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Wheel Adventures: Hot slog in Cuba leads to surprise serenade

Soroa is not so much a town as a cluster of houses stretched along five kilometres of rough, hilly road not far from Autopista Este-Oeste, the main east-west highway.
A bus taking Cubans to town looks good to cyclists, who typically cover 30 to 70 kilometres a day in hot and humid conditions.

Soroa is not so much a town as a cluster of houses stretched along five kilometres of rough, hilly road not far from Autopista Este-Oeste, the main east-west highway.

We luck out in accommodation; we are assigned a lovely casa particular run by a family of Cuban entrepreneurs. When I say lovely, I refer to the comfortable rocking chairs on the wide front porch, the pretty flowers growing in pots here and there, and the loud-but-blessed air conditioning unit on the wall. I most certainly do not refer to the fact that — surprise! — the toilet has no seat, just the cold, hard, porcelain rim.

To be clear, when I say entrepreneurs, I refer to the optimistic business savvy with which the family has approached providing guests with a toilet sans seat: by hiding the fact with a fuzzy acrylic cover sporting colourful, ersatz Disney characters. Presentation is everything.

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In Spanish — which is all the family speaks — casa particular means “private house.” The phrase has come to mean “Cuban bed and breakfast” since 1997, when the Castro regime allowed Cubans to rent out rooms in their houses to tourists, providing families with a new source of income. It’s a good thing for the tourists, too, because prior to legitimized casas particulares, the only accommodation on offer was government-run hotels and campgrounds, which had all the charm and amenities of a Soviet Gulag.

While Manuel, Yuniel and Rainer store our bikes and unload our luggage from the bus, I quickly survey the casa. I lay claim to the unfortunate bathroom with a certain forceful expression that my wife has come to understand as: Honey, get out of the way.

Without getting into too many concerning details, gentle reader, let me point out that travel in the third world can sometimes lead to certain disagreeable feelings, noises and odours from — how shall I put this?— those parts of the body which most yearn for the presence of toilet seats.

You do your best to drink only bottled water; to stay away from street food venders selling their wares above an open sewer grate; and to drink half a bottle of hand-sanitizer every hour on the hour. But sometimes it just happens, and all the probiotics, antibiotics, diphenoxylate/atropine and other popular anti-diarrheal drugs in the world won’t protect you from the consequences of intestinal bugs you’re not used to.

You just have to ride it out.

When this happens, I like to ride it out with the help of the local high-octane hooch. In Cuba, it is Havana Club rum, which costs about three Canadian dollars per bottle. My theory of gastrointestinal peace, based on a story I read about Bogart and John Huston in Uganda filming The African Queen, is that enough raw alcohol in the system will kill the nasty bugs. Eventually. In the meantime: Havana Club rum!

And so, while drinking Havana Club rum in a comfortable rocking chair on the wide front porch, I am approached by our host — the family matriarch, or maybe a sister, or a cousin, or hired help, I don’t know, the place is buzzing with people happy to have foreign money turn up: Would we like to hear some music after dinner tonight?

“¡Por supeusto que si!” I blurt out (absolutely YES!). It’s not the rum talking. We are in Cuba, a nation with music in its soul: Son, Danzón, Guaguancó, Canción, Batá-rumba, Cha-cha, Pilón and a dozen other sub-genres make up la musica Cubana, all of it good.

Cuba is the New Orleans of the Caribbean, perhaps not in the foodie sense, but definitely when it comes to live, authentic music. Not taking the opportunity to hear real Cuban music is like not riding the elephants in Laos (which I also didn’t do, but only because I had similar gastrointestinal troubles that day, and it would have been a terrible idea to spread my legs that wide).

We eat outside at long wooden tables in a small, open courtyard. Large plates of food are brought out, piled high with the usual fare: rice, beans, chicken and pork, with a few slices of cucumber and tomato on a side plate, because they have heard fanciful stories about vegetarianism in the decadent West.

The meal is filling, and very welcome after a day cycling. Our tour group covers between 30 and 70 kilometres each day, in all the heat and humidity that a tropical island can throw at us. That is to say, nobody worries about waistlines at mealtimes; we need the calories. There is something very pleasant about lounging in the evening air with a full belly and new friends, and the scent of white and yellow jasmine in the air.

