Try the Goat

As I watch the sun set over the Caribbean it seems remarkable that 6 weeks have passed since our arrival on the beautiful island of Carriacou. In just 5 days, we we start on a long journey to Eastern Europe with the end goal being some family time and to visit our daughter who is a student at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia. For the next month we will not be doing any veterinary volunteer projects and just enjoying some travel time and family time. While we will enjoy just being vagabonds and on our own schedule for the next 8 weeks, volunteering as veterinarians has been an amazing experience. It has given purpose to our travels and improved our surgical skills, adaptability and resourcefulness as veterinarians. These are benefits I had expected when I started down this road of international volunteerism, but there is one benefit that I had not fully anticipated. Volunteering abroad has provided us with an instant community of interesting, passionate and dedicated people from around the world, with whom we have formed lasting and meaningful friendships. To all you exceptional humans, whose we’ve met over the past 16 months, thank you. Getting to know you, sharing our stories, sharing a meal and occasionally sharing too many rum punches has made the last year a truly amazing journey. It has gotten me thinking about what makes for an exceptional veterinary volunteer experience and also what makes an exceptional volunteer.

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In the last year and a half we have worked with a large number of volunteers. People from around the world, with different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and experience levels.  Compassion and a love of animals is the common ground that unites us and brings this diverse group of people together on a project. While I can only truly speak to my own experience, I feel some volunteers return home transformed and empowered while for others the experience is less fulfilling. Like so many things in life, the benefits you receive are directly related to the effort you are willing to put in. So once you have decided to dip your toes in the world of veterinary volunteerism (or really any type of volunteer work), how can you ensure you will have the best experience possible?

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When you pack your bags, don’t forget to pack a great attitude. If you walk around with a storm cloud over your head at your practice back home, leave the attitude there please.  This is a working holiday, after all, so leave your worries at home and consider it an opportunity to make a fresh start.

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Be ready to work hard and pitch in wherever you are needed. This means forget about your job description at home and be willing to clean kennels, wash instruments, answer phones and sweep floors, even if you are a vet!  Really?  Yes, really.

Shut your mouth and open your mind. Forget about how you do things “back home”, listen to the project directors, follow the protocols and accept that things are done differently for good reason. Costs and availability of medications varies greatly from country to country and project to project. Stop and consider the Project leaders and directors. These people have often put in countless hours of their own time not to mention countless dollars from their own pockets, in order to get the veterinary project launched. They have a very personal stake in the project. When you show up and immediately start complaining about the type of suture available, the anesthetic protocols the expired drugs on their hospital shelves you have just successfully alienated the very people that gave you this opportunity. Good work!

If you have a big ego, please stay home. Seriously, there are enough big egos and competitive attitudes in our veterinary practices at home, let’s not bring them along on volunteer trips. Egos are the enemy of teamwork. A big egos does not endear you to your coworkers, and most importantly it gets in the way of reaching the project goals.

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Talk with the local people not at them. Engage and interact with the community you are working in and try to leave your preconceived ideas of a country or culture at home. This can be harder to do than you may think. We are all programmed to believe our way of thinking is correct and to want to change a local populations way of thinking to more closely match your own.

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Remember your manners. Be respectful of local people, the charity organizers and the other volunteers. Say good morning, smile and don’t forget to say thank you. Nothing will give you a bad reputation, as a volunteer, faster than rudeness and an ungrateful attitude. Have fun but remember you are working in a small community of people, both the volunteer community and the local community.  Your behaviour can impact not only you but can also affect the reputation of the project. Remember you are an ambassador for more than just yourself.

Finally, remember to bring a sense of adventure, have fun and be willing to trying something new. Never eaten goat? Now is your chance. Always wanted to snorkel with sharks? Say yes to that unexpected invitation. Things rarely go as planned on volunteer trips, electricity goes out, patients wake up in the middle of surgery and you may find yourself forced to improvise and try things you would never consider in your practice at home.  Just go with it, stay cool and don’t sweat the small stuff. Odds are you will be amazed that, in the end, it all turns out okay. 

 

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Since selling our veterinary practice in November, we have discovered a new world of opportunities and experiences as veterinarians. A huge thank you to everyone who has made these past 8 months so remarkable: Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project, Carriacou Animal Hospital and all the people we have met along the way. You accepted us without hesitation, made us feel welcome and gave us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Thanks to you, we now have friends around the world and networks to new adventures in the years to come.  Following our travels in the Balkans we will be returning to Canada for 4 months to work as locum veterinarians. Our journey as volunteer veterinarians, however, has just began as we have several new projects, as well as a return to some of our favorites, lined up for the end of 2018 and 2019.

Stay tuned and until then remember to try the goat!

Where the heck is Carriacou?

Since March 26, Rob and I have been hanging out on a chill little island in the Caribbean. In exchange for a free bed, we are offering up our veterinary skills to the Carriacou Animal Hospital, the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou. Let me tell you this gig is one sweet deal! While Rob and I live at the hospital and are available for walk in appointments and emergencies, the relaxed pace, instant social life and beautiful turquoise sea just a few steps away is ample reward for the work we provide.

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Kathy (director of Carriacou Animal Hospital) and Nadine (Head Veterinarian)

So where the heck is Carriacou? Located in the South eastern Caribbean Sea and one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou is a two hour ferry ride north east of Grenada. 

The population of the island is listed as 8000 but locals suggest this may be inflated by seasonal visitors and a more realistic number may be 6000. In either case, at just 13 square miles, it’s a pretty small place and to our delight, has a very authentic Caribbean vibe. It is a place that seams stuck in time, with friendly locals, small shops and restaurants with glimpses of  beautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.

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Rough seas on the ferry from Grenada to Carriacou
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The ferry landing and our first glimpse of Hillsborough Carriacou

So what does a typical day at Carriacou Animal Hospital look like?  Most days we awaken early to the frenzied sound of the hospital’s yard dogs barking at the passing garbage truck. We lounge under our mosquito net and listen to the ocean waves as we plan our morning.  Coffee is the first priority, then while one of us attends to the animals in our care, the other begins emptying garbages, sweeping and cleaning the cabin before our clients and patients arrive. We clean kennels, wash wounds, give medications and make sure all our charges have had some exercise and some love before we head to the beach to relax for a bit with toes buried in the soft sand and our morning coffee in hand.

