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The captive audience….

I never get this when I speak to Rotary, the WI or Probus…..a captive audience of 300 at the CTC Birthday Rides at Yarnfield in Staffordshire. An amazing crowd of seriously experienced and knowledgeable cycle tourists, many of whom have had their own extraordinary adventures in various parts of the world.

I regaled them with my cycling adventure in Cuba recently, discovered that several had already had their own adventures in Cuba, and many others (both during the talk and afterwards) plied me with questions in readiness for them to take the plunge. For some reason, many people are worried about safety issues in Cuba, which has prevented them from thinking about independent travel there, so they have used cycle travel companies to provide the moral and material support. I assured them that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world for independent travel….within the limitations of my own experience.

Today, I headed into Stafford to spend a couple of very enjoyable hours with Claire, a former student, and a flying visit to both the Ancient High House and the Castle, both bursting with fascinating history.

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Every colonial building in La Habana is a potential gem, but sadly, only some of them have been restored to their former glory. A work in progress….. But occasionally you come across something so exceptional, it stops you in your tracks. In the courtyard of one such building I was stopped in my tracks by this exceptional marble carving of a mother and her child

….and seen from above, the expression on the child’s face tells its own story of their close relationship…

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On my way out of La Habana, returning to my casa, I prepared to do battle with the queues for the bus….it is a chaotic experience, and those who survive it have to be battle-hardened. I approached the queue and asked ¿el último?….who’s the last?

A gentleman told me he was at the head of the queue, but told me to stand next to him….I was puzzled at first, but we got talking. I gained his confidence, and he slowly gained mine. When I asked eventually what he did for a living, astonishingly he told me he was a cardiologist, but he had a second job supervising infants in a nursery…..I was struggling to fully appreciate what he was telling me.

One of the few people I’ve heard say anything negative about Cuba, he told me that he was not allowed to earn more than $50 per month, and that the average wage for most people was $15-20 per month. It was then I understood why he was fighting the unruly queues to squeeze into the state-subsidised buses……but even more astonishingly, he slipped me the 40 centavos (2p) for the fare, got me into the bus, and grabbed a seat for me. Quite bewildering, really…..

And before I leave Cuba, I wonder if anyone could enlighten me why the Irishman O’Reilly should be honoured with a street name? On a plaque it said “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope: Cuba and Ireland”.

La Habana

In all its crumbling magnificence, La Habana has not changed at all in the 15 years since I was last here. It is still crumbling away, but scaffolding around its Capitolio suggests they are trying to do some restoration. Sixty years ago, before the revolution, the city was the richest and most lavish in the Caribbean, but lack of money and expertise since the revolution quickly saw it deteriorate in succeeding years.

The Capitolio was built by Machado, a dictator in the 20s who most obviously ‘sucked up’ to the Americans by building a duplicate copy of the Capitol building in Washington, but somehow it’s architecture doesn’t quite fit the Carribbean context. But despite the flaws in the environment, La Habana is very much a partying city. The sounds of salsa come out of every bar and restaurant, street dancers troupe through the streets in their regalia…

…while one of the museums celebrates a Cuban interpretation of Mexican papier mache art…..note the Habana cigar in the dragon’s teeth….

…and, of course, one of the city’s many defining characteristics are the fleets of lovingly restored American classic cars, many of which got into Cuba via Venezuela.

A vibrant city, a honeypot destination for people from across the world, but as I sat on an overcrowded bus on my 5 centavo journey to the suburbs, the faces of the people betrayed history’s ethnic melting pot that Cuba is. Every thing from black Congolese to the purest white Caucasian is evident in Cuba’s racial mix…..but never once have I been aware of any racial tensions. It just doesn’t seem to figure in their thinking…..

