04 December 2014

Resolution, City Tour, and We Are On The Road!

Day 2Saturday, 22 November; Havana City Tour

The morning started with some good news: Manuel had spoken at-length with the home office and solo adventures were now allowed. He claimed that this was due to a new agreement with government officials that allowed us more freedom of travel outside the group. Really? Since yesterday? Whenever it changed, Maurice and I are now smiling. 

We spent most of the day touring the city, all of which I'd seen on previous trips, so I spent most of my time talking with our state-supplied tour guide, Ray, about the ridiculous American embargo that only hurts the common people, not the elite or the leaders—though I did see Snickers, 3 Musketeers, and Milky Way candy bars, so some things are sneaking in... and the American Ambassador's car is a late model Ford Flex, so does that mean that wherever the car is, is at that moment "American soil"?
Is this rolling American Soil, or just a case of RHIP?
Jose Marti looks better than I and he's been dead > 100 years
Government buildings featuring Che and General Cienfuegos taken from the podium
where Fidel used to make 7-hour speeches while Party leaders in the rows behind
him sat on marble benches (did they lose face if they brought a cushion?)
John Lennon Park where the caretaker brings out the statue's wire-rimmed glasses for tourists' photographs:
Lennon and the Caretaker
We also hit the Hotel Nacional; the outside of El Morro (the fort guarding the harbor); Havana Club Rum Tour with free tasting (1/2 oz of their 7-year old rum; good, though less smooth than the rum of the Philippines); walking tours of a couple historic squares; and lunch. Then back to the hotel 25 minutes and a CUC$15 (US$17.25) taxi ride from town, so it's inconvenient at best to go in again. 
Mid-afternoon we went to pick up our transportation for the next nine daysseven pre-owned Harleys in very nice condition after their long boat ride from Denmark. The prep crew did a great job of getting them ready for us in less than 24-hours and even found the time to fill them with fuel.

After receiving a short explanation of the controls, we donned our riding gear and took them for a couple warm-up laps around the parking lota good idea any time you first get on a new motorcycle and, in my mind, mandatory when you're talking about a bike over 800cc (these are each more than double that). Today's ride was only a couple kilometers back to the hotel; the real riding starts in the morning!
Manuel, Walter, Marcel, Bea, and Rudy after riding the bikes from pick-up to the hotel
My ride for the next nine days--a Harley-Davidson Road King
Each bike was unique in style and/or color, yet they wanted to
ensure we took the right one--or were they naming them?
At 7:15 p.m., we met in the lobby and got our first ride in a couple of the hundreds of 1950's American cars they've kept running by every imaginable means; diesel tractor engines are a common replacement. Our destination was a very good paladar: Decamerón, Linea No. 753 e/ Paseo y Calle 2, Vedado (phone 832 24 44). I had a seafood stew that featured fresh lobster and was amazing! Everyone was very happy with their dinner and a few of us even asked if we could return in nine days for our farewell dinner.

Most of us retired to our rooms immediately after returning from dinner to rest up for our first day on the Harleys. Or is it "Harlies"? Naa, I think I was right the first time...
Day 3Sunday, 23 November; ~241km
After a hotel breakfast buffet we got short briefing on the day's route and events. Then we set out on what are undisputedly the 7 largest motorcycles (motos mas grande) in Cuba. As we rode through the city outskirts and into the countryside, most people we rode past took a few seconds out of their Sunday to watch the procession roll through their small part of the planet. Some smiled, others waved, and a few boys (always boys, no matter the age) made a loose right-hand fist, held it horizontal about chest-high, and rolled their wrist up and down... in the hopes that one of us would pull in the clutch and growl the engine a couple times. I obliged every time I saw the request and was rewarded with many huge smiles. Only as I wrote this did I realize that this is their version of the vertical loose fist and arm pump with which the much, much, much younger John pleaded with truckers to let loose with their air horn...

Never a fan of the brand
, this silver Road King is slowly gaining my respect. That said, I am unable to imagine ever buying one. 

The countryside between Havana and Viñales is a lot like Việt Nam's Central Highlands where I shall soon live. Cuba is, however, much more humid! 

Cuba also has mountains of a sort. Their word for those near Viñales is magotes (pronounced ma-gó-tays; haystacks) which fits well. They remind me of the formations of Hà Long Bay much more than the Rockies or Alleghenies.
Viñales from my hotel room
Hà Long Bay
Overall, the roads are better than those in Việt Nam, though we did spend the last couple hours (I have no idea how long it really was, though it seemed like at least two hours) on one that would make an excellent scrubbing board for hand laundry. There are also, unfortunately, sufficient potholes and gravel to ensure a minimum of deep thought or daydreaming. It also helps that I am wearing the $700 back brace prescribed for my now-repaired L1 fracture (see 19 February 2014 post "Ego intact (ut-oh)!". It is from here on my close companion on every ride of >1 hour! For backup, I also brought the $50 motorcycle back brace that I bought on eBay before I got the prescribed one. When, at the first rest stop, our Cuban guide Carlos complained of a sore back, I dug the backup brace out of my bag in the support vehicle, and he quickly accepted my offer to let him use it for the remainder of the trip. At the end of the day I asked if it was still helping. He was very emphatic in his thanks, so I asked if he would accept it as un regalo (a gift) from me.

