The Cuban Cycle Crisis

When I arrive at Havana airport I have been awake for about 30 hours – and I’m feeling it.  I am absolutely exhausted and anxious to get some rest.  There’s still a lot to get through though – starting with Passport control.  After carefully perusing my passport and my face to make sure they match,  the rather stern guard behind the desk barks ‘Welcome’ and lets me through.

Once we are all assembled the other side we find there is another check we must go through.  Two ladies sit behind a desk with a pile of forms and we are required to fill these out and again present our passports.  I give mine to one of them and take the form which is basically a written assurance from me that I do not have T.B.; Aids; the Plague or any other filthy diseases of the decadent west.  I duly tick all the boxes and sign the form and hand it back.  The lady smiles at me and says “And do you have a sweetie for me?”  I’m rather less than plussed by this – is this some sort of bribe?  I search through my pockets and all I can find is a packet of Polo mints and hand her one.  “Thank you” she says and then returns to her calm perusal of the crowd.

“Em my passport?”   She turns to me, smiles again and says. “I do not have your passport.” Then turns back to the crowd.  Oh no.  I’ve obviously insulted her with the Polo mint, it clearly wasn’t enough.  Should I have given her the whole pack?  What was the correct ‘Sweetie’ required to get my passport back?  Did it go all the way up to Ferrero Rocher?  I’m getting a bit panicked now and don’t see Edel come running back to me – “Michael, I took your passport up with mine by mistake, sorry about that.”

Once our bags and bikes are collected and we are in arrivals we are met by Simon.  Simon is the head of ‘Blazing saddles’ which runs these cycle trips.  The blazing part of the name becomes very appropriate once we head out into the open and face the intense furnace that Cuba has for an atmosphere.  It is boiling and so am I.  I can hardly walk in this and I am going to have to cycle over 50km a day in it!  Oh dear God.  On the wonderfully air-conditioned bus we are introduced to Manuel who will be our guide and one of two drivers Luis – the other driver is also Luis so we are to call him Luasita.  Shades of Big Ibrahim and Little Ibrahim in the Sahara ten years ago. – was it this hot there too?

We get to our hotel – “The Nacional” and it’s quite an impressive place.  As soon as I walk in I am immediately hit with a distinct smell.  It reminds me of the smell of hotels in Kilkee when I was a kid.  I love it, so nostalgic it’s the smell of being on holiday.  A lovely sweet smell that brings back so many memories.  Someone calls out – “What’s that God-awful smell?” – “Damp” replies Simon. Oh.

The next day Manuel takes us on a tour of old Havana showing us many old buildings and monuments and crucially Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Mojito bar and his favourite Dakari bar.  On the street I buy an English copy of the official state newspaper – “Granma”.  It is so named after the boat that was used to smuggle Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and several more revolutionaries back in the day.  The boat having been bought from an unsuspecting American who had named it for his – Granma.

There is a town in Cuba which proudly boasts the same name and we even get to see the good ship herself when we visit the Museum of the Revolution.  It is here that Simon tells us how genuinely the people of Cuba worship Castro and if you ask any of them where he lives they will always reply “Fidel, he lives in my heart”.  When Manuel returns from showing some of the girls the toilet Elizabeth promptly asks him – “Manuel, where does Fidel live.”  “Fidel, he sometimes lives in the Northern provinces especially since he retired but sometimes he lives near Havana.” – Manuel has a big heart.

That night myself and Stuart head down to a local open air bar and have a few cans of Cristal.  This is one of only two Cuban beers (the other being Habanero) and is quite nice but only available in cans or bottles and mainly in cans.  Still at 1 peso a can (about 50 cents) I’m not complaining.  On the way down to the bar – and while at the bar and again on the way back Stuart and I are constantly approached by young men asking “Where you from? – “Irlande” – “Oh Irlande!  You are very welcome to Kooba”- “Thank you” – “Would you like some lovely girls” – “No thanks we already have seven.”

