A Nice Revolution You’ve Got Here. Now Bring on the Cohibas.
On a bicycle tour of Cuba, solidarity can only take you so far.
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I knew that the downfall of Soviet communism had many effects, but I never expected one would be my death from hunger on a bicycle tour of Cuba. Nevertheless, pedaling out of the decaying old city of Santiago, I seemed to have reason to worry. Breakfast in the small hotel where my “socially responsible” tour group had spent the night had consisted of one small roll and an orange. The tour leader warned us that our route today — all 80 kilometers of it — would have few places to buy provisions. Some of the more prepared cyclists carried packets of cookies purchased at a Santiago dollar store (such delicacies being unavailable to people possessing nothing but the national currency), but their stash was scant.
The only ameliorating factor was the appetite-suppressing heat. We were bicycling through the hottest part of Cuba, at the hottest time of the year — and they were having a heat wave. With any luck, the sun would topple us before starvation did.
As we zigzagged through 7:00 a.m. Santiago traffic, dodging 1953 DeSotos, cargo motorcycles, Russian Ladas, and horse-drawn carts, I was already so sweaty my fingers slipped on the shifters. Would I have to ride 50 miles on the little chainring? I looked up to see an old truck doing duty as a bus, with dozens of people crammed onto its open bed. A price list on its tail put the fare to Chivirico, our destination, at four pesos — 18 cents. I could afford that.
I had joined this tour, the “Bicycle Adventure in Cuba,” less than two days before, and already I felt out of place. Global Exchange, the trip's San Francisco organizer, caters to travelers as interested in saving the world as seeing it. These adventure tours-cum-friendship missions have recently popped up like toadstools — run by such groups as the Center for Global Education, whose trips, including “El Salvador: Face to Face with Peace and Justice,” are not for the lighthearted. “Shouts of victory and joy filled our … office … when we learned that General Suharto was stepping down from power in Indonesia,” a recent Global Exchange newsletter reported. I'm sure no such thing occurred at American Express.
Global Exchange's “reality tours” include Israel (“The Occupation, Peace Process & Grassroots Voices”) and Ireland (“150th Anniversary of Famine”). I opted for Cuba out of a combination of nostalgia for the late 1960s, when I was a pot-and-don't-draft-me revolutionary, and the fact that their Cuban offerings seemed like relatively easy sledding. Besides the usual “Eco Cuba: Nature, Society, and Development,” Global Exchange tempts clients with New Year's in Havana, dancing lessons, and the Bicycle Adventure.
But I wasn't off the hook entirely. Before the trip Global Exchange sent me a thick packet of articles about Cuban politics and history, as well as a “Code of Ethics for Tourists.” (“When you are shopping, remember that bargain you obtained was only possible because of the low wages paid to the maker.”) We adventurers were also advised to bring a money belt and keep it with us always, even in the shower. Those low wages, I guess.
“Americans can at times be somewhat arrogant and boorish,” I'd read in another piece of the tour literature on the plane from Los Angeles to Canc”n. “Please remember that the Cubans are our hosts — hostile questions and unwelcome advice are discouraged.” I resolved to be sensitive as I leaned back in my seat. Worried about being cramped in economy class, I'd upgraded my ticket at LAX and found myself alone in the front of the plane. I peeked through the curtain at the coach seats. They looked fine. A hundred dollars shot to hell. I sighed and dug into a slab of beef Wellington and a 700-page biography of Che as I flew, in solitary splendor, first class to the Revolution.
An old Soviet Tupelov jetliner of Air Cubana (one class only) got me, barely, from Canc”n to Havana. Water vapor billowed picturesquely from the air vents as we took off. Droplets rained steadily from the ceiling as we flew. When I lifted my carry-on bag from the floor, I found it was coated with ice. The stewardesses came around with Dutch beer and cream puffs (no charge), followed by a selection of duty-free items. My seatmate, who lived in Havana, passed on the Johnny Walker Black to buy a 12-pack of American soap.
A third flight (more vapor, no soap) got me to Santiago and the modest hotel where the bicyclists were encamped. I walked into the lobby to find a longhaired American in his 20s drawing astrological charts for several rapt Cubans.
Hustling past the longhair (who turned out not to be part of our group), tour leader Rodrigo Gonzalez greeted me enthusiastically. “You're going to be having an adventure!” He led me upstairs to meet my roommates for the first night: Dayami, a pretty dark-skinned Cuban woman with her hair in curlers, and her boyfriend Orlando, a former Cuban soldier sleeping corpselike on the larger of two beds.
