Adios Cuba

   

  

 We are so lucky to have had two and a half months to bike around this beautiful country. We had heard Cuba was an amazing country to cycle, so we were expecting the open roads and gorgeous scenery but we didn’t know it would touch our hearts so deeply and give us so much to think about. 
   

  

 And it’s not just us. We’ve met countless touring cyclists – from Vancouver, Halifax, Quebec (Lac St Jean, Quebec City and Montreal), Toronto, Arnprior, Alberta, Alaska, New York, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Portland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain – on this trip and although every group was unique, each one was having a fabulous trip.
   

 We are sad to leave Cuba and will miss so many lovely things. These are a few of our favourites:
Roads full of people biking, and walking, taking horse carts and bici taxis. 

We love the friendly honks of transport buses that wait patiently to pass and give us a full lane. We love people yelling encouragement out the window, especially when Derek and Jasper are going uphill.  

    
  
We’ll miss spontaneous bike races with Cubans on one speeds who were pedalling along at a leisurely pace until we passed them and suddenly they pass us back and look over their shoulders to see if we’re up for some fun. The language of bike racing is universal and folks we pass on the side of the road cheer us all on.
We’ll miss the clip clop of horse carts, both in the country side and in towns. We’ve had a few bici taxi rides, but will have to come back for the horse cart taxis. Media Luna, in Granma province, had the most horse carts of anywhere we visited.

I’m going to miss asking directions to the nearest bakery and being called “mi vida” or “amor.” This tenderness makes the ‘chores’ of daily life a pleasure.
We’ll miss all the besitos when we meet new friends or say goodbye. The kids love exchanging these sweet little cheek kisses with their friends.
We’ll miss hearing the whistle of passing bread sellers and being able to step into the street to buy fruit, veggies and garlic.      
Having looked hard for eggs in a number of cities and towns where they were sold out – sometimes for days – we’ll miss the triumphant smiles of people walking home with big flats of 24 eggs when they’ve been able to find them. We’ll also never look at a Canadian grocery store fridge full of eggs without appreciating the miracle of their wide availability.
We will miss all the kind, generous, friendly Casa Particular owners and their families who welcomed us so warmly into their homes and their lives. As Anna Sierra and Jasper got more comfortable in their Spanish, they could play with the kids, nieces, grandkids and neighbours of the Casas and they made some very sweet friends. 
One of our favourite things to do when we’re not biking is to sit in the main square or parque and hang out, people watching. We’ll miss these lovely spaces where folks of all ages spend the evening catching up, eating delicious snacks, learning to walk or rollerblade, playing freeze tag or soccer (for the under 13 set), listening to music, Skyping with family overseas and just enjoying the breeze.
We’ll miss hearing our favourite songs blasting in the streets like “Hasta que se seca el Malecon.” Luckily Derek has that one on his phone so we can get our groove on whenever we want.

