Cinco pizzas por favor.
I’m not sharing. Ceci can get her own. When I was a kid, or so my grandfather always reminds us, my brother & I would chuck full garbage bags against the garage door of his cottage and say that our utmost ambition in life was to become garbage men. And to this day I’m strongly considering a career in waste management. It is my belief that if the human race could figure out how to turn garbage into energy the way that I do on these cycle-touring trips, there wouldn’t be a single dump left on earth!
I wash down my five pizzas with six beer bottles of coconut water and a glass of sugarcane juice, chucking three butter cookies in my mouth for good measure. Then I look up. Everyone is looking at me.
What? On an easy day, we burn about 5½ thousand calories. I look at Ceci who is laughing in disbelief. She burns about the same, give or take a few calories burned by my sheer good looks, but somehow she eats about half what I eat. I squint at her. Is she making fun of me?, I wonder highly suspicious. I turn to look at the woman who’s stall we’re systematically eating out of business for the day. Then I look back at Ceci. Or is she thinking what I’m thinking? I raise two fingers in the international signal for peace. She nods.
Dos Pancon Queso por favor.
Ah the Pancon! Cuba’s most under-celebrated national dish. I must admit it took us a while to truly appreciate what a good Pancon can do for you. But by now we’ve found ourselves starved and delirious in the middle of nowhere enough times to recognize a Pancon menu 10 miles away. This is how the game is played. First, your eyes undress the menu from top to bottom. Refresco, Café, Pancon Queso, Pancon Jamon, Pancon Perro, Flan, but you’re a sophisticated savage, you don’t get distracted by the frills, you mouth the words Pancon Queso, and then, if the first one’s good, you flick three fingers in a sideways arc like a nonchalant gambler at an auction and you’ve got yourself a meal. And although it’s best consumed warmed in a panini-press, there are many other ways to enjoy your Pancon. My personal favourite? Pressed, but not warm in an unplugged panini-press. The fresh salty squeaky cheese and the elasticity of the bread can satisfy to no end.
It’s usually 8am when we stop for our first Pancon for second-breakfast. First-breakfast is Cuba’s most reliable meal, served straight in your Casa Particular. It always includes fresh muscular coffee, diced fruit, eggs and bread, and it’s ready at the hour you want and always costs the exact same. The coffee is the coup de grâce. We drink so much of it that the first hours on the bike feel like a hypotension bad-trip where you find yourself riding in ultra slow-motion while the world drifts by in hyper-speed. By the time we reach the point of almost passing out, that’s when the Pancon menus start talking to us like Robin Williams reprising his role as Genie. Of course, we never once learned our lesson. Besides we’ve paid for the breakfast, we’re running out of money by the kilometre, in fact, the bikes we’re riding are pretty much the only thing we own at the moment, so no, we’re not leaving until every drop and crumb is thoroughly accounted for.
Then we saddle our cycle-abodes and return to our audio-books and our ongoing avoid-the-horse-droppings challenge. We’re both losing by the way. By the time the day’s over a skin analysis would reveal a 90% salt composition with 7% horse-digested grass and 3% solidified petroleum particles. But I’d gladly cycle straight into every green road apple I can find before taking another breath of the thick black petrol that comes out of the impeccably maintained mid 50’s cars muscling past us, their heavy steel frame bouncing awkwardly on the destroyed pavement, their shoddy suspension creaking painfully under the abuse. And if it can be said that Cuban’s use yelling as a main communication method, much much more can be said about their claxon game, which can often leave you wondering if your ears are bleeding. On one special occasion, Ceci bunny-hopped a full foot (no small feat with a weighed down bike) when a matte black ’55 Chevrolet BelAir sped past us honking its classic panther-growl horn cranked up to sonic blast levels, leaving us shell-shocked and coughing the tar out of our lungs. A few men clearing the grass along the highway, ten blades at a time with machetes, laugh at us and wave. It’s 34°c out, our last sip of water was 30km back, we wave back and push on against the prevailing winds.
