Friday, May 13, 2011

Cuba: Patria o Muerte; (22nd April-1st May '11)

I knew we were in for some interesting times when Jules ordered her first Cuban rum mid-air, on-route to Havana, at 10.30 in the morning. She insisted that drinking in the morning was acceptable if it was a cultural experience. This pretty much set the scene for our 10-day sojourn, lots of eating, drinking of rum and `soaking up the atmosphere`.
We weren't even quite sure how Cuba had ended up on our travel plans. Last time we checked we were cycling from Alaska to Argentina, but on a bit of a whim we had stored the bikes and found ourselves a cheap plane ticket across the Caribbean Sea. One of the things I love about travelling by bicycle is being able to avoid motorised transport, and particularly aeroplanes, as much as possible. However, a few things led us in the direction of Cuba:  we spoke to a traveller who had raved about how fantastic it was, we had the opportunity to gatecrash the travel plans of some friends that were heading there and we realised that a chance to visit Cuba was not going to come along again in a hurry.
Our spontaneous ten-day trip through Cuba turned out to be a brilliant decision as it was a fascinating, place and it was great fun to travel it with our friends Tash and Elli. Tash and Elli were also our saviours as they did a bunch of running around Vancouver before they left, bringing us some much needed supplies. We are reaching the stage in our trip where a lot of our equipment has had enough of its overuse and has given up the ghost and so we were incredibly grateful to receive a care package of bike bits and a much needed new camera.
 Cuba has such a fascinating history, from colonial times through the revolution and during the last 50+ years of communism. In our time there we visited the great colonial cities of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos; had some beach time along the palm-fringed southern coast and had a massive dose of Che at the historically important Santa Clara. We thoroughly enjoyed all the places we visited but really fell in love with ``La Habana``. Havana is everything that you imagined and more. It is filled with colonial grandeur, both restored impressive old buildings and the atmospheric bedraggled buildings that have so much history in all their sags. There is music all around, life lived out on the streets and of course all the classic old cars that were a tourist sight in themselves.

On our first day in Cuba we meet a Cuban named Ray and his beat-up vehicle, which quickly became our personal taxi. He offered to taxi us around the island for the same price as it would cost us on the bus. We were very happy to be driven around, though at times putting up with his blasting Cuban Reggaeton music, while trying to interpret his yelled Spanish was almost too much to bear. The car also required a push-start to get it going - but anything that we didn't have to peddle seemed like luxury to us!
Even while Cuba still retains the majority of its communist systems there are a number of ways (such as Ray and his `taxi`) that you can see homemade capitalism at work. The government has also created the `Casa Particular`network of houses where people can rent out 1 or 2 rooms to tourists. We stayed in these almost the entire way and were warmly welcomed into our hosts` homes.

However, we did spend one night at an all-inclusive beach hotel – Tash and Elli had spent many an hour explaining the all-inclusive concept to us (“Yes but are the snacks free?” “How about the drinks?” “Surely not the cocktails?”) and they finally decided that they had to show us one. On a whim we managed to book into a cheap, cargo-ship resembling, all-inclusive on the beautiful beach of Playa Ancon. Jules and I were like chickens with their heads cut off, and we didn't know what to eat or drink first! Its hard to explain to non-cyclists quite what a buffet means to someone who spends 6+ hours on a bike each day - but basically it is our equivalent of heaven.

Most days while we are riding along (and particularly on the tough days) I go into a little daydream where we are shown a table with all the food and drink I could possibly imagine and told to “go for it”. Well, in Cuba this little dream came true for us. At the all-inclusive there were buffet restaurants, a-la carte restaurants and snack bars, and we were allowed to eat and drink whatever we wanted! We took full advantage of this.... though we did realise we had reached a low point when, after we had just had a delicious seafood dinner in the a-la carte restaurant (yes thats included too), we went and hit up the buffet dinner as well, heaping up our plates for a second dinner.
Of course, being slightly hyperactive we couldn't sit still for too long rubbing our stomachs and belching appreciatively, we had to hit up the sports and exercise activities (yes they are free too!). We played some tennis, some pool volleyball, a spot of pingpong, did some snorkeling, some synchronised swimming in the hotel pool and then tried to re-enact the water scene from dirty dancing – which didn't work out so well.. Tash and Elli were given the role of the Swayze but unfortunately, while Jules and I may look skinny from all our riding, we had managed to store a great weight of icecream from the desert buffet in our bellies and our music montage looked neither effortless nor graceful.
I think the whole hotel was very relieved that we could only afford one night in the hotel and that they could get rid of the scruffy cyclists who raced from tennis court to buffet to pool to snack bar to beach to bar, leaping in excitement and randomly shouting “Its all free!!”. Of course we managed to store our bags on the last day and sneak back in for one last shot at the lunch buffet and a stack of cocktails. But finally we had to tear ourselves away from the cyclists' wet dream and head back to the culture, music and colour that is Cuba.
Cuba is such an unusual country – colonial history, Caribbean culture and a fantastic arts scene are just a few elements. There is also the impact from years of communism, the American trade embargo and the collapse of their main trading partner and backer, the Soviet Union. Cubans have been through some very tough times, and have become masters of making do and reuse. This really opens your eyes to exactly how much we waste (and makes the all-inclusive hotel seem like another world). In Cuba people make very little money, and there is a lack of things that we take for granted, such as food on the supermarket shelves and free speech. However, Cubans can also take for granted a number of essentials that the government provides, such as education and health care. There is also a great appreciation and government support for a number of the things that I love. For instance I spent less than $1 in one state bookshop and came out with three new books. And then we spend a fantastic night at a local live music venue where the entrance cost us only 8 cents each. This night was my favourite in all of Cuba, fantastic original Cuban music, with an eclectic, packed and appreciative crowd all in the setting of an old roofless building, shaded by trees growing out of the ruined building.
Cubans are fiercely proud of their country, and rightly-so as it is an amazing place. However, while we heard many positive attitudes towards their government we also had people raise a number of issues with us. I think the next few years will be some very interesting years for Cuba and her people.
I certainly hope to get back and visit, as Cuba is now under my skin!
And last but not least ..Cuba has provided me with some new material from our experience in the all-inclusive that will make my bicycle daydreams even more realistic...mmm desert buffet....

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