I arrived in Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba FROM Cancun, Mexico on a Russian built Antonov 158 at app. 5:45 p.m. local time. This was the culmination of a torturous route that had me on a red-eye out of LA, through two airports in Mexico, and spending about 18 hours traveling in what should have been a 5-hour jaunt. Granted, I didn’t do my homework as well as I could have, and I could have likely strung together some different options, but here I was.
The scenery began to change as we got off the main highway and closer to our destination. The roads here became bumpier and filled with potholes that the driver had to dodge. The streets were narrow and surrounded by buildings, that in the fading light of the day, appeared to be worn and decayed. Pedestrians wandered about in the middle of the road or huddled in small groups. It looked like a scene straight out of a movie of a war-torn ghetto, and a good place to get mugged or solicited. In short order I would learn that I was incorrect about the former, but correct about the later.
We arrived at the Lido Hotel and, judging by the exterior, I wondered what my room would be like. I had told the tour company when my first hotel reservation fell through that I wasn’t picky and to just find me a place for the night. I guess they took my suggestion at face value.
The room was small, dim, and hot. The bellhop set my bags down and turned on the small AC unit, which sounded as if it was going to have to work overtime just to get the room to a comfortable temp. Oh well, I had just spent a day and a half in airports and cramped planes. As long as the shower worked and the sheets were reasonably clean, I would be a happy camper.
After cleaning up, I decided to brave the local culture and stepped outside the hotel and onto the street, staying close to the entrance and with my back against the wall. A couple of hookers came by trying to offer their wares, but other than that, no one caused me any concern. I decided to venture out.
Now that I was on foot, I was able to get a better look at my surroundings. The buildings were indeed distressed and in sad shape, but the loiters and pedestrians seemed very unthreatening. I felt better already.
I made my way down the street toward the mercado where all of the action seemed to be taking place. Several young people were hanging out in small groups and talking, and street vendors were selling an assortment of local fruits: coconuts, papaya and small Cuban bananas, known as “Monkey Fingers.” In the background, Spanish or Cuban music spilled out from the surrounding buildings and onto the streets below. It reminded me of a local street scene and I imagined that it happened on an almost nightly basis.
After strolling around for a while and being careful not to loose my bearings, I returned to my hotel and went up to the dining room. It was almost 8 o’clock and I had a dinner of bread, chicken, and black beans and rice. I washed it all down with a Buccaneer Beer, one of the popular brews.
After dinner I strolled down to the hotel lobby and bar and had a Mojito. I had been making the legendary cocktails at home prior to my arrival, and I was anxious to see how the locals made them and how they tasted. A couple of people were in here including an Aussie tourist showing the locals a map of his country, and another guy who was romancing a hooker.
The finished product was a slight variation on my gringo versions and tasted delicious, an experience made more savory now that I was in a country that for most of my lifetime had been forbidden fruit.
WOW CUBA TOURS AND MY FELLOW RIDERS
I slept well despite the revere outside my window during the night and woke up the old fashion way – to the sound of a rooster crowing. But not just one rooster, a whole slew of roosters who sounded, by their echoes - as if they were homesteading the hallways and apartments of the inhabitants of the neighborhood.
I peered out through the sliding glass door to the balcony by my bed and was taken in by the beauty of the sunrise, as well as the terrible condition of the buildings in the neighborhood. Darkness hides a lot of secrets, and seeing the decayed and neglected buildings in the raw sunlight, was akin to waking up next to a stripper in the morning.
But rather than spend my time slinging words that could not do justice to what I was observing, I decided to get up and take a video of the scene which you can see here
Still wanting to get up close and personal with the neighborhood, I dressed and headed out to the street. 90% of the foot traffic from the night before had dissipated and instead of the loiterers and prostitutes, I saw ordinary people who appeared to be either heading to their jobs or, since it was Sunday, to church. I took a leisurely stroll around the blocks.
The urban blight was quite incredible and some of the worst I have seen in my journeys throughout the third world. In some cases, it looked as if the country had been at war and this was the steep price they had paid. In some ways they had been; it was a war of wills that, depending on whom you talked to, they had either won or lost.
But the thing I noticed most was the kindness of the Cuban people and their willingness to help out. When I couldn’t find a bottle of water to purchase, a man left his business and walked me down the street to help me locate it.
It would be a lie to say that the Cubans were all smiles and gay dispositions, but their resilience in the face of a lifetime of suffering was something no one could take away from them. They were proud of what they had, even if it wasn’t much.
After my walk, I headed back to the hotel for the complimentary breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and of course, the local fruits.
Unlike the modern cab that picked me up at the airport, this was one of the numerous private cabs that the resourceful Cubans had created out of their own vehicles to supplement their income. When your livelihood depended on it, you figured out unique ways to pick up a peso here or there. Americans may think that the Uber concept is freshly minted, but the inhabitants of the largest Caribbean nation were way ahead of the curve on that one.
But to say that this was the cabdriver’s own personal car was a bit of a misnomer as I was to learn that many of the cars were owned by the state and that the drivers leased them back.
The smell of gasoline from a rich running carburetor was overpowering inside the car. And after seeing how the driver drove this beast through traffic and realizing that with no seat belt to fasten and that I would launch myself through the windshield in the event of a head-on collision, the luster of the ride wore off quickly. But it was unique to say the least. I was in a vintage American classic and surrounded on the road by others of the same pedigree. In a lot of ways, It was like being in my own personal American Graffiti movie. And there’s plenty of room, so hop on in and enjoy the ride here.
We finally made it to the rendezvous spot although not without the driver having to stop to ask people for directions at least three times, including once to a neighborhood policeman, known in the local lingo as a chivato, or snitch.
Even though I was an hour early, I had a short wait as pretty soon Dan and Nelson from WOW CUBA TOURS showed up and starting prepping bikes for our tour. Dan was the representative of the WOW Company and was the son of the founders. Nelson was a native Cuban who was transitioning from his state job as a teacher into the tour guide business – because it paid more. This was to be the case with a lot if Cubans as you found many members of the service industry; tour guides, hotel workers, etc who were state trained as Doctors, or engineers and teachers.
Our partially assembled bikes were all stored in a large trailer with tools and spare parts. My bike was the first one assembled, and my clipless pedals, which I had brought with me from home, were installed.
Deemed ready for a test drive, Nelson rode with me through the surrounding neighborhood, which was quite nice compared to what I had seen around my hotel earlier. Nelson explained that the reason the houses were so nice was due to the fact that they were owned by high-ranking government officials. In a system where everyone is supposed to be the same, there are still haves and have-nots..
With everyone’s bike fitted properly to them and outfitted, it was time to hit the road and transit across the island 200 miles to our first destination and launch point, Sancti Spiritus. A large bus pulled up, the bike trailer was hitched, and we were on our way.
The bus was a very nice Chinese model that was very popular in Cuba for tour groups. Our expert driver, Javier, had in his previous life, been a driver for the diplomatic arm of the government and had chauffeured many high ranking officials in various nations. One had to wonder the conversations he had heard and the things that he knew.
Enemy aircraft not withstanding, the highway was mostly devoid of vehicles of any type. The ratio of car ownership in Cuba is about 33 out of every 1000 people and it was easy enough to witness it firsthand on this road.
About halfway to our destination, we stopped at a rest stop and had Cuban sandwiches and, if you were so inclined, freshly made Pina Colada’s. Ahhh…mother’s milk.
Inside the hotel was just as pleasant and we were checked in and allowed a few hours before our first group dinner at the Meson de la Plaza. Tomorrow would be another day, and our first excursion on our bikes. Tune in tomorrow to ride along with us!!