The next day is the first day of cycling. We are joined now by Alfredo, our doctor.  A big stocky man with a big stocky smile.  He seems very young to be the fully qualified and experienced doctor that he is – but then again I am very old.  We later find out that Alfredo is 45 – Stuart and I are stunned – he’s actually older than us!   It was Stuart who effectively brought the idea of the cycle to the Alzheimers Society and helped organise it so he has done it about six times already.  He warns us that this first day is do-able but that the last one and a half km is a sheer uphill and very tough and that anyone that wants to, at any time can just get on the bus and skip that particular section.

Bravely resisting every urge and instinct that tells me to get on the bus right now I set off after the others and my Cuba cycle challenge begins.  Actually it’s not bad.  Although the heat is still as full-on as ever there is a light breeze generated by cycling that at least helps you to breathe.  Also for a good while we are cycling mainly on the flat and it all starts to become very – well, pleasant.  So is the scenery about, not quite awe-inspiring just yet but I need to concentrate on getting used to the actual cycling for now.  It seems no time when we’ve done 20k and we stop for a water refill.  At this point Simon warns us that the road ahead is pretty bad in some parts and downright treacherous in others having been badly damaged by a hurricane two years ago.  We can expect constant potholes and loose rocks.  He also advises that if anyone needs a toilet they can call into any house and ask to use theirs.  We are a bit skeptical about this but no apparently this is common practice in Cuba and the people see nothing unusual in complete strangers calling to their door asking if they could have a pee.

We set off and the road quickly disintegrates into a series of constant undulating potholes occasionally peppered with bits of actual road.  I barrel on through it but inevitably it isn’t long before I get a puncture. I stop and wait for the bus that is coming up behind us (one at the front of the cyclists – one at the back at all times).  The bus arrives and Luisita and Alfredo jump out and get to work on fixing my puncture while I guiltily sit on the side of the road and watch.  Alfredo runs into a nearby house and emerges seconds later with a bucket of water to find the puncture.  Apparently Cuban households are more than willing to give you water as well as allow you to deposit yours.  The guys are very quick and within ten minutes I am on the road again.

Within twenty I am off again as I get another puncture.  This time Alfredo and Luis are amazed to see me again when the bus drives up and unfortunately as we are in the middle of nowhere with no water supplying houses around I have to get on the bus with my bike as they can’t find the puncture.  Luckily this isn’t for long as we soon arrive at a small village and Alfredo runs into one of the houses with his bucket.  I take the opportunity of this break to test Simon’s theory and bravely march up to the open doorway of one of the houses.  There lying on the floor just inside is a young woman playing with her baby.  “Excusi – bankyo?” I say.  The actual word for bathroom is Banyo or Bano or Bainne for all I know but it clearly isn’t ‘Bankyo’ judging by the way this woman shoots up and grabs her child to her chest and stutters nervously ‘No English’.  It then occurs to me that from her viewpoint she has just been confronted at her door by a big lanky stranger wearing a cycle helmet, sunglasses and lycra – Christ I’d grab the nearest child if it was me.  I mutter my apologies (luckily “Pardon” seems to be universal) and leave.  Good job I didn’t really need to go.

Soon I’m on my way again and the road starts to improve but that dreaded hill is still ahead and I’m giving serious thought to skipping it.  So far it hasn’t been particularly tough but it has been tiring what with the dead heat (which is getting ever hotter as we approach noon) and the fact that my speedometer tells me I’ve now done over 45k and I’ve been cycling for over three hours.  Tough enough at home but here!  Once I reach the bottom of the hill the bus is waiting there temptingly.  Some of the others have already gone on ahead and some are a good bit behind so if I take this on I’ll be doing it on my own.  In the end that makes it easier for me – there’ll be no-one to see me fall off at least.

I head off.  The road slopes upwards slowly at first and I find it manageable enough.  I know it’s only about 2km to go and the first day is over and at the top of the hill there’s a lovely restaurant serving lovely cold water (The water in my own bottle has at this stage reached boiling point) and hopefully lovely cold Cristal.  I keep going.  To my surprise on rounding a corner there’s a lovely flat stretch ahead (things tend to become lovely when you’re cycling in 30 degree heat for three and a half hours especially the lovely little Tinkerbells that accompany you on your journey singing sweetly), but it’s a cruel tease.  Round the next corner is one mother of an upward slope and it stretches on and on.  I try it, I really do but pretty soon the bike itself is protesting and I have to get off and wheel it for a while.