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The hospital officially opens at 8:30 am, but clients trickle in at any time of day, often as they are passing by and remember they need advice or medication. In Carriacou, appointments and surgeries are rarely planned very far in advance. After all, this is the Caribbean, relax man and go with the flow! The amazing and upbeat Lorraine, arrives at 8:30 and starts to organize our day. She manages to juggle phone calls, client requests, finding lost files and confused volunteers with a laugh and smile. Clients are called a day ahead to schedule elective surgeries but our days rarely go as planned. Carriacou is a small place and it is often while out in the community that the founder of Carriacou Animal Hospital, Kathy or Nadine, the head veterinarian, will be met by local people asking “Are you the vets? I have a dog that needs to be cut.” The local term for sterilization, either a spay or neuter surgery, is to have your dog “cut”.  They will take a name, phone number and try to find out where the dog lives and then set up a time for surgery, usually as soon as possible.

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Our patients arrive in all sorts of “carriers”.  This little guy had a small eyelid injury from a dog bite. He healed up and did great.

 

Some days our surgeries arrive at the hospital between 8:30 and 9:00 am and we get an early start, but often the clinic team needs to travel and pick up our patients at home. Many locals rely on public transportation and cannot take animals on the bus. After following the winding roads up hillsides and into small communities, we now have to catching our patients. While most dogs are friendly, they have not all been socialized to strangers and this can take a good part of our morning. We sedate them onsite and arrive back at the clinic ready to start surgery. 

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Rob preforms a cat spay

During most of our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital we did not have a veterinary technician/nurse, but instead had 3 veterinarians, myself, Rob and Dr. Nadine. One of us would assist the “surgeon” for the day while the other would see appointments that dropped in, wash surgical instruments and attend to laundry.  As patients recover through the afternoon we write up charts and finish with instrument sterilization and cleaning. Sometimes there are emergency calls about animals which had been “bumped”, the local term for being hit by a vehicle and sadly, a common occurrence on the island. Other days we see walk in appointments or attend to scheduled house calls to check on patients or treat animals whose owners have no transportation.

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Children showing us their puppy while checking on another dog with heartworm that lives with this family.

 

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Puppies – Our favorite house call patients!

By mid to late afternoon our patients are awake and ready to be delivered home, to their thankful owners. Now its time to relax and cool off in the turquoise sea, that is literally steps away, while we watch the most spectacular sunsets.

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Similar to veterinary hospitals around the world, everyday brings something new through the doors of Carriacou Animal Hospital. For me, this variety, is one of the things I love most about my chosen profession; life as a vet is never dull and there is always something new to learn! Our patients are usually covered in fleas and ticks and heartworm infection is extremely common here. 

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This client brought his dog in for a check up and tick treatment. Check out the ticks in his ears in the photo below.
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Wow, he will feel so much better after his treatment!

Educating clients about preventative treatments and their importance is a routine part of every client visit. Tick Fever is extremely common on Carriacou and can present with a variety of symptoms. Interestingly enough, we have found the amount of bleeding during surgery seems to be less severe than with our erhlicia infested patients in Botswana. Nutritional advice is also much needed on the island. Locals commonly feed puppies bread and milk. Dog food, while available, is expensive and not commonly used.  Part of our job is educating people about the importance of nutrition and protein in a puppies diet.  Sometimes the smallest changes and advice can have a huge impact on the health of the local dog population.

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These three puppies were all from the same litter but the small one lives with a different family member and has only been fed bread and milk. Note the difference in size and health.

Injuries, accidental and deliberate are also common in the local dog population. Burns, gunshot wounds and fractures (sometimes secondary to malnutrition and often the result of trauma) are just a few of the cases we have treated.

The local dog population is a mix of breeds with the average size adult dog weighing between 10 to 20 kg. Mixed breed Pit Bulls are popular with the islands young men and occasionally we see pups that look like they have some type of herding breed in there background.

Being the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou, we also get calls to treat the occasional sheep or goat. One sheep arrived for emergency wound care after being attacked by the neighbours pit bull. Another little orphaned lamb came in to treat an abscessed hoof. In general, however, livestock concerns are referred to the local agriculture veterinary department.

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Rob reliving his days as a mixed animal vet!

While the hospital was started to provide veterinary care to the local population and their pets, as a way to give back and provide a desperately needed service, Carriacou Animal Hospital also provides care to the local expat population.  Export permits are commonly needed as well as routine preventative care for pets that are lucky enough to spend part of the year in the Caribbean with their owners.

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Sancho arrives at the hospital via the sea
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Sancho gets a checkup from Rob

Founded in 2012, Carriacou Animal Hospital is an independent non-profit veterinary hospital. The hospital does not receive public funding and is staffed entirely by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses. Volunteers often fundraise at home, prior to their trip to Carriacou, bringing with them much needed medications and supplies. Minimal fees are charged in order to cover the cost of delivering this much needed service. However, the hospital’s main goal is to provide care for the animals in most need, often those whose owners cannot afford treatment.  Clients are NEVER turned away due to lack of financial resources and patients are treated, without question or judgement, with the goal of alleviating distress and suffering and providing the necessary care for each individual patient. Check out their website at www.carriacouanimalclinic.com to learn more or donate to this wonderful project. You can also follow Carriacou Animal Hospital on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CarriacouAnimalHospital.

While it is easy to tell you about our work days, the patients we see and the fun activities we have experienced in Carriacou, it is harder to put into words the cultural experience of volunteering as a veterinarian on this small island. Carriacou is not what I  pictured when envisioning the Caribbean. It has a small town feel, it is not yet a “hot” tourist destination and on most beaches you will them completely to yourself. There are no all inclusive resorts and the restaurants, for the most part, are small and locally owned.

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The “road” we cycled along to a small beach with great snorkeling.  

