We made it. But perhaps only just. Three weeks was too long in Cuba. We realised that we had some hidden expectations, which are always tricky to meet. So we were unfortunately let down, then we got really sick, we tried desperately to stay optimistic, had some of the toughest times mentally dealing with situations and then had them turned around by incredible characters. I have tried to document our experiences honestly.
I just didn’t think about the economic situation of Cuba when I thought we should come here. I truly just saw it on the map, thought about in relation to the lyrics of a beach boys song, and reckoned it would be a great place to visit. It was simply “there” and an achievable goal to consider.
I didn’t do any research, or even think about what it would be like. It’s worked well for us so far! I mean, Bren does the research and mapping for everywhere we go, and I just know that whatever he plans will work for me. We make a basic route, decide rough distances to ride each day based on where will be good to stay, and off we go. So we thought we could just ‘ride Cuba’, cos it was small enough and loads of cyclists do it all the time.
I guess I had imagined a decent beach, but mostly I just thought about how fun it would be to make it all the way across Mexico and fly with Falkor to Cuba. To spend a few weeks relaxing from our journey, and have a wee bike holiday where we would only ride 50km a day. It sounded like a reward for riding the 8500km we have come from Canada and I was certainly keen to relax for a while.
Well. It turns out a little bit of extra research may not have gone astray. Only, I think that perhaps if I had have known any of what Cuba would hold for us, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? So let me elaborate.
Socialism. I am not gonna enter into a political diatribe about my feelings on post communist regimes, mostly because They are all quite complicated I just can’t understand enough, but I will say this, I don’t think it has created any kind of social harmony amongst the Cuban people. There is an obvious pride that Cubans have for their country and independence, but there is also a feeling of desperation and uncertainty. They say “The Revolution” happened in the 60’s, but even with the limited political conversations we have had with locals, it seems as though it is yet to come. Change is brewing here but with an aging dictators brother in political control, no one is sure what it will bring. The resulting feeling of social trepidation is palpable.
And we think this has a lot to do with the difference in the way we feel were received in Cuba. Compared to Mexico, it’s been one of the most difficult things to adjust to.
In Mexico we are greeted with waves and whistles and jubilant cheers. We can barely cycle 5km before being flagged down by some keen supporters.
However, over the first few 100km we rode from Havana to Valadero, we were met with blank stares, scowls, an occasional grunt, and general teeth sucking indifference. Being a habitual smiler and a fan of the full arm-stretched wave, it was very disconcerting to not have any friendly gestures exchanged.
It improved as the days went on, but it didn’t put us on the best start with a fresh country.
Neither did the pollution. Which is truly shocking. One of the icons synonyms with Cuba are of course the old American cars from the 40’s & 50’s. And they certainly are super cool and add a definite authentic charm to a nation caught in a time-warp. The Chevys, Studebakers, Cadillacs, Fairlanes, Impalas- they are all truly incredible and make you feel as though you are on a movie set. But that’s only if you are looking at them from behind a safely closed window. The huge clouds of smoke these old engines leave in their wake is enough to inflame even the smallest of tonsils. And it turns into actual grit that gets into your eye balls. Not ideal for cycling. Thick ghostly clouds hang on the road for minutes after the car has left our sights, and the fumes smell like someone has opened a gas canister in your face, tipped a jerry can of 40 year old petrol onto a fire of burning motor oil, then added a tinge of the fragrance of Rotorua to make it really memorable. We were lucky to ride 50km in a day as a result. And it’s not very relaxing!
Another social product of the political status here is the availability of food. As cyclists, we are always hungry and constantly planning our next meal. Normally we carry around a store of goodies to elude those sugar lows and ensure that, even when unable to access stores, we can still fill our bellies with good, healthy food. Enter the trade embargo enforced by the USA, where its become an “eat what you can get” buffet that is about to run out. With the majority of the food on offer being shitty pizzas and ham&cheese sandwiches. If you’re lucky, you might find some crappy spaghetti or an all-white bun with some deep-fried mystery contents. How does that whet your appetite?
