In a moment of cycling hubris, I attempt to ride a narrow dirt path up a small embankment, and around a pond spanning the entire width of the dirt road, up onto a cow pasture. I stall out on the ascent, and when I go to plant my right foot, it’s too far below my wheels, on too mushy of ground to keep me and my bike from toppling over into what turns out to be complete mush. The mush swallows my right leg up to just above the knee and my right arm up to bicep. I untangle myself from the bicycle which is in the process of also being swallowed, and in doing so, volunteer my left foot to the mush monster. I free my arm then push my bike up onto the embankment, giving even more of my sandal laden feet and legs over to the mush. When I’ve pushed my bike up such that it’s pedals and handlebars are engaged in relatively dry sod, I use it to pull myself upwards in a manner similar to how I’ve read one should free themselves from quicksand. I slowly pull my left, shallower sunk leg out, barely retaining its sandal. A lost sandal means going barefoot on metal pedals that would not be kind to an unprotected sole, so as I remove and safely put aside the left sandal I contemplate my options for removing the deeply sunk right leg and sandal. I re-submerge my left leg, barefoot, and shift all my weight to it while wiggling the right leg, foot, and sandal. There’s enough suction that it’s clear that the right sandal is not coming out with the right foot, but I’ve loosened up the mush enough around the right leg that it’s ready to come out of both sandal and muck. The right sandal had already succumbed to a pulled heel strap when fording a creek a few days earlier, and it would be a few more days until I found a cobbler to fix the sandal. The pair was purchased hastily from a Target in downtown Seattle for $25 just before leaving. I pull my foot up as swiftly as I can manage, and then plunge my right arm into the quickly collapsing hole just in time to get a couple of fingers around a strap on the sandal. Shoulder deep in muck, I wiggle the sandal and slowly pull it out.
Either as a result of the wallow in muck, or random food poisoning, I have my only bout illness later that night in Caibarién, a town on the North coast. I try to outwait the ill, but the ill outwaits me and then empties me completely of calories, from both ends. The next day, I’m resolved to get to Santa Clara. Riding while sick, on an empty tank that won’t accept anything but water is not typically well advised, but I feel compelled to get out of the relatively dirty little town, to a larger town where I can hopefully find quieter, cleaner accommodations.
Santa Clara does not disappoint, and after sleeping for nearly 16 hours in a nice, cool, quiet casa run by a welcoming, friendly woman, I enjoy a day of sightseeing standard attractions like Che’s mausoleum and the site of a sabotaged train. I happen upon the Casa de la Ciudad and get an impromptu tour from a woman working there, for which I‘m asked for a CUC towards the end. I like the woman and am happy to oblige as she tells me about a acoustic guitar concert happening there in a few hours. I wander until then, stash my bicycle, and then catch it.
The next morning I’m done my standard morning routing by a little after 7 am, with the casa’s matron up and ready to make breakfast.
Standard morning routine amounts to packing, sunscreening, eating, then going. Packing includes water, which needs to be filtered by morning in order to avoid buying water (which I wouldn’t mind did it not entail buying countless disposable bottles), and to not have to rely on the host’s water filter system. I use a backpacking (sawyer brand) “straw” style water filter with a 3L platypus/camelback-type bladder. I fill the bladder then hang it from something in the shower and line the bottle up underneath the output nozzle of the water filter. It takes less than an hour per 1.5 liter bottle, which fit fine in standard bottle cages. Even better is filtering into a widemouth 5L bottle, especially with access to a faucet that allows filling the entire 3L bag. Eventually the ubiquitous 1.5L or 5L bottles will spring leaks that eventually, if not necessarily immediately, rule out their continued use. I probably bought 5 days worth of bottles (were I only buying water) over the course of 28 days. That’s still about a dozen bottles, but could have easily been 5 times that many.
