The international LAMA (Latin American Motorcycle Association) national rally of Cuba was in Camaguey this year. Obviously, it was my first time going to one, although Noel had told me lots of stories about the past rallies. I had high expectations. Because of tensions and problems within the Santiago chapter, we decided to first go to Holguin alone and then go with the Holguineros to Camaguey. On our way to Holguin the top of the gas tank blocked the flow of gasoline and the motor cut out and we had to stop and Noel figured it out. Then we made it up to Holguin just fine although one time we had to pass through billowing smoke coming from a burning cane field. My face was really dirty when we arrived. We spent the night with friends and everyone left at 6 AM the next morning. Not as many people were going this year and none of the kids so I knew it wouldn’t be as fun as expected. Little did I know…
The trip to Camaguey was fun although Noel and I had a close call trying to pass a truck and I got scared and started crying. But I threw off my fear and enjoyed riding for the rest of the trip. When we got to the accommodations it was a pretty run down campismo without a pool or cafeteria. Everyone was pretty pissed and we had to share a room with another couple. I was pretty disappointed. Then we went to the huge meeting center called Casino Campestre. There were close to 300 motorcycles and people from all over the island and world like from Mexico and one guy from France and the VP of LAMA from California. I was pretty overwhelmed especially the machismo atmosphere. I was feeling pretty homesick but we went to an opening ceremony which took a while to start and everyone was bored. Then we rode through the city and later returned to the ‘hotel’ La India.
After a bad night sleep (lots of snoring from the roommate) we took off for Santa Lucia which is like 120 km from Camaguey. It is supposedly one of the best beaches in Cuba… it was also a campismo where we stayed, but it wasn’t enjoyable because of the chilly wind and rain torrents and one of the Santiagueros of the club was totally intoxicated which made the atmosphere in the cabin pretty tense. Noel and I decided to take off the morning on our own and head towards Bayamo through Las Tunas and then go back home. I was feeling negative about the experience and the predicated rain and itinerary and wanted to get home. Noel agreed so we turned off from Santa Lucia on our own to save a ton of kilometers on the trip back to Santiago.
The road before reaching just out of Santa Lucia was pure mud. I had to get off the motorcycle while Noel maneuvered it through the mud and run alongside it. I was scared the motorcycle would fall over but Noel asked me if I saw the movie The Motorcycle Diaries about Che Guevara. I said yes! I love that movie! And he said just think, this is just like that movie, but in Cuba! And look, you’ve got your military boots on too. I felt lots better after he said this and we pressed on. The rest of the trip was smooth except about 40 kilometers outside of Santiago in Las Palmas, a rain torrent fell on us. We stopped under a bridge where a ton of other motorcyclists where taking cover so I could put on my raincoat. When I was ready Noel had to break the conversations and Q and A he was having with the others about the Triumph and we headed back into the rain. The others were surprised that we were going out into the rain and Noel replied: Since when have you see a motorcyclist made out of sugar?” Then we took off once again.
All in all the Rally in Camaguey sucked but at least it was an adventure!
A couple of weeks ago I got back from Santiago after living there for 3 months with my family visa. As usual, it was both a living hell and cool like Che’s Motorcycle Diaries. I will be posting a series of posts, starting today, about these past three months.
The first will be about my visit to Santa Ifigenia to ‘pay my regards’ to el Comandante and Jefe…
Noel had to stop by the police station to have them take photographs of his motorcycle since their database was lost somehow and everyone with a motor vehicle had to go and for re-photographing. After we did that, we swung by the cemetery to visit Fidel, who died a few months before I came back to Santiago. As far as I could tell, no one in our sphere had been affected by his death, if anything, everyone was complaining at the over usage of his image on TV and in the street. “They’re (as in, the Cuban government) is just using him. It will never stop.” A pretty good joke was going around about Marti, and the new tomb, which is just a big shapeless stone as you’ll see in the photo. The ‘cuento’ goes like this: The cemetery maintenance worker sees Marti bent over, as if very distressed. Normally Marti sits in a pensive position. “Well, what happened Apostle? Why are you bent over like that?” cries the worker. Marti replied, “Brother, they put this huge stone in my way!” This joke has been whispered a lot among friends and family.
When I arrived at the tomb, a couple guards were stationed there, and one of them escorted us to the front of the tomb. Only one photo each was the rule. We didn’t bring a flower. In front of Fidel, I thought about how my querida abuela lost everything and about the huge impact that this man made. I said quietly, “Gracias por todo, Comandante.” I said it somewhat farcically, although I believe that in the moment I kind of meant what I said. Then Noel snapped my picture on his cellphone and we left.
Beforehand we also walked around the cemetery and Noel pointed out various interesting sights like the memorial of the founding fathers of Cuba and the graves of all the unknown. We also visited Noel’s family plot where his grandmother is buried.