Cienfuegos – La Habana

Don’t be impressed…..now bike less, I picked up a colectivo taxi which, because it is shared with other disparate passengers, is not so expensive. With some guidance from a mapping app on my phone, the driver found the casa where I had started my journey 2 weeks before, which would be a last ditch attempt to meet up with Bob, an American cycling buddy whom I had met in New Zealand 6 years ago. We had already made an abortive attempt a couple of years ago to go cycling together in Cuba, but it never happened, and I went off to Florida instead for 2 weeks.

When I met Bob for the first time, he and his 10 year old daughter, Anna, were riding a Hase Pino tandem ( with a semi-recumbent front rider) and his wife Christine was on a solo. They had courageously taken a year out to cycle the world together as a family, and we met on a campsite of South Island. We stuck together for the next few days, climbing a few hills together, finally saying goodbye in Queenstown. I knew then that was not going to be the last I would see of them.

It was so good to be in his company again, very much a case of like minds coming together again. We seized the moment, sharing a good 10 hours of stories, anecdotes and shared memories, before Bob headed back to Lake Tahoe in California. We hadn’t met on the road because our travel schedules hadn’t quite matched, and independent travellers don’t like hanging around, but we kept in touch on the road, and pinned ourselves down to this get-together.

It was the perfect conclusion to an eventful couple of weeks.

Trinidad – Cienfuegos

Heading to the city of ‘a hundred fires’, I had decided to make this the last day of cycling in Cuba, and hand over my faithful old steed to Sergio…..except that Sergio lived in Sta Clara, about 100km away. 

But he was so excited about the gift, he said he would borrow a camión and come and fetch it. A more deserving recipient I could not have found. When I first met him, there was an immediate meeting of minds….we found ourselves on the same wave length from the first moments, we shared a lot of conversations over a wide range of subjects….in short, we were very comfortable in each other’s company.

Staying at the casa of a friend of theirs here in Cienfuegos, he was able to find me quickly this morning, and we went out to a peso eating place (where only Cubans generally eat, at state subsidised prices) and had a couple of beers and a pizza. He was trying to thank me for the bike, but this 30 year old wonder was needing a new home, so I explained some of its peculiarities: it’s quick-release wheels and saddle, how the 21 gears worked, the Girvin flex stem…..all of this is old technology to us, but not to the average Cuban.

He had left his truck on the outskirts of the city, so he had to take courage and climb on the bike in front of me……and great to say I didn’t detect even the slightest wobble.

When I told him the history of the bike, the countries that it has visited and the number of kms ridden (probably 80-100,00kms), he adopted an immediate reverence towards it. I asked him if he might plan any trips, and he told me he likes to go lake fishing at weekends, so will already be doing regular 30km trips.

I waved him off knowing that ours will be a lasting friendship that will go beyond the bike. And his gift to me is that I now have one bike fewer to store and maintain……and I know it’s going to a good home……

Trinidad: UNESCO World Heritage town

Not climbing back on the bike after breakfast can be a bit disorienting, but Trinidad is not a place you fly in and out of. 

It is one of only 5 original Spanish colonial towns in Cuba, and it is by far and away the best preserved. Mostly colourfully painted single storey buildings, it’s heritage is further confirmed by its rough cobbled streets, not very comfortable for either walking or cycling.

Founded in the early 16th century, it was a staging post for expeditions to South America and it was from here that Hernán Cortés launched his invasion of Mexico.

You can spend hours wandering the streets, negotiating the tour groups and touters, and be surprised by something interesting round every corner. I was waylaid my a museum called The battle against the bandits, 

and discovered it was about Castro’s bid, in the early years of his regime, to root out the counter-revolutionaries in the Sierra de Escambray, which is the backdrop to Trinidad. The exhibition was designed to be a war memorial to all those who died for their fatherland…..and there seemed to be a lot of literacy educators amongst the victims. 

Castro had created huge teams of teenage literacy teachers who went out into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read and write….it was claimed the target of 100% literacy in the nation was achieved in less than a year. Many point to this as one of the great achievements of the regime, but I bet many of those people have never been into a bookshop or library in Cuba. Let me explain.

