By Emma Brown and Jacob Fenston
We were coated in a slick of sweat, diesel exhaust and sunscreen when we
coasted up to a man wearing just-shined shoes and drinking coke from a
plastic cup. He squinted at our crinkled map, nodded, told us we wanted
to go south to the beach at San Luis and walked off as we tried to
explain that we were headed north.
Next we tried an older woman, who donned her huge reading glasses to
examine the map. She held it upside down and agreed that San Luis was
probably where we were headed. Her nephew chimed in: Nothing up that
other road but mountains and rivers. "Do what you want," he said,
exasperated. "But you won't get there before dark."
It was Day 3 of our self-guided biking tour of Cuba. We were lost, and
everyone — including a baseball team playing by the side of the road —
was trying to help.
We had arrived in Cuba on a late-night flight from San Jose, Costa Rica,
staying that first night in the home of a friendly, fast-talking couple
who rented us a room in their bright blue Havana apartment and kindly
stored our bicycle boxes until our return seven days later. Pedaling
west out of the city, along its famed seaside promenade, we had passed
apartment buildings hung with laundry, crumbling grand hotels and
nationalist slogans ("Viva Castro! Patria o muerte!") scrawled on pieces
of wood and nailed to telephone poles.
Now we were somewhere in Pinar del Rio province, the country's tobacco
capital. We'd taken a wrong turn and were trying to find a shortcut back
to our route, where our guidebook said we'd find a small guesthouse that
had a tendency to fill up fast.
We didn't have reservations or a phone number, but we crossed our
fingers, turning down a dirt road that didn't appear on the map. The
sky, which had been darkening all day, cracked open, unleashing bolts of
lightning and sheets of rain. We hunched our shoulders, pedaled faster
and — what else could do we do? — laughed.
Travelling on two wheels in Cuba, we were discovering, means being
exposed to the weather. But it also means being exposed to the country —
its hidden valleys, its roadside fried-chicken vendors, its
tucked-away-in-a-courtyard music — in a way we might not otherwise be.
Soaked and shivering late that rainy afternoon, we finally rolled up to
Finca la Guabina, a horse ranch that doubles as an eco-hotel. A young
woman who seemed to operate the place by herself offered us a luckily
vacant room in the high-ceilinged converted farmhouse, where a flier
beside the bed boasted such attractions as horseback riding,
cockfighting and crocodile-breeding.
We opted instead for hot showers and cold drinks and fell into bed
exhausted, listening to the occasional shriek of a peacock that made its
night home on a trellis outside our window.
When the Soviet Union fell nearly two decades ago, Cuba scrambled to
make up for lost subsidies, and tourism became one of the country's most
reliable sources of hard currency. President Fidel Castro legalised the
US dollar and eased restrictions on foreign investment; hotels
mushroomed and Cubans started renting out rooms in their homes. Now,
despite the US embargo that prohibits most Americans from spending money
here, Cuba is the Caribbean's second most popular destination (after the
Dominican Republic), with picturesque spots flooded with vacationing
Europeans and Canadians.
Cubans we met were curious about these two Americans on bikes, and they
had lots of friendly questions about baseball, Barack Obama, the
economic crisis and hip-hop. ("Wow, I never met an American guy," said a
man with dreadlocks whom we met in a Havana cafe. "Do you like Tupac?")
With a license from the Treasury Department, it's possible to travel to
the island legally for journalism, academic research or professional
meetings. Otherwise, going to Cuba requires patience with the layers of
inconvenience that come with skirting the embargo. We saw no other
Americans during our week-long trip.
We travelled for a full day, flying from Washington to Houston to Costa
Rica — where we spent a seven-hour layover — and finally to Havana.
Bringing bikes in cardboard boxes made the journey even more of a
hassle. But we thought it would be worth it: Touring the island by bike
would give us a measure of independence. And it would give us a sort of
behind-the-scenes look at this country, where cars are a rare luxury and
workers commute by foot, horse-drawn wagon, bus, bici-taxi or bike.
Cuba's embrace of non-motorised transit is no accident, and it's fairly
new. At the same time that Castro was building hotels in the early '90s,
he was also buying bikes: Fuel imports had crashed with the Communist
bloc, buses had stopped running, and people needed a way to get around.
