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March 1997

by Susan Wallis

Cycling Trip (some birding info)


It wasn't the beginning we had expected.  In the middle of an eight-hour thunderstorm, lightning struck the transformer 10 meters from our tent with a terrifying explosion, setting everyone's heart racing faster than a 20% climb.

We had lots of climbs that week, though luckily, none of them set our hearts to beating quite as fast as the lightning strike.  It was an amazing trip, initiated by bicycle advocates in Montreal, with the aim of studying firsthand the bicycle's conquest of Cuba.  In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its fuel supply and, though it had no history of cycling, turned to the bicycle for affordable human transportation.  A million bikes were imported from China and 6 factories began to manufacture bikes.  The Government strongly supported cyclists, with bike lanes and publicity campaigns on safety and sharing the road.

In less than three years, Cuba was attracting sun-starved cyclists from Canada and Europe to its bicycle-friendly, mostly car-free roads and the numbers continue to grow every year.  Ours was almost certainly the first trip of its kind; co-planned by the Montrealers and Ignacio Rivero, a professor of Physical Education and President of the University of Havana Club de Ciclismo.  There were 25 of us: 8 Cubans, 2 Americans and 15 Canadians, both English and French-speaking.  Almost everyone was at least bilingual, if not trilingual, and we spoke all three languages throughout the trip.  (I'd never thought of going to Cuba to improve my French...)

We weren't on an equal footing (pedal?), however.  While most of the North Americans were on lightweight, multi-speed bikes, the Cubans were riding one-speed bicycles like the Flying Pigeon, weighing close to 20 kilos.  The poor quality and shortage of bicycles and bicycle parts has impeded the progress of the "bicycle revolution".  Many bikes are sitting unused because their owners can't find or afford the parts to repair them, while others are being stolen by those who need them.

However, all of us shared our bicycles during the trip and determined that, for the next time, we would somehow find better bikes for the Cubans to ride.  Sharing was an important part of this trip, whether it was food, medicines, camping equipment or just a sympathetic ear when it was needed.  The Cubans were a wonderful example to everyone.  In fact, on all three of the trips Tim and I have made to Cuba, we were impressed by the warmth and compassion of the people there.  This is in a country where everyone is poor; Ignacio makes 60 cents CDN per day, while the head dentist of a large dental clinic in Havana makes about double that amount.  They survive because all essential goods are highly subsidized and strictly rationed.  One bar of soap per person, per day, for instance.  Cubans who have access to U.S.  dollars can purchase other goods at the "dollar stores", though the prices are high and the selection rather limited.  Of course, most Cubans do NOT have access to U.S. currency and cannot supplement their meager ration cards.  In an attempt to remedy the situation, they are offering services previously unavailable to tourists, and not always above the table.  I'll return to this, later.

Though the hills were occasionally somewhat rigorous, we rarely rode more than 60 km. a day and often, less.  We were staying in campsites, but not what we would call campsites in Canada.  Cubans rarely use tents; campsites are provided with widely-spaced concrete bungalows, each fitted with roughly built wooden bunk beds and a pull-out double bed, topped with a slab of foam.  Each bungalow had cold running water, a sink, shower and a sometimes-flushable toilet.

Almost every evening, all of us gathered for group discussions, where we shared our impressions of the day, made suggestions and sometimes had a workshop to discuss issues of interest to everyone, such as bicycles and the need for spare parts, gender equality both in Cuba and in Canada and the environment.  Everything said in English was translated into Spanish and vice versa.  One workshop arose spontaneously, when the Lori, the American woman, who was a solar engineer and a frequent visitor to Cuba, stood beside the solar collectors at a large luxury hotel that we were visiting (NOT as guests!) and talked to us about the use of solar power and other creative uses of alternative sources of energy being used in Cuba to compensate for the shortage of petroleum.

We ate rice and beans for lunch and dinner.  Generally, there was lettuce, sliced tomato and shredded cabbage and, once, there were sliced green peppers.  As a side dish, there would be one of three white root vegetables: yucca, malenga and boniato, which all seemed to be a sort of cross between a potato and a sweet potato in taste and texture.  Because vegetable oil is in very short supply in Cuba, everything was cooked in pork fat.  Occasionally, there would be grapefruit, bananas or oranges.  After a few days, when the North Americans were craving something different and many were suffering from one and two-day bouts of diarrhea, we began to discuss what we could do to improve the quality and variety of the food.  The Cubans listened for several minutes before telling us that what we were eating was better than their daily fare at home.

We did manage to add some variety to our diet whenever we rode through a town of any size.  In the past 2-3 years, some private enterprise has been allowed and street vendors now sell anything from pizza to sweets, including ice cream.

The area we were touring was the province of Pinar del Rio, famous for producing the world's best cigar tobacco.  Much of it is hilly, alternating with flat valleyland strongly punctuated with vine-draped mogotes, 1000-foot limestone hills with straight sides that rise abruptly from the valley floor.  The area is dotted with caves, one of which, La Cueva de los Indios, we toured by boat along its underground river.  We also explored the caves of Los Portales, where Che Guevara maintained his staff headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962.  We camped there as well, some of us in tents, others in the open concrete building where we had eaten dinner.  We swam nearby in a clear, shallow stream that refreshed, but did nothing to cleanse us - with the possible exception of those who covered and scrubbed themselves with mud from the bottom....