Yesterday I ran into a teacher of mine from the past. She asked me briefly about what I have been doing since MIT. I naturally mentioned that I have been living in Cuba on a family visa this past year. She responded that she’d like to travel there herself, “before it changes.” I’d forgotten this rather ignorant attitude that many non-Cuban Americans have about the island. But the honest truth is, the changes have already happened, they are invisible to the untrained eye. A more subtle and sickly kind of commercialism plagues the island, it commercializes the bearded heroes of old and the Revolution, long dead. It breeds jineteros, hustlers, and thieves that take not only iPhones and wallets, but dignity and peacefulness. Cuba changed in the ’90’s and it’s never going back, sorry.
In Cuba, scuba diving, bucear, is pretty much only for tourists because it’s not affordable to Cubans. It really bothers me that vacations, hotels, and many recreational activities are basically off limits to Cubans because their salaries don’t support the ability to purchase non-necesities. Anyway, Noel is a dive master and taught scuba diving at Hotel Bucanero after he got his internacional diving license in France. One day I got to try out scuba diving at Sierra Mar, a hotel where one of Noel’s old colleagues still works as a diving instructor. We went on the Triumph and took the coastal highway, about 70 kilometers. Noel didn’t have to pay to scuba dive, and I only payed for a single dive, not the initiation or equipment, so it ended up being affordable. First I learned how to use the mask, and then the scuba tank and gear. I also learned the underwater hand signals and how to relieve the pressure build up in the ears. We did a test submersion in the hotel pool. I love swimming and had no trouble learning how to use the equipment, everyone was impressed. When Noel’s colleague Manolito took off to take out a group of tourists to snorkel, Noel taught me how to assemble and disassemble the tank and vest. We headed back to the diving center to wait for Manolito. When he got back, we boarded a small boat and took off toward the reef. We sat on the edge of the boat and then fell into the water, tank first, holding our noses. That was so cool, I loved that part. Noel and Manolito had to put some extra weights in my vest and then we sank down to the reef. I saw trumpet fish, eight lobsters, a sea spider, huge fish with giant bulging eyes, corals, a sea horse, and bright polka dotted fish, and a fish with long black spindly spikes all over it. We ended up diving 18 meters which is pretty much unheard of for an initiation dive. It was amazing and so quiet under the water. It was hard at first to find balance in the current and how to rise and descend in the water. Manolito and Noel helped me out a lot, and I sometimes held Noel’s hand. It ended up being the most perfect day.
In Old Havana, there is a little known corner called “la esquina de descolonización,”on the corner of Morro and Colon. This corner is a subtle memorial located directly across from the bigger, louder monument of the Granma yacht near the Museum of the Revolution. This Corner of De-Colonization memorializes the death of five of the Abakua Brotherhood who attempted to save the eight medical students who were unjustly killed by the Spanish military in November 1871. How many stories like these have been left out of Cuban history? Each year since 2006, on November 27th, a parade is held, beginning at this corner, to celebrate the memory of the Abakua Martyrs. This corner was brought to my attention on a day in late January by two local activists who write for the Havana Times who I was hanging out with. Later in the week I brought Noel to show him and he said he’d never seen it or heard of it before. It is interesting to me how some history is overshadowed, like the story of the Abakua five, and only kept alive by the collective memory of residents, while other history like the voyage of the Granma in 1956 is given a huge place in history.
Unlike in the United States where you can buy whichever food you need from basically anywhere you want, including gas stations, corner stores, supermarkets, drugstores, department stores, specialty food stores, online, you name it, buying food in Cuba is much more difficult and extremely disorganized and confusing. For example, if you want to buy garlic for cooking, you can’t just go buy it in a supermarket like a Whole Foods or whatever. You have to wait for a vendor to walk down your street yelling “ajo!!” (garlic.) That happens pretty much all day long, vendors walking down the street shouting out what they’re selling, whether it be: “guayaba, zapote, limón!” or “cloro!” or “ajo, cebolla!” or “yuca, guineo!” or “pasteles!” It’s lucky when the guy who sells pasteles comes by. Those are buttery cookies filled with guava jam, they’re delicious. One morning, there wasn’t much food in the house and Noel and I had to go to a friend’s place in another quarter of the city. As we were walking we ran into a vendor selling bananas and yuca, and we bought a bunch of each. It’s totally normal to see people walking around with their arms filled with various fruits and vegetables. Luckily for us, we could eat the bananas for breakfast, I recall being very hungry. Cuba never really recovered from the Special Period of the ’90’s. Although there is much more food now, hunger is still a pretty normal part of daily life especially if you don’t have a lot of hard currency (tourist money) on hand. For example the government rationed bread doesn’t always arrive at night, or if you’re hungry during the day and don’t hear the panadero’s whistle, you’re out of luck.
In my second post about food in Cuba, I briefly explained how the food subsidization works, la programa del racionalización. Well, one kind of cool aspect to that program is that on every Cuban’s birthday he or she receives a subsidized birthday cake, which Cubans just call “cake.” Like the English term. The cakes are made en domicilio, or in the home of someone in the neighborhood who bakes as their profession. The cake is a spongy moist texture and is covered with colorful meringue frosting. The cakes are usually peanut, strawberry, chocolate or of indistinct sweet flavors. On my birthday we got a chocolate cake, and on Noel’s birthday, October 18th, he got a really big peanut flavored cake with blue and white meringue and topped with chocolate powder. Lots of people came over so it’s a good thing it was a big cake.