Unfortunately wheeling a bike up a very steep hill in very undulating heat is pretty tough going as well and I am absolutely knackered when I reach the top of this particular stretch and pause for breath and a sip from my bottle of by now evaporated air.  Still at this point there is actually a slight decline so I get on the bike and pedal furiously in a top gear to give me the momentum I know I will need to get me up the next inevitable uphill ahead.  When it comes it’s a biggie.  I can see it roll on endlessly in front of me but at least this time I’m ready, I fly into it still in third gear and that propels me up a huge chunk of it.  As the bike starts to protest I quickly shift down a gear and pedal furiously again.

I’m watching the speedometer slowly click the point ones of a kilometre away and then shift down to first – “granny” gear or perhaps “granma” gear, given where we are.  But it’s proving too much for me.  I know I’m nearly there but I am absolutely exhausted,  I am dissolving in sweat and just breathing is becoming a major physical exercise.  I’m about to give up and get off the bike again when suddenly Stuart appears sailing down from above and cycles in behind me.   “You’re very nearly there Michael, just keep going, you’ll get there.”

And so I do, I pedal on very slowly but very surely Stuart egging me on from behind all the time.    And then suddenly – I’m there.  Just ahead is a cobbled footpath up to the restaurant, the cobbled footpath we are supposed to wheel the bikes up.  I stop, I get off the bike and it’s done.  Day one is over and I’ve done it.  Oh – my – God.

It’s not long before we are all assembled together again and Simon instructs us in our warm-down stretches.  One of these is for our neck muscles and involves tilting our heads first to the right and then to the left and holding it there for a number of seconds each time.  And so it is that a bus-load of tourists from Cork arrive at the restaurant to be greeted by 10 people wearing purple cycle tops bearing the legend “Alzheimers Society of Ireland” with their heads all tilted to one side.  Obviously they think we’re mad – when they find out what we’ve just done it only confirms their suspicions. After our lunch we are taken by bus to our hotel for tonight the “Villa Soroa” where a lovely swimming pool with a lovely poolside bar awaits. – We’ve earned it.

The next day starts with the same routine that we have to follow each day.  Get up at 6am pile on the sunscreen, let it dry then put on the cycling gear and head down for breakfast.  Breakfast generally consists of a large buffet.  I usually have an omelette and plenty of fresh fruit.  I also drink a goodly amount of fruit juice that amount being in direct proportion to the amount of Cristal I’ve had the night before.  Today’s cycle is a lot easier than originally feared.  The original schedule had put it at 80km but that was a mistake as it’s the last day that is the 80k, today we’re just doing 58 – no bother.  In fact that’s exactly what it is.  I’m on a major high for having actually done the first day and so now am beginning to enjoy what I had feared I would have to endure.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still tough – this is not a holiday (well not just a holiday) it’s very much a challenge but at least it’s one I now know I’m able for and that makes it all the more enjoyable an experience.  Also at this stage the scenery starts to really impress.  Cuba has the best of both worlds – an extremely hot climate but frequent rainfall (luckily not at this time of year) and so there are miles of stunning undulating landscape surrounding us – and lots of palm trees.

This second day finishes when we arrive at the “Hotel El Mirador”.  It’s not a bad place although the pool is really only a paddling pool and the shower in our room has only two water settings Hot and Vindaloo but we’ve come to expect that and don’t really mind.  Besides the bar has that “We sell Cristal” quality that I really like so all’s well.  When we arrive the barman asks me can he buy my water bottle, I’m a bit surprised and promptly just give it to him as I have a (cleaner) spare.  He gruffly mutters gracias and goes about his business without even offering me a free drink.  This is one of the extraordinary things about Cuba. For the most part the people are wonderful.  Friendly, genuine and good-hearted.  Several times along the route people have come out of their houses to cheer us and wave us on.  They have posed for photographs and looked for no reward.

