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Bicycle Cuba - they’ll love you for it

If you really want to visit Cuba, shun the crowded resorts. Explore the island. Get to know the Cuban people by staying in their homes, laughing with them, joining them for rice and beans. It’s safe, affordable, easy. You can do it with a rental car. You can do it by bus. Better yet, do it on your bike.

Cycling eliminates all barriers between you and the people whose culture you’ve come to admire. It says “I’m not here to just look, I’m here to be with you.” Cubanos, a socially exuberant bunch, will love you for it. You’ll come home emotionally enriched for having truly visited these  welcoming, generous, fun people.

Our Cuba cycling trip began in December when we arrived in Havana, taxied to the casa particular where we’d reserved months in advance, and discovered: no room for us.

We never learned why. Before we could engage our 100-word Spanish vocabulary pasted together with Tarzan grammar, Cuban resourcefulness and hospitality rescued us, as it would throughout our journey. Neighbour spoke to neighbour who escorted us to a neighbour whose spacious, clean, comfortable guestroom was vacant.

Our hosts, Orlando and Raisa, both retired physicians. greeted us with warmth and grace.We were astounded to discover that Che Guevara had been Orlando’s comrade and patient throughout La Revolucion.

Learning about Cuban history and society from Orlando, who speaks fluent English, was surreal.
After a day and night walking through Havana Vieja we  loaded our panniers, hugged our new friends goodbye, and pedaled out of the city.

Our day’s mileage goal was too ambitious. The sun winked below the horizon while we were in lonely rangeland, well shy of the next town big enough to have a casa particular. We carried no tent or sleeping bags, because camping is allowed only at a few widely scattered campismos.

Riding into the dark was an option. We had headlamps. Cuban motorists are marvelously considerate of cyclists and most roads are paved. But a single pothole could render a sophisticated bike irreparable in this land of scarcity. So, on instinct, we approached the one house within view.

A woman was in the yard. We asked her an inane question because it was all we could think to say: “Is there a casa particular nearby?” Her answer was cryptically hopeful. “There might be,” she said, then retreated to consult her husband.

A moment later they emerged, opened the wrought-iron gate and invited us in. Neither spoke a word of English. They motioned for us to push our bikes right into their living room.

Both were shy, clearly unaccustomed to spandex-attired Anglo cyclists. This was no casa particular, we realized. Celia and Diego had never had foreign guests. Yet they ushered us in with sincerity and assurance. No hesitation. No fear. 

Celia was instantly concerned for my wife’s comfort. She noticed Kathy’s cycling shoes were awkward on the tile floor. She left then returned, offering a pair of flip flops. She noticed Kathy’s shirt was damp. She returned, offering a neatly folded, white cotton dress. They didn’t know we probably carried more in our panniers than they had in their home. They didn’t care. Celia insisted we sit while she made up their extra bed. Then, despite our protests, she cooked us a delicious dinner.

In the morning, she refused to let us depart without feeding us a hearty breakfast. Where all this food came from, I don’t know, because I peeked into the kitchen and saw nothing.

We thanked them profusely and handed them ten CUCs—about a month’s salary for the average Cubano. They refused it until we pleaded that money was the only gift we had to offer in exchange for their immense kindness.

Celia cried as we left. No doubt she was worried for the crazy Anglos on overloaded bikes who obviously didn’t know what they were doing.

The cycling was brilliant: past sugar cane fields, through lively villages, and along the ocean. The weather was comfortably hot and consistently sunny. The meals prepared for us by the madres (mothers) at every casa particular were heaping, tasty, and fortifying.

We cycled from Havana west to Vinales. For an entire day, between Soroa and La Tranquilidad, we were passed by just five vehicles while we followed a ridgecrest road lined with an explosion of tropical greenery and  glimpses of the Caribbean far below.

In the east, between Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, we cycled three 70-km days with the ocean often in sight. In each hamlet, someone immediately reminded us that cycling wasn’t the goal, it was merely the means. People greeted us with smiles, waves, handshakes. They showered us with attention, compassion, deference. Twice more we were invited to stay with families who were as accustomed to Anglo visitors as they were to Martian invaders. Each time they forced upon us the most lavish meal they could muster and the biggest bedroom in the house.

 

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