Wheel Adventures: A trek to Che Guevara's cave

David Sovka

Oh sleep! It is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole! Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been a bipolar drug addict, but he knew what he was talking about when he wrote that line about sleep in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Sleep was as much of a big deal in 1798 as it is today, but you can pretty much forget about it under the following conditions:

Travelling the Third World

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Let me unpack that lest you think I hold anything against developing nations. When I say “travelling the Third World,” what I mean is “travelling the Third World with your honey bun.” And when I say that, what I really mean is “travelling the Third World with your honey bun who snores.”

Sadly, the pleasant exhaustion that comes with our 50-70 kilometres of daily cycling in the tropics is not nearly enough to send the body off to ninny-byes so long as the force-10 buzzsaw racket of a vibrating soft palate next to you continues throughout the night. I don’t know what is enough. So far, I’ve tried rum and earplugs (not in the same holes), drugs and angry recriminations in the morning.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that my wife snores. Not at all! I’m speaking hypothetically and helpfully about the potential dangers of Third World adventure travel.

You could be kidnapped and killed by desperados. You could be bitten by ravenous mosquitos and injected with malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, tularemia, and/or Japanese encephalitis. And you could miss out on gentle, blessed sleep.

It’s worth it.

Horsepower

Our tour group routinely raises eyebrows, strung out along several kilometres of bad road as we are. Cycling as a means of getting from tropical point A to tropical point B is something of an oddity here. Especially for 50-plus-year-olds, who ought to know better.

There are a few trucks and cars on the road, but off the main highway, most of the people we meet travel in small horse-drawn carriages with rubber tires. It’s a slow-paced, Amish-like way to get around, absolutely suited to my idea of life on a Caribbean island.

The 10-year-old in me thinks it’s super fun to cycle faster than a horse-drawn carriage, on account of it being super fun.

Passing a farmer and his school-uniformed child with a friendly wave and “¿Que bola?” (How’s it going, eh?) turns out to be a very pleasant experience. The carriage has exactly one horsepower, which means that I have … well, more than one horsepower.

The prevalence of horse carriages is as much a consequence of the ongoing American embargo of Cuba, begun during the Kennedy era, as it is due to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The former means it is extremely difficult to get new trucks and cars. The latter means the Soviet-supplied and subsidized gasoline is no more.

So far, outside of Havana, we have not seen any bicycles on the road.

That changes today, at a rest stop on our 70-kilometre ride to Playa de Cayo Jutías, a beach on the northwest coast. When I say rest stop, I do not mean to suggest the presence of picnic tables and bathrooms and an air-conditioned 7-11 franchise for snacks. I mean that we stop on a bend in the road to rest and risk the wild pigs — we can hear many — for a private toilet break in the jungle.

Way in the distance I see a small group of cyclists — the only other people we have seen on bicycles — grinding up the same hill we just finished. As they approach I see there are three: an older, white couple and what looks to be a heavily-sweating Cuban man.

There’s a good reason for all the heavy sweating: the man’s fat-tire mountain bike is heavily-laden with enough water for three adult camels, and enough cycling gear to build them their own bikes. Spare parts and safety equipment are strapped to every available surface on the bike and his body. Pockets on his pants, sleeves and chest are crammed full of compression bandages and flashlight batteries and the like. He even wears extra inner tubes and spare tires over his thick neck, arranged like Chewbacca’s bandolier.

This guy is a good Sherpa, making sure nothing bad happens to his American charges in a country not known for being overly fond of the United States. I know that they are Americans because the first thing past their big, white teeth is, “Hi, we’re Americans.”

The effect of this announcement on our group is immediate: a wordless retreat from the couple in favour of finding something else to do, possibly a nice pee in the wild pig-infested jungle. Apart from us, our cycle group members are from Australia, England, and Scotland. They have no problems with vamoosing, while my wife and I feel like we have to hang around and say hi back.

I’m glad we did, because the second thing out of their mouths — I promise I’m not making this up — is, “We’re very sorry about Donald Trump.” They say it emphatically, and with practised resignation, because they obviously have to say it a lot. It turns out they are pretty cool, adventurous retirees, exploring a country their own government has done its best to crush and ignore for more than 50 years.

As we say our goodbyes and good lucks, we learn that the couple is from a town outside Seattle, a few blocks from where a cousin of my mother lives. Everybody says we live in a small world.

They are correct.

Che

You can’t visit Cuba without coming up against the myth of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian doctor, chess master and motorcycle adventurer who helped Castro & Co. in the 1959 Revolution to oust Cuban dictator, American stooge, and friend to the mafia, Fulgencio Batista.

“After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution,” says Rainer, “Che left to help our comrades in their struggles around the world.” This is historically factual, although not all of the story. You never hear all of the story with respect to Che, such as how helping comrades in their struggles actually meant gun-running and terrorism to establish Marxist regimes in the Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured and executed in 1967.

Perhaps because he did not live long enough to make the many, public, mistakes and missteps that Fidel and his brother Raoul made while running the country, Che’s almost saint-like image remains untarnished. And that image is everywhere: T-shirts, flags, schools and government building walls, even back alley graffiti.

Of course, a romanticized version of Che was useful to help inspire the people to the ideals of the revolution. The fact that Che was murdered through American CIA treachery also helped Castro as he sought alliances with other countries not particularly fond of the U.S. of A.

That lack of fondness became a focal point for the world during the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when there was a very real danger of nuclear war between the Soviet Union, which had armed Cuba with nukes, and the United States, which did not relish nuclear weapons, just 90 miles from Miami Beach, pointed in their direction.

During that period, Che moved the headquarters of the Western Army to a vast and spectacular cave system within the limestone mogotes. This is Cueva de los Portales, and now a national monument. Within the cave mouth, we tour the fascinating outdoor museum that exhibits Che’s roughshod artefacts, including his bed and the table where he played chess during the nuclear stand-off.

Disturbingly large bats flap and poop about the caves, but the living museum somehow remains in pristine condition. It’s an eerie place; it really feels as though the people who lived and worked in this natural shelter just stepped out for a moment, and will be back in a few minutes to help start the apocalypse.

A retired university professor guides us about the caves, happily sharing stories about Che and those dangerous days in October 1962 when wilful misunderstanding and naked jingoism nearly killed us all. His English is excellent. He taught himself our language by reading children’s books and practising with tourists.

This is a happy thought. I leave the gloom of the caves and their dark import feeling a little better about the human race’s chances.

Outside in the sunshine, a tiny, bright green bird, a Cuban Emerald hummingbird, hovers in the air, vigorously chitting and sqeaking at me. It’s a happy noise, a hopeful sound from a tiny fellow, oblivious to geopolitics and evil, world-burning weapons.

His jewel suit sparkles in the bright sunlight, and I like to think he feels a little better about our chances, too.

Next week: We are off to Central America — Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

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