..: Seat of My Pants :..

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Eastern Cuba - 1995

Should it be a box or a bag? A box would be cumbersome, but be more protective against bangs and knocks. A bag would be easier and we could keep them and use them on the trip home, but be less protective. In the end we opted for bags. Bicycle bags from Royal Airlines came in about 15 mil thickness and seemed very tough indeed.

Gary and I decided to bicycle into the Sheraton in Toronto that morning where we would meet and take the bus out to the airport. We threw our bikes in the bus’ under-compartment and swung aboard. We had decided also to take only carry on luggage to Cuba. It had been a toss-up between panniers (two each, maybe three with one in front) and small backpacks. The latter won the toss-up and we sauntered onto the plane in our cycling shorts, t-shirts and two very full and round packs. How very odd to sit there among the holiday-makers in Hawaiian shirts and hear talk of swim-up bars when we knew we’d be sleeping on the beach and trying to find local food throughout the week ahead.

The airport in Holguin (whole-geen) was small and provincial, with the inside resembling a stable more than an international destination, but the openness was directly to our liking and advantage. We unloaded our bikes from the trolley as it trundled up on the tarmac side of the terminal and proceeded to customs. Without much more than a pursing of eyebrows, we were let through, much faster than the Hawaiian shirts to our delight. Stopping outside to put our pedals back on and right the handlebars, we set off in short order out to the road on into town. I immediately got a flat. We had each brought a spare tire (one), and I changed mine as the Hawaiian shirts passed us by in twos and fours in their taxis, gaping out the window at us as they passed. I had decided to use my spare right then and patch the first later on.

Probably the first thing we both noticed was that it was a bit more difficult riding with the rounded packs on our backs that anticipated. They tended to roll around from side to side, pivoting over the backbone in a most annoying way. But I thought I’d better get used to it and tried to get comfortable nonetheless. The heavier weight on the shoulders meant more weight on the palms as well. We had to watch it as this tended to make our hands go numb after riding for a while. We spent the first night in a place called El Bosque (el-Boss-kay - the Forest), on the edge of town and quite enjoyed the pool and warmth of the day. We tootled around on our bikes and marveled at the quantity of Communist propaganda that was just there, out in the open. Billboard for Che Guevara:
Modelo de hombre communista / Modelo de hombre revolucionario / Simbolo permanente e invincible (Model of a communist man / model of a revolutionary / A permanent and invincible Symbol). Sign above a department store:
Socialismo o Muerte (Socialism or Death). I liked the last one’s sentiment – especially that it was above a department store, except for the Death part. Sheesh, that seemed a little extreme. I had thought Cubans were more laid back than that. We came across a catholic church under reconstruction, and walked into the shell interior. The floor was earthen and muddy in places. There were some pews over and to the right and we made out way there. I spied a lovely life-sized statue of an angel praying off in a corner with a single shaft of light coming down and striking her in the otherwise dimly lit building. I was thunderstruck and hastily took a photograph. There were some stairs behind a wall nearby and we wound our way up their circular path, pausing at one point to peer out a vertical window at the church’s bells above the nave, towering over the town. The stairs opened up into a small room at the top of the tower and we came across religious artifacts jumbled together haphazardly as they awaited restoration to various parts of the church. There was a great wheel from a bell structure, two angels in pretty rough shape, some wooden poles (what could they be use for?), and the like. I took some more photographs.

I had brought ten rolls of B&W infrared film with me, in addition to some Tri-X. BW infrared film is a very interesting emulsion. It’s been around a long time. Edward Steichen used it while in the Navy in WWII to photograph ships. It has the curious property for a BW film of being only sensitive to the far-red spectrum of light. That is, it could only ‘see’ object illuminated (from within or without) at around 900 nm on the spectral scale. To accentuate this property, BW IR film is mainly used with a dark-red filter (Kodak 25A) over the lens. A coloured filter for BW film? Sure, because the red filter absorbs all other colours striking it (blue, green, whatever) and only passes red light. This renders anything emitting or reflecting IR light as almost over-exposed on the film and anything at the blue, or opposite, end of the spectrum as underexposed. The result? Blues go almost black (a deep blue sky for example), and greens become very dark as well, but clouds against a blue sky show brilliantly. Trees (and foliage in general) glow white with the IR they re-emit and reflect from the sun. It is a ghostly result, and startlingly beautiful. It even has some nice applications with non-IR subjects, such as great doors and angels in a certain Cuban church.