We’ll miss how easy it is to get shoes, sandals, umbrellas, air conditioners, and cell phones fixed and lighters refilled. Cubans are always telling us how creative and inventive they are, out of necessity. They’re famous for lovingly restoring classic cars and keeping them running, but there’s a lot more to the story. We’ve seen glasses made out of old beer bottles, carefully cut, smoothed and decorated. Anna Sierra noticed a bicycle seat reupholstered with an old soccer ball. And plastic water bottles are endlessly reused to store juice and to sell cooking vinegar before they’re recycled and made into sturdy clothespins or refillable shoe shine containers.
We won’t miss being asked for soap, pens or clothes as we often are when we walk around the more touristy areas of the more touristy towns, like Trinidad. At first this was annoying and we weren’t sure why we were being asked for soap, especially. Who carries soap in their purse? But then we saw a tour group walk through a neighbourhood one Saturday morning and a lady walked up to a kid sitting on her front stoop and gave her some soap, unsolicited. It was surreal to observe because soap is widely available, inexpensive and the neighbourhood was relatively affluent, so it would have been like someone randomly gifting Anna or Jasper with a bar of soap if they were hanging out on our porch. And we had a lot of unanswered questions about tourists doing things abroad that they’d never think of doing in their own country. 
But Cuba is a complex country with a lot of layers. Later a casa owner told us that during the 90’s, euphemistically known as the Special Period, when there was tremendous economic hardship and a lot of scarcity, people had to make soap with ashes. So soap would have been a welcome and needed gift then. Now it’s most often resold. And begging for it from tourists has become an occupation.
However, when we were chatting about teachers with a lady named Carmen who we met on the beach in Guardalavaca, she said for special occasions like Teachers’ Day and the end of the school year, students give their teachers something nice like shampoo or dish soap. With teachers’ salaries being relatively low, useful gifts that most families can afford are the norm. In our neighbourhood in Ottawa, where teachers’ salaries are higher and families – for the most part – live in relative abundance, wine and chocolate or even a trip to the spa from the whole class – treats, in other words – are more typical teacher gifts. And I think that’s one of the great gifts of travelling – hearing stories from the folks you meet and realizing that whatever you consider normal is just one way of doing things.
Once we were sitting on the quay in Cienfuegos and two boys came up to us and asked for chocolate. Derek said we didn’t have any and then asked them what their favourite subject at school was. After that we became best friends and chatted about geography and the sea and high tides in the Bay of Fundy. These are the moments I treasure the most, when there’s genuine connection.
We’ll miss drinking fresh jugo – mango, piña, guayaba, fruta de bomba, tamarindo, platanito – from little cafeterias and chatting with the owners. And I’ll miss the one peso coffee shots that are so strong and sweet. The coffee is so delicious here that Derek’s started drinking it too.
Here in Cuba you often have to line up, but whenever there’s a line up, you can ask “el último?” and whoever is last will say “yo.” Once you’ve identified yourself as the last in line to whoever comes after you, you can either stand in a straight line or go find a shady spot to sit down and wait. This is brilliant. 
We are excited to continue our journey in San Diego and north to Canada where we’ll reconnect with our amazing family and dear friends, but this feels like the beginning of a long and lovely relationship with Cuba and it’s hard to say goodbye.
With warmest wishes,

Kathleen

Riding Cuba’s East Coast

We are continuing to have the most wonderful time in Cuba. For the past few weeks we have been riding in the East, from Holguin to Santiago de Cuba. With spectacular scenery – mountains, deserts, coastal roads and lovely towns, villages and cities – and super warm people this is our favourite part of Cuba. 

  If you’ve just got a few weeks to visit Cuba and you love hills, aren’t afraid of the heat, have some mountain biking experience for the stretches of rough road and Spanish to make friends in the more remote regions, this is where we’d recommend going.

  
We’ve been meeting lots of cyclists on the road – along with all the usual people riding. So far none of them are participating in the Tour of Cuba that starts in early February, but they are getting excited about it and are happy to chat about it as we ride along together. 

 
On the road into Guardalavaca, we met Carlos who was coming home from a 100km training ride. When we told him the tandem was down to one gear instead of its usual three (it still had 8 on the other ring), he said we should meet his mechanic – the best in the whole province – in Banes the next day. Carlos said his mechanic worked at the sports school in Banes and he’d introduce us. After we rode into Guardalavaca, Carlos single handedly carried the solid steel tandem to the balcony of the third floor apartment where we were staying – a feat we didn’t think was possible – and told us he would meet us on the road to Banes the next day.
As promised, Carlos caught up to us midway into a thrilling downhill about 10 km from Banes and led us into town and to a beautiful Casa Particular with a front porch looking out into the mountains. I’ve always loved sitting on the front porch and watching the world go by, but there’s so much more to see and so many people to talk to that it’s become a hobby here in Cuba. After we got settled at the casa, Carlos led us through town to the school where his mechanic worked. 

It didn’t take long for the assessment – the tandem needed a lot more lubrication. We had been using a racing lube, but with all the heat, humidity and dust, a heavier lube is just what chains and gears need. 

Carlos treated us to pizzas at his favourite pizza place and led us back to the casa – introducing us to lots of friends and relatives along the way – for a rest. When he’s not training for Masters bike races, Carlos is a carpenter, carving beautiful wooden bed frames, mirrors and armoires. It was such a pleasure getting to know him and sharing our passion for cycling with him.