A garbage trolley on metal wheels hits the cobblestones on the off-beats against the steady hooved 2:4 time of a horse-taxi. A tractor-motor drives its wild Afro-Cuban counter-rhythms into the fray slowing traffic into a bellow of feverish horns while voices, scuffed by a lifetime of yelling, pierce their nasal melody and laughter through to complete the national castrophany in its saturation of the ear. This is the music of Cuba.
We emerge into the streets after a quick shower and a change of clothes. Our minds are focused on a failing inward mastery of wabi-sabi. Outwardly we’re probably arguing right about now. The road has seared us into foaming, ravenous wild foxes backed into each its corner, baring teeth, our cunning turned sour, our focus narrowed to our own discomfort which is substantial. We’re so far into the experience that we can’t also be out. It has become virtually impossible to step out of ourselves to see the little demons yelling into our ears, tugging at our moods and filling our heads with negative thoughts. We walk at a military pace towards food. Any food. Acrobatically dodging the dozens of myfriends and whereyoufroms shouted at us from every street corner. The pizza restaurant is out of tomato sauce, the one store in town without empty shelves has a line of people stretching across the corner, our budget doesn’t allow the next three places… We’re delirious by the time we finally settle for a cheap eatery with a surprisingly varied menu.
Pollo o cerdo, the waiter says nonchalantly.
Que? Y el potaje, la pasta, los frijoles, la pizza…
Chicken or pork, he repeats. Chicken it is. We’ve grown distrustful of meat in Cuba which isn’t fried, as the menu suggests, but rather boiled in old oil. As the plate arrives, we unwrap our utensils and use the napkin to ungracefully sponge off as much oil as we can. A cyclist’s got to eat. Thankfully, a meal in Cuba is a meal. We load up on rice, yucca, fried plantain, fresh cabbage, sweet potato fries. A few swallows later, we step out into the 3pm sun, blinking like daytime movie-goers, drunk on food, wearing once again our better-selves. Now to find water!
An hour later, Ceci’s sitting before me, silently chewing on the salty little chunks of powdered milk in her coffee. A few moments ago, a blind man walked two bustling city blocks to ask me to help him cross the street. Hmm claro, I say unconvinced, suuure. As we reach the other side, he holds onto my arm, looks me in the eye and asks me for money. And so, still in awe, Ceci and I stare at each other silently, wondering about the dubious nature of the lesson we just learned. We can’t dwell on it too long, however, because across the street the ice cream place has just opened and people are losing their minds.
A line in Cuba is a sort of “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” phenomenon. First things first, when you want to go into a door, you always have to ask the people hanging loosely around the premises, “Ultimo“, “Who’s last”? Then someone answers “yo” and tells you who the person in front is. Then you do the same when someone else yells “Ultimo“. Great, we’re still in Kansas. The next step is a bit of a disappearing act wherein people, confident that their place is safely remembered, just straight up leave to do other stuff. Now the doors open, and suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore. People start rushing in from the woodwork and a furious game of who’s who starts. You’ll understand that if as little as 2 consecutive links of the chain don’t come back in time, the whole affair falls apart faster than you can call “Jenga”! All the more so when the line is for Coppelia, the national ice cream chain. Cuban’s go nuts when ice cream is involved. At any one time, a table of four can destroy 16 four-ball sundays and a full cake as a dessert. Sixteen! That’s… 16×4… a boat-load of ice cream! And that’s only because there’s a 4 sunday per person limit! God I love this place.