 

While the local people are friendly and welcoming, there is no doubt that you are an outsider. I find it interesting that there are several unique “communities” that coexist in Carriacou and between these “communities” there is a wide range of values and of course wealth. After spending the day doing house visits to families living in abject poverty we would often return to the hospital and see super yachts anchored just off shore. I am talking yachts that are towing at least one speed boat as well as 3 jet skis and rent for $800 000 USD per week! The yachting community and other expats who spend part of their year living in the Caribbean, while not all are of the uber-wealthy super yacht set, are definitely part of the “haves” of the world (as are we). There are also the local Carriacou families who were born here but moved away as children or young adults, often to Britain, to be called back to the simple way of life and family values that tied them to the islands. Finally there are the locals who have grown up on the island and never left. They may be fisherman, tradesmen, running a small business and raising their families here on the island, proud of their home and heritage.  For the most part, all co-exist peacefully on this beautiful island, but the disparity in wealth is ever present and more obvious given the small size of Carriacou.

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The Coral Ocean Super Yacht which was anchored just off shore

 

 

Since hitting the road in November, I have tried to be an observer and record what I see, letting the experience of being in the moment and using the skills I have acquired, guide me. I am sure as time passes and I process these experiences I will find a more articulate way to express what I have learned. Right now, I feel extreme gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life, my health, my family and most of all, the one over which I really had no control; my good fortune in the genetic lottery of life.  How very luck to be born into a middle class family in Canada with the intelligence, drive and opportunity at my disposal. Seeing families living in poverty unlike what many of us can imagine, drives this gratitude home. How to help those less fortunate, whether at home or abroad, living in the cycle of poverty and despair, is so complicated it leaves me feeling quite helpless. Over the last 6 months, the problem of the worlds overconsumption as become more real to me. The amount of garbage and waste we find in the country side and the ocean, coupled with over packaging and lack of recycling is disheartening to say the least. Living out of a backpack, makes it easier to reduce consumption and consumerism but the real test will be finding ways to continue this positive change upon our return home. This journey has made me more mindful of my own consumption as well as questioning my western values and lifestyle.

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Garbage littering a green space in Havana Cuba

 

In 10 days we will leave Carriacou and start a new journey in a new part of the world. We will take with us two new friendships and the knowledge that we will be back again to work with this amazing charily in November.Stay tuned for more adventures and more ramblings from a mind unleashed in the weeks to come. And yes, I will be feeling very guilty about my carbon footprint when I get on that plane.  

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Local dogs playing in the ocean

The Incident with the Outhouse

While wasting time scrolling through Facebook and thinking about finishing a blog post on our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital, I came across an event I am sorry I will miss, the Best of White Buffalo Storytelling. Inspired by the infamous Moth storytelling group in New York, a group of people in my hometown are reviving the art of storytelling, West Kootenay style! Three separate events were held this winter inviting people to come together for a cosy evening of storytelling. All stories had to be short, true and delivered from the heart. In November, just days before leaving on this adventure, I decided to give it a try.  The theme for the evening was “War and Peace”. Kind of a heavy theme but I decided it was time to step outside my comfort zone, bare my soul and share a story about my past which was very personal, a little dark and not easy to tell. Despite being surrounded by friends and my community, I was nervous. I managed to tell my story and by the end, the room was unnaturally quiet or perhaps it just seemed quiet in contrast to the sound of my own pulse reverberating in my skull from my high level of anxiety! I was surprised and also thrilled to learn I was picked as one of the storytellers to share a tale at the final event, The Best of the White Buffalo. As we are still on the road, I will not be able to attend the event but I thought I would share my story here instead.

I am a sensitive person and wear my emotions on my sleeve, just ask anyone who knows me. For a long time it was embarrassing, how easily I can cry and often over the silliest things. At the same time, I have an tough exterior, I get shit done, have the pain tolerance of a rhino and can push myself harder than what is considered healthy by most people. While my family likes to tease me about this, I’ve learned to accept, if not embrace, my soft and squishy center. I have never thought of myself as a storyteller, but after my first White Buffalo event, I want to do it again. Telling a story is a bit like writing this blog and at times, the whole thing feels a bit narcissistic. Who really cares, Elaine? Just do your shit, enjoy your life, no one really wants to hear your stories or weird insights on life. But still, there is something about storytelling that I enjoy and I want to become better at it. The act of telling a story entertains us, connects us with our past and hopefully makes us feel a little less alone as we struggle through our imperfect lives. The theme for the Best of the White Buffalo is “Family” and this is a true story from my childhoood (at least as true as my memory recalls). Hope you like it!

I grew up on a working family farm in Alberta. Key word here is working. No organic kale, cute little goats and free range chickens, that people today might call farming (please note, I mean no offence if you grow kale, goats and free range chickens, this is a story about MY childhood folks and sometimes you have to take creative license). Our farm was located in prime, black dirt Central Alberta land. My 3 siblings and I were raised to work hard, play hard and if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing right! 

Growing up in Alberta in the 70’s, like many farm families, we had an outhouse. Smelly in the summer and frosty in the winter, it was situated a short dash from the house and mostly used for emergencies, like when dad was enjoying a morning cigarette and sit and you just could not WAIT! I believe it was built back in the 60’s when my parents, freshly married and building a house of their own, constructed the outhouse as a necessity, until the plumbing was done. The outhouse survived into my teens by which time it was pretty much condemned. With a rotting floor, precariously tilted platform to rest your bottom and 20 years of buildup below, you were taking a pretty big risk if you went in!  And so it sat, for many years, sadly neglected and a relic of days gone by.

Every season on a family farm has an associated chore, winter was calving, spring was seading, summer haying and fall harvest. Obviously, this over simplifies things as there are many other chores required to meet the farms main objectives of growing grain and beef. Our farm never employed hired hands, a family farm was worked by the family. As kids our summers were spent working on the farm, with occasional breaks for camping and fishing trips. We drove tractors, baled hay, built miles of fences and shelled wheel barrow loads of peas. We worked hard because, well, that’s what we were taught and while I cannot speak for my siblings, also because I wanted my father’s approval and was more than a little terrified of him.

As the farm prospered, my dad was able to slowly replace the old wooden graineries, with shiny new steel bins. These silver, space age storage units were a sign of a successful farmer on the prairies. To us kids, they were a welcome addition, as the circular steel bins, with no corners and crooks to capture the grain, were much easier to clean and less attractive to mice, than the dusty old wooden graineries. One summer when I was around 14, we tore down many of those old wooden grain bins as well as miles of old corral fences, that had been replaced to expand the feedlot. As the hot days of summer progressed, nails were pulled out of the old wood, in order to prevent flat tires (and punctured gum boots which would then require the use of bread bags to keep your feet dry) and the the pile of old wood grew.

