¡Cuba, si! There are many good reasons to visit Cuba. I mean aside from the obvious: It is a laidback Caribbean island with music in its heart, poetry on its mind and a cigar in its mouth. It is the birthplace of Bacardi, the origin of Afro-Cuban jazz and the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway, whose mythic presence looms larger than ever.
For a relatively small island nation, Cuba has punched above its weight class on the world stage for more than 500 years, resulting in a rich, complicated, and crazy history that is alive and important and absolutely relevant to everyday life today: springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas; tropical vacation hotspot for mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky; and focal point for the entire-world-holds-its-breath nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union in October 1962.
There are many good reasons to visit Cuba. But only one reason to cycle it: On a bike, Cuba is all of the above, only more so. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of real Cuba are far more vivid and memorable when sampled up close and personal, at bike-speed.
If Cuba is a crazy tropical adventure waiting to happen to you (it is), then every visit should begin in its crazy tropical capital, Havana.
Pro-tip: when you hear “Habana,” you’re not lost, you’re a gringo. The proper name for the oldest and largest city in Cuba is La Habana, probably based on the name of a local Taíno chieftain, Habaguanex, circa 1515.
Havana is like no other place on earth. The vast Habana Vieja (Havana’s old town) is exactly like all the photos and movies you’ve seen: Formerly grand, now crumbling buildings with crowded balconies overhanging narrow, dusty streets full of stray animals, pedestrians and colourful American cars from the 1950s.
It’s like New Orleans’ French Quarter on steroids, or maybe methamphetamines: cranked out and down-on-its luck, but still full of life and song.
Cuban history is largely the history of Old World imperial powers seeking wealth and power in the New World, followed by New World imperial powers seeking wealth and power in the Old World.
Havana is Ground Zero for more than 500 years of this business, and it wears its scars with an equal mix of pride and sorrow.
The city is an architectural wonderland, with more than 1,000 once-beautiful buildings from the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s and 1900s chopped up into apartments, businesses, and who-knows-whats, all slowly decaying in the ruinous heat and torrential rains.
It is a very old place, and after the last 60 years of poverty and communism, it really looks it.
I note this to my wife as we wander the dirty, grid-like streets and avenues, dodging the occasional classic car, bicitaxi (pedicab), frightened mongrel and craftspeople setting up shop in doorways where there is enough light to work by. She shushes me on general principles, and also because we don’t want to draw more attention as jet-lagged, middle-aged gringos with money.
Smiling and minding your own business is as much a good idea in the Third World as it is back home. Perhaps the still-Communist-after-everybody-else-has-given-it-up government cracks down hard on crime to keep tourist dollars flowing, or maybe the locals don’t have anything to steal. Either way, the streets of Havana feel quite safe.
The room we booked in the middle of the old town is part of a chopped-up residence built in the 1800s. Clearly, there have been additions at various points in the past 200 years. Extra floors with oddly-shaped rooms veer off narrow, steep — NOT TO CODE! — stairways in what feels like our very own Gormenghast Castle.
Our room’s ceiling is 18 feet high, centred with an ornate roseate sculpture that once housed a chandelier, but now is the domain of a waltzing lizard. I mean that literally. A small window has been punched into the outside wall, 12 feet off the ground so as to allow lizards in, I suppose, but not people.
It is here, on the rooftop of our casa on Avenida Lamparilla, that we meet the rest of our cycle tour group. Most of the rooftops have some kind of terrace from which to escape the heat and watch the city crawl along. Our guide is already waiting as we pick our way up the steep staircase — did I mention this place is definitely not to code? — to the dangerous rooftop.
Our guide is a thin man, of hair and build, and introduces himself as Rainer (“Rye-ner”) with a smile and a cigarette.
We go around the circle, sharing names and countries of origin, but not cigarettes. This back-to-school moment always fascinates me, because you can watch as everybody sizes up everybody else: Can that guy climb hills? Is she going to be nice to me? Is he going to steal my lunch money?