As the first few stars appear in the indigo sky, two very old men carefully shuffle into the courtyard. One carries a battered guitar, the other a pair of homemade maracas. The men are skinny in the way that skeletons are skinny, with snow-white hair under Panama hats, and weathered skin so dark as to make them almost invisible until they smile.

I am reminded of a concert my wife took me to at Victoria’s Royal Theatre a few years ago. Dave Brubeck, at age 88, was what they call a living legend, and he looked it. I remember thinking he was not going to make it across the stage to take his seat at the piano. But of course he did, and the moment his fingers touched the ivory, it was as though 50 years fell away in front of my eyes. Dave Brubeck was amazing.

¿Cuántos años tienen? I ask our hostess/sister/cousin/hired help, who leans over the courtyard fence to watch the men find and creak into suitable chairs. How old are they?

“El tiene noventa y quatro años,” she says, nodding at the man with the guitar. “¡Y el tiene noventa y seis años!” she says about the man with the homemade maracas. She watches me digest this news. All I can think to say is “¡Que cosa!,” which is roughly equivalent to “Wow!”

But what I am really thinking is, holy smokes, these guys are 94 and 96 years old! They were born in the early 1920s — long before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, and long enough ago that they could have invented much of Cuban music. We’re in for a Dave Brubeck-type treat.

When the old men are ready, there is no introduction or fanfare, they just start playing. The guitar lays down a well-known, four-chord progression. The men sing in old, faltering, beautiful voices:

De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané

Llego a Cueto voy para Mayarí

I smile and clap; I know this one: Chan Chan, one of the final compositions by the great Cuban trovador Compay Segundo. The song is the title track of one of my very favourite albums: Buena Vista Social Club. As the old men sing I have a strong, irrational urge to get up and go home (4,546 km separate Soroa and Victoria) to check my copy of the album. Are these guys playing on it? It seems likely that they at least knew Compay Segundo, and Ibrahim Ferrer, and the other ancient Cuban musicians recorded by Ry Cooder in 1996.

We are serenaded for almost two hours, the men stopping once in a while for a sip of water to help their old voices. Eventually, they bookend the set by returning to the beginning of the courtyard concert, and one final encore of Chan Chan.

The song is the story of Chan Chan and his love, Juanica, who are building a home, and travel to the beach for sand. The song has a simple, delightful chorus that speaks to how I feel about my own wife, even though I am old now, and embarrassing. In English, the chorus is:

The love that I have for you

I can’t deny it

I drool a bit

I can’t help it

The song’s final, mournful chord hangs in the night air, just as the rest of our group arrives, shattering the moment with hoots and hollers and halloos from the roadside. They have been drinking and playing pool at the dodgy hotel down the road in favour of live authentic Cuban music.

Because he is drunk, and also because he is an ass, Nathan the heavily-tattooed Englishman takes the guitar from the old men, and proceeds to loudly sing a drunk, ass version of Guantanamera, perhaps the best known and most patriotic of Cuban songs.

He murders the tune and lyrics, and I imagine the Cuban poet and independence hero José Martí rolls in his grave at the racket. But the old men smile good-naturedly and laugh along with Nathan’s self-aggrandizing antics. What else can they do in the face of this foreigner’s hubris? I imagine they have faced far worse situations in their long lives, and know from experience that it is better to play along, to get along.

I am less charitable, and maybe a little too much like Nathan; I want to punch him in the nose. Instead, I make sure to quietly and lavishly tip the old men for sharing their beautiful music with us gringos.

Long afterwards I sit outside on the wide front porch in my comfortable rocking chair, sipping rum and watching bats flit through the yellow light of the big moon rising over the jungle. I feel grateful for the unexpected music tonight, and a little sad. Those old men will not be singing for much longer, and the thought of their song ending leaves our world a little less bright.

Still, moments like these are rare gifts. They cannot be forced or even planned, only gratefully appreciated when they come, and treasured afterwards.

I drool a bit

I can’t help it

Previous instalments in the Wheel Adventures series

Next week: Learning how how to roll a cigar — and what goes into the world’s best piña colada.