. And boy did I need it. That was one of the most horrendous days on a bike I can remember.
I had lunch in the town, Topes Collantes, and realized I was beat. Dead tired. I’d only managed to go 15 miles. I debated heartily whether to press onto the next town 40k away. It was hard for my ego to admit the end of the day, but I found a simple casa and passed out for a combined 10+ hours including naps.
That was a very wise decision indeed. While it looked mostly downhill on the map to the next town—didn’t I already mention the folly of that idea?—it definitely was not. I would not have made it yesterday. I am so glad I stayed put.
I left that for today’s ride, and what a ride again! There was more climbing to get to the very top of the mountain pass and all I could think about the whole time was Jurassic Park. Vistas of mountains with sea in the distance, vivid green tropical foliage, the silhouettes of palm trees on the hill tops. I was totally waiting for a pterodactyl to fly by. I mean, better that than a velociraptor to jump out at me, right?
The going was slow, with some really screaming downhill rewarding quite a bit more serious climbing than I’d reckoned there’d be. No pushing, thankfully, but no speed-racing either. The scenery was really rewarding. As was the sense that there probably haven’t been that many self-contained bike tourists to pass through here… probably even fewer ‘Mericans. The thrill of the rare and exotic coursed through my veins.
I want to share this feeling in the tour I make for Adventure Cycling. It will just be a matter of getting folks transport over that first hellacious part and begin the journey at Topes de Collantes. And that shouldn’t be hard. After all “This is Cuba. Anything is possible.”
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. Coming out of the mountains the landscape changed pretty dramatically from Late Jurassic to Contemporary California. The golden rolling hills and dry air felt very familiar. I guess all the moisture from the sea gets stopped by those mountains. My lips got chapped for the first time. The towns were small, very poor. People were much less friendly than in the coastal, tourist towns. I stopped saying hello, because people just scowled in return. So I just tucked and pedaled on through.
Now I’m in Santa Clara, in a sweet casa just on the city center. Three stories up, I’m on the rooftop. The decór is vintage sixties tile and curtains. And now having written this, I will descend to attempt to access the Internets to share it. Wish me luck.