SRThoughts about a ZYCLING trip on and off the saddle in Cuba and Costa Rica.
I’ve always fancied a visit to Cuba and experience life in a socialist country that has had such a complete revolution, not like some; what comes to mind is the one of 1776. According to Gore Vidal one of the triggers, the Boston Tea Party, the colonist were in fact tea smugglers dressed up as Indians protesting to a reduction in the tea tax that the British had been pressured to introduce, to placate a revolt.
The smugglers were worried that their activities would be threatened. It’s a nice story, but the one I liked better, was the support Jefferson took towards another hero-figure of mine, Tomas Paine, a true revolutionary and often an embarrassment to those in power.Jefferson opposed Madison who represented the growing power of the capitalist/industrialist/corporate lot against the small farmers. But he came to the rescue of Pain who was being a pain to some of the French revolutionaries who banged him up in prison. Poor Tom never made any money out of his activities but Thomas got him back home and had the Congress award him a modest farm and pension.What a pity that Castro was forced into the arms of the Soviets by a paranoid U S A. Maybe if he had been left alone, Cuba would have developed more along the lines of Small is Beautiful and the emerging Green movement, rather than been forced to go monoculture and accept the Russian sugar subsidy, that devastated its agriculture.
I came from parents who had left-wing leanings, my mum assisted Harry
Pollitt on one of his attempts to win a parliamentary seat as a Communist for Rhondda East, he came within a 1000 votes.
But both my parents were independent in their ideas being believers in Nature Cure and Vegetarianism. They also were entrepreneurial and bought a guest house after WW2 in Swanage an ideal seaside resort that attracted interesting people, many were Jewish as they could rely on the food being sort of kosha. Mum was a fabulous cook and she often boasted about the regular visits of the parents of Harold Pinter the play write.
My small private school, Monkton Wyld, had the Daily Worker up against the News Chronicle and the Times as daily reading material. The library also stocked the books of Upton Sinclair, who became my first big influence. I identified with his alter ego, Lanny Budd, the son of an arms dealer, he was sent to Europe from America and met all the famous left- wingers of the day ; G B S, H G Wells comes to mind. Sinclair also ran for Governor of California in the depression on a socialist ticket and did very well.
The school had free and democratic pretensions, though A S Neill of Sommerhill, when visiting to get ideas, remarked “that something about the place was fishy”. I suspect he may have been referring to the leader of the co-operative who ran the place, she could be a little dictatorial. We were allowed to cycle anywhere by ourselves on the weekends, just enter the destination in a book and the world was our oyster. Maybe that was what he smelt.
To return to Cuba, where my first experience was to attend a meeting of the Cuban Solidarity Group, where luminaries such as the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and the very eloquent Labour M P Jeramy Corbin regaled us with wonderful images of this proud and courageous island, taking on the might of the Capitalist U S A. Just before I left the wonderful adventure cyclist and travel writer, Devlar Murphy published her experiences there titled ” The Island that Dared
So armed with her book and a Brompton folding bike, I departed our cold blue damp island, it was November, for the warm, red, dry island in the Caribbean.
At the Havana airport I unfolded the bike, relishing the attention this often creates amongst the less spoilt and competitive people that you meet in ‘Third World ‘ countries. And I also notice how the cycle brings about a friendly atmosphere. So with the cheerful greetings of ” good luck’ and ‘ watch for potholes’ I ventured out and along the old quiet road into Havana passing the newly developed organic vegetable smallholdings now proliferating everywhere in Cuba because of the embargo on fertilizers and empty crumbling factories the result of the embargo on spare parts. Everything in Cuba seems to be crumbling or in need of some paint and the classic cars which are loverly kept going all contribute to the charm of the country.
As I Intended to leave the exploration of Havana till the end of my two month visit, I made for the cycle-bus that would take me out of town across a banned bridge, towards Hemingway country. For this I was helped and escorted by a fellow cyclist, who took me to the bus stand, showed me how to buy a ticket and got me on my way. Just to remind you I don’t speak any Spanish and have difficulty pronouncing any foreign words. By now the light was fading, so I found a quiet spot on the beach, put up the tent and slipped into a tentative, exciting sleep of the innocent traveler who hasnt the slightest idea of what was about to befall him.
In the morning I attempted to explore a fort guarding the little port town of Cojimar, the guard came rushing out, can’t say I looked like a counter revolutionary, and shooed me away. So I wandered around taking in Ernest Hemingway’s favourite harbour.
I slowly made my way down the coast sleeping on the beach, and making friends with the incredibly friendly locals. One couple of truck drivers taking a break and fiddling around with the engine insisted I joined them with their home made rum, music was pouring out of the radio and it felt as if we were having a party. This is very much the overall atmosphere in this fascinating land. Unfortunately the passing tourist air-conditioned coaches coming from the airport straight to the remote fabulous resorts along the coast, where ordinary cubans who didn’t work there were forbidden, wouldnt experience this.