Late summer arrived and with it harvest, filling those shiny new bins with golden barley and red-brown canola. For me, this was always the most stressful time of year. A season where the entire years work could all be lost due to mother nature’s fickle temperament. The pressure to get the grain into bins, while the temperature was right and the weather was holding, created stress and with it tempers ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. At this time of year, I never seemed to move fast enough, asked too many stupid questions and was usually in the wrong spot when it came time to meet the combine and collect a load of grain. I longed for harvest to end, the days to shorten, and the first hard frost to cover the ground.

The arrival of fall, meant not only a reduction in the chores that I wasn’t very good at but also going back to school, something I was good at. It meant the weather was finally right for a bonfire. One weekend afternoon, Dad decided it was time to light up the old grainery wood we had piled behind the quonset, but a few final preparations were still needed. He started up the old John Deere 60 and proceeded to tip over the old outhouse, attach a chain and drag it towards the wood pile. Somehow, the rotten old shitter managed to remain intact and was piled atop the massive stack of wood, laying on it’s side, with bottom end tilted slightly upwards, towards the sky. The four of us kids waited in anticipation. This was gonna be good. There was a lot of old dry wood waiting to burn and this was going to be the best bonfire EVER! Then Dad yelled at us to go find a jug, fill it with diesel fuel and bring it over. “And hurry up, we haven’t got all day”. Like most farms, we had two big fuel tanks, one diesel and one gas, side by side in the yard. We’d been taught the difference between these fuels, knew which vehicles used gas and which ones used diesel and we knew diesel was the safe choice to get a fire going. As we searched around for an old gallon jug, Dad decided the kids were too slow and muttered, “Never mind, I’ll get it myself”.  Full jug in hand he returned to the pile and proceeded to liberally soak the wood in fuel. This wasn’t a quick or an easy job, as we’d worked hard that summer and created quite a massive stack of garbage wood. Dad climbed up the pile, pouring fuel as he went until he reached the top where, like a hillbilly wedding cake topper, sat the old outhouse. Perched on the top of the pile, in a direct line with the end of the outhouse, Dad through threw the last of the fuel into it and paused at the open end of the shitter. Time slowed down and like a scene from a movie, the match was struck and in one fluid motion, was thrown into the end of that old outhouse. We all watched, slack jawed and in shock as in the next moment, Dad was shot out from the open end of that old outhouse, like a stuntman from a cannon. In that split second, my siblings and I looked at each other. We all realized he’d accidentally filled the jug with gasoline and in that same split second I knew my siblings were thinking the same thing as me… thank god I didn’t fill that jug.

If you happen to be in Trail, BC on April 27, 2018, get a ticket to the Best of  White Buffalo Storytelling at the Muriel Griffiths Room, Charles Bailey Theatre and help keep the art of storytelling alive!

The Good, the Bad and the Truly Awful: Our last weeks in Cuba

Time for an update from Vets without Boundaries, aka Rob and Elaine. We arrived in Grenada to start our next volunteer project with Carriacou Animal Hospital on March 25, 2018. You may be wondering, where the heck is Carriacou and I am still deciding if I want to tell the world about this sweet little spot. It’s kind of like our home in Rossland, BC where our community needs the tourists and jobs but we really don’t want to see things change too much and destroy what makes it so special. Before I tell you more about Carriacou, I need to backtrack and fill you in on what has happened since my last blog.

After volunteering with the Spanky Project in Havana we headed off on our bicycles to see more of Cuba. Our first day back on the road took us approximately 80 km to Los Terrazas, a small community located in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. After making a wrong turn on the way out of Havana, we eventually got ourselves “un-lost” and then made good time along the Autopista heading West. After traveling this road 5 years ago we were quite surprised by the increased amount of traffic and were happy to turn off the highway towards Los Terrazas. The final 7 km was a mountainous uphill push, but we were rewarded with a beautiful setting for our first night outside of Havana.

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Los Terrazas

The village was designated as a Biosphere Nature Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and the 5000 hectare nature reserve was replanted using terraces to prevent erosion after deforestation. With a population of approximately 1000 residents, it caters primarily to tourists. There was was a large eco hotel but no licensed casa particulares, at least none that we could find.  After a long, hot day we ended up splurging on the hotel as the thought of another 25 km, uphill to Soroa, was not going to happen for this old lady! The following day we packed our panniers and decided to check out the San Juan Pools, a 6 km detour out of town.  We are so glad we did as it was a beautiful little spot with hiking paths along the river and numerous fresh water swimming holes. 

We discovered little camping cabins, basic but clean, beside the pools, for a reasonable $25 CUC per night. It was such a lovely spot, we wished we had discovered it the night before and avoided the expensive “eco” hotel! After a swim and some relaxation, we decided to delay our departure and stay overnight.

The next morning we enjoyed the second worst breakfast in Cuba (the winner for worst breakfast was the dry ham bun at La Mula Campismo) and headed west towards Soroa. The ride was beautiful with pavement in excellent condition, little traffic and lots of hills to keep things interesting.  The last uphill stretch prior to the Soroa junction was long and relentless.  After walking up the last half km, I was cranky and my attitude was likely not improved but the minimal breakfast provided at the San Jan Pools restaurant. It was obvious Rob wanted to press on towards Vinales and I grumpily agreed! In the end, I was glad we did, as the road was in great condition, the breeze kept me from overheating and the scenery was spectacular. 

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Farmers selling fruit on the route to Vinales – delicious!

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We were a little unsure about the availability of casas along this northern route and watched for a good option as we road through small farming and fishing communities.  We did end up finding a great casa, a warm welcome and delicious food at Villa Jose Otano.