And there is nothing ‘super’ about the markets here. They are tiny shops, where the merchandise is generally all behind a counter so you have to ask the one attendant (after lining up for a minimum of 5 minutes) for the products you wish to buy. There is no time for ingredient checking and certainly no choices to consider for price options. And self catering is pretty expensive too.
Before leaving Havana, we spent exactly $33 USD on the following items for our panniers; 3 small cans of corn, 2 tins of tuna, 5 small packets of pre-toasted bead, a small jar of jam & honey, 2 packets of fake Oreos from China, and our prized item, a packet of gummy bears. Of course, we packed our own Vegemite (thanks to Mum, Kirst & Mairi for arranging that gem to get to us!)
For the entire TotallyTandem journey so far, we have cooked our evening meals of simple rice or pasta with fresh veggies, and usually have enough left over for our lunch the next day. But as our camp stove is powered by fuel, we weren’t allowed to even take the empty vessel on the plane with us. But we figured as Cuba was a ‘holiday’, we would eat like the locals. And we didn’t think it would be very expensive.
We spent the first 5 days after leaving Havana with stomach bugs, one day even being forced to stop prematurely for the day and get a hotel where we could sleep it off. It wasn’t an easy start, that’s for sure. But we did eventually make it to the beach, which helped settle our stomachs.
The variety of food on offer is depressing, even at ‘upscale’ restaurants (where the prices are the only things on the up) and the lack of vegetarian options is really surprising. We see small markets selling fresh produce, but rarely have we seen said produce incorporated into a meal. At least not for tourists. So when we eat, it is simply to stop our hunger, not to refuel with protein or nutrients. It has made us realise just how much the quality of food affects our impression of the countries we visit. We always try to eat a balanced diet and never have to spend much to get it, but in Cuba, the poor culinary options have created much frustration for us.
A hungry cyclist is unpleasant, and when suffering from stomach bugs (not sure if it was the food or the water it was prepared in), with the only food options being greasy meat, pizzas, hot dogs or spam sandwiches, it all got a bit much for Bremma.
But when we stayed at the casa’s with a host or a family, the food they have prepared for us was much more satisfying and palatable. Omelets and fruit for breakfast, with soups and grilled fish for dinner. And I have to give credit for their awesome coffee, and ice cream! I think we ate our body weight in ice cream by the end. However, whether education is lacking regarding the importance of nutrition, or whether the issue is the difficulty of accessing quality ingredients, presence of a sustained healthy diet here remains at large. Self-supported cycle touring in Cuba is really hard for this reason alone. Try free camping for several days in a row when all you can find to eat is fried egg sandwiches and spam pizzas. It can make you pretty cranky.
But I would be remiss not to reflect on some of the amazing moments we did stumble upon. And for sure there have been some. They did not, however, start at the airport. But that’s probably another 3 page story all by itself. I’ll save it for the book.
The first excellent thing that did happen was meeting Margarita and Felo, the hosts of our ‘case de particular’ in Havana. They are a couple in their 60’s, who have been married for 44 years. They rent a room in their very homely B&B and we instantly felt as though we were visiting our Cuban grandparents. They are seriously wonderful people and made us forget all about the hell of the airport as they came out with wide smiles to meet our taxi, even though we were 4 hours later than anticipated.
And as with all of our experiences travelling, it really is always the people that create our lasting memories.
The accent that Cubans speak Spanish with is quite different from what we have become accustomed to in Mexico though, so conversing with new friends has taken some serious ear-bending on our part to catch even basic verbs. But we still managed to improve our Spanish a bit, but still enjoying many hilarious exchanges when we have clearly just said “si” one too many times. We don’t always know exactly what we are saying yes to, but it never stops being funny. My sister wrote a song about it once, and never have lyrics been truer! For sure, Cuba would be a different experience if you were fluent.
