By Tooker Gomberg, Cuba.
Bicycle touring through Cuba’s countryside.
On the first night of our bicycle trip to Cuba, the forbidden island, we were awakened by a powerful thunderstorm. As water poured down in sheets we were suddenly awakened by a deafening explosion and a bright flash of orange light. I had a momentary panic: had Uncle Sam begun his long anticipated invasion? We were relieved to discover that it was just a blowout of the power line across the street.
The next day we headed out; twenty five Canadian, American and Cuban cyclists, replete with bikes and bags, in an open air, flatbed truck. The sun was cooking us dry when a similar truck, loaded to the hilt with fresh grapefruit, passed us, and like manna from heaven luscious fruit came raining down.
Cuba is no paradise, but it is a fascinating place to visit, and it seems a decent place to live. Life can be difficult when top wages are less than $20 per month. But on the other hand rents are fixed at no more than 10% of your income, and your payments allow you to own your house eventually.
We cycled through Pinar del Rio and Soroa provinces, a few hours by truck west of Havana. We were enthralled by the strange ‘mogotes’, limestone mountains jutting straight up hundreds of metres from an otherwise flat landscape. We spent a week cycling through countryside covered in a deep shade of green, home of the best cigar tobacco and sugar cane in the world. We were happy to see that the growers and townsfolk alike, rode two wheeled vehicles as we did.
Bikes are everywhere, and they have become part of the Cuban culture. Although they are mostly heavy one speed Chinese bikes, teachers ride them to school, farmers ride them to the fields, doctors ride them to the hospital, and kids double each other the car-free country roads. Deliveries of eggs, coconuts, pizzas and kids are all made on two wheels.
“Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race” said H.G. Wells. With all the people In Cuba pedalling he would have been enthusiastic indeed about humanity’s future prospects.
Our group didn’t come as tourists. I helped organize this trip entitled “Contact With Cuba”, and we all shared the slight hardships of broken toilets and the occasional lack of electricity. But we also delighted in exquisite waterfalls and mountain rivers which cooled and cleaned our hot, sweaty bodies.
Trip accommodations were modest, as we slept outdoors in tents, or in simple concrete cabins. We were relieved to be far from television and neon advertisements; imagine a place with no commercials, or billboard ads, save for an occasional slogan painted on a building. “Socialism or Death” seemed to be a favourite phrase.
We ate basic food, lots of rice and beans. We bought oranges for a penny, and ate five cent ice cream cones as a treat. Cubans don’t generally eat nearly as well as we did, but the revolution of 1959 ensured that there is virtually no hunger or poverty.
The mountain roads were generally good, though some were potholed, and one slick day there were a few tumbles as well as a collision. A Cuban doctor at the local small town hospital was happy to stitch up a cut leg, at no charge, though the Canadian patient insisted on leaving a tip. Cubans are proud of their health care system, one of the best in the world. In fact, the proportion of doctors to population in Cuba is the highest in the world.
The eight Cubans who pedalled with us talked freely during our lively, nightly discussions. We learned about how the revolution has helped women, with equality enshrined in the law. There is free daycare and health care, safe and accessible abortion, equality in the workplace, as well as free education through university.
We learned first hand how over a million bicycles filled the gap in 1991 after most of the oil that had flowed from the Soviet Union suddenly stopped after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. A solar engineer on our trip explained how Cuba has been working to leapfrog the petroleum age by placing a growing emphasis on renewable and solar energy.
For a long time Cuba has been misunderstood. When Columbus landed in 1492 (and wrote that Cuba was the most beautiful place he had ever seen) he believed that he had arrived in China.
Today there are different misapprehensions about this small island of eleven million people. Having irked its northern neighbour by nationalizing industries and expropriating property from the wealthy landowners, the U.S. has since been trying to get Cuba to give up its experiment with socialism. But the feisty, flexible Cubans keep travelling their own special path.
Is Cuba a threat to the United States? Only insofar as they have managed to address many pressing and timely social problems with an extraordinary degree of gusto and innovation. They have highlighted the benefits of rewarding collective good instead of private greed.
There are many paths that humanity’s social evolution can follow. With the pluck of the Cubans, and some luck, their experiment will prosper. Viva Cuba!