The Country and the People

CornDryingOnRoad (32K) Autopista (22K)
Corn drying on the road Dodging traffic on the autopista
The book suggested cycling around 70 Kms a day, but we found an average of 50 fine. However, I took 2 wrong turnings going to Surgidero on our first trip, and we ended up doing 100 Kms! The roads varied from potholed tracks to autopistas. Cycling on a Cuban autopista is weird. They are proper motorways, with flyovers and such, and quite decent road surfaces. But there is hardly any traffic, and half of that is other bicycles, horses, bullocks, pedestrians, hitch-hikers, and traffic going the wrong way. We'd stop at road-side stalls for fresh pineapple juice, ice-creams, coffee, tomatoes and ham-rolls. Once, a couple of farmworkers said we needed a drink and climbed a tree to steal some grapefruit for us. The roads ran through citrus groves, sugar cane fields, forests, past smallholdings and through numerous small villages. Out West, we were always either in the hills or had them looming above to one side.

CasaInPinar (31K) CasaInVinales (30K)
Colonial house in Pinar Simple outhouse in Vinales
We stayed in casas particulares. These are private houses with a licence to do B&B for foreigners. They were much better value than hotels - typically $45 to $50 for dinner, bed and breakfast for the 2 of us. They were all run by interesting people, several of whom we now think of as friends we'll keep in touch with. The owners varied from a retired military man, who'd been on the team setting up the missiles in the '60s, to teachers, farmers, an eye doctor, a retired hair-dresser who'd restored a wreck into a beautiful colonial house, a night watchman and a butcher. Harldly any spoke any English, so we had a free Spanish conversation lesson most evenings.

We had a few conversations that went beyond safe, conventional topics, We found the older people, who no doubt remembered Cuba pre-Castro, immensely proud of their country. Admitting the obvious economic problems, caused or at least massively excerbated by the US blockade, they can boast a country that is safe, has universal free education up to university level, universal health care, no one sleeping on the streets, almost no beggars, and that provides health care for people from all latin America as well as sending medical teams all over the world. But the younger ones were more inclined just to lament their poverty, or more exactly that of their neighbours who didn't have casas particulares to generate dollars. But, it struck us, this was a relative poverty - no money for a car or luxuries. Everyone we saw looked in good physical shape, with adequate, if often tatty, clothes. We thought the people with the best life-styles were the small-holders - delicious home-produced fresh food, and some dollars from their casas. And, typically, they had a community of extended family in a cluster of houses on the farm.