Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Cycling Cuba: If its not over 35 degrees, humid, uphill and into a headwind I´m not interested

Met up with the cycling group and we headed out of Havana to get the bikes. Interesting start to the cycling, as a dog started chasing me after 5 minutes. It obviously decided it didn't like the look of me as it suddenly just went for me. It wasn't foaming at the mouth but I certainly wasn't hanging about to see if it just wanted to play ball and I managed to outrun it.

But then after 10 minutes I got a puncture. Normally the support bus stays at the back but it had overtaken already, so while I pushed someone had to cycle on and tell the bus to go back (cheers Joe). So ended up spending 5km on the bus on the first day which was disappointing, but it was the only time I spent on the bus on the whole trip. 25km was a relatively gentle start distance wise but the roads weren't in good condition so it was hardly a smooth ride, and there was a pretty steep hill on just a dirt track to finish. That night was spent in what can generously be described as a pretty grim hotel in Matanzas.

The next day the distance was upped to 61km - hard work given the heat and humidity. Stopped at Guama crocodile farm to see the, err, crocodiles. They were all just lined up pretty much sun-bathing, then one of the rangers started throwing fish over the fence and they all started clambering over each other to get the food. It was not dissimilar to all the Canadians at the baseball game in Toronto trying to get a free t-shirt. The highlight was when Liber, our cycling tour guide, grabbed Ruth, a girl off the tour's leg, and she (not unreasonably) screamed thinking it was a crocodile!

We stayed the night in Playa Giron, which is where the Bay of Pigs invasion was. Had a look around the museum; was quite interesting and you could get a pretty good idea of what went on even though it was in Spanish. That night was spent in what can generously be described as an even grimmer hotel than the previous night. Our bathroom had a variety of insects living in it, while Urs and John's room had a chair in it that had an insect infestation.

Next day was a 67km ride, pretty undulating, and still just as hot and humid. Stayed in Cienfuegos, and had dinner in a really nice restaurant that was a really plush colonial type building. For those of you wondering, the accommodation had improved and was pretty nice.

Day 5 was the big one though, 87km. The previous days we had set off at 8am and had finished cycling around lunchtime to avoid the worst of the sun, but today there was no escaping the afternoon heat even with the early start. This was a pretty tough day, because of the distance, the undulating roads, the strong headwind and the heat and humidity. We had been expecting temperatures in the mid to late twenties, but this was mid to late thirties as Cuba was having some sort of October heat wave. Jose-Luis and Alexis (the van and bus drivers) and Titi (the bike mechanic) were saying that in all the tours they'd done they'd never known it this hot. The highest temperature recorded on some gadget that Trevor had was 42 degrees!

My ability to cycle 87km wasn't helped by the fact I'd been up (well, sitting down actually) half the night having presumably eaten something that disagreed with me. I'll spare you details, but this was still causing me problems on the 87km ride, but through a combination of a lot of litres of water (I lost count how many), a lot of fruit, some carbohydrate gels, and various drugs (all legal) I managed to cycle the whole way.

I'd made enough of a recovery to go out to a salsa bar with the group that night in Trinidad, and did manage to have a few mojitos and some beers, but no dancing. It looked like you had to be a pro - getting drunk and dancing like an idiot which I may have done once or twice in the UK at various times in my life certainly wasn't going to cut it here.

After the the previous day's exertions day 6 was a rest from cycling, and we jumped on a catamaran to a remote island, so just chilled out on deck most of the time. The island was beautiful - white sand, warm water, fantastic. To quote Trevor, "one loud American tourist and this would be ruined."

Did some snorkelling which showed that my ability to be a muppet is still alive and well. I found myself near some rocks that were close to the surface and ended up bashing into them when a wave hit me, so put my hand out to stop myself....onto some spiky coral that embedded itself in my fingers. Ouch. Luckily we had a vet in the tour group who was used to getting splinters out of dog paws and had even been a on a course recently to get splinters out of corneas (in the eye!) so she was happy to try and extract the thorns - thanks Jo. Although apparently dogs scream less during this procedure. Had to leave some in though as it was too deep. I think there is still something in there two weeks later, although my finger hasn't fell off or changed colour so I'm assuming its ok.

Lunch on the island was fresh lobster which was really nice. We knew they were fresh because we had watched the people on the boat jump off and catch them! Lunch was on the beach and there were all these iguanas just wandering around, probably hoping for free food. It felt slightly bizarre the first time one walked over my foot, but soon got used to it. There were also tree rats wondering around, but unlike the iguanas, if they didn't get any food they'd start eating your ankles.