We were practically abducted by a women called Marisole in the small town of Nueva Paz, 70km east of Havana. Having ridden 100km along the hot and boring highway (I know right, 100km on our ‘cycle holiday’!) we were delighted to finally make it to this tiny town, despite the fact that we were hot, hurting and cranky. We were even prepared to pay for lodging when we pulled off the main highway, so were delighted at our luck to find a ‘bomberos’ WITH an ice cream vendor across the street. It was as if we had won the lotto. Without even a discussion, Bren parked the bike and I jumped off to order 2 huge cups of soft serve ice cream. The locally made ice cream here is truly phenomenal. And so cheap! The equivalent of around 20cents for a large cup full. This vendor was set up in a tin garage, with a huge self made contraption, a crappy desk fan cooling the motor. For an ice cream stall, he had himself a pretty stifling location.
Flavour of the day was caramel, “dos vasos per favor”, and we sat on the small strip of grass in the shade and began to tuck in. We must’ve looked liked two little kids sat there all hot & sweaty and covered in dirt, devouring these ice creams in huge mouthfuls.
Enter Mariosle, appearing from a hidden doorway connected to the house, who commenced filling the ice cream machine with more delicious caramel mixture. She cast her eyes over at us sitting there and simply burst out laughing. The 50 something year old women then walked over to us, took my face in both of her hands, and gently chided me in what can only be described as a mocking maternal gesture. I loved her instantly. She cupped my cheek and covered me in her easy laugh and generous smile. I felt like I was 6 years old and all I wanted was for her to hug me. We entered into a very animated conversation about the deliciousness of the ice cream, followed by a serious dialogue about her concern for us and the heat. She asked nothing of our journey or the bike, but insisted that we enter her house and cool down. Placing her 2 best rocking chairs directly in front of a huge oscillating fan, she ushered us to sit down while producing 2 glasses of water, assuring us, it was filtered and not from the tap. Her secondary assurance was that we should not worry about the bike, or any of our gear. Everything was fine. Apparently our job at hand was to rest.
Then she sat on the tiled floor in front of us and began a mega Spanish convo that we had no chance of understanding. Still sucking on the spoon from the ice cream I had devoured not 5 minutes earlier, she began laughing again at our clearly confused faces. Her laugh was so warm and so familiar, that I couldn’t help but become a clown under her gaze. She loved my silly antics while explaining our limited Spanish, and encouraged my strained language skills by continually leaning over to grab my arm or kiss my cheek. Suddenly she leapt up and left the room, only to return with 2 more cups of ice cream. Much bigger than the last ones. It was like a dream from my childhood and the familiarity with which she addressed me, started to remind me of my own loving mum. It was such a wonderful and sudden surprise to be in the company of this clearly amazing woman, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to crawl into her lap and accept her affections, or grab her hand and start dancing right there in her lounge room.
There is such a long and detailed story surrounding the time we spent with Marisole and her family, I couldn’t possibly fit it into this blog. So I’ll cut to the end of the evening, after we had secured our gear in her house, showered, been shown hoe to make palatine chips ( which you will all be surprised to hear that I love) and eaten a delicious home-cooked meal in the company of her equally warm family (complete with spam of course….but the most delicious spam we have ever eaten). We were still unsure of where we were going to sleep, the enjoyable conversations leaving us smiling broadly but often uncertain of the exact meanings, she led us into a bedroom with 2 beds pushed together, just for us.
Taking my hand, she led me over to the beauro that displayed a framed photograph of a handsome young man. With difficulty, I began to understand that it was her 21 year old son that had died suddenly in some kind of accident. Holding my hand the whole time, she made references to a higher power, her grief at the loss of her son, her joy at having met us and being able to share her home with us. It was impossible for me to understand all that she was saying, but for sure, I felt a tugging at my heart strings and a compassionate joy that welled tears in my eyes.
Incredible exchanges like this are absolutely overwhelming. All the uncertainties you feel about humanity and the preservation of our world are washed away in the instant you are in the company of people like Marisole. I have to say, meeting her was without question, the most incredible thing about our Cuban trip.