My arrival in midtour (the Bicycle Adventure covered a substantial swath of southeastern Cuba over four weeks; I was interested, but not that interested) meant room assignments had to be rearranged. Rodrigo told the other Americans that some would be switching rooms and others would sleep on mattresses on the floor. The latter privilege, Rodrigo said, was reserved for the “most revolutionary” of my fellow travelers — or should I say fellow fellow-travelers? The announcement was greeted with laughter and cheers.
Rodrigo had spoken in English, but he needn't have. All 18 Americans already on the trip spoke Spanish. Did I? asked Rodrigo. A few words, I said. I didn't mention that I spoke them to the maid.
“Most of us have open minds,” someone was saying as I staggered down to get my morning coffee. “We support the ideals and goals of the Revolution. I'm uneasy about the violence aspect, though. I'm basically a pacifist.”
Six a.m., and I was meeting the group. Molly had spent her junior year teaching street children in Nairobi. Monica was concerned about nuclear waste. Pat had been arrested as a young man for smuggling marijuana and spent nine months in a Mexican jail before digging a tunnel to escape. Julie was an ethnobotanist who wanted to be a naturopath. Jeff, a longhaired elementary school teacher, had been headed to Chiapas a few years ago to be a “witness for peace,” but detoured to teach English in a rural village to witness poverty instead. Americans have too many material possessions, he'd concluded. “In some ways the poor are better off. They have more sense of community and family.”
I was staring at the single orange and little roll that were supposed to sustain me for 50 miles of hard riding.
Had our solidarity run amok? Elsewhere in Cuba, flocks of tourists from Europe and Canada were lolling in brand-new seaside hotels, smoking $10 Cohibas in Old Havana, downing daiquiris in bars made famous by Hemingway. All were welcomed — and all goodies made available to them — by a gasping Communist society impoverished by the loss of massive Soviet subsidies. Outside the dollar economy, average Cubans were struggling to survive, sharing scarce resources through a nationwide system of rationing. We bicycle adventurers had dollars. I personally had a thousand of them in my money belt. But it seemed gauche that morning, in the company of my new friends, to try to find a place to spend them on some actual food.
Nobody else seemed concerned as we mounted up — 19 Americans and nine paid Cuban compadres. Two of the Cubans were doctors. Two fixed bicycles. Dayami's job was to keep accounts when we did eat at restaurants, so those who ate $1.10 worth of food paid $1.10 and not $1.45. The Cubans and Americans mixed comfortably, some of them extremely comfortably. When I asked, I was told that hand-holding and public caresses are common between friends in Cuba, and that nothing more was implied. I investigated no further.
Our wheeled procession was led by Alfredo, our cheerful geographer and bicycle mechanic. A large Cuban flag waved inspirationally from a stick bungee-corded to his bike, and we followed it out of Santiago and west onto the coastal highway — blue Caribbean below, green Sierra Maestra above, flamboyan trees in full scarlet bloom, schoolgirls in red jumpers waving from classroom doors. The scenery took my breath away. So did every little hill.
A 1952 Ford stake-bed truck crept along after the group, its bed surmounted by a cannibalized bus roof. Our support vehicle, its only resting spots were a handful of rusty benches in the cargo area. I know this because I was perched on one, breathless and sore, from the 25-kilometer point on. The other bikers were too polite to jeer. A mostly unathletic-looking group, they stolidly pedaled, to my continuing amazement, until we reached a pretty beach with an unanticipated bare-bones restaurant. Spaghetti and cheese, seven cents. I felt so strong that I got back on my bike for the home stretch into the little seaside town of Chivirico. Pedestrians applauded as we reached the outskirts. I acknowledged their praise with a modest wave.
We pulled to a stop in front of the headquarters of the local Young Communist League (slogan painted on the wall: “Study, Work, Gun”), which was down the block from the local dollar store (slogan painted on the wall: “Special Offer”). A dapper young fellow named Andres, secretary of the Chivirico YCL, greeted us with the information that this was the most beautiful town in Cuba and, moreover, the site of many important battles of the Revolution, which he proceeded to list. We nodded politely. We were more interested in the beach.
After a single hour of stupor in the shade, we were summoned to a seminar at the Chivirico hospital. Fourteen doctors and administrators stood waiting in a formal line to greet us. God only knows whom they thought they were meeting. They kept straight faces when they saw the exhausted Americans in shorts and sweat-drenched halter tops.
“How many of you are doctors?” one of the Cubans asked.
“How did you get here without being jailed?” asked another, referring to the American embargo covering tourist travel.
“We came through Mexico,” explained Gregor, a lanky 39-year-old publishing employee taking a year off to travel. (In fact, we were officially “fully hosted” guests of the Cuban Bicycle Club, which slipped us through an embargo loophole.)
