Vinales to Havana - Triplogue

Monday, 30 December 1996, Vinales to Las Terrazas, 75 miles

Our goal for the day was Las Terrazas and the swank Hotel Moka. It was 75 miles, the vast majority of them against a ruthless wind. After a breakfast of coffee, juice and pizza (without the ham this time, thank you) at Dagoberto’s, we made our way back to the Northern "highway", which was nicely shaded for the first mile or two. There were times after that, though, where we felt like we were riding through glue, and the many hills were no help. Fifty traffic-free miles later we were in Bahia Honda, exhausted and out of water. Another pizza stand appeared, this one offering pizza al pescado. We got the last two and they were doubleplustasty, as was the mystery drink the man served us and the peanuty bar we shared for desert. He also filled our water bottles –all for less than a quarter U.S. We asked around and confirmed that Las Terrazas was only 30k or so more. One guy said there was one hill. The option was to stay in town, but the Moka beckoned. I traded bags with Fred so I could enjoy my turn as the pack animal. A mistake, it turns out, since there were way more than 30k and way way more than one hill. From the turnoff 6k out of Bahia Honda the road plunged up and down through some of the most rugged terrain we’ve ever biked across. The only thing that kept us going was the gorgeous scenery and knowing that comfort awaited us at the road’s end.

Out of curiosity (and despair), I tried flagging down a passing vehicle and it actually stopped: a filthy flatbed truck carrying several people and one other bike. The other passengers helped get us and our stuff aboard and an aura of solidarity prevailed. These were good communists, I thought, and wouldn’t ask us for money. But we didn’t get a chance to find out. After rattling along for less than a kilometer, a flat tire announced itself noisily. And right at the bottom of a nasty nasty hill, we soon discovered. The other guy on a bike got to the top at the same time as us, and he walked the whole way (nearly a mile). He said he was going to Las Terrazas too, and promised us that we had just climbed the last hill. We offered him water, which he turned down, and rum, which he accepted. He told us his name was Daniel, and that he had made a 100k loop himself that day on his Flying Pigeon, to visit his dad in Cabanas.

Daniel kept up with us the whole way back to Las Terrazas, an 11k pump that was anything but flat. When we rolled into the odd little community he invited us to the local bar for a soda-y drink and boasted to his friends how he had kept up with us, pedaling up every hill save the motherfuckinglomaofdeath.

One last hill remained, up to the hotel. At the top, Conchita (what Doctora Maria de la Concepcion Perez-Eiriz is called by her friends) was a vision, her smiling face assuring us that our room was ready; would we care to go to the bar for our welcome cocktail?

Bath, booze and backgammon were the pre-dinner activities, and the cheesy American movie on TV ("Ghost") was perfect fare for our sun-baked brains before bedtime.

The next day the Moka was fully booked, but we decided to decompress poolside until lunchtime anyway and see if anything opened up. If not, it was a relatively easy 50 miles to Havana. But at noon Conchita told us we could stay. We decided to walk to some supposedly close-by natural swimming pools in the afternoon –the longest 3 kilometers I’ve ever walked. We were accompanied by a young soldier returning home from his post at Havana’s airport, who politely answered every question I asked him yet never addressed a single word to me.

The river was well worth the schlep, a truly gorgeous swimming hole with refreshingly cool water. While swimming and soaking we met two older homos (a couple? We never did find out). Both were named Jens, and one was German, the other Norwegian. Also in their odd little entourage was one of the Jens’ brothers, his black Cuban girlfriend, his teenage daughter and her gangly boyfriend. We hitched a ride back with them and accepted their invitation to join them on an excursion to a nearby coffee plantation, the Bella Vista, which lived up to its name. Two guides showed us around the place, pointing out the drying areas, the grindstone, the slave quarters, and the old house which the French imperialist owner had occupied.

This excursion was followed by beers at the Las Terrazas boathouse, where we all got better acquainted and slightly inebriated as we watched the sun go down. Fred and I dined al fresco at a paladar run out of someone’s kitchen. Conchita had steered us there earlier, and we had made reservations.

Mercedes, the paladar’s proprietress, who also worked at the hotel, cooked us what was far and away the best meal we had in Cuba. Even the service –in the person of her cute son—was impeccable. The china had conspicuously come from the hotel, however, making us wonder yet again what the deal was with this model village, which looked nothing like anything else we’d seen in Cuba: harmonious architecture in a beautiful setting, a prosperous-looking populace with no visible means of support (the German’s Cuban girlfriend said they all worked at the tiny hotel, but that was patently false) and several well-stocked bars, each with uniformed service personnel. It felt vaguely like an episode of "The Prisoner," Cuban style. Even so, this sanitized version of Cuba felt exactly right as a buffer between Vinales and Havana, on this penultimate day of 1996.

