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

The Little Street Dog that Could

This morning we were up early to beat the heat and make our way out of Santiago de Cuba and cycle on towards Bayamo.  We pushed our bikes up calle Jose Seco, a pedestrian only street and across the busy intersection towards Plaza de Marte.  I noticed a young dog trotting ahead of us as we walked along, with a lolling tongue and happy grin on his face.  He was in good shape, muscular and fit and, compared to many of the dogs we had encountered in the Santiago, appeared to be in excellent health. Traffic was already heavy and as a result we decided to walk the bikes to the next major intersection before starting to ride.  As we crossed streets and weaved between pedestrians and people pushing bicycles, I would see the little street dog pop up between us, ducking and weaving along the sidewalk and street, keeping time with the two of us. Each time he trotted beside me, I picked up a foul odor and noticed his neck and backed were streaked with something rotten he had obviously rolled in earlier that morning. I said to him “hey stinky dog, where are you headed” and he looked at me with a goofy grin as if to say “you tell me?”

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I figured he’d abandon us once we started to ride.  When we reached the Avenida de los Libertadores, it was time to get riding. Rob hopped on his bike and started off in the lead.  I laughed as stinky dog jumped down from the sidewalk with a spring in his step, let out 3 happy yelps and sprinted off behind Rob. The traffic for Cuba was heavy with taxis, motorcycles and buses taking people to work.  Our route out of the city towards the carretera central (highway) that would take us over the Sierra Maestra mountains and towards Bayamo, took as through a traffic circle, stop signs, left turns and across major intersections.  I watched and held my breath repeatedly, as Stinky Dog navigated traffic like a seasoned pro, keeping pace with our bicycles and showing no signs of fatigue.   

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Finally, stopping to check our map we decided we needed to end this game.  We yelled at him “go home Stinky Dog!” And waved our arms. “vamos amigo”.  He would turn, walk a few steps the other direction and then as we rode off quickly, we would find him back with us again, happily following along, within a few hundred meters.  Finally, giving up, we decided to ignore him, hoping he would tire of the chase.  We wound our way out of the hilly city of Santiago, up and down hills before finally leaving the city and traffic behind. Stinky dog stuck to us like glue.  He stayed behind Rob but every now and then, if I fell too far behind, he would turn and look for me to make sure I was still riding.  As we stopped for a rest, I told Rob that it looked like he had found himself a great mountain biking dog.  Rob just laughed and said, “I’ve already told him the first thing I’m going to do to him is to cut off those balls!” I laughed and replied that he didn’t seem to concerned about Rob’s threat.

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By now we were about 12 km outside of Santiago and unsure what to do with Stinky Dog.  He seemed quite happy and showed no signs of tiring, despite the increasing heat and our faster pace. As we cycled along and puzzled over our dilemma we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a cycle race.  Police sirens blared and pointed for us to pull off the road while groups of cyclists, clad in colourful spandex, blasted past us.  During a lull in the chaos we made our move and were back on the road, quickly making a left turn off the highway to make our way to the village of El Cobre and the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre. Apparently the multiple bikes confused Stinky Dog and as we looked back, he was no longer with us. I suspect he continued on, happily racing after the road riders, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the joy of just running for the fun of it!

The 4 km detour was well worth it.  As we weaved along a hilly road, lush with tropical vegetation, we would catch glimpses of the beautiful Basilica high on the hill ahead of us. I stopped to pull out my iPhone to take a photo and suddenly my heart stopped.  My phone (camera) was gone.  Having had it to take a photo of Stinky Dog at our last stop, I knew I had lost it somewhere in the last 8km. 8km of mostly rough downhill riding, which meant 8kms of uphill riding in the heat. We turned around and started retracing our steps, in the hopes it was still lying along the road and not in someones pocket. We started back and lady luck or perhaps it was La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) whose shrine is housed in the Basilica, blessed us.  Regardless, there on the side of the road, 200m back was my perfectly intact phone.  Rob let out a cheer and after tucking it safely inside my pack, we started back towards the Basilica.

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As we road towards the Virgen’s shrine, Rob suddenly stopped at a rode side stand and bought a $2 CUC bouquet of flowers.  I gave him a quizzical look. “I know I am a scientist and also an atheist, but I somehow feel we need to make an offering to Our Lady of Charity” he said.  “It’s a lot cheaper than a new phone!”  I laughed, tucked the flowers along side my panniers and decided I would not only give thanks but also ask for the Lady’s blessing.

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Rob watched the bikes as I went into the cathedral, truly remarkable and one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites and shrines in Cuba.  Sweaty and likely quite smelly, I walked in with other pilgrims, there to make an offering to La Virgen or Cachita, as she is also known.  I placed my flowers at the shrine along with a favourite photo of James, Hannah and our dog Maisy, which I carry in my wallet and taken when they were all quiet young.  I asked the virgin to protect our kids, to keep them safe and then, under my breath I also asked her to watch over Stinky Dog, the little street dog from Santiago.

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La Virgen de la Caridad, Cachita as she is known locally or Our Lady of Charity is a religious icon to almost all Cuban women.  In Santeria, the virgin is syncretized with the beautiful orisha, Ochun Yoruba, goddess of love and dancing. Legend dictates that the virgin was discovered during a violent storm, by 3 fisherman floating on a board in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. Fearing their lives would end, they pulled out the board and found inscribed on it the words “I am the Virgin of Charity”. As the storm subsided and their lives were spared, they assumed a miracle had been granted and a legend was born.

Over the years, many have offered gifts to the Virgin. Ernest Hemingway decided to leave the 23 karat gold medal he won for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1954 “to the Cuban People” and rather than hand it over the the Batista regime, left it to the Catholic Church where it was temporarily held in the Basilica.

In 1957 Lina Ruz left a small guerrilla figurine at the feet of the virgin to pray for the safety of her two sons, Fidal and Raul Castro Ruz, then fighting in the Sierra Maestra.  Was it fate that saw the two Castro brothers living into their senior years or was it the spirit of El Cobre?