Sunday, May 31, 2015

Baracoa to Imias - Over La Farola

In Cuba there are hotels, but it is also very common for travelers to stay at casa particulares, Cuban versions of a B&B (bed and breakfast). This is the mama of the casa particular at which I stayed in Baracoa. 
Inside my room I prepared my clown bucycle for dome serious bicycle touring. 

My first day of touring would be from Baracoa to Imias over a mountain called La Farola. The mountain is not to tallest mountain in Cuba, but it is one of the tallest overpasses. I did not feel up to tackling this beast on my first day, so I devised a plan to take a bus or truck up the mountain and ride my bicycle down the mountain. 
I went to the truck stop and was told by the station manager that there would be a truck at about 9:30am. I would wait.

I waited until about 11:30am. I was just about to make other arrangements when a guy approaches me and says La Farola. I ask him, how? He say in a camion particular (personal truck) for 5 cuc (US$5). 
I agreed and got on board. Here I am sitting inside my personal transport over La Farola with my bicycle tucked in the overcab storage area behind my head.
This is what Cuban buses look like. Basically they are Russian work trucks with metal cabins welded on top. 
I thought that I had negotiated a personal truck ride for $5. But then the truck started picking up people and soon the cabin was pretty full. I didn't mind the people, but I didn't like the deal. So I asked the ayudante (helper) how much he was going to charge me. He said 5 cuc like we discussed. I said the price was for a camion particular, not a camion collectivo. I said, I'd pay 2 cuc. He said, 5 cuc. I said, I'm getting off. He said, ok, 2 cuc. He knew that he waa overcharging me and changed his mine. He was still getting a pretty good deal by Cuban standards. I felt like I was getting a fair deal and getting more accustomed to the local bargaining culture.
At the top of La Farola I got off and unfolded my bicycle.
I picked up some snacks which I was equating as my local version of energy bars... some bananas and a cucuruchu. A cucuruchu is a local treat found in the Baracoa area consisting of honey, sugar and coconut... a sugar bomb.
The adventure begins with this sign stating... Tramo Peligroso 3km. Accidentes 17, Muertos 32, Lesiones 218 (accidents 17, deaths 32, injuries 218). Let's go!!!
Most of the route would be downhill with spectacular views of mountains, forest and the ocean in the distance.
There were still some up sections that were very steep which I got off and walked.
I pased some beautiful rivers. I believe that this was the head waters of the Rio Yumuri which I visited the previous day where it met the ocean.
After riding about 40km the environment changed from mountains to plains to dessert.
I opened up the cucuruchu and chowed down on the sugar bomb for energy.
There was one part where I had ocean to my one side and dessert to my other side. The sky was a little cloudy which helped keep the temperature to a moderate 90 F (32 C).
As I neared my destination of Imias the ocean was a crystalline blue. I stopped, rested and jumped in for a swim.
I eventually reached my destination which was a Campismo (camping area) outside the town of Imias. Camping in Cuba is done in these stone and concrete cabins.  Cubans visit campismos to be close to nature, bbq, listen to loud music and scream at the top of their voices across the camp grounds.
There are little cafes at the campismos that offer simple Cuban fair like chicken and rice. I ordered two portions, downed them and went to my cabin to sleep. With the aid of ear plugs I slept soundly. 

Baracoa, Cuba - What Is Old Is New.

I arrived in Baracoa, Cuba after a 16 hour overnight train ride and a 6 hour overnight bus ride.
I opted to forego the local taxi and I rode my bicycle from the bus station into the center of town along the Malecon. 
In Havana one witnesses beautiful sunsets along the Malecon (boardwalk). In Baracoa one witnesses the sun rising over the horizon along the Malecon. 
My first day I walked the town, sat in on a music concert at the Casa de Cultura, watched a film, listen to some trova music, ate pizza and relaxed. 
I visited an archeology site/museum that was within a cave perched on a hill above Baracoa. There were some artifacts, cave paintings and skeletons from a early indigenous tribe. I couldn't really tell if all the items were authentic, some seemed as if they may have been replicates and placed around the site to justify the $8 entry fee. Yikes!!!
At least there was a nice overlook of the city. 
My second day I ventured out on a little excursion to a place called the Boca del Rio Yumuri (mouth of the Yumuri river). 
I rode my little clown bicycle for the 40+ km round trip, a new personal record for me. There was some sun, heat, rain, uphills and downhills. I biked, walked, pushed and somehow finished. This bicycling touring is tough. 
The next day I took a 10km bicycle trip to a mountain called El Yunque. The ride was all uphill and mostly on dirt. Ever riden a clown bicycle on dirt up a mountain... not easy. 
Supposedly Christopher Colombus spotted this mountain when he first discovered the island of Cuba and thought that it was a mountain with a flat mesa top. 
I hiked 10 km up and down the mountain and along the way came across pineapples...
Cacao (chocolate) plants...
These foot long millipedes...
And some pretty steep and muddy trails. Yep, there actually was a trail in the photo. The mud was more like clay which was a slippery mess to climb up and down. 
I did reach the top and was greeted by a nice overlook of the western countryside and this sculpture of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti. 