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Self-cleaning -not-, notice that those are coals in the pizza oven

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"Frankenbox" saves the day, Bikes safely packed for export to Mexico

Tuesday, 31 December, 1996 - Wednesday, 1 January, 1997, Las Terrazas to Habana, 50 miles

We took our autopista most of the way back the next morning, and it was a markedly different experience with a headwind that halved our previous speed and tripled our efforts. I even had a flat time, the only one of our entire trip. Still, it had its nostalgic aspect, seeing the same road from a different perspective. We were much wiser to the ways of this weird island country when we pulled up to a lakeside commie café that had refused to serve us on Christmas. This time, my pesos were accepted gladly, and the other customers seemed to find us amusing, going so far as to offer us food that they had brought along. One of them, a tall 40-ish guy on his way back to Havana, joined us on his ten-speed. He even took his turn breaking the wind for us. We turned off the autopista before he did, and headed north for the coast, in order to get a different approach into Havana.

It was indeed different from the scruffiness of the urban part of the autopista. We rode through miles upon miles of tree-lined suburbs, the streets jammed with people on bikes. We stopped at a fast-food joint that looked like it had been transported there from California –all gleaming steel and frosty a/c; and dollars, only, please. The burger, of course, was all but inedible, but the ice cream from the similarly posh place next door was delish. From there, the neighborhoods got even glitzier. Embassies started cropping up in an area called Miramar, and the stream of bicycles turned into a river as we crossed the bridge to Vedado, where our hotel was located and where the aesthetic changed radically. The impression is overwhelming: Havana is a very large, very planned and elegant city, exactly thirty-eight years after a nuclear explosion.

Our hotel was one of the taller ruins, and therefore easy to find. Familiar bellhops greeted us, but told us the manager wouldn’t allow the bikes in the room. So we employed Cuban logic and disassembled them right at the hotel’s entrance, and claimed our box that we had left in storage. It was quite a spectacle, and Fred and I worked with supreme efficiency and speed. We even fit the fourth wheel in this time. And the manager had no problem with our taking the box up with us.

The receptionist had given us a much nicer room than before, with original 30’s furniture and a huge bed. Of course the bellhops found this unacceptable, and apologized while saying they could change it. I assured them we were used to sleeping in a single bed; I hope they figured it out that we were bourgeois degenerate perverts.

We decided to walk to La Habana Vieja –the old part of the city—some miles away. The initial shock of the sorry physical state of the place never wore off. Block after block of once-grand buildings in an identical state of decay, the streets increasingly filled with people and garbage as we approached the historical center.

It wasn’t long before we were hit up for cash. It was a couple, with the man doing all the talking and the woman doing all the coughing. Their pitch was flawless: they needed three Yankee dollars for an asthma inhaler available only at the pharmacy for tourists. As chance would have it, they had unknowingly hit upon one of the few methods capable of getting empathy from Fred, a fellow asthma sufferer. He instructed me to give them a buck before promising he wouldn’t allow himself to be swindled any more.

The incident put us on guard for our next such encounter. A handsome youth approached us along the Malecon –Havana’s poignantly dilapidated seaside promenade—and swore to us that he didn’t want anything from us beyond conversation and the exchange of ideas. He quickly fell into tour guide mode, explaining that the salty air was what destroyed the buildings. When we reached the mouth of the harbor some blocks later he pointed out the various fortresses. Fred had grown uncomfortable with having this character tagging along, and had me explain that we really would prefer to be alone. At this point, of course, the boy asked us for compensation for his services –something he promised us he wouldn’t do earlier.

Warily, we headed inland along a beautiful boulevard with a tree-lined walkway down the middle. Touts and whores approached us with what became a constant litany of come-ons. We stumbled upon the Caribbean Hotel, where the cyclists we met on Christmas said they worked, and went inside to seek refuge from the human garbage on the street. We recognized Lazaro instantly. He was sweeping, and looked younger and cuter than I had remembered. He recognized us too, and sat down with us in the dreary lobby for coffee. He told us of the difficulties of maintaining a racing bike in Cuba. His own bike had taken eight years to assemble, and he had to be very careful not to break any parts, since they were nigh impossible to replace. We invited him to dinner, but he had made plans with his family. New Year’s Eve, we learned, is a family-oriented holiday in Cuba.

We wandered around Old Havana for many hours. Pimps, whores and other scumbags continued to approach us. In an alleyway near the cathedral a guy invited us to eat in his family’s paladar, exclaiming in the same breath that he had ganja and cocaine ("nieve") for sale. We sought further escape from the steady hustler-hassle at la Floridita, a tourist trap bar that fancies itself "the cradle of the daiquiri." It had been a favorite haunt of Hemingway, and there were photos of him everywhere. In one, he was shown smiling conspiratorially with Fidel, their two heads nearly touching. At six bucks apiece (no pesos in the till here), the daiquiris did taste pretty good. We inquired about dinner in the gorgeous adjacent dining room, but they told us they were full for la nochebuena.