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Elaine “dog tired” and taking a break on arrival at our casa

The next day we pressed on to Vinales, to find the sleepy country village of 5 years ago, completely transformed. Vinales is definitely on the tourist radar these days and the once quiet main street was lined with restaurants, shops and the sidewalks crowded with tourists.  We ended up riding out to a cheesy cave tour the next day and decided to leave early in search of a more authentic Cuban experience. The Viazul bus to Jaguey Grande was full so we were directed to a fellow booking a mini bus for the next morning.  After leaving a $20 CUC deposit advised that we needed to be at the bus station at 8 am. I was assured the mini bus would be a direct route to Cienfuegos and we would be dropped off on the highway at Jaguey Grande with no stops along the way. The next morning we arrived early and were again reminded that in Cuba, it is best to leave your assumptions and expectations at home. When someone says “mini bus” I picture a small, bus or van shaped motor vehicle. I joked with Rob as each old “van like” vehicle passed by us by saying, “there goes our mini bus”. But I was not far off when an old run down car with a large roof rack backed up to us (we had been advised to stand at the top a street which had a slight incline) and started loading our panniers and threw the bikes on top of the load. The driver managed to find some rope, really it was more of a string, to tie on the bikes and then motioned for me to get inside and for Rob to push!  With a bump he popped the car into gear and the engine started. Rob quickly hopped in as we rolled down the hill and off to pick up several more tourists headed the same direction. We noticed at each stop, the driver was careful to either leave the engine running or park on an incline in order to bump start his car again!

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Mini bus number 1

About 2 hours into our journey we arrived at a junction along the highway. Turning in and stopping, the driver motioned for us to get out, removed our bikes and told us to wait there for another car. 90 minutes later another car arrived, reloaded our gear and delivered us to our destination; the side of the highway, outside Jaguey Grande and about 30 km from Playa Larga. 

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Mini bus number 2

If you are looking for a beautiful beach, few tourists and great snorkelling, head to Playa Larga. At the top of the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs and just over 30 km from Playa Giron it is an important site in Cuban history. On April 16, 1961 cuban exiles, financed and directed by the US Government assembled in Guatemala and Nicaragua then set out by boat to Cuba, in an attempt to overthrown Fidel’s revolutionary government.  They landed at Playa Giron, on the Bay of Pigs and were defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, within 3 days, under the direct command of Fidel Castro. Now the Bay of Pigs is a quiet area, catering to tourists who come for the amazing diving or just to relax. 

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Snorkel spot along the Bay of Pigs
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Who says Cuban food isn’t good? Our picnic lunch from a street cart $2

We found a small, family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

We found a small family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

After leaving Playa Larga we spent one night in Playa Giron and then got an early start for the long ride to Cienfuegos. We were up at 6 am and started packing our bikes in the dark.  Expecting the usual sunrise at 6:30 am, we finally figured out daylight savings time was in effect when the sun was not coming up! We decided to leave in the dark, using our headlamps in order to beat the tropical heat. Rob stepped off our deck in the dark and sprained his ankle very badly. After hearing it “crunch”, we delayed long enough to decide it wasn’t broken and Rob decided he could still ride to Cienfuegos. It was a beautiful morning ride, watching the sun come up along an empty road with no traffic. As the day progressed the heat wore us down and on arrival at the outskirts of Cienfuegos, I stopped to wait for Rob and look at our map. My exhaustion was apparent, when in slow, cartoon motion, I tipped over and fell onto the street! Coming up behind me, Rob saw the whole thing and after I stood up, unharmed, we had a good laugh and he admitted to feeling equally exhausted. We headed for the main plaza to find shade and a cold drink. As we rolled our bikes off the street we heard someone call out, “Hey Canadians, bicycles over here”.  We were thrilled to find Frankie and Nick two cyclists from Germany that we visited with while snorkeling outside Playa Larga. They introduced us to Pierre, a cyclist from Quebec, and then directed us to a good casa nearby.  We agreed to meet again that evening and enjoy dinner together.  We had a wonderful evening, sharing stories from the road and getting to know each other. It is always amazing how quickly you make friends and bond with complete strangers when traveling! The following day we said goodbye as they were leaving for Trinidad and we planned to spend 3 nights in Cienfuegos.

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Cienfuegos is a great city, with few tourists, a lovely plaza, great music and friendly locals. There were far fewer jinteros trying to take advantage of us, as compared to places like Vinales, and food, beer and accommodations were reasonably priced. We spent our first day finding a tensor bandage for Rob’s ankle (now officially a “canckle” and triple its normal size), finding internet to FaceTime the kids and eating ice cream. 

The next day, Rob felt his ankle was up for a 20 km ride to Rancho Luna and a quiet day at the beach. We decided to return via the local ferry and enjoyed seeing Cienfuegos from the water. 

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The beach at Rancho Luna and a ghost crab

In 2005, UNESCO placed the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list. With six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the historic centres sewer system is not up to 21st century expectations. The only downside to our time in this old colonial city was the smell.  Our casa was situated right on the bay and throughout our stay, the sewer gas and septic smells would occasionally waft in. On our second night, a huge rainstorm blew in, filling the storm sewers to capacity and resulting in the most putrid odor.  I really try not to be a “princess” when I travel but it was BAD.  Nauseatingly bad.  Rub tea tree oil soap inside your nose bad. I guess the take home lesson is be grateful we only had one night of rain and remember if you want to travel cheap, there are going to be some uncomfortable experiences!

Following Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana to meet friends who were coming to Cuba for Spring break.  A trip organized in anticipation of Jackie O’Reilly’s 50th birthday but also coinciding with Mike Kent’s 48th year of being on this earth. Double the fun!  What can I say about the last 2 weeks in Havana Vieja and Varadero. Perhaps it would be better to describe our experience in a series of verbs:  clubbing, laughing, swimming, vomiting, diarrhea-ing, walking (looking for good restaurants), starving (for the vegetarians in the group) and stealing.  I will elaborate as you’re probably wondering what happened BUT I do not want to focus on the negatives, as re-connecting with our Rossland family was really special after being on the road so much this year. We had a blast on Jackie’s birthday and after dinner out and enjoying some local music we ended up at a disco until the wee hours. 