The doctors ushered us into the hospital's saunalike conference room. The windows were open but the air was still. Outside, a thunderstorm was brewing. Inside, Yankee eyes were easing shut. Karen, a chipper schoolteacher from Los Angeles, struggled not to snore. Others, rallying, asked dutiful questions (“Do Cubans need prescriptions to get drugs from pharmacies?”) and listened, eyes open, to creditable accounts of the Revolution's achievements in providing medical care to the masses.
“What's been the biggest problem for hospitals during the Special Period?” asked Chris, a 29-year-old software marketer from Chicago, using Castro's term for Cuba's economic crisis. Shortages of some medicines and surgical supplies, a doctor replied. Into which breach leaped two of our number. Jeff, the veteran of the Mexican village, hauled out $100 worth of aspirin, antibiotics, and prenatal vitamins he'd purchased for this very purpose at a drugstore in California. Patricia, a graduate student in Latin American studies, pitched in two large bottles of vitamin C. The Cubans offered muted thanks and then led us on a tour. In the maternity ward, the Young Communist League secretary kissed a baby.
“Tell Mr. Clinton we are not going to die!” called one doctor as the staff bade us good-bye. “Tell Mr. Jesse Helms we will be here a long time!” yelled another.
We all applauded.
Up with the revolution. down with Jesse Helms. Ho-ho, Ho Chi Minh … Well, not that, I guess. But it was still almost enough to wake me up and make me want to party. That, plus the food. Dinner in Chivirico was a large and decent restaurant meal, and afterward we climbed up to the cafe's unlit roof and we danced. We did line dances, couple dances, circle dances, vaguely Latin, vaguely frug, as a live band played. Locals watched from the stairs. The town drunk bellowed in the street below. The women dragged male wallflowers onto the floor. Our potbellied truck driver, sloshed on rum, danced with anyone who would have him, until the band wrapped up with a wistful rendition of “Hasta Siempre,” a love song from the Cuban people to Che Guevara. We climbed wearily onto the truck (hoping the driver's assistant was at the wheel) for a ride to the local Pioneer Camp and bed.
Only there were no beds. There were hammocks, hanging in an open-sided thatch-roof shed. Pioneer Camps, Andres informed us, were “created by Fidel Castro for the children of Cuba.” So the hammocks were child-size. I was staring dumbstruck at mine, which was a full foot shorter than I am, when the camp manager, taking pity, dropped a mattress at my feet. My grumbling fellow adventurers were not so lucky. Some squeezed into the hammocks. Some slept on the wooden floor. Some climbed down a rocky slope to a beach.
In the morning, stalwarts tried to put a good face on a bad night. “Nice … for a Boy Scout camp,” said Paul, a 47-year-old editor with a stunned look. “I slept well … part of the time,” offered Gaby, a 49-year-old teacher. Others pondered a slogan on the campground wall: “The Explorer loves Nature and the socialist Fatherland, and prepares himself for the war of all the people.” Jeff, the antimaterialist vitamin-schlepper, shook his head. “Our Boy Scouts don't say they're preparing for war.”
“But they're homophobic and right-wing,” countered Regan, a 26-year-old bilingual teacher with a round face and a positive attitude. She added, to be fair, “Not individually, but as an organization.”
After the Pioneer Camp it felt good to be back on the bike. We eased over gentle ups and downs, along shallow bays with see-through water, past tiny towns at the mouths of rivers, with rarely a motorized vehicle in sight. (Cuba has fine highways and plenty of cars and trucks, but in the Special Period, no one can afford gas.) Lunch was a small cheese sandwich augmented by mangoes obtained by tossing a bike helmet into a tree.
After 50 kilometers and the one sandwich, we reached La Plata, where a basketball game was underway in the dusty central plaza, attended by lizards with iridescent blue tails. The village's claim to fame is that it was the site of the first victory of the Cuban Revolution, on January 17, 1957, when Castro, Guevara, and 30 other beleaguered rebels emerged from the mountain forest to attack an isolated barracks of the dictator Batista's Rural Guard.
We waded through the Rio de la Plata, just as Fidel and Che had done, to reach a museum commemorating the great day. The museum was closed. By the time Miguel, one of our doctors, tracked down the curator, 12 of us were dozing on a shaded platform. Miguel roused us.
“Can't I sleep?” Miranda pleaded.
“No,” said Miguel.
Another sleeper was resigned. “Fidel was here,” she said. So would be she.
Inside the museum, we spent several minutes admiring photographs and signatures and uniforms of the two heroes and their little band. Then we wandered outside in search of lemonade, leaving the curator alone.