I wish I could stay in touch with her via email and share some photos with her, but with the way things are in Cuba with internet access, I am gonna have to commit to old-fashioned letter writing and photo printing. But there is something in that that I find compelling. We meet so many amazing people when we travel, it is easy to think that staying in touch is as simple as an email, but whether you send that email or not is inconsequential. You can, so you assume that you will. But knowing that staying in touch with Marisole will take much more effort, is actually really comforting, cos I know I will go to great efforts to maintain contact with her.
It’s been a funny ole experience in Cuba. We feel like we have seen the best and the worst of the country, and even ourselves. Obviously, it’s not all in this blog for fear that you may think we have lost our spark. Needless to say, it’s been much, much harder than we expected. The rewards have been great, but unlike anywhere else we have travelled, we feel like we have had to work really hard for each and every one. Not always a band thing, but a very new experience. And we always feel that we do work hard, but Cuba was somehow that much harder.
For the first time, we have counted down days and looked forward to leaving. Perhaps that is a product of our experiences here, or perhaps it is to do with a random circular detour on a cycle journey that really took us no closer to our overall goal. We are still working that out.
But in any case, Bremma has taken a battering, Falkor has some battle wounds and the budget has fallen apart, but we have survived and grown as a part of our journey here.
Would I change anything if I had the chance again?
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I will answer ‘yes’ to that question. How much I would change though, I don’t know. I am glad we went. But I am also glad to be returning to the continent where we can continue to cycle closer towards our goals. And I am just so incredibly thankful to the special people in Cuba who, despite their own personal struggles, went our of their way to make our journey special too.
Muchas gracias amigos!
Check out our latest video of Cuba! It looks amaze!
And check out the awesomeness of our TotallyTandem fund-raising for World Bicycle Relief! $8974 raised so far! Over 65% of the overall target! TotallyAmazing!
See below for our tips for travelling to Cuba! And in the mean time, the pictures that make it all look like a party! Enjoy!
Our tips for travelling to Cuba;
Money! ATMs do not work for ALL and any international banks. Under no circumstances should you believe your bank card will magically work. The only way to withdraw money is by taking your passport and Visa card into the bank and doing a cash advance. Pretty expensive business. We paid $16 to the bank here for the joy of receiving the equivalent of $500 US. Lord only knows what the bank fees are on our end for that one. Bring cash but do not bring USA dollars. The ONLY place we could change money into Cuban CUC was in Cuba. A good thing about socialism is that the exchange rate is pretty much the same whether you change cash at the airport or in town. The bad news of course being that the commission is pretty high.
The are two types of currencies, which is super confusing for about 5 minutes and then you quickly get the hang of it. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, and the CUP is the national currency. They sound exactly the same though when you speak Spanish in a Cuban accent, so when unsure I just call CUP ‘currency de Nacional’ and that sorts things out.
CUP is for cheap ‘locally produced’ stuff like amazing ice cream, cheap pizzas and soft drinks. It gives you street cred when you rock up to a local joint and know to pay in CUP. Anything that looks nice, slightly expensive or tasty will be charged in CUC. You can tell by the prices what currency you are talking about. $1CUC/US is equiv to approx $24 CUP. A no name socialist soft drink is always 50 cents CUC or around $10CUP. Things are generally a bit cheaper when you spend CUP.
So, unless you are on a tourist-bus type holiday where they dictate every place you visit, you should defo change some CUC for CUP when changing money (and immediately give up any annoying feelings of continually losing money on commissions. It’s absolutely unavoidable, so suck it up)
Food! Bring muesli bars and any small snacks you can stash in your bags. I wish we had have had some instant noodles. And a small bottle of Tabasco to add flavor to shit meals. And tea! It’s crappy and expensive here so BYO if you are a tea lover.
Toilet paper! Stash it in your pockets when it is available. I am a big fan of having a stash of baby wipes too. Also stash tissues, and serviettes for emergencies. Public toilets are hard to find and even then, hardly ever have toilet paper. Even at restaurants and nice bars.