One of the group actually does look like he might steal lunch money. I mean professionally. Nathan is a heavily tattooed Englishman, part of a group of four friends who think it the height of humour to refer to Rainer as “Manuel,” as per Basil Fawlty.
It’s an interesting group: the two couples from England; a Scottish podiatrist; an English student loan clerk; and a crazy Australian woman travelling the world because: “I got right tired of HR bullshit at me job, mate, and bollocks all that for a lark.”
In all, there are 12 of us, including Rainer, our driver Yuniel, and our mechanic, whose name actually is Manuel.
We wheel through the barrio of Vedado, a tourist-light neighbourhood of dilapidated businesses and once-grand houses, into an open square about the size of a football field. The grass of Parque John Lennon (John Lennon Park) is patchy and burned out, and the sparse trees do more to suggest the idea of shade, rather than offering any.
We park our bikes under the suggestion of shade, and our guide Rainer leads us toward a dark figure slow-cooking on a wrought-iron bench in the middle of the park. “After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution…” says Rainer, in a hushed tone.
A lone guard stands under the merciless sun, next to the figure on the bench. The uniformed officer does not wear a gun, but he does wear sunglasses. Two sets, in fact: a cheap plastic frame like the kind you might lose and not care about; and a fancy, psychedelic-lens aviator set peeking out of his breast pocket.
“After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution…” tries Rainer, again. But our attention is on the scene ahead. As we approach, the guard slowly and solemnly removes the fancy sunglasses from his breast pocket, and places them over the eyes of the figure on the bench. Surprisingly, the figure turns out to be a pretty good bronze likeness of John Lennon, looking relaxed, one leg crossed over the other.
Beneath the statue, set in stone, are these words: “Dirás que soy un soñador pero no soy el único.” It is a Spanish translation of the English lyrics: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” from the song I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo made famous in 1942 by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra.
I’m kidding! It’s from Lennon’s song Imagine. But for the record, I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo is a) a fine song; and b) possibly less unexpected and crazy than the story of this statue in John Lennon Park (formerly Parque Menocal).
Despite the fact that there is a very expensive — for poor Cuba — bronze statue of Lennon in the nation’s capital city, neither Lennon nor the Beatles ever performed in Cuba. Not to put too fine a point on it, but their music was seen by the Communist Castro regime as emblematic of the decadent west, and something best cracked down upon. ¡Fuerte!
Of course it didn’t work. I have two grownup children, so I feel confident in providing the following advice, which I believe applies to any regime, in any culture, at any point in human history: Telling teenagers not to listen to teenager music is like asking for a counter-revolution. A sullen, I-NEVER-ASKED-TO-BE-BORN! counter-revolution that eats everything in the fridge and leaves piles of crap around the place.
The guard solemnly motions for us to take turns sitting with the statue of the now-venerated Lennon for photos, which of course we all do, happy to be part of such a crazy and unexpected opportunity of historical revisionism and/or Cuban pragmatism, depending on your perspective.
Sensing that he has our attention at last, Rainer gives it the old college try once more: “After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the music of the Beatles was frowned upon. But many people still liked it and listened to American radio stations.” He smiles shyly and gives a Cuban shrug, which is like a Gallic shrug only with a better tan.
Sculpted by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, the statue was unveiled on Dec. 8, 2000, the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder.
By then, the Cuban people had survived the disastrous collapse of their economy in the 1990s, an evil time when the average Cubano lost 30 per cent of body mass because there was no food to eat. Allowing the people to embrace a few western ideas — say, like the Beatles and foreign tourist dollars — seemed prudent at the time.
The guard is in place to watch over the statue, and to provide Lennon’s signature round glasses, whenever necessary. Whenever necessary is all the time, because people — domestic and foreign — routinely steal the glasses. That’s right: this guard’s entire income and professional raison d’être is due to the notoriously sticky fingers of Beatles fans.
As such, I can’t help but think that a statue of Ringo would have been more appropriate.
You know: drummers.
Next week: Sharing lunch with guajiros.