Cuba may be literate but nobody actually reads anything….not even newspapers. The rare bookshop you find has very few books, no customers, and that’s because 90% of the books are about some aspect of the revolution and the other 10% are about yawn-inducing topics like the history of apiculture in Cuba. Even the libraries are empty, because all they have are fusty dusty ageing volumes on topics no one wants to read about. What’s more, they are housed in dark forbidding unwelcoming buildings. The people of Cuba are suffering from cultural and intellectual starvation, and nobody here seems to realise it. Or do they…..?

I would recommend anyone coming to Cuba avoids the organised packaged tour. Go independently, live and travel with the people. Experience something of the discomforts of their means of transport, their lack of choices in both food and consumer goods, their frustrating queues to get the most basic things (I queued today to get into a bank and to buy a WiFi card). People say they want to see Cuba before it changes, as if what the Cubans have now is romantic and cute, and capitalism is only going to ruin it. We need to wake up and stop being patronising. Do go and spend your £s and $s to support their failing economy, but get down there in the trenches with them and try to see the world as they see it. You can’t do that if you are forever retreating into an air-conditioned tour-coach or finishing your day back at a smart hotel that serves canapés and cocktails before dinner.

OK folks, rant over. I’ll be back on the bike again  tomorrow…..😊

Sancti Spiritus – Trinidad

Cubans obviously don’t have enough mountain roads to really get today’s climb into perspective. Everyone told me, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads, it’s tough, very steep, you may not make it……probably have to walk….why not catch a camión? Well, I must confess, I was filled with some trepidation….but not too much…..after all, I’ve climbed over the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites….should I go on?

When I got to the top of a steepish climb towards the end, I suddenly realised I’d actually climbed it without realising….is that bragging, or are Cubans just unrealistic about constitutes a real hill? 

However, at the top there was a mirador (café with a viewing point) giving panoramic views over to the sea, with Trinidad just out of view.
At on of my pitstops, at a small roadside bar, I asked for bottled water, then a soft drink, but all they could offer was beer! Throwing principles out of the window, I had a beer, and met my namesake, Francis

except his second name was Jesus. Mother and grandma were ‘tickled pink’……just think, an Englishman with the same name as our little one…..

At another stop, in the shade of a bus shelter, I met Nivado,

 who entertained me with his meandering jovial chatter. He was the only one to temper his comments about the severity of the climb. He actually said I’d already climbed one that he thought worse. I immediately liked him. But he, like lots of others, thought I was gallego(Galician), because I speak with a mainland Spanish accent.

There’s a history to this observation. Like the Irish, the Galicians have been the greatest emigrators from Spain over the centuries, so anyone with a mainland accent is assumed to be gallego. Once they realise I’m not gallego, they popularly guess I’m from one the Scandinavian countries…..until I put them right. I’m not sure how many actually know where England is…..it’s over there somewhere, and it’s cold, wet and misty….all the time.

My route today was 73km, occasionally with a good tailwind, but mostly a crosswind…..

Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage town, so I’ve chosen to stay a couple of nights….and allow myself to mingle with lots of other tourists……sigh!

Sta Clara – Sancti Spiritus

During my two night stopover as a guest of Elsa and Sergio, I feel they have become good friends. On the second evening, they invited me to supper, opened a bottle of Cuban wine (sweet, like an oloroso sherry), brought out the beer, and refused to charge me. In the company of an Argentinian couple, we talked for hours, me stifling my amusement at the Argentinian accent…..which I find very funny. 

Alone in the company of Elsa and Sergio, they plied me with questions, especially about my bike trips, but as I put details on some of the trips, I could see in their eyes a sad longing for all the opportunities they have missed out on. They were children of the revolution, and they’ve known nothing else. They have borne the restrictions and deprivations all their lives, but they never uttered a single negative word about it…..obviously great believers in all the revolution stood for. The ‘special period’ in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was especially difficult. They had lost their only trading partner in the world, which meant their economy collapsed, and the shortages were so acute that the average body weight of Cubans dropped by 10%. Fighting their own battles, with no friends in the commercial world, means that if a crop fails, there is nothing to replace it. For instance, after the recent hurricane Irma, fruit crops were completely destroyed, meaning that they simply had to do without. At that moment bananas, the cyclist’s best friend, are completely off the menu…..but my breakfasts have still included papaya, guava, pineapple and orange…..so things are improving.