The victory at La Plata turned the faltering Revolution around. But that's not what we discussed as the truck bounced westward. We were worried about where we would spend the night. The original itinerary had included an overnight hike to Pico Turquino, Cuba's highest mountain. But two years ago, saboteurs posing as tourists had sprayed poison on Turquino's coffee fields. Now visitors need permits that Global Exchange had been denied:”too many Americans.” Which wouldn't matter — the hole in our schedule could be filled by more biking — except that it left a hole in our reservations as well. For tonight, there were none. Our young American coleader, Leila Day, who had taken over when Rodrigo left to meet another reality tour, told us we would sleep on the beach. At some point yet to be determined.
The truck pulled up in front of a tantalizing oasis, a gleaming new tourist hotel at Punta de Piedra. We drank rum on the terrace bar and chatted with an old man who carried a metal crutch, wore his shirt rolled up to expose his belly to the breeze, and said he'd known Che. Then we went inside for an excellent fish dinner followed by surprising good news: Another new hotel nearby, shuttered for the off-season, had agreed to take us in.
Everybody piled merrily into the truck. “I never thought I'd be so happy to see a tourist hotel,” declared Gregor as it came into view. We turned on air conditioners, jumped in showers. Five minutes later the power went off, but nobody cared. We all dozed soundly, except for half a dozen who woke up vomiting from the excellent fish.
The old man who said he'd known Che also said he knew the local roads. We should have listened. We were headed in the morning to a vacation camp on the other side of the mountains, reached by a road the man said our truck couldn't make. Our truck tried to make it anyway.
Leila, who tended toward understatement, asked us to ease its way by getting out and walking “the first hill,” which turned out to be a steep mile. Then we rode the truck for a while, bouncing in the back with our bicycles and luggage. Then we walked. Rode. Walked again.
The truck reached a place where the “road,” now a rocky path, dipped into a river. The truck would have to ford the water, simultaneously picking up speed for the sharp ascent on the other side. The uphill was narrow, bounded on the left by a rock wall and on the right by a 10-foot drop into the river. Any miscalculation, any loose rock, and the truck would roll.
Martin, the driver, now completely sober — he owned the truck — got out and eyeballed things for a good long time, while those bikers who were still fish-nauseated sat on rocks and stared at empty space above their feet. The healthy ones played a trust game, sitting on one another's knees to form a circle, and took turns riding a mule provided by a local farmer who'd gathered with friends to watch the truck fall into the river. Buzzards circled overhead.
Martin took a run at it. Down into the river. Up the rocky slope. Halfway up the truck stopped moving forward, its wheels spinning perilously close to the drop. Martin managed to roll back safely. One of the farmers pulled out a guitar and played “La Bamba.” Alfredo regaled me with heroic tales of Castro and his men in these very mountains: ” … and in that battle all but 12 were lost. Fidel said 12 were all they needed to win … “
The truck tried again. Down. Up. Stall. Slide toward river. Stop.
Somebody remembered the two sickest members of the group, passed out in the cargo bed. “Maydi! Russ!” They were hauled off the truck.
The driver tried again, choosing speed over caution. This time he made it.
Then we had to get back into the truck.
It took five bone-crunching hours to reach the vacation camp's pleasant bungalows, less than 30 miles from where we had started. We waddled to the camp's swimming hole in a shallow river, lying catatonic until a member of a departing group of Cubans turned back on the bank and hurled a mango pit, nearly striking Monica in the head. Orlando yelled at him. The Cuban, drunk and aggrieved, yelled something in return. Had we displaced his group from the camp, which generally catered to vacationing Cubans? We never found out. Orlando refused to translate the man's idiomatic Spanish.
Back at the bungalows, Leila was trying to organize a visit to the national park that had been Castro's secret mountain headquarters during the Revolution. It was very beautiful, she said. It would cost $15. We would get there by truck.
By truck? How long a ride?
“Two and a half hours.”
Exactly one American wanted to go.
“Nobody else?” asked Leila. “To be there? Where Fidel was? Where Che was?”
No, thank you. The Revolution was swell, but it was time for a rest. I left the group, as scheduled, the next day. My last glimpse was of several people gathering, with notepads, to listen to a discourse on gays and lesbians in Cuba by one of our Cuban companions. Hours later I was in Havana, smoking a $10 Cohiba, downing daiquiris at a bar made famous by Hemingway. Too tired to walk back to my hotel, I took a pedicab. Bicycle adventure indeed.
Ed Zuckerman is the author of Small Fortunes and The Day After World War III.