Today also more or less marked the start of the competition, mostly between myself, Trevor and John, to wind up Ruth aka small psychotic blond (in a nice way!). We were all vying for the number one spot, i.e. who is she going to kill first, so me asking whether I could pour cold water over he while she was sunbathing went down well. I think the exact response was "only if you want to die."

Back on the bike the next day for another 60+km and some proper hills, but this was after a bus transfer where for the second time on my trip, the bus got pulled over for speeding, although apparently we weren't speeding, but you still have to pay. Two countries visited, pulled over twice. See if I can keep up the 100% record in Costa Rica.

The cycling started as undulating, but soon you'd get to the top of one hill, and find another waiting. Although you couldn't see the road beyond the crest, you could see the telegraph poles rising into the distance, so you then knew there was no break from the hills. Luckily Camaguey had some bars to relax in at the end of the day. In the UK when pubs are ready to close, they ask you to leave. Here they just close with you inside, and it wasn't a lock in because they wouldn´t give us a refill.

Day 8 started with a bicitaxi tour of Camaguey. These bikes had one gear pretty much and the driver had to pedal himself plus two people in the back so I reckon he was getting it worse than us on our 24 gear mountain bikes. Our cycling started in the heat of the afternoon, and was 60km of straight flat roads. There must have been all of 3 bends in the road the whole way. This was actually quite dull, so after a certain amount of complaining about hills earlier on, come back all is forgiven. The highlight of the ride was when myself and John overtook a couple of local kids, they tried to catch up and overtake us, which was laying down a challenge if ever I saw it, and we won, yeah! Unfortunately though I think it was technology rather than fitness triumphing because our bikes were quite a lot better. But who cares, we certainly showed them!

Day 9 was another King of the Mountains stage as we headed into the Sierra Maestra range. There were some pretty tough uphills on bumpy unpaved roads but the scenery was the best we had seen so far, and we saw lots of small local villages. It was all worth it when we got to the hotel. It was set in the mountains and it had a natural pool at the bottom of a waterfall to swim in and it was brilliant to jump in and cool down. Very refreshing.

Next day we cycled to Santiago de Cuba. Some traffic warden came up to me to try to write me a ticket for the 15 bikes that were parked up on the kerb, but I pointed to Titi who looks after the bikes while muttering "amigo" and hurried off. I assume we didn't get any tickets. Had a bit of a wander round when we arrived, and found some kids playing cricket in Revolution Square - brilliant! That night everyone had a few too many in this 15th floor balcony piano bar overlooking the city, very nice.

During the previous day a bag full of condoms had been found on the bus. They apparently belonged to the drivers but they were a bit coy over whether they were for personal use of for distribution to some of the communities we were cycling through. So we concluded that they had a network of ladies across Cuba - a pretty big network given how many they had. But while drinking on this balcony late at night we heard three loud bangs, and feared that it might have been some woman's husband getting home, and we might have to look for two new drivers and a bike mechanic in Santiago the next day. But luckily Alexis, Jose-Luis and Titi were alive and well next morning.

Did a city tour of Santiago. The exhibition in the old barracks all about the revolution was really interesting. And I think Santiago must be the Cuban equivalent of Liverpool as we saw a car propped up on bricks. Also managed to meet Felicity, my former flatmate from Tooting, who was coincidentally on holiday in Cuba, for lunch which was really good. Transferred by bus to Holguin for the evening. Not much to report, except there was a really impressive water ballet display in the hotel pool (kind of like synchronised swimming).

For the first time cycling, we had a tailwind while cycling the next day. Almost wanted the challenge of a headwind and hills etc as we were getting so used to it. 66km today. That night made my ´salsa´ debut. Liber, our tour guide, just pushed me towards this local girl and next thing I know I was dancing (if you can call it that). She really could dance but I was just bimbling around doing my best to keep up.

Next day was the last cycling. 55k through some really beautiful countryside. One pretty brutal hill but dispatched with aplomb! Everyone was actually really disappointed to finish we´d had such a good time. We all really wanted to do hills and longer distances. I´d certainly conquered my dislike of hills, and had got used to the heat and humidity pretty quickly even though it was almost always over 30 degrees, and was really enjoying the cycling. Still, to mark the end of cycling had a few drinks - if only we´d realised earlier in the week it is way cheaper to just buy a bottle of rum than individual drinks!

