Cuba: Arrival

This is actually a photo I took on boarding the plane to leave.  I’ve lost the photos I took during this period.

#laterpost (happened ~6 weeks ago)

It’s 5 pm and a jostly 36 hours since I’ve had any sleep but the kind where the blot of moisture on something your face landed near lets you know it was somewhat solid.  Along with excitement to be in Havana for my first time, and coffees with my last 2 beverage services, this has me buzzing during landing then disembarking down staircase, directly onto tarmac, directly into tiny airport terminal.  The sun is at about 30° off the horizon, casting everything in a retro-gold tone, including the lowest strata of air, owing to the multiple brush and/or garbage fires spotting the vast, flat landscape.

I’ve splurged $50 for the upgrade to a “premium coach” seat because there were no free non-middle seats left,  which happens to be the farthest forward coach class row on the plane, and so I’m among the first off the plane.  This has the happy side benefit of getting me through immigrations in almost no time, leaving me more than enough time to go to the restroom and swap out my jeans for shorts.  I choose a toilet stall and change inside of it.  Reflecting now on this flavor of modesty in Cuba seems somewhat comical.  I’ve since seen a man wipe his mouth on a restaurant table cloth and had a Cuban friend of a few hours hit me up for a page from my spiral bound notebook on his way into a porta-potty, and seen that these and so many things are done in a completely judgment free environment. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the biggest things one finds to adjust to: this lack of readily available disposable paper products…no just kidding…  I mean, that is a thing to adjust to too, but the biggest is the lack of judgment around people doing whatever they’re doing.  This extends beyond things that might in other places be considered taboo based on hygienic standards.  Drinking, peeing, and prostitution happen in plain sight, with no judgment or even second look.  But, I digress and am getting ahead of myself (headgress?  pregress?).

Back in the bathroom, I manage to change without dropping anything into the yawning maw of the seatless toilet, then find a bench just outside the restroom to sit and pack away the socks and jeans I’ve shedded.  Now in tropics mode, I ask a woman in a uniform “de donde esta caja grande con mi bicicleta” which I hope is understood as “from where is the big box with my bicycle”, and she points to an unlikely conveyor belt saying something fast that I don’t understand at all, but with a smile that tells me to just relax.  Minutes later, it shows up where she’d pointed, which I find a bit surprising since after a short linear run, the belt takes a turn that would surely either eject or crush the box.  I squeeze my way through the crowd and yank it off in time to avoid finding out which.

I carry the box through what I guess is border control: a sole woman in an official looking uniform standing by the street-side airport exit.  She doesn’t even look my way.  Stepping outside, I’m get a blip of chronological cognitive dissonance from the most immediately noticed and hence least interesting observation about Cuba: how many classic cars there are.

The box is my sole checked item, and after finding a spot to set up shop, I pop the few straps of TSA tape still retaining the box’s contents with a ballpoint pen from my carry-on.  I unload the bike, the tools to reassemble it, and the rest of my possessions for the next 4 weeks.  As I reassemble the bike, I notice a passively interested audience of cabbies forming, which I’m grateful to have rather than a torrent of solicitations other tourists are receiving.

Reassembling the bike amounts to remounting the front wheel, reattaching handlebars, re-running generator hub and bike computer cables through stem, reattaching seat, reattaching rear dérailleur, and reinstalling the chain.  I’ve left my front rack and front bags at home this trip, along with camping equipment, and am going with about 40% less stuff than on my last trip, a 5 month ride through Mexico and Central America.

When everything is done, I saddle up and do a quick check of brakes, wheels, and shifting, revealing I’ve forgotten to re-hook the front brake cable.  I tend to it while straddling the bike but the cable is a bit tight.  I’m at it for a couple seconds when a cabbie comes over squats next to me, and without a word gives a helpful pinch of the calipers.  Cable re-hooked, we both return to upright, I smile and thank him, he smiles and gives a thumbs up, and I’m riding off into the sunset and the city.