Ignacio had planned a full itinerary for us; we visited a tobacco farm, a government-run health spa at San Diego de los Ba n?os, where patients are treated for a variety of ailments, from skin diseases to emotional problems and where all of us, deprived for several days of hot showers, longed to plunge into the pools fed by natural hot springs.  We finally had a shower that evening, though not a hot one, at the stunningly beautiful waterfall at Soroa.  A few of us also toured the orchid gardens there the next morning.

All of the school supplies we had brought were sorted and divided into piles, which we presented to five elementary schools along our route.  The schools were dark and appallingly ill-equipped, but the children were friendly and enthusiastic and, in one case, proudly sang for us all of the verses of Guantanamera.

By the end of the week, we had established friendships and a will not to let them fade, even though many of us were headed in different directions for the remainder of our stay in Cuba.  The saddest part of this new relationship was the fact that while most of us could return to visit our new friends, they did not have the same mobility.  Most of them cannot afford to visit other parts of the island, let alone come to Canada.

Three of us decided to spend our remaining days in the Zapata Peninsula, one of the best birding areas in the world.  We found someone willing to drive us, our bikes and all of our luggage most of the way in his 1938 Chevrolet, for U.S. $15 each - a bargain for us, a princely sum for him.  We went most of the way on the autopista, a four-lane "expressway" carrying little traffic.  Along the route were farmers selling strings of garlic and onions, horses pulling carts and a few cyclists.  We were stopped twice by the police, to check Miguel's papers.  The second time, he narrowly missed being arrested; Cubans are allowed and encouraged to pick up hitch-hikers, but not to pre-arrange to transport foreigners for profit.  The officer told Miguel that he knew his story was false, but that he was letting him go because he was an old man, and not to try the same thing again.

Once in Zapata (Spanish for "shoe", from the shape of the peninsula), we cycled to Guam a', took a boat eight km to a hotel on the lagoon there, where we slept in a cabin on stilts and woke to find Common and Purple Gallinules and Jacanas (all exotic, long-legged birds) strolling about on the grass.  It was afternoon before we rode on to the hotel at Playa Larga to find a room and Osmani Gonzalez, a birding guide we had met three years ago.  The next day, the four of us spent 7 12 hours cycling 51 km.  to Salinas and back and were awed by what we saw.  The first find was a Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world.  Then, it was a tiny, plump Cuban Tody, painted in bright red, white, green, blue and yellow.  Then a Cuban Trogon, proud in its Cuban flag colours of red, white and blue.  After that, they came so fast we could barely take them in: Anhingas, Reddish Egrets, White Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills, hundreds of deeply-coloured Roseate Flamingoes, Wood Storks, Tricoloured and Little Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and Green Herons, to name a few.

We hadn't had enough.  Next morning, we were up at five and soon on the road again, this time in a 1954 Ford.  It was a long, rough ride to Santo Tom a's, where we picked up a second guide, known as "El Chino", who studies the endemic birds of the Zapata Swamp.  After a fifteen-minute walk, the five of us climbed into a ramshackle fibreglass boat and poled our way through a canal dug by hand by Galician Spaniards in the18th or19th century (no one seemed sure how long ago it had been).  More incredible birds to marvel at: thousands of White-crowned pigeons, Snowy Egrets, another Bee Hummingbird, a Limpkin, a Least Bittern, an almost-unhoped-for Zapata Wren, unique to Zapata and so close we could have touched it.  A surprisingly fruitless search for the Zapata Sparrow, then back on dry land for more riches: a Cuban Bullfinch, a Bare-legged Owl and, to everyone's amazement, a Key West Quail Dove, not seen for several years in that area even by El Chino and now rare throughout its range.

It was time for a change of pace and Tim and I were craving a rest after almost two hectic weeks.  We should have begun the 145-km. ride back to the airport at Varadero, but there was one more thing we wanted to do.  From a brief visit three years ago, I remembered a deep pool (70 meters) about 200 meters from the shore, surrounded by tropical trees and vines and teeming with brilliantly-coloured tropical fish.  We went back there to snorkel and swim, with an Italian couple we had just met, who were on a five-week independent bike tour of Cuba.  Idyllic just doesn't describe it and we finally pulled ourselves out to begin the first stage of the ride back, having added 34 km. to the distance we would be riding that day.

That evening, we found a couple willing to rent us their bedroom for the night.  They asked for U.S. $15; the usual rate is $15-20 per couple, per night.  Like all the Cubans we had met, they were warm and generous and looked after us with great care.  They cooked a very good and filling dinner for us, for $7 each.  As I mentioned earlier, this has to be done discreetly; without a special license, this is not a legal activity and our hosts were taking a chance.

One more alternative to the mediocre meals in hotels is available in "paladares", which are in private homes throughout Cuba.  These serve good, solid Cuban fare very cheaply, half or less what is usually charged in official restaurants.  Most of these are also illegal, but the police generally turn a blind eye unless one becomes too successful.  They usually offer pork, chicken and sometimes lobster, though the latter is endangered in Cuba and should not be eaten at a paladar.  It is illegal even to catch a lobster without special authorization.

We accomplished the 113 km. ride the next day in a headwind and light rain and finally arrived with great sadness at the airport for our return home, with plans to return next year.


Susan Wallis
43 Forward Ave.
London, Ontario
Canada N6H 1B5

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