After bicycling 40+ km one day, then bicycling 10+ km and hiking 10+ km the next day I was pretty worn out. 
Like Christpher Colombus, pictured in the photo above, I discovered so many new things within my first few days in Cuba. 

New places, food, currency, rules, music, art, natural areas and people. 
The real adventure would begin the next day when I would start riding my bicycle west... Chasing Sunsets. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Confession - I Am Not Really A Bicyclist

I have a confession, I am not really a bicyclist. I am not a bicycle tourer. I am not an adventure bicyclist. I have never identified myself as a bicyclist or cyclist as real bicyclist are often called. I do not think that I would ever call myself a bicyclist.

I have ridden bicycles ever since my father taught me how to ride when I was a little kid. I enjoy buying old bicycles and restoring them to original condition. I have owned perhaps a dozen different bicycles in my life. I enjoy the simplicity and complexity of bicycles.

In my home town of Austin I occasionally ride my bicycle from my home to the city center - about 8 miles (13 km) round trip or a ride in a city park. The farthest that I've ever ridden a bicycle is probably 14 miles (23 km).

I have not trained for this bicycle adventure. I actually bought the bicycle that I am riding one week before this journey began. I bought it through craigslist used for $325. It was in excellent condition. I think I got a pretty good deal because a brand new bicycle like mine retails for about $600. I test rode my bicycle about 200 feet in a parking lot. I test rode it again about 200 yards in the street in front of my house. I admit that I look like a circus clown while riding my bicycle. I bought my plane ticket one day after I bought my bicycle. Common sense would indicate that this is no way to conduct a proper bicycle tour.

Other real bicyclists would probably not recommend doing what I am doing. One should do research, talk to experienced bicycle tourers, buy a real touring bicycle, ride your bicycle, familiarize yourself with your bicycle, disassemble and reassemble your bicycle, accessorize your bicycle, become one with your bicycle and train.

I am not a real bicyclist.

However, I do have faith. My faith is not blind, but has been developed from years of experience. I have faith in God, in people, in my bicycle and in myself. I have faith that I am always in the right place at the right time. I have faith that I will meet people and we will enrich each other's lives. I have faith that I will meet strangers that will help me in a moment of need. I have faith that my little bicycle will take me to places where I have never been. I have faith that I will live simply, be safe, choose wisely, be friendly, calculate risk, overcome obstacles, have empathy, share generously, act passionately and smile.

Today I conducted another test ride. I rode my bicycle 25 miles (40 km) over roads, on dirt, up and down hills, along the ocean, under the sun, in the rain, from Baracoa to Yumuri. A new distance record for me! I rode, I walked, I pushed, I finished.

Now there are about 800 miles (1200 km) ahead of me. Poco a poco.

This is my confession. I am not a real bicyclist, but I have faith that all things are possible.

Heading East - Train to Santiago de Cuba and Bus to Baracoa

I was planning to travel from Havana to the east side if the country to Santiago de Cuba, then to the far east coastal town called Baracoa.

When I travel I often enjoy taking various forms of transport. In Cuba there is a train which travels across the country, but has a reputation for being delayed, canceled, slow, irregular and unreliable. The locals that I met advised me that I should not take the train. They recommended that I fly or take the bus. To me, the train sounded like the perfect way to start an adventure.
Well the train did live up to its reputation and it was delayed about 2 hours.
Once I got on board I settled in for a long ride.
The train ride itself was rough and shaky, but it was a nice way to allow the scenery roll by and gently ease into the countryside.
 As we passed by small villages the kids on the hillsides would wave at us passengers.
We would occasionally make brief stops at some of the small villages and a handful of people would deboard the train. Friends might help them unload their baggage or goods. Wives and children greeted their family members.
I met this young soldier that was traveling east back to his hometown. He was interested in what I thought of Cuba. I mentioned that I had just arrived and really had not formulated any opinions. He seemed just as engaged in watching the countryside roll by as me.