As Gary and I rode around Holguin, we were joined by a young fellow, a kid really, on his ten-speed. He rode a clunky sky-blue affair with a fender over the chainstays and a badly rusted gooseneck. There was Cyrillic writing on the fender – a Russian ten-speed, who’d have thought? The kid was 16 and said he was on the Cuban national youth cycling team. We had no reason to doubt him and he seemed quite nice and even amiable. He was very proud of his lycra shorts and carefully pointed out that they said ‘Gar-ee Feesha’ on them. He took us up to a mirador (look-out) so we could see the lay of the wide and shallow valley the town was in and then on down to an abandoned fun park. I was amazed by this park with weeds growing up between train rails, rust stains running down the sides of astral skycars leaning at angles above us, and melancholy swing-set seats sagging to the ground with infinite longing. I shot a lot of IR.

We went back to his grandmother’s house in town while he ran through the place shouting ABUELA! ABUELA! like she was utterly deaf. The old woman rolled out of one of the rooms and we sat in the back courtyard under some trees and had tea. I’m not sure about Gary, but I was starting to feel not a little conspicuous in my own lycra shorts and wished I had regular shorts instead, feeling a bit like a fat man in a speedo. The lad insisted we meet his fiancé and we rode off to meet her – I can’t now remember where that was. At a market was it? At any rate, she was very gentle and even genteel. She sat demurely on the back of the lad’s bike, side-saddle, and repeatedly admonished Gary and I to be ‘cuidado!’ or careful as we rode beside them on the way to their apartment. Their place was lightly decorated and had the obligatory portrait of Castro, but also one of Antonio Maceo (mah-say-o), the original liberator of Cuba from the Spaniards. The girl, 16 also, fussed in the kitchen and brought out some juices for us while we talked shop in the living room; about bicycles and specifically what bits off ours the lad might have. A bit taken aback, we said we needed all parts as we had the better part of a week ahead of us and further that the Cuban authorities at entry had taken quick inventory of our gear and would check to see if we were leaving any behind (true), and would tax us heavily if not (unknown, actually). He seemed very disappointed and we promised to send stuff to him from Canada on return, but he blew this off as wholly unlikely. Not, we thought, because we wouldn’t follow through but because it would all be stolen enroute to his address. He was very probably right. In the end, we did locate a shipper to Cuba and sent him a helmet, bell, pump and so on, on the chance they would get through anyway.

We slunk back to the hotel (there’d been a lot of riding that first full day), and crashed into bed in order to get up early to ride on to the coast and Guardalavaca.

It was our third night in Cuba that we slept under the stars, eventually wrapped in our bikes’ plastic bags because we had underestimated the warmth of Cuban nights in March. It was bloody cold and I don’t think either of us would have slept much anyway even if two drunks hadn’t come along and started scaring us out of our wits by asking how expensive all our gear was. We stood up in the cold and dark and tried to appear larger than we really were. They offered us rum, which we politely declined, and we started putting our stuff together all the while keeping an eye on them. They were silhouetted against the early morning sky and I knew I couldn’t have picked them out in a lineup if it had included giraffes. They appeared to give up after a time and sauntered off. Well, we thought, that wasn’t half as much fun as we had expected and a damn sight colder too. So being the wimps we confessed to being, we set out to find a hotel.

But there was a problem. We had chosen the lower, eastern end of Cuba solely because The Last Minute Club had had cheapo fares to Holguin. In fact, we might very well have gone to Mexico if The Last Minute Club had led our wallets in that direction. But we ended up in eastern Cuba and while sure, it would have been nice to see Havana, we then would have had to consort with lots of other plebes and a ton more Hawaiian shirts to boot. We consoled ourselves with this, as we progressed along the beach to the only resort in the area. It was closed to outsiders of course, and this included us. The difference in price between air only to Cuba and all-inclusive became brilliantly clear at this point and we looked at each other and went for a ride to think about what we would do.

Suddenly, not 100 metres from the resort, we came across four small cabanas. Woohoo! They were US$50 per night and while we had very limited cash, felt we really needed to bunk there for the remainder of our stay. We swung a deal with a maitre d’ at the resort for food and gave them US$20/day. This pretty much ate up our liquidity, so to speak, and the remaining days of the week slid into one another as we tootled around on country roads, examined the beach and picked up cassettes of local Cuban musicians.

The last event that Cuba had in store for us was an exit tax at the airport. Ulp. We had spent all our money, all of it, on food and accommodation. We needed $25 each to get on board the flight home! While we fretted and sweated about what to do and passengers shuffled past us in the line and got on the plane, an angel descended in the form of a young man who very graciously gave us the money. We discovered a few minutes later that we were seated beside him and we exchanged addresses with him promising to pay him back on return. I sincerely doubt he ever expected to see us again, but a few days later I showed up at Bell, where he worked, and handed over the cash (with a bottle of wine in addition as heartfelt thanks).


Post a Comment

<< Home