Banes ended up being one of our favourite towns. Just 30 km from the touristy town of Guardalavaca, Banes is off the beaten track and full of people going about their business. It’s also home to lots of delicious street food. With our biking appetites, we are always ready to enjoy tasty treats. We had corn fritters smothered in garlic sauce, mango ice cream and pateles (cookies with guyaba jam filling). While I rested in the evening, Derek and Anna Sierra went off to the park to check out some rides and Jasper watched cartoons with the grandma at the casa. Rumour has it they were holding hands.

   Carlos was the first of three different cycling escorts we’ve had into various towns. Herbert, a retired Swiss national ironman triathlete met us on the road into Guantanamo. We were on the last 5 km of a long, hot 80km day and really needed a boost for the final stretch. Herbert led us into town and to his wife, Yali’s Casa Particular where we stayed for two days, getting to know the family, including Yali and Herbert’s adorable 8 month old son, Alejandro. 

  The next day Herbert took us on a ride to see an amazing stone zoo about 25km out of town. He warned us that it was “a bit steep” at the end, but it ended up being so steep that Derek, Jasper and I had to stop half way up when we saw bananas and mandarins for sale. We took so long snacking on fruit and chatting with the lady selling it that Anna and Herbert rode back down the hill to look for us. We were all (including Herbert) blown away by the zoo. 

  We thought there would be a handful of stone sculptures, but there were over 300 exquisite life-sized sculptures set into the rocks that led up a hill to an incredible view. After over 30 years of sculpting, the founding sculptor died, but his son is continuing his work. While his father favoured animals attacking each other, his son has an eye for contemporary Cuban village life. The scenes of an ox cart driver, a cowboy leading a line of stubborn donkeys and a stone house complete with a grandpa drinking coffee, a mom looking out the window and a mischievous boy peeking out from behind curtains were our favourite works.

      
Three more cyclists met us on the road into Santiago de Cuba where we finished our “Far East” tour. Although they just finished a Saturday morning race, they were excited to hear about our trip and happy to lead us through town – including past three busy and confusing intersections – to a casa. There we met a kind and wonderful family. Ramon, a retired military helicopter pilot was always making sure that we ate our bananas and loved telling us about the park nearby where little kids could go for a ride in a cart pulled by a goat. 

  Ramon’s wife Emily, is a doctor in the emergency room of one of at least six hospitals in town (there’s a maternal hospital, two general hospitals, two children’s hospitals, a hospital that specializes in cancer treatment and another specialist hospital) and made a mousaka that melted in our mouths and brought us back to my mom’s kitchen. And their son Ramon is a computer science professor at the university.

    

 In 2012, Santiago de Cuba was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the colonial buildings downtown as well as people’s homes and businesses are under repair. It’s a slow, steady process of recovery and the disaster is still very fresh for the residents. Derek took us to see a maqueta of the city (a scale model of the city complete with all the homes, parks, hills and even the oil refinery) and all around the maqueta were poster boards of Santiago’s emergency measures plans, communication development strategies and smart growth charts. 
After two days exploring Santiago de Cuba, especially its lively pedestrian Boulevard, we carried on along the legendary south coast where parts of the road are under repair post Hurricane and stunning views of ocean meeting mountains follow the route.
Sending lots of love and our best wishes!

Xo

Kathleen

Merry Christmas from Cuba!

Merry Christmas from Cuba!
We have been having a great time in Cuba.

   
    
   
We’ve been biking, snorkelling, learning lots of Spanish and even having a wonderful visit with some of our dearest friends from Ottawa who met us for a week in Varadero.

One of our favourite things about biking in Cuba is that “share the road” isn’t something you see written on signs, but it’s what everyone does. Bikes, bici-taxis, horse carts, people walking, classic cars, tourist jeeps, busses, trucks, there’s room for everyone. And if anyone wants to pass they always give you at least a lane. Honks are usually just a friendly hello. Sometimes the road is even shared with drying rice. 