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Reconnecting with some of our “Rossland Family”

The next morning 3 members of the crew were hit with a severe case of travellers gut.  No this was not from all the rum we consumed (although in Mike’s case I am not sure) as one of the ill members of our party was underage and not drinking.  This “bug” ended up taking out 3 more members of the team (myself included) before the week was out. We were passing out our supply of azithromycin like it was candy! Thanks Dr. Andrea for making sure our first aid kit was so well stocked! We enjoyed the beach at Varadero but not the food. After eating delicious meals throughout Cuba, I have to say Varadero SUCKS when it comes to finding tasty, affordable and delicious food.  I finally understand why people complain about the food in Cuba.  My response is simple: avoid Varadero. This is NOT representative of the rest of the country. Step out of the government run restaurants and be a little adventurous and you will be rewarded. We did have 3 amazing meals at Club Waco a small privately run restaurant near our casa, which is really the only restaurant worth mentioning. The icing on the cake for our Varadero experience was the theft of Rob’s bicycle 2 nights prior to our ride back to Havana. We were fortunate to find a room available, right next door to our friends casa, in a nice neighbourhood and close to the public beach. From the start it had a bit of a weird vibe, compared to the many Cuban homes we had stayed in around the country and we dubbed it Casa Peculiar. The yard was fenced and they assured us the bikes were “secure”, as they had a security camera and locked the gates at night.  However, one night someone climbed over the back wall and was caught on camera stealing Rob’s bike.  True, we should have locked it up and we regret that decision. However I still say it is better to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be eternally suspicious. Initially we had thought we might leave our bikes in Cuba, but we had hoped to choose the person we would give them to. We returned our bike gear to Canada with our friends and will continue our journey with our backpacks only. On the plus side, we got to enjoy an extra 3 days with our good friends from Rossland.

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Beautiful public beach at Varadero

So final thoughts on Cuba?  I still love this country, its history, resiliency and the genuine, fun loving and kind people who are the real reason you should visit Cuba. However, in areas touched by tourism (Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad) things have changed when compared to our visit 5 years ago. Perhaps change is inevitable, but if you are thinking of going to Cuba, do it soon. Avoid the “tourist trail” and head to the East, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo. If you are looking for a beach vacation visit the Bay of Pigs and Playa Largo. Eat at your casa or a family run paladar. Sit in the park and talk to people when you have the chance. It is the people of Cuba that make it so special. Have an open mind, open heart and a big smile and chances are you will learn something new or make a new friend.  And as for my friends in Cuba, may you find visionary leaders and new heroes of the people, with the ability to help you navigate the changes ahead. Finding ways for your country to prosper, while still retaining the values that make Cuba and its people so special.

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Saying goodbye to Cuba: waiting for our taxi to the airport outside our casa in Havana

Love Is

Sleep can be elusive for me. It’s 1 am and I look over at Rob, who slumbers through my restless nocturnal antics and I marvel again at my good fortune. My good fortune to have found this mate and my best friend. His beard has a more liberal sprinkling of salt, as of late and the crinkles I love, by the corners of his eyes, are now there even as he dreams. My own face in the mirror often takes me by surprise and I wonder, where did the years go?

While I still feel like that 24 year old who said “I do” 27 years ago, I know I have changed. And so has he. How amazing it is that we were able to change and grow together, not apart? How, at the young age of 24, did I manage to find a mate who I am so happy to wake beside each morning and with whom I look forward to the years ahead. I have been a wife, longer than I was single, a sobering thought, but for me, one that brings comfort. Like many things in our life, success has been a mix of good planning, hard work and a little bit of luck.

Hollywood would have us believe there is one true “soul mate” waiting for each of us. Cue the sappy music and the couple walking off into the sunset. As much as I enjoy a good “rom com”, I wonder whether the media’s version of love has set us up to be unhappy in our relationships. Humour me for a minute while I bust some “myths” about love.

Love is blind.  Maybe if you’re a naked mole rat or a Labrador retriever. If you’re a human being, you’re fooling yourself. Is it really “cute” that he texts you incessantly and is jealous when you go out with your friends? Better open those eyes, and quick.

Love means never having to say you are sorry.  What a load of crap! Being a good human being means having to say you are sorry and take responsibility for your actions. Why is it any different if you are in love? In fact, love means sometimes having to say you are sorry, even if you aren’t. Don’t worry, eventually you will be sorry.

All you need is love. Well sure, but money might be helpful. And food. Yes food is definitely a good idea. Water? Shelter? Family? Self worth? You get my point.

Love makes the world go around. Well now that is just silly. I am no brainy scientist but I am pretty sure love is NOT what makes the world spin on it’s axis OR rotate around the sun. But then again I could be wrong about this one….hmmm, is it really love? That’s pretty cool if it is! I kinda hope I’m wrong about this one.

Love completes me. I truly hope you can become a complete person on your own. If you need another person to “complete” you, that’s a little weird.  In fact, if you want to be in a healthy relationship, you need to be whole, on your own as well as comfortable in your own skin. If you’re still figuring out who you are or if you are trying to be someone different so he will love you, you are headed down a dangerous path. Someday you are just going to have to be your boring old self again, then what? Just be a human being, flaws and all and complete your own damn self!

Rob likes to test me to see if I can remember our wedding vows. To his dismay, I usually forget at least one of the lines and then I have to cover my inadequacy by firing back “I don’t have to remember the words, I choose to live them instead”. So here goes, lets see if I can remember my promises.

Rob, I promise to be your faithful wife

To laugh with you in joy

To grieve with you in sorrow

To stand by you in trouble

To grow with you in love

To honor you and cherish you, so long as we both shall live.

Crap, I know I’ve forgotten a line.  Laugh, grieve, stand, grow.  What else? No it did NOT involve a vow to obey. Pretty sure there was no clause about dancing (Rob would squash that one) or singing (I can’t remember the words to any song). Oh man, I’m in so much trouble. Maybe it had to do with forgive (let’s hope so). My poor long suffering husband. I love him so.

And yet, despite my flippant remarks, I still believe in love. Sure it hurts sometimes but your heart is an muscle, it needs exercise to stay healthy. If you find love, don’t take it for granted.  Be prepared to work to make it stronger, to make it last a lifetime and make sure the people you love know it.

I once heard an interviewer ask elderly couples what was the secret to a long and happy marriage. One elderly gentleman had the best response. He said, “well, each day I get up, go to the bathroom, and I take a good, long look at myself in the mirror.” Pausing for dramatic effect he continued, “and then I say to myself, well you ain’t no great prize either!”

Advice worth remembering. You ain’t no great prize either.