Then I came across the Hershey electric train, a fabulous relic from the chocolate bar-on to take him around his now melted away estates. We rattled our way through cane fields, with me and my camera positioned behind the driver, until we had to abandon ship as a recent hurricane had washed away the track. These hurricanes cause tremendous damage to the economy, but they also galvanise the population, a bit like the London Blitz without the shrapnel.
So we were all unceremoniously left to make our way out of the fields, though in my case it was easy peasy with the Brompton
With dusk approaching I began to look out for a suitable campsite and entered what looked like a farm track and started to erect the tent. A strapping farm hand came by and I enquired if it would be ok. He gestured for me to follow him down the track until we came to some buildings. There we met up with some of his comrades who were preparing food. My new friend retired to a set of barbells which accounted for his muscular physique. That was something that I aspired to when I was doing National Service. I followed a postal course called Maxalding, a less commercial Charles Atlas figure who was less inspired by sand kickers, but more influenced by Indian yogis.I learnt how to isolate and strengthen my tummy muscles to create the infamous six pack, which has stood me in good stead all my life, as it prevents back strain and keeps the waist trim. And I guess you can always quench your thirst.
We ate this simple meal together and I was shown a corner of the shed to crash. I was woken up by a torch shunning in my face by a couple of policemen standing over me. They escorted me back to their jeep passing Mr. Adonis who looked rather shamefaced, one of his comrades must have turned me in. As we drove to a hotel several miles to the coast, the senior officer explained in his immaculate English that it wasn’t allowed to camp anywhere. I enjoyed a very pleasant night in this up-market tourist complex at a price that would have exhausted my funds in a couple of weeks.
Anyhow I carried on cycling around the island taking a wonderful swim in the sea, sharing with fish one would see in an aquarium. In the next town Cienfuegos, I stayed in a Particulares, these are private homes licensed by the state to put up tourist. You pay in tourist currency of around £20 per room, which is way beyond my budget, but it’s a wonderful way to experience the people and they are happy to cook a meal as with this lovely hard currency they can use in the shops for tourists and apparachics
I noticed a poster announcing that a nationally known band was performing at the government run night- club by the beach that evening, so off I cycled through this spectacular town to enjoy a bit of culture. Once inside, tourist pay a different rate to cubans around ten times in tourist currency, I got chatting to a couple of lovely teenagers who spoke excellent English. The band was delayed by a gig they were playing at a local college, so we were entertained with a Britany Spears video. I was shocked and remarked to the girls that Che Guevara would turn in his grave if he could see what was going on. His image is displayed on large hoardings all over the island, with wise exhortations on how to live life, a bit like those Jesus posters you see outside evangelical churches. They smiled knowingly an answered that ” they just wanted to be normal”. So much for the hard earned revolution which was just entering its 50th year. How long would they be waiting for mobile phones I wonder.
I made my way to Remedios where I was going to celebrate Las Parrandas around Christmas according to the Lonely Planet a Festival extravaganza. As I had a couple of days to spare I peddled on to Calbarien on the coast and it was there I made a big mistake and went against my inner guide see precept 5. Instead of looking for a inconspicuous place to put up the tent, I fell asleep in a public place a beach club. When I awoke one of my bags was missing, the one that had all my money, cards and passport.
I looked around in disbelief, when the truth finally hit me, I cycled to the police station and reported the calamity, which triggered off a bursar few days ” which will live in infamy ” to badly quote Pres. Roosevelt, who also said ” the only thing to fear is fear itself ” I think? Anyhow with this very ZYCLING thought, I was to need in spades for the next several days, I cycledback to the police station, where I was told not to worry, as they would send for the dogs and they would return my stuff. But first they would like to know how much money I was carrying, and like an innocent I told them that I had over a thousand US dollars in cash. So then I waited for several hours, the dogs came and went, till eventually I was questioned by a smart non uniformed chap and was escorted to the scene of the crime and we rather aimlessly looked around and returned to the nick. As it was nightfall I was taken to a rather nice Particulares fed and watered and had a good nights sleep, if a little uncertain of what was to be my fate. As I reflected on what had happened it was difficult not to be a bit suspicious of what the cops had been up to. One thought was that they had returned with the dogs challenged the guards that look after the club, and shared out the booty.
I suppose I ought to explain a little more about some of the interesting people that I had met earlier.
