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 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,