The payoff for the less-than ideal road was a great ride through the mountains of western Cuba! What great photos I could have had were I riding solo or with one other bike!!! Carlos is riding sweeper (last) and later told me that if I wanted to stop and take a photo that he would stop with me and that we would then catch up to the others, so I'm sure I will take him up on it. Additional note: I stopped solo only once because rather than letting us roll on the throttle to catch up, Manuel always stopped the group to wait for us. It would be nice if the guides had a communication system to keep in touch for things like this and more serious possibilities.

We made a rest stop in a town called Bahia Honda and, as I was drinking my large carton of mango juice, a man rode up on what turned out to be a 1953 Soviet "Boho" motorbike. He said to me (in an accent that sounded a lot like it originated in the Southeastern U.S.), "They tell me you're an American!" I replied, "Yes, I am" and he heartily welcomed me to his small town. American-Cuban John Enriquez was born to a Cuban father and Pennsylvania Dutch mother. After his Dad passed, he found out that he has more relatives in Bahia Honda than in the U.S., so he lives here about 8 months out of every year. As we talked about his motorbike and his life in Cuba, a Cuban man approached and John greeted him as a friend. After a few words, the man walked away. As he did so, John lowered his voice and said, "Carlos is a vampire."

A few minutes later, John said he had to go and after wishing me "un buen viaje", rode up the hill to where he'd told me his house was.

It was then that I surmised John's definition of vampire because Carlos immediately returned and asked me to buy him a mojito. I told him that I would be glad to do so... that evening in Viñales after we finished riding for the day. He, of course, wanted onenow. I again explained to him that I would not have a cocktail until after we finished the day's ride and that I would be happy to buy him a drinkin Viñales. We went back and forth in this same vein a few more times until he gave up and walked away... without even wishing me a buen viaje.

Though I looked for him in Viñales, I didn't see him...

From about 2 p.m. on, we rode directly into the sun. Even with my slide-down sun visor, it was often very difficult to see. The world was turned into a high-contrast black and white movie
extremely bright sunlight and darkest shadows. At one point I startled as I passed within two feet of a very dark-skinned woman in a dark dress whom I saw only when she was a couple feet away. Fortunately we were passing through a small town and riding fairly slowly. She doubtless never thought about it because the sun was at her back and she would have seen me quite clearly.

The hotels here are almost completely owned by the government and breakfast is included in the room rate. Many of them also require that you eat the hotel's buffet dinner one night. You can eat dinner that night off-site if you want to pay for two dinners. We, therefore, got to eat dinner at the Miramar (Havana) and Viñales hotels... experiences worth missing. From my brief experience eating at Cuban state-run hotels, I think the "chefs" must be trained by the Soviets; or possibly by the Brits.

The next morning, we all shared our stories of sleep interrupted by mosquitoes. According to my Up fitness bracelet, I woke up six times before finally falling into a sound sleep. What made the difference was that I turned on the air conditioner which apparently keeps them from either finding you or landing, I care not which.

My Up bracelet also told me that although I'd only walked from the room to breakfast and back to the room, to the bike, on/off the bike a few times, from the bike to the room, and between the room and dinner, it told me that I'd walked 18,421 steps
over nine miles! I quickly deduced that the extra 16,000+ "steps" were registered due to riding many kilometers over bump roads.

As I mentioned earlier, the Internet is very elusive here! Only after arriving here did I think about how dependent on it I am. Normally, I would welcome the break. Unfortunately, there are a few things I need to wrap up BEFORE I return and I need the Internet to do so. The hotel here has no access cards to sell, but that's okay because I still one from the Havana hotel and it's all one government system so I can use that card here. Except that there is no access because they need to reset the router and hotel management (employed by the government) has no access to the government's router. Another victory for The Glorious Revolution! Maybe I'll have better luck at the next hotel?

At one point prior to my arrival I actually thought I might consider retiring here, though until they have virtually omnipresent Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee) like Việt Nam and a good part of the rest of the developing world, it will NOT happen. Could that be the issue here? That Cuba will not be allowed to join the "developing world" until the Cuban-American political mafia pulls their panties out of their collective butt crack?

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