The final full day of the tour was disappointingly spent on the bus - we all wanted to get back in the saddle! We visited Santa Clara and saw the armoured train that Che Guevara had de-railed during the revolution, then went to the Che Guevara monument and mausoleum. Interesting chap, although I won´t be rushing out to buy a t-shirt. Cos its what chavs wear who think they´re cool. Innit.

On the last morning we did a walking tour of old Havana, then when everyone else went to the airport I went round the Museo de la Revolucion (which is museum of the revolution if your Spanish isn´t so hot...much like mine). Then it was back to the family I stayed with on the first day, only I stayed with their neighbour on the 17th floor because they were full.

Cuba was a really interesting place and I´m keen to learn more about it, and get some different perspectives. Some of the exhibitions we saw probably were one sided, but putting aside whatever might have happened since and what the current state of the place is, I can´t help but be impressed by the Revolution, with the country being reclaimed for the people, given the state of things at the time. I´ll park the politics there as it might be in danger of turning into an anti-US piece, and if I visit Cuba again, I wasn´t planning on it being to Guantanamo Bay. But yes, interested to learn more about the history and the current situation.

Had heard a few times back home that people think Cuba will soon change a lot as Fidel has stepped down; there are differing opinions about whether this will happen and to what extent. Cuba doesn´t really have violent crime or a drugs problem, and the vast majority of locals were really friendly, so whatever changes may occur - increasing capitalism or whatever - hopefully this will remain.

Food wise Cuba isn´t the widest gastronomic experience. Lunch tended to consist of cheese, ham or ham and cheese sandwiches while dinner was chicken, pork of fish mostly, but it was still pretty good. And for drinking, Cubans obviously like their rum, but they also like their beer strong. There were two local brands: Crystal was the cooking lager at a weak 4.9% while Bocanero was 5.4%.

The only downside of the tour was that because we were such a big group, we had to stay in big tourist hotels, and it feels like you could be anywhere in the world. Staying with families in their houses like I did on the first and last days you get to experience authentic Cuba a bit more, but this was not possible with a big group.

Cuba is a really beautiful country and seeing much of it from a bike was a great way to see it. And the tour group I was with made it even better. Really good fun bunch of people and a really good laugh. So cheers guys, made a good trip even better.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Our man in Havana

Well not quite, but internet is pretty hard to come by in Cuba so have only just had chance to update the blog.

Havana almost started badly. I had booked somewhere to stay the first night as the cycling tour I was doing started the next day and I wanted to look around Havana. I had booked it through Hostelworld and it had good ratings but when the taxi dropped me at the building it was a 20 storey block of flats with the front boarded up, looking like it was about to be pulled down soon. No answer on the phone and I was going to have to come up with a plan B, but luckily someone inside saw me and pointed me in the direction of the 13th floor where my lodging was. It wasn't a hotel, it was just a family's apartment and they let the spare rooms out. This is quite normal for Cuba as pretty much all hotels are state owned. The family were great and were very helpful, and within ten minutes of me meeting them they were handling my dirty boxers as they offered a laundry service! The views from their balcony were pretty good too.

Wandered into Havana and randomly met Eric, a local, who started talking to me. Ended up going to a few bars and having some mojitos with him. Obviously the catch was that I was buying all the drinks but it was hardly breaking the bank and it was interesting to talk to a Cuban about Cuba. Walking around Havana was interesting too. Half of it looks like its about to fall down yet most of the architecture is beautiful, with lots of grandiose colonial buildings. Must have looked amazing back in the day. And people seem to almost live on their doorsteps, with all the streets full of people.

The vehicles are good too. There are lots of big old 1950's American cars around, along with loads of ladas, a real contrast. Must have some of the best mechanics around to keep these cars on the road after so many years. Probably a job if you fancy it Richard! Don't know how they get parts though. They also have stretch Ladas, but I couldn't quite tell if it was one car or two bolted together.

Another cool thing about Havana is the Malecon, the road that goes right next to the sea. People just go and sit on the sea wall to chat, chill out, fish, or in the case of some kids, take a run up from the middle of the road and hurdle the wall into the sea. It was a good hours walk from my lodgings to Old Havana and Centro Habana where most of the shops, cafes, bars, restaurants etc are but it was a nice walk along the Malecon.

But after a couple of days in Havana it was time to get on with the real business of cycling round Cuba.