Sergio has expressed a serious interest in having my bike, especially since he had his stolen a few months ago. He likes to take his grandson about on a special kiddy seat he made of wood, and he is prepared to travel to pick it up ……so watch this space. I feel he will be a very worthy recipient.

Much of today’s 87km route was on a nicely surfaced country road, allowing me a couple of convenient pitstops in villages. But even better than that, a ‘cold front’ had come in, meaning the temperature had actually dropped to 20C, and the wind was generally behind me (in good panto tradition, of course)….it was a huge relief not having the sweat pouring off me for the whole ride. When it is hot in Cuba, it can be oppressively hot…..especially for cycling.

Santa Clara

I’m surprised Santa Clara hasn’t been re-named Ciudad de Che, because the town is largely a monument to his memory. It’s astonishing that, nearly 60 years after the revolution, the dominant message coming from all official quarters is that Cuba is still in revolution, and is still trying to achieve its ultimate goals through revolutionary action. 

The only national newspaper, Granma, is still tightly controlled and still preaches only one message: revolution. The vast majority of Cubans have known only one thing throughout their lives: revolution. I keep asking myself…..how do they maintain the momentum? Where does this continued enthusiasm for revolution come from?

The principal monument in Santa Clara is the Che mausoleum and its adjoining museum. His remains were returned from Bolivia 30 years after his assassination, along with the remains of some of his soldiers, and buried beneath this enormous statue of Che, the fighter and comandante. He was an enigmatic figure. It is easy to get to love the icon, his alleged caring attitude to the welfare of his soldiers, his deep convictions about the worth of the individual. He claimed he would sacrifice his life to make repressed people, anywhere in the world, free. 

On the other hand, there was the ruthless fighter, the killing machine, the extreme disciplinarian who would execute his own men if called upon to do so. What we have is the lionised version of the man created by Castro and his cohort……so this mausoleum has become the tomb of a revolutionary saint.

If there was just one military action that caused the lionization of the man, it would have to be the derailment of the train in Santa Clara (these are the actual wagons reassembled to depict the action) which was carrying 400 government soldiers and huge consignments of arms. With only 24 men, against 400 heavily armed men, the battle was won within an hour, and so emphatic was the victory, that it turned out to be the very last engagement of the war. Two days later, on January 1st 1959, the revolution had its final victory.

If you’ve stayed with this post to this point, well done…… I hope to get back to some cycling tomorrow.

Los Vinales -Santa Clara

I want you to be impressed, but not because I cycled the 500km eastwards to get to Santa Clara, in central Cuba. No…….. I want you to be impressed that I actually survived two ‘white-knuckle’ rides in colectivo taxis. The first was driven by Pedro, to La Habana, with four passengers (including two Swedes and a south Korean), and my bike strapped on the roof. His Lada was the equivalent of my £50 bangers in the 70s, with the same lack of any safety features. He drove it at breakneck speed through torrential rain storms, all the while on his phone touting for business for his return journey. And I discovered that everyone drives in the fast lane on the highway (and overtakes on the slow lane) because there are fewer potholes in the fast lane. I got out of that car feeling completely rung out. 

My next colectivo, from La Habana to Santa Clara, was a more controlled experience (and I shared this ride with three Cubans), but it broke down when we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere. After a lot of fettling under the bonnet, the driver finally kicked it into life…..and yes, it was yet another damned Lada.

So I am now in Santa Clara, a town which is synonymous with Che Guevara and his memory, where his mausoleum is situated, as is a variety of other reminders of when the Cuban Revolution came to a successful end, and when Batista fled to pastures new. But more of that later…..

