Monday, October 22, 2012

Invent A Fire.

I rode my bike around Cuba once. It was pretty good. I quickly discovered two things: 1) that once I figured out all the vegan words (no carne, no leche, no huevos) I could eat just fine, and 2) that Cuba has hills. The latter was the more disturbing discovery. I was no cyclist back then, and I'd hastily thrown together a bike with a minimum of expertise. In fact, I'd bought a cyclocross bike on ebay for the purpose of touring, but the UPS fucked up the shipping somehow and the racks we had didn't fit it. So I ended up throwing the racks and panniers on an old flat bar hybrid and riding that around for two months. It didn't have a computer, didn't have fully working gears, and only barely fit me. It lasted pretty well though, only breaking a spoke in the last 2 hours of our entire journey. I loosened the brakes, limped it home and abandoned the wheel at Havana airport.

After three months of Canadian winter I was vastly unprepared for the Cuban sun, and was brutally sunburned on the first day in the saddle. On my first day in a proper town - Vinales - I hunted down an old clothing store and found a long-sleeved business shirt that kinda fit me, and that I consequently wore the entire way around the island. It was almost transparent with sweat most days, but would come good with a decent rinsing, and kept the UV rays away from my poor skin. That evening in Vinales I rode up to an old tobacco homestead and surveyed the realm. Wearing my business shirt with the collar turned up I felt like I was part of a forgotten era. And then, on the way back down the hill, when one of the locals whispered to me, "You want cigar? You want rum? You want woman?" the feeling was compounded, and no longer as fun.

I also brushed up against the Cuban music scene once. I was walking back to my room in Holguin one evening when I saw what seemed to be a band setting up. Later that night when I returned to sate my curiosity a fully-fledged metal show was in progress. Seems the kids in Cuba listen to way too much Cradle of Filth (at the risk of insulting any Cradle of Filth fans who also happen to be reading this blog – which kinda makes my head explode to consider – I’m going to suggest that any Cradle of Filth is way too much). After a couple of minutes some locals came up for a chat. I told them that I was more into punk than metal, and they gave me the names of a couple of bands I should check out. The concept of ironic detachment, however, hadn’t quite made it to Cuba when it comes to band nomenclature – one of them was ‘Porno for Preacher’, and the other I think roughly translates to ‘Y’know, someone should tell those earnest kids on the corner selling badges that communism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be’.

The shittiest part of the trip, strangely enough, was in the last few nights, when I'd booked into a fancy resort in the beach town of Varadero. I'd been pretty well looked after by the locals throughout Cuba, staying in people's houses, being fed beans and rice and eating random fried vegetables on the street. But being in the resort kinda sucked. I'm no resort snob - fuck, I love cable TV, self-service salad bars and clean bedsheets every day - but this is where the two factors peculiar to me (that I was riding a bike, and that I am vegan) became increasingly and noticeably difficult. The resort just wasn't flexible enough to deal with either, accustomed as it was to churning through identical German tourist after German tourist.

But that's just the bad bits. The good bits were far more prevalent, if slightly less funny. The beaches, as you can see above, were spectacular, and the water bathtub warm. The people were for the most part fucking awesome, especially when they found out I was from Australia. Riding my bike meant that I was occasionally stopping where few other tourists did so, and while that occasionally meant drop toilets and no hot water, it also meant I occasionally stumbled onto places like Gibara, an old port where few folks other than locals ever ventured.

However, one time in particular stands out. I was riding west from Santiago de Cuba and was supposed to be stopping at some random ranch about fifty kilometres away. On my arrival at the ranch I discovered that it had been closed due to cyclone damage. There was no other place to stay anywhere nearby, so I had no other option than to soldier on to Pilon, a further fifty clicks down the road. It was a freaking spectacular road, easily the rival of the Great Ocean Road, with the Sierra Maestra (where I believe Guevara and Castro and Haydee Santamaria hid out during the revolution) on my right and the Carribean on my left, but by the end of the day I was out of water and in no state to appreciate it. Eventually I arrived in Pilon and found a small hotel that mercifully had a pool. 100ks was easily the furthest I'd ever ridden a bicycle at that time. I figured I'd be wrecked the next day and booked in for two nights. But the next day, well watered and well fed, I was ready to go again. In fact, by midday I was kinda missing the bike, and went for a ride around the tiny town. I hadn't wanted to ride 100ks in a day, but now that I realized I could, a bigger world was opening up for me. And that was a pretty good thing indeed.

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