The country imported 2 million bikes from China and sold them at
subsidized prices. Local factories churned out 150,000 bikes a year, and
bike lanes appeared in cities and towns across the country.
But as tourism has grown and the economy has rebounded, cars and buses
have begun edging out bicycles again. And already, President Obama has
signalled that he is open to reestablishing diplomatic ties, loosening
travel restrictions for Cuba-Americans and allowing them to send more
money to family. Should the embargo be lifted, the number of tourists
visiting the country would double, according to the International
Monetary Fund. This might be the perfect time to go biking in Cuba,
before cars take back the streets.
The next morning, our lonely-seeming hotelier served us a hefty plate of
fresh mango and pineapple for breakfast and told us not to worry about
the chunks of dried mud our bikes had shed in her lobby. We pedaled away
from the ranch in the slanting light of sunrise, flanked by galloping
horses (and perhaps, slithering just out of view, breeding crocodiles).
A long day lay ahead: Our circuitous, took-a-wrong-turn route meant that
we had covered a mere 12 miles the day before. That left us with nearly
100 miles to our next destination, Maria la Gorda, a white-sand beach at
the island's western tip.
We rolled through valleys past mountainous rock formations called
mogotes, and through tiny towns in the hills where we snacked on 8-cent
strawberry ice cream.
In a tiny, cramped store selling an assortment of imported goods —
shampoo, juice, one bicycle tire — we waited to buy bottled water in a
slow-moving line that snaked toward a counter manned by a sole cashier.
The line was full of women who seemed at first not to notice the sweaty,
spandex-clad foreigners impatient to get back on the road. But then an
older woman with kind eyes turned toward us.
"It's boring for us, too," she said. A younger woman near the front of
the line took pity on us and pushed us up to the counter ahead of her,
where we scored our cold water.
Cuba is a cyclist's paradise: Many roads are empty, and even on the
busiest highways, drivers are used to sharing with bikes, pedestrians,
horses, mules and anything else that can roll or walk.
After lunch it felt more like a cyclist's hell: hot, flat and unending,
with not a spot of shade for miles.
The monotony of the parched western end of the island was finally broken
when we entered Guanahacabibes National Park, a UNESCO biosphere reserve
where a dense, humid forest surrounds the narrow road. Land crabs
scuttled in leaves at the pavement's edge, and we dodged thousands that
had bravely ventured out onto asphalt — shrieking, we admit, when they
raised their little claws as if to grab our tires, wrangle us to the
ground and pluck out our eyeballs.
The forest broke suddenly into beach, and we caught our first glimpse of
the Caribbean Sea, as gloriously blue as postcards promise. We rode
another hour, tracing the coast until the road ended at a sleepy,
palm-studded resort. Inside the thatch-roofed lobby, a clerk greeted us
in perfect British English, gave us our room key and told us that the
all-you-can-eat buffet was already open for dinner.
There's something undeniably lovely about sleeping late and lounging in
the sand and giving saddle sores a chance to heal; we had been looking
forward to it for days. But in what is perhaps an unhealthy reaction to
the chance to relax, we grew antsy. Surrounded by pink Germans and Dutch
marooned on white plastic beach chairs, we realized that there's a fine
line between lounging and languishing.
After a day of sun, sea and sand, we headed back toward Havana. We
didn't have time to ride, so we bungeed our bikes to the roof of a taxi.
As we sped past homesteads carved out of the tropical forest, with goats
tied in front, we asked the driver whether Cubans resent Americans for
the hardships caused by the 49-year-old embargo.
"No, no, not at all," he answered. "It's a thing between two governments
— it's not the people's fault." In fact, he said, Cubans want more
Americans to visit.
"Because they bring a lot of money."
He earned the equivalent of $12 a month working for the state-run taxi
company, he said. With salaries like that, everyone in Cuba has to
hustle to get by.
Travelling by bus or taxi is different from biking. You're protected
from the elements — the rain and the mud, and also the small-time
entrepreneurs trying to sell you a cigar or a pineapple — but missing
those things seems to be missing Cuba itself.
The Peninsula On-line: Qatar's leading English Daily (27 September 2009)