After hours, Cuba breathes a sigh. Another day on earth has been overcome, the daily dash to carpe diem fades into the satisfied complacency of tomorrow is another day. A distinct groove settles on the streets, and like a stranger at a wedding, you share an intimacy usually reserved for kin. Clad in light nightgowns, women waltz the streets, rollers in their hair, barking their best scandalousness to a distant relative caught in a salsa embrace with their iron front gate. Ruckus erupts from a clan of whistling youngsters leaning on cars as old as combustion itself. The hearth of every home comes to life, shining dimly like ancient televisions, contrasting with the charcoal darkness of the unlit streets, broadcasting to passers-by through a theatre of open doors, a family scene, an intimate dance of young and elderly, a mother flip-flop raised threateningly mid-air, diced onion on a kitchen counter. A door frame is a peeling cadre for the daily art of Cuban existence. A window sill, the faded yellowed corners of a photograph. Cuban streets unwind like reels of black & white footage brought to life in breath-taking colour. The chipped paint of the façades reveals layers upon layers of faded paint, every one a page in Cuba’s book, through which one can read its turbulent history like some anthropologic dendrochronology. The flow of the night leads one way, past the blaring boombox of a dance troupe rehearsing in perfect synchronicity in front of their reflection in a closed shop’s window, onwards to Parque Marti where, in its biggest city, in its tiniest village, the heart of Cuba beats its syncopated rhythm. Bunched in a bouquet around the glow of a communal electronic, families yell at Miami as though the distance to their relatives were physical rather than digital. Choir singing drifts on the wind while, children, bored by screens, run loose and wild, oblivious to the whereabouts of their parents, a pair of roller-skates split between four feet, a rolled-up sock thrown arm over shoulder and batted out of the park by the broken leg of a chair; unknowing heirs to Cuba’s most unbelievable culture of community and safety. And although it may also be true that Cubans themselves have many overlaid layers of paint to their character, one never has to scrape long to find the humanity and warmth dwelling there just beneath the surface. Children play on well into the night and we finally find our beds after another long day on earth. We breathe a sigh, Cuba is at its best after hours.
Shhh! Sube el volumen Papi.
This is the last supper. It’s new year’s eve and we’re eating dinner with our adoptive Casa Particular family in Cienfuegos. People arriving at all times, the food is overwhelming in quantity and the traditional roast pig is getting cold over the heated debate of whether to wait or start eating. Ceci & I are sitting across from the two grandparents who are an absolute olden times riot and are unknowingly offering us one of the most culturally rich moments of the trip. Between jokes and jabs at one another, which held us in perpetual stasis of laughter, we were given a tenderly authentic plunge into a papier-mâché of pre-revolution era glamour intermixed with revolution-time struggle and special period dire straits, and through it all, a marriage story. Outrageous tales begin to muddle by the sheer speed at which they’re being churned out between mouthfuls of food.
How once, on a romantic date before the revolution, the grandfather ordered an expensive cake in a restaurant and when it arrived they turned off the lights making a huge ceremony of it. He then leaned in exactly when, to his surprise, they lit it on fire, crème brûlée-style, burning his eyebrows clean off. How every respectable lady in Cuba after the revolution always carries a jabita with her at all times (she proudly materializes a folded plastic bag from her purse to show us), to bring home any left-overs from restaurants. Yet, not even this event can be spared the time of day against the precedence of a Brazilian Telenovela (Soap-Opera). As soon as 10pm hits, the 30cm³ picture box comes to life, the music is turned off, and the conversation quietens to a murmur.
I love the interrogation scenes, whispers the owner of the house, this man has managed to escape justice until now but I can’t see how he’ll escape this time. After all, he killed his wife, drugged her and on her birthday of all occasions.
No no no, interjects their daughter, he didn’t know she was allergic to shrimp, besides why would he kill her, her father is the one with the money and he could never get it without her.
Shhhh. Raise the volume, would you?
When the show is over, the table is cleared and we play a version of Ladron y Policia where the thief (who’s really an assassin) kills people with a wink and the police officer has to catch him. But in their indomitable goofiness, the two grand-parents never really get the rules of the game and focus on finding fresh new ways to sabotage the game every time we start anew. With the most difficult cycling day of the whole trip awaiting us at 6am the next morning, we finally say good-night at 11:30pm and head to bed, at once exhausted and energized, but above all grateful for our host’s unbelievable hospitality.