The riding is great- beautiful scenery and lots of friendly people riding along or waving at the kids as we ride past. 

   

  

 The tandem is really popular here. We have had lots of people ask if we’ll give or sell them the bikes (or our inner tubes or extra strong tires). Once we explain that we’re riding in Cuba until February and then continuing our journey from San Diego up to Canada, they understand that we need the bikes ourselves. We’ve met a number of other bike travellers and almost everyone has the same fabulous guide book as us – Bicycling Cuba, printed in 2001. It’s out of print, but like us, everyone seems to have found a second hand copy.

It’s really helpful to have a printed book as it’s tricky to go online. To send emails from your phone, you first have to buy a card at a Telecommunications building. You might have to wait up to an hour if there’s a line up. Once you have your card, you just need to find a park with wifi, which we’ve been able to find in the bigger cities. Usually there are lots of people sitting around on their phones or Skypeing with family whenever there’s wifi. In smaller places, you could use your card at either a hotel with a computer or at the telecommunications building itself. 
We are staying in Casas Particulares which are rooms in private homes and are a cross between bed and breakfasts and Airbnb. We just show up at a town and look for the Casa Particulares signs on people’s homes and ask if they have a room available. If they don’t have anything available, they usually will call a neighbour who does. 

We usually have both dinner and breakfast at our casa, lovingly prepared by our hosts. The meals are spectacular- rice, beans, viande (starchy veggies like yucca), salads, fruit platters, avocado…we are glad to have biking appetites to appreciate everything. Not only is the food delicious and healthy, it’s always beautiful – a real step up from the one pot wonders we were preparing while camping through Europe! 

It’s been really special getting to know so many different host families. It’s one of our very favourite things about Cuba. 

    
    
    
    
   
Usually we have lunch on the road. We eat sandwiches, peso pizza, ice cream, yucca fritters, fruit juice and anything else that’s vegetarian from road side stands. Jasper is excited because very few deserts are made with milk here as it is expensive so he can enjoy almost everything.
We’re still getting used to the heat and sunshine so we leave at 7:00 whenever we have a longer ride and try to be off the road by 1:30 or 2:00. Anna Sierra is still itching for her first century, but our longest ride in Cuba has been about 80km.
As I write this, it’s December 23 and we are in a small town called Remedios to celebrate Christmas. The town has a tradition of rowdy late night Christmas Eve parades with different neighbourhoods competing for the most elaborate float. The party has already started, with lots of streets around the main square closed to traffic, huge speakers set up every few blocks and lots of food, drinks and treasures for sale. The actual parade starts tomorrow night at 10:00pm and apparently lasts all night! We figured if we were away from family and snow for Christmas, we should try something totally different!

We have also had a chance to experience Cuba’s famous and affordable medical system. Jasper had a strange looking thing on the back of his heel that looked like an insect might be trapped under his skin, leaving a trail as it crawled around under the skin. We asked several doctors casually – our Spanish teacher in Cienfuegos and another neighbour of our casa hosts. They both thought it was an allergic reaction to an insect bite from the beach. Derek and I didn’t think it looked like an allergic reaction, so when we got to Santa Clara, we walked over to one of the health clinics to consult another doctor. We only had to wait five minutes to see a doctor who knew right away it was a mild form of shingles. He took lots of time to explain everything to us in slow Spanish and waited patiently while we translated for Jasper. He gave us a prescription that we were able to fill at a pharmacy only a ten minute walk away. The total cost for the medication – vitamins, something for fever and topical cream – was 10 Cuban pesos (about 50 Canadian cents). It was such a relief to find out what was actually wrong with his foot and I felt so grateful that he received such great care right in the neighbourhood where we were staying.

We’ve heard that Cuba sends doctors all over the world, wherever they are needed most. One casa host whose grandson was about to practice medicine in Venezuela as part of a government program told us that he had recently read that Cuba sent the last of 10,000 doctors to Brazil! 
We send our warmest wishes to everyone at home. We hope you get lots of snow and have fun skiing and tobogganing!
Xo

Kathleen