This old man seemed to be looking back in time.

I was looking forward.

I think that we arrived 4 hours later than we were scheduled, not bad.

The rest of the way to the east coast I would need to take a bus.
There are different types of buses in Cuba. There are the local buses (seen above) that are called gua gua. 
And then there are the luxury tourist buses call Viazul. Since I had just traveled rough for 16 hours via train, I thought that I'd treat myself to one the luxury Viazul buses. I bought a ticket for a bus that would leave later that same evening.

I arrived in Santiago de Cuba a little past noon and the bus would not leave until after midnight. It was an overnight bus. So I had some time to burn. I checked my bags into to Viazul baggage hold area and went exploring. 
The first thing I noticed was this huge statue. There was a lady sitting near the top of the statue and I approached her and asked her about the statue. She said that area is known as the Plaza de la Revolution and the statue was of Antonio Meceo. She said that there was a museum underneath the statue. I wound my way around the building and found the entrance. I inquired about the entrance fee and was told by the staff that unfortunately the electricity was not working so I could not enter the museum. A sign of things to come.
Oh well, I decide to just walk around. Out on the plaza there was a huge group of people gathered and practicing choreographed dance moves. I walked in front of the group and snapped a photo. 
Soon, I heard the familiar call... Chino…. Chino…. Chino. It happens to me everywhere in Latin America. A group of women were gathered by a stage and waived me over. I struck up a conversation. They shared that they were practicing for a huge dance competition that would occur on Saturday as part of the city celebration. They asked me to come and watch them. I told them that I was only passing through on my way to Baracoa. They saw me snap a photo of one of the groups that was practicing and asked me to take a photo of them. They rounded up there group. People seemed to appear out of nowhere.
There were probably 100 plus people. They started dancing and I took some photos and video.
Then, all of the sudden, this one guy approaches me and says, "no photos". I was getting tired of watching the group anyways so I took this as my opportunity to leave. 
Next to the park I saw a rather large building with a giant face on the side. I walked toward the building and found out that it was the Teatro Heredia. I inquired if there were any shows in the evening, but the guard said that there were not any events going on during the week, only during the weekend. However, there was a gallery exhibit inside the theater that I was able to view that was dedicated to revolution inspiring poet Jose Marti. 
I left the theatre and continued with my exploration. I walked through an in closed area that looked like it was being prepared for a food festival. At one end of the grounds I saw the familiar lights and stands of a baseball stadium. 
As I walked toward the stadium I saw a few players walking in a side door. I followed them. There was a full scale practice going on. Just as I was about to walk on the field. A voice from behind me called out. I turned and an elder gentleman waived me to come over. I greeted him with a smile. He asked me what I wanted. I told him that I was a big fan of baseball and just wanted to watch a little of the practice. He warmed up. We began talking and he shared with me that this was a practice for the Seleccion Juvenile (National Youth Selection) team. In the USA we do not have a Youth Selection, but the closest thing would be Olympic Team or Major League Baseball try outs. 

I hung around for a while and watched the guys practice. They were pretty good. It's pretty common knowledge that baseball is the national sport of Cuba. And if players were permitted to freely travel or leave the country, I'm guessing that a number of players on the Cuba Youth Selection team would probably be drafted into the MLB. They are that good.
As in stood there a little longer one of the players approached me and inquired if I wanted a playera (t-shirt). I said, "sure". I saw him run over to one of the coaches and chat a little, then he disappeared off the field. A few minutes later he reappeared with something clutched in his glove. He pulled the item out of the bag and it was, not just a t-shirt, it was brand new jersey. I was a little shocked.
I took the jersey and took this selfie with my new friend number 77 Roberto Castellano.
It was getting dark so I returned to the bus station. I found a "caja" box of food from a street vendor and ate my dinner. I watched a little tv in the waiting room of the bus terminal, then boarded the bus around midnight. To my disappointment the Viazul was not so luxurious. The first seat that I sat in was wet, so I moved a few rows back. The second seat as wet too. In the middle of the night, in the obscure darkness of the the cabin of the bus I could not be bothered. I was traveling with a plastic bag, placed it under my butt and settled in for the overnight journey.

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