In one town an elderly man approached me and explained that he wanted me to know the truth about Cuba, whereupon we went into a pharmacy and he challenged the pharmacist to supply him with free drugs as the propaganda has it that there is a health service comparable to the NHS. Well it is amazing for the Americas, and I did meet a fellow cyclist from Canada who had taken a bad spill, was driven to hospital treated very well, released all for free. They also train excellent doctors, who then have to work in other parts of central and south America, and earn less than a manual worker, while the host country pays the Cuban government. They also still host children from Chernobyl. But as the economy is run on a shoestring people often have to pay for things and most is on ration. Mind you his son was languishing in prison for being a resister. I said that I belonged to Amnesty and would look into it when I returned.Then another chap invited me to join the family for a meal, and went on to explain his dissatisfaction with the regime. Apparently most authoritarian regimes have undercover people, so god knows who I was meeting. I also stopped by a Primary school and asked if I could look around, I was married to a primary school teacher, and caused mayhem once in her classroom. The head was so helpful and I got the feeling that the children all supported each other, after all the whole point of the revolution was to produce a better person.
Meanwhile back at the hacienda, in the morning I was picked up and driven to Havana along the central highway, this is a freeway built by the Russians, several lanes wide, but mostly used by donkey carts, the occasional cyclist, all sorts of passenger vehicles, sometime tractors with people carried in trailers. There is also lift places where a retired chap with an armband stops cars with spaces and fills them up from a queue, no thumb needed.
I was taken to the immigration detention centre, and given a cell all to myself.
Because it was Christmas time nobody from the Embassy was available to facilitate my release so I had to spend the next several days amusing myself and most of the other inmates.
They consisted of an American couple whose yaught had hit a reef. A Cuban doctor who had emigrated and retuned to visit reletives only to be told that the law had been changed and he was liable to pay back the cost of his education. Several assorted Nigerians who were being held for various scams that they are seemed to be known for worldwide. A Latvian who had run out of money and luck, and some others who kept quiet about their lives and went around looking hard done by.
The food was fine and I was told I would not be charged for the incaseration which was an encouraging start. We were allowed out into the exercise yard for a couple of hours were I conducted yoga and laughter classes much to the confusion of everyone.
After a couple of days a nice young man from the embassy turned up and I gave him the E mail of one of my sons. Now this offspring only checks his messages once in a blue moon, and has luck would have it that day it must have been a full one because before you could say Che Guevara he had sent enough money for the fare home and some to help some guards and inmates.
I was escorted to the airport by this guard who spoke perfect English, on enquiry he admitted to have been trained as a teacher but as the pay was so low and he wanted to get married, his fiancee was with us, he joined the police. Just before I was put on the aircraft he asked me if I would donate something towards his marriage. So I was pretty much fleeced all-round but with a sheepish grin I waved farewell to this intriguing place.No problem entering Blighty with my very temporary passport, it was only good for the journey, so they certainly didn’t want me around anymore. But what to do now ?, as I still had a return flight from Costa Rica floating around in the either. I popped down to visit my well traveled brother in Wales, who encouraged me to go back to Central America. Should I carry on from Mexico City? And work my way to Costa Rica by bus and cycle as originally planned or fly straight to San Jose. As I had lost a bit of confidence, I checked out the flights to SJ. And yes there was a cheap flight leaving in a couple of weeks. I checked again several days later and a seat was still available. So with renewed spirit I took the plunge and before you could say Jose Robertson I was winging my way back.
Costa Rica is referred to as the Switzerland of Central America and there were plenty of mountains to cross, but it also points to the economic prosperity of the place.I crossed over to the Pacific coast and worked my way down to Panama to stay with a WWOOF family. Following the directions that they had given me I left the road and went down a track getting a bit lost in what seemed deep jungle, with only the screams of the howler monkeys it was getting dark. I called out, and a real live Tarzan appeared with a rifle and asked me if I was Tony. So in no time I was feasting around the fire with Jane, an American ex-pat from a wealthy family back east, who had gone native and married a local and had two smashing pre- teenage girls. She explained that her brother and family were visiting in a few days time, and that they were all going to decamp to the beach for a week. I was welcome to join in. So the brother a woodsman, who had had a good year growing pot in the Adirondack mountains on the Canadian border, and two more pre- teenagers and mother found our way on to an island full of cocoanut palms in a fabulous bay, and lived on fish that the men caught, and cocoanuts that the girls hacked open with machetes. So for the next several days we swam and got stoned, until their mother arrived from Philadelphia, and we all moved ashore in to a rented beach hut, for a few more days. It was getting close to the departure date of my flight home, but they also were due back, so we all departed for San Jose and took over a hostel. I decided to leave them and explored an other part of the area for the next couple of days. It wasn’t my usual way of spending time in exotic places, and I’m sure I won’t do that again. It’s not a good idea to mix cultures like that and the Post Hippie one had worn a bit thin, particularly this American kind.