Sunscreening is it’s own standard subroutine because one lapse followed by typically 8 hours in near constant sun all but guarantees a serious burn. The top half of my standard bike outfit consists usually of a long-sleeve, button up, polyester or nylon kinda disco looking shirt. I initially brought it on my first tour because I was attending the WTF music festival near Portland, Oregon before flying to Helsinki and I wanted to pack at least one thing with a little bit of flare to it. It didn’t take long for it to prove itself as the most versatile bike touring shirt a guy could ever want (not to mention the most fashionable). I don’t recall where I originally got it, but it was many years ago, and since I have no basis for believing it’s particularly good at blocking UV rays, I make a point of applying a ton of sunscreen even if it’s going on over it. Since I put it on right after applying the sunscreen, and since it rarely gets washed, it’s likely that it ends up with several applications of the sunscreen, effectively applied from the inside. And since it’s kinda shiny anyways, it doesn’t look nearly as gross as it sounds.
When I started taking seriously the consistent and comprehensive application of sun protection, as a solo cyclist that was solo-jointed, I had the problem of applying it to the area of my back that my hands can’t reach. On my Central America tour, I improvised with thin plastic trash or shopping bags. As long as I could tear them so that they made a strip long enough to run between my hands and over my back, I was good. To use, just apply sunscreen directly to bag and run over back, or apply to shoulders and lower back and spread onto upper back with bag When not in use, it’s kept in a ziplock bag as it stays sunscreen-y from its first use onward. In anticipation of this trip, I made a super-deluxe version using a thicker plastic shopping bag, the kind that you have to pay $0.25 for, and reports among its print that it’s been “designed for reuse”. It was a real luxury to have such a durable, perfectly sized with easy-to-use handles, sunscreen to back application system, However, I quickly realized that the same ink that reports its design intentions, and the other, random, LuLu-lemon-esque words that at least the Safeway family of grocery stores prints on their bags, is also sunscreen soluble. So I had to take some care to use only the non-printed side, and to also wipe up or rub in the random blotches of yellow, red, and black sunscreen dissolved ink until with a little extracurricular effort it was completely rubbed off the bag onto toilet paper wads from various Cuban casas (about 2 weeks in).
Sunscreening can be done just before, after, or even while (not recommended), eating breakfast because the packing of toiletries is the final step of packing up the bike because brushing teeth and flossing always comes after eating.
Charging the phone until the last minute is tempting if non-negligible numbers of milliwatts have been consumed over breakfast while, say, reviewing maps and finalizing decisions on where to go that day. This comes with an increased hazard of leaving the charger and cable behind. These are already relatively easy things to lose, and they’re light and inexpensive but sometimes difficult to replace, so it’s well worth carrying a spare for each. I have three different types of USB cables, mini, micro, and C. I take a single spare of mini (for bike headlamps) and C (for new phone) and three USB micro (backup phone, power packs, kindle), for a total of 7 cables. But they’re cheap and light, and the whole lot of it fits in a small ziploc along with micro-headlamp, spare phone, spare power pack, spare earbuds, and some rechargeable AAA batteries (for mini bluetooth keyboard to write solid gold such as this).
Every casa particular in Cuba serves a similar breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, cheese, butter, fresh fruit, fruit smoothie, coffee and hot milk for $3-5. About half the time it will include some meat, but this can be omitted. It’s not a particularly competitive cost for the amount and quality of calories it provides, but factoring in that it’s available at whatever time you specify the night before, and that this time is almost certainly earlier than you can find anything approaching this variety or quality, I almost always opt for the casa provided breakfast. In contrast, unless the casa is remote and far from any variety of options, or there’s some other motivation for eating in, I usually opt to go out for dinner rather than to have the casa provided dinner, typically offered at $10.