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The Spanky Project

Okay, let me start with a disclaimer. No spanking occurred during this volunteer project. Very serious stuff only folks, sorry to disappoint! Founded by the kind and humble Terry Shewchuck and named after his dog, Spanky, the project was started about 15 years ago and has recently become a non-profit charity, growing to involve a chapter in the USA coordinated by the delightful Audrey (sorry Audrey, I never did learn your last name, my bad!). Terry’s love of Cuba, its people and a desire to improve the lives of the furry four legged Cubans was the catalyst for  the Spanky Project. While planning our cycling trip, I stumbled on their Canadian and American Facebook pages while looking for volunteer veterinary projects in Cuba. A few emails later and we were part of the February 2018 campaign.

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We arrived in Havana a few days early in order to change our visas from “tourist” to “working” and discovered Terry had taken care of everything for us. Our new visas allowed us to stay in Cuba until May 1, 2018 which was a huge bonus as a tourist visa is only valid for 30 days and our planned departure in late March meant we would have overstayed our welcome.

Travelling through Cuba 5 years ago, I fell in love with Havana. Sadly, the love affair is over. Perhaps revisiting a place you loved isn’t a good idea. You go with high expectations but it is never the same the second time around.  It leaves you wondering, what changed? Did the city really change that much? Or perhaps it is you who changed? Havana still has the crumbling beauty I found so intriguing, but on this visit the touts seemed more ferocious, people less friendly and old Havana more touristy. However, we found a warm and welcoming home at the lovely Casa Mirador la Colina. We were blown away by the our kind and gracious host, Aymee, who always greeted our return with a genuine “how was your day?” and a warm embrace. When Rob’s bicycle seat was stolen, our first day in Havana, she found us a new seat (not an easy feat in Cuba)! If you are in Havana, I would strongly recommend Case Mirador la Colina as a safe refuge from the city.

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Fishing along the Malecon in the evening light

We were excited to start working with the Spanky Project. Each veterinary project we have volunteered with has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. For our first day, a mass vaccination campaign and parasite treatment regime had been arranged in Old Havana. The project works closely with and has the support of several Cuban animal welfare groups as well as local veterinarians. Approximately 135 animals received rabies vaccinations, topical flea and tick medication and internal parasite treatment. The day proceeded smoothly and we were excited to find Cuban pet owners well educated and knowledgable about their pets health. One pet owner inquired as to what topical external parasite treatment we were using, as her dog had reacted poorly to Fipronil in the past.  Another told us her dog had had a treatment of ivermectin one month ago and wondered if another treatment would be okay.

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We were also excited to be working with veterinarians from the local area. The collaboration and support of the local veterinary community in Cuba is a unique part of the Spanky project and one of the reasons we wanted to work with them. As volunteers, we are always sensitive to the long term impact a project has on both the local pet population, pet owners and also the local veterinary community. Hopefully, a project has both a positive impact to reduce pet overpopulation, improve animal welfare and educate the local community on the benefits of sterilization, vaccination and animal welfare. A good project also considers the impact their actions have on the local veterinary community. For example by offering free sterilization programs are we also taking away the bread and butter of a local veterinarian? A truly great project attempts to engage and train local people who can benefit from these new found skills and sustain the work you started, long after you leave. It is my belief that all volunteer organizations should have a long term view that considers the sustainability question. Kind of like like running a great veterinary practice. Hire quality people, support them, train them and nurture them until you become redundant and can walk away, knowing your legacy will continue without you. Perhaps this is an idealistic view but it was exciting to see the Spanky Project considering the end goal. In addition to practicing veterinarians from Havana, there were also veterinarians from Matanzas, Cardenas and one assistant from as far away as Guantanamo participating on this campaign. Students from the University of Havana rotated through the different areas of our temporary hospital, including admission, pre surgical examination, anesthesia, surgery and recovery. Students were keen to take advantage of the opportunity the Spanky Project offered them and they allows bring a great energy to any project. Many students commented that this was where they would learn how to spay and neuter small animals and that they were learning more here than in the university classroom. Several students who participated in past campaigns, were nurtured by the Spanky volunteers and have now graduated as Doctors and Doctoras were back to volunteer with the 2018 campaign. That, I believe, fulfills the goal of sustainability.

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The University of Havana
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Dr. Micheal from Toronto discussing sterile technique with the students
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Surgical Suite

Despite all of these positives there is still one big elephant in the room. With an educated pet owning population and well trained local veterinarians, open to collaboration why is it so rare to see sterilized dogs and cats on our travels throughout Cuba? Why is overpopulation still a problem? In every town we have visited, in every casa we stay, it is extremely rare to see a sterilized animal. Overpopulation is evident across the country and one casa owner, a biology professor in Holguin, told us she had a very hard time finding a veterinarian who was willing to spay her cat. As in most countries, you need to talk to people and look beneath the surface to find the reasons. Despite an excellent education system, the veterinary training here has a different focus than in countries like Canada. Culturally there is still some resistance and misunderstanding about the benefits of sterilization. Without Bob Barker telling everyone to “remember to spay and neuter your pets”, the message just has not gotten through to the average Cuban pet parent. In addition, a surgery we consider routine, is far from routine if you have never had the opportunity to actually preform a spay before you graduate from veterinary school. This leaves the average Cuban veterinarian somewhat uncomfortable with offering this service. But perhaps the biggest problem is the reliable availability of the anesthetic agents and medications needed to practice veterinary medicine in Cuba. As with everything here, there are two markets, the usual marketplace (whose shelves, while better than several years ago, are still essentially bare) and the black market. Again it isn’t always a matter of being able to afford consumer goods, the goods simply are not available unless you “know a guy”. Talking to a few of the Cuban veterinarians working on the project, they confirmed this and commented that the farmacia shelves for humans are dangerously lacking and for veterinarians it is even more difficult.

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A little street puppy with mange

Obviously the Spanky Project is doing its part to help with exposing students, veterinarians and the pet owning population to anesthesia, surgical technique and postoperative care of veterinary patients. As more veterinarians are able to reliably preform and offer sterilization services pet owners will see the benefits in healthier pets that live longer and suffer less injuries and illnesses, lessening the need for a “Cuban Bob Barker”!  As for the problems with bare pharmacy shelves we can only hope that time will improve the situation.