Soap! It’s expensive here, and makes a great gift to your hosts if you bring in a few extra bars. The smellier the better apparently. And don’t expect to be able to buy any moisturizer or personal hygiene items here. Defo come prepared.
Mozzie repellent! We have been told repeatedly that there are not many mozzies here but have a large body of evidence to prove otherwise. There are also midges (or sand fleas or whatever you want to call them. Invisible bastards that bite). We have not been able to find ANY sort of repellent here so defo BYO a pump spray in your checked baggage.
Sunscreen! Even the winter sun here is brutal and there is bugger all sunscreen available to buy, even in tourist hotels. BYO and slip slop slap!
Pollution! It depends how sensitive you are as to what you wanna do about this. It gets in your eyes and in your throat pretty badly. I have a hoo-rag at all times ready to cover my nose and mouth for when walking, biking or in an open-top vehicle. Eye drops, throat spray, vitamins to prevent irritation becoming a real sickness, baby wipes to get the grime off my face. Whatever you do, come prepared for it to shock you.
Internet! Forget about using it here. It’s hard to find, we haven’t even tried, but met people who exasperate the exorbitant rates ($8 per hour) and dreadfully slow and limited service.
Special tips for cyclists:
Bike parts! They are hard to come by, and as a result, make for great trading. Obviously you can’t bring 20 spare tubes or customs will eat you alive, but they are highly sought after and you could easily sneak a few extra into your tool kit as ‘personal items’. We could’ve traded accom for quality tubes if we had extras to spare. Also, quality puncture kits and spare tyres! We had several cash offers for our 20″ spare tire and even for the “26 Schwable tire we are running on the rear. One bloke was so desperate for our “20 spare (that we paid $7US for in Mexico), that he suggested we stay with him for free and that once we had completed our Cuban trip, we post it back to him from Havana.
Food! If you are planning on self supported touring, you need to get smart about food. We met many folks (cyclists and tourists) staying in casa’s who had no complaints about the food. Be aware that it can be expensive and the quality is variable. Street food is always cheap, but again with the variable quality. Some of the restaurants recommended by locals were awful and expensive. It’s impossible to judge until you see the food. Stocking up on supplies in Cuba at the ‘mercados’ can also be expensive but necessary sometimes if you are riding to places without towns/restaurants. We took instant muesli and granola with us, and just added cold water which saved us on several occasions. Having a jar of jam (Vegemite is a must for Aussies) was awesome for the times we found bakeries. You will eat a lot of ice cream.
Water! We brought our steri-pen but still found the water un-drinkable. But if you are hard-core, you could flavor the water with tablets and get by. We were able to buy 5l for $1.90 in most places. But mostly, we just drank beer. It filled us up and made us feel happy.
A good map! Our Garmin maps didn’t work, despite the fact we downloaded free open street maps and included Cuba. We bought ‘the best road map’ available here, but still we found ourselves riding on major highways that weren’t printed on our map that was published in 2011. We met another guy who said you can buy good maps for your Smart phone/ itouch etc for $10 that work in Cuba at http://www.skobbler.com. At the time of writing this we have not been able to check that.
Money! As cyclists, we expected Cuba to be cheap but actually found it to be one of the more expensive places we have ridden. Even when free camping, we found ourselves spending a minimum $20 a day just on food and beverages (NOT including beer!) and even eating from street stalls.
Flags! Cubans love foreign flags to stick in their taxis, especially the ciclo taxis. We were often approached by them for our Aussie flag, so we are sure some flags would make great gifts or trades.
But honestly, we can’t understand why the are so many other cyclists riding here all the time. We have read their blogs and they don’t seem to have found it as bad as we did. Are we more sensitive, or did the smog just taint our rose-coloured glasses? Perhaps they stayed in casa’s every night and washed it all away. In any case, prepare your budget to blow out, and maybe your tires too. Watch out for those pot holes in the rain!