I’m out the door by 7:30, and in complete contrast to my state on my way into Santa Clara, it feels nothing short of ecstatic to be on my bicycle. The air is still cool and a little bit misty and/or smoggy, and the town is alive with a bustle of people going to school and work, grabbing tiny but stiff $0.04 coffees from impromptu cafe counters in residential doorways, and greeting each other in a way that still strikes me as enthusiastic, but I’ve come to know as standard in Cuba. My route out of town takes me around the main plaza, and I’m beaming from ear to ear before it even happens. I see a kid of maybe 12 years push his bike off the curb, with his hands on the handles of his cruiser style bars, and then with a sequence of 3 fleet footed steps, his feet leave the ground with height, angle, and lack sidase that looks positively cartoonish until you realize that he’s not jumping nearly as much as he’s pushing down and forward on the handlebars that at apex are supporting nearly his full weight and a thorough forward thrust. You know what about what goes up, so as his legs and hips come down, every bit as slow as his arms and waist can support through the pommel balance that is the front of the bicycle, he simply plops his seat on his seat as effortlessly as he would a from standing to chair on a floor just behind him. I had a cruiser bike for a short time on which I got just well enough at this kind of leaping mount that I have some idea, first hand, that it feels every bit as beautiful as it looks. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing more beautiful, in the sense of being artistically functional and a perfection of functional synthesis of person and machine. The bicycle, the pinnacle of human powered propulsion, and the result of many, disparate, incredible technical breakthroughs (with repercussions far wider reaching than bicycles), and it’s human, taking flight.
Now, I’m not just beaming, but getting chills the way one does when they see something so beautiful it gives them chills. Then a second kid, same age but noticably bigger runs out, confidently trusting that I’ll adjust slightly to go behind him, and runs up alongside the kid now riding but not yet pedaling. After about 2 steps the runner gives the rider a quick, decisive tap on the top of the shoulder, and 2 steps later hops directly onto the bike’s top bar and becomes the rider’s passenger. At this point, I’ve lost it. I’m hooting as I pass them a second later, head turned, beaming at them, pumping thumbs up, and then getting the same back in unison. I’d seen side-saddle, top bar passengers and loved to see that piece of functional beauty, but had until then wondered how clumsy it must be when starting.
My spirits couldn’t be higher, and I feel strong in a way that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling again 48 hours earlier. The sun at my back and from the east is low enough that it’s sunrise’s version of the golden hour, and the harder I pedal, the better I feel, not least because a consistent and fairly stiff westward tail wind is already underway. I’m loving the excitement of squeezing my way out of the town’s morning commute, in which most of the conditions leave me the fastest thing on the road, eeking out motorized bikes by their reluctance to squeeze between vehicles that I feel plenty nimble enough to clear. It’s all so perfect that I tell myself to slow down and enjoy the mellow aspects a bit more and hold off on pushing myself physically until I have room enough to do so with more abandon. I also make a note that I should check that I got on the right road out of town, which I don’t manage to do until 7km from the start when I’m on the open road and about to open up the throttle. When I do, I see that somehow I’ve gotten on the road going in the opposite direction, 90 degrees from the one I came in on a couple of days ago. I think, well, it figures the morning was too perfect to have not bolted off in the wrong direction. I double back and then get the phone out again just to verify that I’m on the correct route to the correct route, and now it looks I’m not. The map is flipped around. I was on the right route all along and looking at the map using perspective dictated by the phone’s ever-unreliable (somewhat skew) compass. D’oh! Between the mistake and the correction, I even thought of the fact that the Sun had seemed to verify my westward trajectory, but reasoned it was coming from the Northeast and I was going Northwest so somehow…well, I don’t know what I was thinking. But I resolved to make extra sure to lock the map’s ordinal direction before making ordinal-information based decisions, and to think through my pre-digital/celestial navigational reasoning a bit better.