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Spanky Project – working together for the animals

The best part of working with the Spanky Project, however, was without a doubt the amazing group of passionate and dedicated volunteers from both Canada and the USA.  Terry, Audrey, Micheal, Michelle, Byron, Stephanie, Gordana, Joe and Jamie. As well as all the amazing Cuban volunteers we met Gusto, Claudia and Katcha to name just three (okay, I admit it, I can’t remember the other names!). You took us in, made us feel welcome and at home and even let us do a few surgeries!  Here is hoping we meet again, can share another Mojito and our passion for Cuba, its pets and the people that make it so special!

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Hasta luego Amigos,

Elaine and Rob

Final disclaimer, there may have been several mojitos consumed during the making of this blog…I cannot be held responsible for the opinions held by a slightly inebriated version of myself.

Wind in my face, Chiggers biting my butt!

Following Chiverico we spent 3 days in Santiago de Cuba, a city we loved, and then made our way back to Holguin. In total we rode 675 km, not bad for two out of shape, middle aged veterinarians who are new to cycle touring!

After days of cycling along the Caribbean Sea and Eastern coast of Cuba, where we would see only a handful of vehicles on the road, we were nervous entering the city of Santiago de Cuba. We had been told people either love Santiago or hate it, with its narrow, motorcycle filled streets and jineteros (touts) with a ferocity unmatched elsewhere in Cuba. We were thrilled to find the traffic less chaotic than we expected and the touts less ferocious than those we have experienced elsewhere. In short, we loved Santiago! The best words to describe Santiago are hot, steamy and colorful. With a climate that leaves you dripping and ready to shed all but the necessary layers of clothing, Santiago forces you to slow down, saunter its streets and spend the afternoon in a shady plaza watching the world go by.  The nights heat up and a short walk leads to outdoor cafes, street food carts, dancing and impromptu concerts. While we were approached by some jineteros we also spoke with people in plazas wanting to practice their English, met an elderly professor who made us promise to write to him and had countless people give us directions in rapid fire spanish as we smiled and nodded, with a blank look in our eyes. By watching the direction they pointed, we would ride a short distance, stop and start the process over, eventually finding our way thanks to the kindness of strangers.

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Streets of Santiago de Cuba

Each community we visit has its own distinctive feel and Santiago definitely oozes seduction.  From the steamy climate, to the music and most notably the residents. We felt downright frumpy in our baggy cycle shorts and long sleeved jerseys as we enjoyed the fashion and comfortable way people accepted their “shape” in Santiago. Motorcycle taxis are the easiest way to get around the city. We marvelled at women of all ages wearing stylish but tight, short skirts and carrying a cake (people in Santiago seem to love cake?) who would flag down a motorcycle, hop on the back, side saddle fashion and while holding their cake aloft, speed off to their destination!

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Beautiful Santiago de Cuba

Climbing out of Santiago we headed back to Bayamo and then onto Holguin completing our bicycle loop in the Oriente. We split the ride from Santiago to Bayamo into two days by staying at a casa in Palma Soriano.  With only two casas in town we stopped at the first one we rode by and were warmly welcomed by Ana.  An older lady who spoke no english, she was obviously delighted to have guests. She immediately set about preparing us a large lunch of congri, roast chicken and salad followed by ice cream with local honey!  She sat with us while we ate, talking to us in spanish and obviously enjoying our company and the gusto to which we consumed her meal.  At one point when her elderly husband approached, she spoke to him harshly and then looked at us, pointed at her poor husband and circled her finger by her head, making the universal symbol for “crazy”!  Wanting to get an early start we asked for breakfast at 6 am and despite the language barrier it was obvious that 6 am was much too early.  We agreed on 7 am and true to her word, Ana was up and cooking for us in her pink baby doll pajamas at 6:30 am. With breakfast on the table by 6:45 am, she smiled proudly and took Rob by the shoulder as she showed him her watch to say, “see señor, 15 minutes ahead of schedule”!

Back in Bayamo the next day, we wandered to the main plaza in the evening and where once again entertained by the festivities. It was Saturday night and families were out in full force.  The main plaza, Parque Cespedes, is quite large and surrounded on four sides by streets which have very little if any traffic.  There 4 or 5 cute little carts, some decorated like old stage coaches being pulled by goats! Children were riding around the square in the goat carts while their parents visited and chatted along the side lines with their neighbours.  What a great way to spend an evening!

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Goat carts and kids, the cutest combination ever!

The final leg of our cycle tour involved an 80 km ride from Holguin back to Bayamo.  Although we had ridden this road previously, on day one, we were not looking forward to repeating it as we knew we would be battling heavy headwinds in this direction. We remembered the terrible state of the road, requiring long periods of riding along the foot path in the ditch which was in better shape than the pavement and the lack of rest and bathroom stops along the route.  After an early start we made good time for the first 40 km before the heat and wind really started to pick up.  When we stopped for a bathroom break, Rob suggested I sneak into a large concrete culvert as there was a lot of morning commuters and little in the way of trees to hide behind.  It seemed like a great idea, so off I went to squat in the dark, damp culvert. Pulling up my cycle shorts, I suddenly felt the most intense stinging and burning sensation over my entire left butt cheek and upper thigh.  While whipping down my shorts and underwear, I yelled at Rob to bring down a water bottle and PLEASE start washing off my ass!  I picked off what I think were several chiggers biting me and high tailed it out of the culvert.  The stinging was intense, feeling like I had sat in a nest of hornets. Unfortunately there was nothing to be done but pull up my “big girl panties” (literally) and get back on the bike. The pain lasted about 6 hours and then 24 hours later the itching started.  Slathering my arse with butt butter (the stuff cyclists use to help with chaffing), I hoped to suffocate the little critters.  Things have since improved but we are waiting to see what type of creature emerges from my arse once the eggs hatch!

The rest of the ride became a lesson in endurance and perseverance as we struggled against the wind, the heat and the rough road to arrive in Holguin exhausted and happy to find a warm welcome, a meal and a bed at Refugio del Reyes, the casa of David and Sara.

After a 12 hour overnight bus ride from Holguin, we arrived in Havana ready for a break from cycling and keen to start working as veterinarians with the Spanky Project. More to come on the Spanky Project and our time in Havana, but for now…may the wind alway be on your back and the chiggers biting someone else ass,

Elaine