At one point when a few of us took the wrong turn at a T-junction everyone and I mean everyone at a nearby bus-stop came running out and shouting at us to go the other way, having seen an earlier group of similarly purple attired cyclists do it.  And provided you don’t say ‘Banko’ they’ll let you use their toilet as well – apparently.  However it was Fidel Castro himself who said and I misquote:  “The Cuban people are a lovely people but put them in a waiter’s uniform and they change completely”.  It looks like some Bureaucrat somewhere heard this and thought “Fidel has spoken” and enshrined it into an actual law.  Almost without exception anyone working in the service industry here  is at best impolite and at worst downright rude.  One night, I can’t remember which, we ordered two bottles of different white wines for the table from a particularly surly harridan.  When she arrived back I spotted that one was red.  Stuart told the dear lady that we wanted White and she replied “We have no white for that senor”.  Stuart then asked for another white of the original brand at which dear lady sighed and said “We have no white senor!”  It turned out that in the whole hotel this waitress claimed there was only one chilled white bottle of wine – the one we’d ordered.  And so on.  Simon later explains it to us.  It’s like haggling in a market, you have to know how to play the game, it may seem that they are being rude but it’s more that they’re not being subservient.  There’s no badness in it and this is proved by the fact that that the afore-mentioned waitress beams us all a very friendly “Good night” when we leave as if to say “Oh you!” – or maybe she’s just glad we’re going.

Cycle day three is a tough one – it’s 63km today, the last five of which is a very steep uphill.  Well okay but at least the first 25 is straightforward enough and at the end of it is a stop for ice-cream.  The next 30k or so are straightforward enough.  There are a few up-hills but they are usually immediately followed by a nice downhill and besides I’m feeling well able for it now.  So is everyone else we’ve all become pretty much acclimatised now and are really getting into our stride.  All the same we are all still very wary of the last day which we have been promised will be very hard going – all 80km of it!  But I mustn’t think about that now – I have a 5k hill at the end of today’s ride to worry about first.  Before that we stop off at someone’s house for pineapple juice.  No really – someone’s own private gaffe.  We all sit out in the back garden joined by the family pig, sipping freshly squeezed pineapple juice by the gallon – here I get to use the Banyo.  Leaving two or three pesos each for our host and a football for his son we head off again and take on that hill.

It turns out the hill while very steep is certainly what one would describe as undulating.   There are quite a number of brief down-hills and flats on the route that allow me to build up enough momentum to fly up a good chunk of the up-hills.  It’s very difficult at times and there’s no way I would have managed this on the first day but at this stage I’ve become a veteran and manage to make it all the way.  Once the hill is done with there’s a long slow descent to the final stop where we all gather for our packed lunch.  Day 3 is over – we’re now more than half way through.

Tonight (and tomorrow night) we are staying in the hotel “Los Jazmines” .  This is a fabulous spot – the bar looks like the one from the end of “Lawrence of Arabia” and the pool just outside overlooks a stunning valley below.   While sitting round the pool drinking pina coladas (and singing the Pina Colada song) we all get talking about our families back home.  Inevitably photographs are shared and when mine of Thomas appear he gets the usual reaction.  “He looks just like you – but he’s gorgeous.”   Every  time.

Day 4 is 63k again.  To think that that once might have seemed daunting.  Today it’s a breeze and today there is a breeze, in fact a full blown wind at parts as we are heading out to the Gulf of Mexico coastline and cycling by the sea for a long stretch. We cycle along an avenue of what I quickly recognise as Coconut trees with the sea on either side of the road a very vivid indeed Cristal blue.  Before this though we stop off at the town of Pons for a “Refreshing energy drink of guarapo”.  This is freshly squeezed sugar cane juice which is exactly what it says on the tin.  A bit too sweet for me I don’t finish mine and so waste a whole peso.  I really have to watch my spending I’m going through nearly twenty pesos a day at this rate.

The cycle ends at Playa Jutias, – a beach.  Simon comments that he’s never seen it so packed – there are about twenty people there.  After a swim in the sea we  head for the bar for our daily Pina Coladas.  They are all of two pesos each.  I have three.  Oh – and a cristal.  Then we all climb back on the bus and head back to “Los Jazmines” – there’s only one day to go.  The hard day.