On the open road, I fell like a well tuned machine. The wind is blowing pretty directly West and the road I’m on is weaving gradually between North West and North West West. My chain and/or my large front gear is stretched/worn enough so that on the powerful part of my pedal stroke, there’s a purr of roller meeting gear tooth which at my current high speed is only audible because the wind’s speed is matching and there’s an absence of the white noise of air in ear that would otherwise drown it out. It sounds like a cheetah purring on the exhale with the right leg and on the inhale with the left leg. I’m in my top gear and getting a full wind assist, and taking pulls from the delightfully scarce vehicles that pass me with wide berth. For a big truck or a bus, I’ll go out mid-line and get closer to it to maximize the suction and the minute or so I can fly at 40km/h+ with minimal effort and maximum cheetah purr. On a random pull off of an open bed semi, I hear some hoots as the back of the long bed approaches, and assume it’s some dudes standing up in the back, which would be a little odd for a bed of this length, but not entirely out of the ordinary. Instead, it’s two guys on bicycles, each one of them holding onto a back corner, neither one of them appearing to be exert any effort or concern about potholes. But then, this road is remarkably smooth. The parasitic hitch hiking I’ve done maxes out at 15km/h, and was done as an assist to pedalling going up inclines steep enough that they result in laden semis going that slow. With the wind-suction pull I get off their truck, I manage for a few joyful seconds to stay between 5 and 10km/hour slower than they, going at about 45km/h while they cheer me on and jokingly encourage me to catch up and grab on.
I had planned to stay the night in a town called Colon, that nobody I mentioned it to seemed that familiar with. I chose it because it is 120km away and the only town between 50 and 180km away that had any accommodations according to Maps.me, but I’m halfway there in just over 2 hours, and had earlier figured that if I had gotten there by noon, and it still felt largely effortless, I should try to make it to Matanza for 200km for the day, which would beat my previous personal distance record by around 40km.
When I get to Colon, it is indeed before noon, and effortless. So I only need some food and water. I end up waiting for 15 minutes to buy a 5L bottle of water, in a tienda where a man waits outside watching my bicycle after helping me bypass the group of about 15 women pressed up against the glass of the store, while 5 women inside determine who can come in and shop, in addition to shopping on behalf of orders called out, through the door as it is opened periodically by a door attendant. A sole woman rings up orders at a rate of, and I’m honestly not exaggerating here, about one per three minutes, interspersing cashier duties with folding and stocking empty cigarette boxes into a display, and diddling on her phone. Were there not so many people there bearing witness and being subjected to what I can’t see being anything but some kind of cruel joke, only not somehow getting whisked in ahead of a whole bunch of people because I’m white and rich, it was truly a test of my ability to not announce “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!”, and definitely not how I imagined spending my only break that day. I also bought bananas from some guys with a cart of them, which took a few seconds, and a ham and cheese sandwich and some cookies which also also only took a few seconds (including eating said sandwich) from the Rapido on the edge of town that stocked the same exact 5L bottle for the same exact price where I had just waited 15 minutes.
Back on the road, the heat of the day was in full effect, so I made a point of drinking half a 1.5L bottle and finding some shade to stop in about every 10km. The road was curving more and more to the North and I experience first hand that in a stiff consistent wind, a few degrees orientation can be the difference between an effortless 30km/h and an effortful 20km/h. No matter, averaging 20km/h without stops would be no problem in terms of daylight.
With about 20km left, I checked the map at my 10km rest, for no particular reason, and saw a smaller road that was a miniature copy of the current road, in that it starts almost directly West, then swoops up to the North. I would get to ride the tailwind a bit again, and I would get the East-to-West portion of the remainder done while the sun was still at a higher angle (with all the breaks I’d taken, it was 4:30 pm and the sun was getting low fast). This was good because riding into a sunset means that you’re very back-lit and hard to see to things coming up from behind you, like cars. It turned out the road was very smooth and much more lightly trafficked too, bonus wins on top of the all too rare opportunity for a cyclist to tack course according to wind conditions.
With the help of a Dutch couple also touring by bike with which I shared the descent into town, I found a delightful casa run by a darling, diminutive, matronly woman and stayed in the town four days, taking day trips to nearby beaches and and the town’s mountain top cathedral.
From there, I was again whisked by the wind back to Havana, where I spent a couple of nights with day trips, including an impromptu trip to a massive book fair in the historic fortress led by a Mexican/American cycle-tour friend I made in old-town.
And then I flew back to Seattle, with my bike which I decided to keep when the police recovered it from being robbed, packed in a box I managed to find.