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.

1 comment:

Flee said...

15 hours on a cold, uncomfortable, overnight bus to see you and all i get is a lousy one line mention???!!! Ok so the journey wasn't technically just in your honour but come on, you can do better than that Berry.... ;)

Am home now and back to being jealous of you you'll be glad to know.... xx

ps - Jen says she expects you to deliver a hug to her in Vietnam too.