‘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 garbagemen. 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 junk into energy the way I turn junk-food into energy 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.
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 turn to look at the lady whose 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. Ceci 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 (Breadwith) can do for you. However, by this point in the trip, 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 we’re all sophisticated savages here, we don’t get distracted by the frills.
Second, you mouth the words Pancon Queso (Breadwith Cheese).
Third, if the first Pancon proves worthy, you flick three fingers in a sideways arc like a nonchalant gambler at an auction. Now 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 an empty stomach to no end. You’ll have to take my word for it.
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. It’s sooo good and we drink so much of it, that the first few 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 in Aladdin. Of course and despite it all, we never once passed on a free coffee.
By this point 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 whether we pass out or not, we’re not leaving a single drop or crumb unaccounted for.
After second-breakfast, we saddle our cycle-abodes once more and return to our audiobooks and our ongoing avoid-the-horse-poop challenge. We’re both losing by the way. By the time the day’s over, a skin analysis would reveal a 80% salt composition with 12% horse-digested grass, and 7% solidified petroleum particles.
Cuba’s revolution, for all its controversy, has proven a pioneering experiment in slowing time, almost to a halt. Like the cross-section of an ancient tree, the layers of its history are laid bare for all to see, coexisting in an uncanny balance. Teams of oxen plow the earth, horse-drawn carts click on the cobblestones, bicycles from the First World War rattle rustily by, cars from the 50’s prowl the streets like phantoms of a forsaken era… Cuba’s revolution was a choice to take back agency, to thrive or wither on its own terms, and for all blind ideological optimism of such a choice, there is a tremendous nobility to it, unique to the human experiment.
Alas, late as they arrived to humanity’s ill-fated dance with socialism/communism, they inherited the brunt of the retaliation effort and more notably the USA’s red-scare tactics. Add a pinch of wounded American pride at having been forcefully ousted from what was at the time ‘America’s Playground’, a table-spoon of unfortunate geographic proximity, and a bucket of international political sway, and the result is Cuba’s oddly homogeneous mixture of succumbing and triumphing under oppression.
Cuba lives all of its history at once, so when we made the choice to join the fray of this most eclectic ecosystem, we unexpectedly found ourselves wrestling with history itself. When an impeccably maintained mid-50’s engine muscles past us, its heavy steel frame bouncing awkwardly on the destroyed pavement, its shoddy suspension creaking painfully under the abuse, its exhaust exuding a thick cloud of black petrol; forcing us to ride the slim pock-marked border of the road, where the horse-drawn carts ride; the odds become stacked against us and we inevitably get splattered with horse-droppings, flung onto us by our own two wheels. It’s only digested grass, it’s only history.
And if it can be said that Cuban use yelling as their main method of communication, much, much more can be said about their klaxon game. Ask Ceci who, on one memorable occasion bunny-hopped a full foot (no small feat with a loaded bike) when a matte black ’55 Chevrolet BelAir sped past us honking its classic panther-growl horn, cranked up to sonic blast levels. Ask her how, as we were left shell-shocked in its wake, coughing the tar out of our lungs, a few men clearing the grass along the highway, ten blades of grass at a time with machetes, laughed at us and waved. Ask her how it was 34°c out, how our last sip of water had been 30km back. Ask her how we waved back and pushed on against the prevailing winds. Ceci is also a fan of history.
A garbage trolley on metal wheels hits the cobblestones on the off-beats, against the steady-hoofed 2:4 time of a horse-taxi. A tractor-motor drives its wild Afro-Cuban counter-rhythms into the fray slowing traffic, orchestrating a bellow of feverish horns, while voices, scuffed by a lifetime of yelling, pierce their nasal melody and laughter through the fray, 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 slim 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.
¿Qué? Y el potaje, la pasta, los frijoles, la pizza…
Chicken or pork, he repeats.
Chicken it is. We’ve grown distrustful of the promise of menus in Cuba which have become a satirical almanac of scarcity. In much the same way, we’ve grown distrustful of the menu’s promise of meat. In Cuba, meat isn’t fried, as the menu suggests, but rather boiled in murky frying oil. As the plates arrive, 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, our devils warded off for the time being.
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. I’m still shaking my head, because a few moments ago, a blind man walked two bustling city blocks to ask me to help him cross the street.
Hmm claro, I said unconvinced, suuure.
As we reached the other side, he held onto my arm, looked me in the eye, and asked 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 were just taught. 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 – Me, and proceeds to tell you who the person in front of them is. Then, when someone after you calls: Ultimo? – Who’s Last?, you do the same.
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 by the people before and after them—just straight up leave to do other stuff. Now the doors open. Suddenly we’re not in Kansas any more. 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-sundays-per-person limit! God, I love this place.
After hours, Cuba breathes a deep 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 distant relatives caught in a salsa embrace with their iron front gate. Raucous erupts from a clan of whistling youngsters, leaning on cars as old as combustion itself. The heart of every home comes to life, shining dimly like ancient televisions in contrast with the charcoal darkness of the unlit streets; and broadcast to passers-by through a theatre of open doors: a family scene, an intimate dance of young and elderly, a mother, her 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 colour; every one a page in Cuba’s book through which one can read its turbulent history like some anthropological dendrochronology.
The flow of the night leads one way, past the blaring boombox of a dance troupe rehearsing in perfect synchronicity, in front of the mirror of 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. Long may they remain the 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, while we finally find our beds after another long day on earth. We breathe a deep sigh. Cuba is at its best after hours.
Shhh! Sube el volumen Papi. – Shhh! Raise the volume 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 arrive and leave 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 hold us in a perpetual state of hysterical laughter, we were given a tenderly authentic plunge into a papier-mâché of Pre-Revolution Era glamour, intermixed with Revolution Era struggle and Special Period dire straits, and through it all, a marriage story. Outrageous tales become to muddled 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 how when it arrived they turned off the lights making a huge ceremony of it. The expectation, you see, had made him lean in exactly when, to his surprise, they lit the cake 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. The grand-mother proudly fishes a folded plastic bag, or Jabita, from her purse to prove it to us.
Para las sobras, she says with a smile. To bring home the left-overs.
Yet, not even the grand-parents inestimable stories, can be spared the time of day against the precedence of a Brazilian Telenovela or 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, while the Police Officer has to identify him before every one is dead. But in their indomitable goofiness, the two grand-parents never really grasp the rules of the game, and instead 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 the relationship between aerodynamics & bike-packing. Sanguiched between the towering coastal mountains and a sweeping ocean view, what’s left of the road snails its way as far as the eye can see. Over the years, the sea waves have reached and claimed much of the walls erected to protect the road, and are now greedily chomping at 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 yonder, you know you’re in for it!
In some places, there exists literally no land between the mountains & the sea. And that is precisely where we find ourselves 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 ½ 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 1½-meter high dyke into 5m deep of swamp water, clipped into her weighed down bike; that time I collided into a bici-taxi that cut me off while I was checking 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 legitimate shopping strategy. 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, 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, so they import powdered. In Cuba, Spanish is spoken as though with a wet cigar perpetually in your mouth, making articulation or the pronunciation of consonants such as ‘s’ and ‘n’, virtually impossible.
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. From beginning to end, Cuba sneaks the carpet. 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!