Cuba is one of the very few of a couple dozen countries I’ve been in the last few years where I don’t have cellular data through Google Fi/T-mobile.  Up until this point, I’ve used Google Maps for navigation while bicycling.  As a quick aside from our story: and the open source map data that it uses have honestly amazed me.  It’s unbelievable how much a mere 50MB of data, downloaded once and then used by a elegantly simple map application that requires zero internet, can change everything about how you get around a place.  I didn’t expect to find myself so often searching for and finding new information, over the course of weeks, using an off-line application.

Coming back to our story, I being to realize that I really should have done at least one ride navigating with before using it to navigate into central Havana at dusk.  I opt for the bicycling route, which I’d later learn makes routing choices in an attempt to avoid large roads and highways, many of which, at least in Cuba, are the best roads to take by bicycle, with wide shoulders effectively dedicated to bicycles and donkey carts.  It doesn’t take long before the navigation gets fairly involved as I also assume, incorrectly, that the turn-by-turn voice directions do not stop when my phone’s screen turns off.  As a result, I overshoot a few key turns by quite a bit, doubling the hour it should have taken.

In the flat landscape, dusk is quickly followed by dark, and it’s dark by the time I figure out how works well enough to ensure that I’m making progress towards my destination, following reroutes of reroutes down tiny, unpaved back roads in the outskirts of town.  Some kids are whipping tops off of strings as I ride by, and I wonder if some of them are being whipped towards my wheels intentionally before deciding they probably aren’t, and even if they are, they’re just being kids.

The most likely hazard of cycling at night in Havana seems to be the many cyclists (and occasional motorcyclist) that are all but invisible in the absence of any illumination whatsoever.  Once you know they’re, and if you have lights yourself, you’re actually kinda protected from the more serious hazard presented by cars in the sense that “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other hikers” or more particularly “if bears are trying to avoid eating hikers, and other hikers are making themselves delicious, you just have to be less delicious”.

I get to the hostel that I booked when I got my plane ticket.  This is the only advanced booking made before or during the trip.  This is typical for me, to have accommodations arranged for my first night after flying into a new country, but having nothing else prearranged.  Too much itinerary for extended travel is like over packing.

On rolling up to what I think is the right place, I inquire with some guys leaning on a ledge passing around a bottle of Havana Club, showing them an email on my phone.  None of them are affiliated with the hostel, but they tell me that the power is out, then point out that the address says the hostel is on the 10th floor of the building beside us.  I happily accept when one of them then offers to help me carry my bags, as this will get myself and my stuff up in one trip.

I follow him up the narrow, switch-backs of stairs carrying my bicycle in one arm and using my bicycle headlight to illuminate our ascents in otherwise pitch darkness.  He’s pretty tipsy, but managing the uneven, cracking marble stairs with my two saddle bags about as well I can with the bike while pointing the headlight.  Several times I stumble, replacing useful illumination with disorienting splashes of bike wheel shadows, causing my companion to stumble, to which we laugh in confirmation that we’re continuing up the stairs at our current clip.  When we get to the 10th floor and catch our breath, he gives me a wry grin and extends his hand.  I happily oblige, apologizing for the dollar rather than local currency, as he points out which door is the hostel’s and then makes his exit.

It’s a couple hours later than I’d given as my estimated arrival, and Enzo opens the door happy to see I’ve made it. He’s welcoming and speaks English much better than my Spanish.  The power resumes halfway through checking in, after which he gives me a brief tour of the dorm I’ll be staying in on the 9th floor.  Being in a hostel feels pleasantly routine.  I make small talk with an Irish guy and an Austrian girl, then fade out of the conversation by dozing off on top of the still made bed.  Before I do, I overhear:

Guy: “I guess I’d say I’m pretty good with Spanish, you just have to ask them to speak slower”
Girl: “Oh?  So how do you say ‘speak slower’”
Guy: “I, uh, I think it’s ‘alto’”

I wake up maybe 30 minutes later by shouts that sound like “Yeremy”, pretty common among Spanish speaker’s renditions of my name, coming from the elevator lobby door to the apartment in the back of which is the dorm room.  It’s Luis!

[To Be Continued (in subsequent posts?)]

Author Note:  This is being posted in March 2017, but happened on Jan. 20, 2017.  Cuba presented challenges to writing (and uploading) posts.  Better late than never!

As always, thanks for reading!