My stay in Los Vinales concluded with an absolutely stunning 20km ride along the valley,

a lush green landscape noted for its tobacco crops and continued use of traditional methods of cultivation. Yes, fields are actually still ploughed using a pair of oxen…..and they are beautiful beasts.

I checked into the first casa I chanced by, met a neighbour who will look after the bike, and had a very interesting chat with the man of the house, and surprisingly, he knew all about Brexit, and had some stark things to say about Donald Trump. Of course, we all now know that the so-called ‘sonic attack’ on the US embassy in La Habana was completely fabricated by the Americans, seemingly as an excuse for severing diplomatic relations once again with Cuba……..I leave you to ponder that one for yourself.

Pinar del Río-Los Vinales

Accessing the internet is a curious business in Cuba. One thing that stands out is that Cubans are never seen using their devices along streets, in restaurants, or even at home. Why? Because there is no home provision of wifi for anyone other than important public servants, and there is definitely no mobile data for anyone. To get online, everyone has to buy a data card, costing at least £1 per hour, and they can only connect at hotspots, usually in small parks and public squares. The big question is: how to find the hotspots, because they are not signed in anyway. I’m sure you’ve already worked this one out……..yep, look for clusters of people intently using their devices. That is the only way….. Despite these restrictions, many Cubans seem to be very internet savvy, and everyone under a certain age (40, perhaps) will have a smartphone. But, of course, smartphones are not very smart in Cuba…..yet.

Talking of deprivations, the variety of food and consumer goods probably reflects what rationing was like for us in the last war. I have been in a number of little village stores looking for a snack and the shelves have been empty. If you do find a packet of biscuits, maybe even with a filling, the price will so high for the average Cuban that it will only ever be a treat. Don’t get me wrong, no one is underfed, but choice is extremely limited, making eating sometimes a boring repetitive experience…..but not for the average tourists, of course. This is a fairly typical breakfast, and never lacking in abundance.
 As a chocoholic, can I service my addiction in Cuba? Definitely not….I have yet to see any chocolate of any description in places where the locals shop.

As I climbed over the Sierra to Los Vinales, I caught this pig skulking by the roadside, appearing not to belong to anyone.

And as I crested the mountain, I was treated to this view of the famous mogotes of the Valley….so famous, they attract the tour companies with their hordes of tourists. 

And I, like every other tourist, don’t regard myself as one of those….No, no, of course not…..after all I do ride a bike. Erm……d’you think I might have a complex?

And sorry to bore you with bike issues again. One of the ‘new’ pedals stripped the threads off one of the cranks…..I eventually found a bunch of young bike mechanics who eventually found a solution…..another crank. They got one by asking around the neighbourhood….they are resourceful bunch of people.

Las Terrazas -Pinar del Río

Noel was the guy who came out on his sleek electric scooter to tout for my business, and I was not disappointed with his offer of accommodation.

 On the terrace of his newly-built green-painted bungalow, you could sit and gaze across the Sierra del Rosario and up to the high point where Che Guevara had trained some of his soldiers for the doomed Bolivia campaign. And by way of interest, Noel’s wife was called Milady…..

I also got to meet Inés and Malte (not a couple). We had all converged on the same accommodation….evidence of some good marketing there by Noel, who knows how to catch his customers. Inés was German and just taking 10 days out to hitch hike around bits of Cuba. Malte, who was Danish, was just coming to the end of 4 months travelling before settling down to begin his PhD. He had spent time in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia getting up to lots of adventurous things. They were inspiring company for the two meals we shared together.

30km into my ride to Pinar del Río, I began to suffer badly from the heat, so rather than draw out the agony, I climbed on one of the infamous truck buses (simply called camiones) and they helped to haul up the bike as well.

 It was packed with passengers inside, everybody enduring the discomfort of rudimentary box seating, but it was fast and cheap. And, of course, there’s something special about sharing the same transport as the local people…..

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