The absolute cycling highlight of the trip is indisputably the highway that stretches from Marea Del Portillo to Santiago de Cuba. Best travelled from East to west, unless, like us, you want to feel like professional amateur cyclist in a wind tunnel learning the rough way about aerodynamics & bike-packing. Sanguiched between the towering mountains on the left and a sweeping ocean view on our right, what’s left of the road snails it’s way as far as the eye can see. Over the years since the construction of this ambitious project, the sea waves have reached and claimed much of the walls erected to protect the road, and are now greedily working on the edges of the road itself. If the bad roads of Cuba are already outrageously bad, when they say “se pone guapo por allí“, “it gets pretty over there” you know to watch out! In some places, there is literally no land between the mountains & the sea. And that is precisely where we are in this moment. Waiting. Studying the sea. Seeing the roaring waves crash against a wall of sheer rock. Catching short glimpses of what remains of the road as the water recedes. Waiting. Waiting for the right moment to…
Ceci grabs her bike in both hands and runs, scampering like a crab on the loose wet rocks in her cycling cleats yelling a battle cry that is half courage and ¾ fear for her life. Five hundred meters down the disintegrated road, we reach a safe spot and look at each other winded, wild-eyed and laughing.
Did we just almost die?
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Not even on this trip alone! Let’s see here, that time Ceci almost slid from a meter-high dyke into 5m deep of swamp water, clipped to her weighed down bike; that time I collided into a bici-taxi that cut me off while I was checking out my gps going 30km\h; oh yeah and that time that horse with the beautiful face almost kicked Ceci’s spine out of place, but I digress…
In Cuba, people yell from midday to midnight. And then, from midnight to midday as well. In Cuba, everyone knows someone living in your country. In Cuba, lines are so long that window shopping is a legit way to shop. In Cuba, when your plane lands, you clap. In Cuba, even though you reserve a Casa Particular, you’ll find yourself staying at an aunt’s place down the street. In Cuba, everyone’s utmost passion in life is knowing your country of residence: wherefrom. In Cuba, exact change is a myth. In Cuba, if you sit on a park bench, it’s open season. In Cuba, meaningful conversations are not always free. In Cuba, shorts cannot be worn to extend a Visa, but mini-skirts are a dress so that’s fine. In Cuba, cows apparently don’t produce milk. In Cuba, Spanish is spoken as though with a wet cigar perpetually in your mouth making articulation & the pronunciation of consonants such as ‘s’ & ‘n’ virtually impossible; and a final dash of rum to slow diction yet somehow increase the speed of conversation.
Cuba sneaks the carpet from under your feet then replaces it with another. Sometimes it’s a better carpet, sometimes it’s much worse, sometimes you find yourself standing on the bare cobblestone being told that there is, in fact, a carpet under your feet, sometimes there are no carpets to be found in all of Cuba, but mostly you wobble a bit, shaken by the sudden change underfoot and readjust to whatever the reality has revealed itself to be. From the very first moment, when we couldn’t bring our bikes to our 3rd story hostel and had to leave them at the owner’s grandmother’s place down the street, squeezed between her fridge and her bed; until the very very last moment, when, after crossing Cuban customs, we get excited about buying some treats with the rest of our Cuban Convertible Pesos, and are told that they are not accepted this side of customs. Cuba sneaks the carpet. In some kind of vague act of protest, we donated all our useless money to the airport cleaning lady and hopped on the plane still shaking our heads.
From the first moment to the last, when you’re in Cuba, you’re in Cuba.
A huge heartfelt thanks to everyone who made this trip possible. This trip was our version of a Ceci & Etienne honeymoon and, as such, was financed by our family & friend’s wedding gifts. We hope you share our belief that it was money well spent! A special thanks as well to Specialized who supported our project from the moment we presented it to them.
If we survived our honeymoon, till-death-do-us-part should be a breeze!
Until next time!