"There´s a wapiti on the bus. How are we going to get it off?"

After drinking slightly too much with the people from the Beaver tour, I headed off next day bright and early on a new mini tour. En route to Montreal stopped off at The Big Apple, which was an apple pie factory. This was set up by an Aussie and in the (apparently) Australian tradition of having giant models of fruit and veg etc, this had a giant apple outside....which actually looked like a tomato. But that didn't matter because it was a mighty fine piece of pie.

After that we stopped off to go on the Thousand Island boat tour. These are a load of islands as indicated by the name that are between Canada and the US. There are two particular islands, one in Canada, one in the US, that are connected by a ten foot bridge, which makes it the smallest bridge between two countries in the world. Because we were in US waters I have now technically been to the US although I have no passport stamp to prove it.

So then we were in Montreal. Had a wonder round the old town with Takako, a Japanese girl from the tour who must have been about two feet shorter than me, which I´m sure caused some amusement to the locals. That night we went out in Montreal. Mike, the Tour leader took us to an Irish pub. First Irish pub after 5 days away isn´t bad, am usually in one far quicker! Also went to a pub where the pub quiz wasn´t even starting until 11 - its not like UK licensing laws.

Next day after climbing up Mont Royal, a load of new people joined the tour, and we headed for Mont Tremblant. Had some authentic Canadian cuisine on the way - Poutine - which is chips with cheese curds on top covered in gravy. Very nice! Had failed to have this in Montreal as we left the pub too late, so had to make do with, ahem, McDonalds.

Mont Tremblant was very nice. Was bizarre seeing a ski resort with no snow. It did have a dry toboggan run but unfortunately was closed, although it looked like you just shoot down a slope on a tricycle with limited brakes so might have been for the best. So instead just chilled out up one of the slopes admiring the view of the town and the lake.

The hostel was pretty good. Had a swim in an even colder lake than in Algonquin, and threw a Canadian football around for a bit (kind of like American Football). Also 7-balled an Australian guy off our tour at pool, which was taken with customary grace. A mention of the Olympic medals table also went down well.

Ottawa was the next port of call, but on the way we stopped at Omega animal park. Its kind of like Longleat as you drive your car in and the animals come up to you. So armed with a load of carrots to feed to them, we went in! Within about three feet of the opening cattle grid we were already surrounded by Wapiti's, which are kind of like deer but with no antlers. The door of the bus was open and its is normal for them to put their front legs in to take the carrots out of your hands. What isn't normal is for them to climb fully on the bus, but one got on! The tour leader had never seen this before, and we weren't quite sure how we were going to get it off the bus. eventually we coaxed it with a carrot and gave it a shove and it jumped off.

We also saw wolves, bison, bears, racoons, and red deer. It is mating season for the red deer and they are a touch aggressive, but despite our efforts we couldn't provoke one into chasing the bus, which has happened before. Then onto Ottawa. Wondered around the city and had more local dishes, this time a beaver tail, which is a deep fried piece of pastry covered in whatever you wanted. I had chocolate, peanut butter and smarties on mine. I left the tour that evening and got the overnight Greyhound back to Toronto so I could go to Niagara Falls.

Met up again with Heena who I had met earlier in the week on the Beaver tour. Our bus to the Falls got pulled over by the Police on the way for doing 80 in a 60 zone, but we were let off! Never seen so many people simultaneously scramble to put seatbelts on though! Stopped off for lunch at Niagara on the Lake, and my navigational skills came to the fore again as it took us forever to find the lake!

At Niagara went on the Maid of the Mist boat which takes you to the bottom of the falls, or near enough. This was pretty good and you do get wet, so its lucky they give you a poncho. Stayed in Niagara that night. It is an exceptionally tacky place. If the Canadian side is this tacky, I dread to think what the American side is like! Aside from the neon everywhere, it has five or more waxwork museums, a wrestling superstore, and a Ripleys Believe It Or Not. A classy place.

At the hostel in Niagara, for a few brief seconds I genuinely believed I was going to die. In the middle of the night there was all this crashing and banging like someone was trashing the place. It woke me up and i needed to use the facilities so trudged down the corridor. When i came out there was this bloke standing across the doorway. It was 4am, he could've used any other toilet. His eyes weren't right, he looked mental and I thought he was gonna kill me. Luckily he just stood there and i shuffled past. Wasn't what I needed when I was half asleep though.