Back at the hotel Simon gathers us all together for our last cycle plan meeting.  He starts by announcing that he has some bad news.  The original plan for tomorrow was to stop half-way at Los Portales caves where Che Guevara transferred the HQ of the western Army during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  Understandably it is not known as that in Cuba – here it is referred to as the “So-called Autumn Missile Crisis”.    The road to Los Portales is very very steep and parts of it bring new meaning to the word undulating.   The second half after the caves was to be even tougher still but tragically the roads have been declared out of bounds and so we are going to have to finish our cycle at this point, a mere 47km into our route.

It gradually begins to sink in to all of us that somehow Simon regards this as bad news and we all dutifully mutter about what a shame it is and all that.  Still we’re a hardy bunch by now and can handle any setback, even if it means we will have only cycled about 300km over the five days.  Such is life.

When we head off the next day I decide to take it easy.  We’ve only 47 km to do today and I’m going to take in the scenery.  I’ve brought a video camera with me and am determined to use it as much as possible so as to remind myself of what a wonderful time I’m having doing this and what a wonderful time I will have doing it again next year because I’ve already decided – I’m definitely doing this again.  Mairead takes the camera off me at one point and films several shots of me cycling up to her going “Holas!” – none of which will ever see the light of day.  I also try to convey just how tough this cycle is by filming the road as I cycle up a particularly steep hill.

I start off as usual in second gear but as it gets harder I slip down to first – keeping my eye on the camera viewfinder as I go.  For some reason this stretch is incredibly difficult and I feel I am really fighting with the bike to get up it.  It’s only when I reach the top and pause for desperate breath that I realise I had actually switched up a gear to third – a gear designed exclusively for going down a hill.

For the last few kilometres myself and Ethna are at the back.  We are cycling along happily when it begins to dawn on me that we haven’t seen the back bus in a while.   As I’ve said generally there is always one bus in the front of the group and one at the back of the group.  This latter bus usually keeps its distance presumably to avoid freaking out the last cyclist who has enough to deal with without a big bus trailing behind.  Sometimes though this second bus skips on ahead to stop at a turn so as to let the last stragglers know which direction to go.  The thing is I can’t remember if the bus has already passed us or whether it should still be behind us.  If the latter then it’s nowhere to be seen and I can see quite a distance behind us.

Also my speedometer is telling me we’ve done over 45k and so should be near the end – and there is still a long stretch of road ahead of us.   I am a bit concerned about this to say the least and have this awful dread that we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere – that we might be lost.  I am about to say as much to Ethna when she sighs an “Oh God, I’m really feeling it now.”  In fact so am I.  We’ve had some really tough hills the last while and the heat is really getting intense.  Both of us are fairly low on water.  We stop to take a breather and I check our daily route map that tells us where we should be.  It looks like we’re on the right road – we passed some coffee plants earlier which are listed on the plan the trouble is it then says “Turn left at the unmarked junction – be careful the turn is easy to miss.”  Shit – have we missed it?

I say nothing and luckily I have in my pocket a couple of packets of energy boost powder that Stuart had given me at the start of the first day.  We dilute them in our last remaining dregs of water and head off again.  Although we are still climbing upwards and it’s now incredibly hot the energy drink really helps and we get our second wind and easily make it to the top of the hill and round the corner where the oh so lovely bus is waiting for us.  We quickly stock up with full bottles of water and are delighted to be told by Alfredo that there’s only 1k to go.  And it’s downhill.

Ten minutes later we sail into the holiday camp that is Los Portales caves where everyone else is waiting to cheer us in and give us some very welcome Rum and cokes – and a can of Cristal.  It’s all over. We have been cycling in torrential heat for five days over the most undulatingest hills in the world and not one man or woman lost.  Wow.  This is such a high.  And thank God we don’t have to do the second half of the route!

The day continues with a tour of the caves guided by Manuel and ends with a slap-up meal in Havana’s top restaurant “El Aljibe” where Stuart presents Luis, Luisita, Alfredo and Manuel with big plastic bags of toys and footballs for their families.  The next day he also presents me with a set of bongo drums for Thomas which I am so overwhelmed by this I nearly forget to thank him. (Thanks Stuart).  It’s the perfect end to a perfect week  – and I can’t wait to do it again.

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