Did journey behind the falls next day where you don another poncho but this was pretty disappointing in that behind the falls is little more than a small hole in the rock where you can see nothing but spray. Headed back to Toronto after that and had some beers with Phil, a colleague from EY who happened to be working on a job out there at the time. Might have been advised to go to bed a little earlier than midnight though as I had to be up at 4 to get to the airport to get my flight to Havana.

A few other random observations on Canada
- automatic doors aren´t automatic, you have to press a button
- prices are quoted excluding tax so just as you´ve spent ages sorting out the right money to get rid of some shrapnel, the tax is added on and you break another note
- Canada is giving the US a run for its money in the obesity stakes so ordering a starter and a main is the UK equivalent of about four main meals. I could only just eat it all.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Toronto, Mooses and Beavers

Hello! Welcome to my first blog. Probably worth mentioning first off that for those of you familiar with the great Al and Dave`s blog, this isn`t as professional, doesn't look as good and unfortunately isn't as funny as theirs, but please read on anyway!

Arrived in Toronto last Wednesday, and hadn`t even got out of the airport before taking the first wrong turn as managed to completely miss where the bus to town was. You can see why I am supposed to be serving a lifetime ban from navigating (for trying to take us the wrong way up a one way street in Sydney once). Anyway, you have to ask for downtown as they don't know what town centre is! Was in the airport that I also saw an English stag do - anywhere you go in the world....

Anyway, checked into hostel and had a 4 bed dorm all to myself, at least until 10 minutes after I`d gone to bed when three more guys from London came crashing in! The joys of shared sleeping arrangements. And one of them snored pretty loud. The recently purchased iPod was already coming into its own.

Spent my first full day away doing a few attractions in Toronto. CN Tower, Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, Steam Whistle Brewery Tour and a boat trip round Toronto islands. Canada with ice hockey are much like England with football and cricket - they invent it, but then cease to be very good at it. Brewery tour was good. Unlike Guinness in Dublin and Heineken in Amsterdam, you actually get to see the brewing bit and the bottling etc. Also got to taste beer that had literally been bottled 2 minutes ago, so pretty fresh. Its a far cry from Fosters.

Also went to a baseball game, Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees. When I bought the ticket I asked to sit somewhere rowdy and wasn`t disappointed. Thanks to Rich from Calgary who I was sitting next to for explaining the finer points of the rules to me, and for starting a "Bring Pete a beer chant" to get the attention of the beer sellers who just wonder round the seats - no going to the bar.

The game itself was ok (8-2 to Toronto - go Blue Jays!) but the most entertaining stuff was everything but the game. Some observations:
- chilli dogs are possibly the messiest thing I`ve ever eaten and you shouldn`t have them if you are trying make your clothes last a while whilst travelling
- beer at baseball is a fiver a pint and even the light beer costs the same - outrageous
- instead of using just the phrase "in your face", you can use "in your face with a can of mace, if you`re feeling the burn you`re starting to learn". Might have to try and use that
- during breaks between innings the cameras focus on different random members of the crowd and a gurning competition ensues. They should do that at football in England
- randomly free t-shirts will be given out and by the mad scramble Canadians will seemingly do anything for a free t-shirt
- someone actually proposed via a message on the big screen. I never thought that actually happened in real life. (She said yes for those of you wondering)

Then I did a 3 day tour with Moose travel, going into Algonquin Park. Was a good bunch of people on the tour, with people from France, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and even as far afield as Huddersfield. We saw some beavers which is almost unheard of apparently despite it being called the Beaver tour! Stayed at a hostel in Madawasca. The guy who ran the place had the best song ever on his iPod. Please check out "Rock'n'roll McDonalds"

Next day canoed to a waterfall where you can then climb up the sloping rock bit and slide down the waterfall in a rubber ring. Now the weather has actually been pretty hot, but Canada in September is starting to get cold so hitting the water was bracing to say the least. But had to go in twice as did another English person - we Brits love the cold water, just like being at home in the summer! In the afternoon hiked up to Booth Rock get a view of the park. Fall, sorry autumn, is here and the leaves are changing colour and its pretty amazing. Whereas at home everything turns brown and goes mushy, over here the leaves turn these bright reds and oranges and yellows, and when that's all you can see for miles its pretty spectacular.

Sunday was back to Toronto via a swim in another even colder lake in Algonquin Park. Came under more pressure to sign up for facebook so everyone on the tour can share photos. Am still resisting...for now.