After poking our noses in various hotel restaurants (that of the Sevilla was the most glam, but also fully booked) and getting an address of a paladar from Lazaro, we settled on a state-run pasta joint next to the Floridita. After such a tough pedal into town, my body was craving carbohydrates. The food turned our to be decent, though hardly worth the interminable wait and lousy commie-style service that put Trufina to shame. Entertainment was provided by a nearby table, where a young pimp ("jinatero" in Cuban Spanish) attempted to procure whores for three unsavory East-European types. Girl after girl was brought in and offered up, yet none seemed to be to their liking.

We continued wandering after dinner. On the main tourist street we peeked into all the bars in search of a homo scene, but finally found it in the street. Or should I say it found us? A guy started talking to me as we walked down the eerily dark street (Havana is virtually free of outdoor illumination of any kind), and I could tell right away that he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. His voice was soft and steady as he engaged in the universal homo butt-sniff. He was accompanied by a smiling well-groomed partner and I muttered to Fred that we had finally made contact with homo Cuba.

I asked if there was anyplace we could go for a drink and we ended up in a nearly deserted (and decidedly non-gay) beer garden on the Malecon. Our friends were called Lorenzo and Juan, and after much small talk we learned they had been together since meeting at a queer party only a couple of months earlier. Juan had a rodenty appearance and worked in a cigar factory, while the perpetually smiling Lorenzo cooked in a convent. Both were losing their hair despite their being in their low thirties (or so they said). I had to translate everything for Fred, who wanted to return to the hotel to take some cough medicine. Lorenzo and Juan proposed that we follow them to a party they knew about, but Fred’s coughing took precedence (which was fine by me, since I was exhausted from the long day) and soon we were in a taxi speeding along the Malecon back towards Vedado.

Fred was snoring by eleven and I made a point of turning off the light by 11:45. 1997 could wait.

We woke up early, of course. It was our last day in Cuba and the first day of an historic year for us. Our only plan was to wander, and to try to visit the Museum of the Revolution. Both of these goals were accomplished with ease. We also continued our visitation of Havana’s finer hotels. We zigzagged through the faded glories of Vedado to the gargantuan Havana Libre, formerly the Hilton. Most of the floors were closed for renovations, and the hideous airplane hanger of a lobby was sad beyond description. The nearby University of Havana –perched atop a hill—hooked pretty good though. As we approached the seaside and our goal –the famous Hotel Nacional—the streets grew shabbier and shabbier. Across from the Nacional’s entrance was an extensive mural of political cartoons denouncing the Helms-Burton act.

The Nacional is supposedly Cuba’s fanciest hotel, but it didn’t look so great to us. The lobby was filled with unspeakably tatty Caribbean communist-style furniture, and the grounds were impressive only by virtue of their size and setting. We had bloody mary’s in a bar filled with photos of famous guests, overlooking an empty swimming pool. Whores still in their evening garb drank with their clients and squinted in the sun. We then climbed to the "mirador" for an awesome view of the destroyed city.

The Museum of the Revolution held few surprises beyond the fact that the price of admission could only be paid in imperialist "yanqui" dollars. It is housed in the former presidential palace and its displays detail the guerrilla actions of Fidel and his pals in excruciating detail. One striking feature was the use of relics –various items of apparel once worn by revolutionaries now housed in glass cases. The Che Guevara shrine was particularly rich in such relics, including the bloodstained shirt in which he died in Bolivia. In a garden at the rear of the building we visited the Granma Memorial, where revolutionary vehicles are displayed with a similarly religious reverence, punctuated by various twisted chunks of a yanqui plane shot down in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Armed soldiers watched our every move as we viewed the sacred objects, barking at us if we tried to move in a direction contrary to the posted arrows.

After a quick siesta back at the hotel we taxied to the Plaza de Armas in a private taxi, a 1958 Pontiac rustbucket. We walked to the nearby cathedral and had coffee while listening to a fantastic band in a heavily touristed café, after which we ventured off the beaten path into the less savory parts of la Habana Vieja. No one bothered us on these ruined streets, which appeared to go on forever. It was like a set from "Terminator", populated by thousands of people, and it felt especially creepy in the pitch dark after the sun had set. Fred expressed relief when we got back to the more illuminated calle turista that runs past La Floridita, our chosen spot for dinner.

The meal was a disappointment, despite the elegant dining room and perfect daiquiris. Both the food and the service were substandard, and obscenely overpriced. On the way to our rendezvous with Juan and Lorenzo, we stopped to hobnob with a group of young queens in front of the opera house. Unlike our older gay friends, these four boys were screamingly, vividly queer. One spoke French reasonably well, and another said he was in the corps of the National Ballet. We would have spent more time with these boys had we not promised our more staid friends that we’d meet them for a drink.

We met Juan and Lorenzo on the steps of the Capitolio, now a science library, and apparently the epicenter of queer Havana. They said that the party they tried to go to the night before turned out to be an extra-private affair, and that they knew of nothing scheduled for this night. Curious as we were to get a better glimpse of the underground homo scene, we also had to be at the airport at 5:30 in the morning. So it was with a mixture of disappointment and relief that we proposed coffee on the terrace of the nearby Hotel Ingleterra. Lorenzo produced a card for us with New Year wishes from both of them, which was very touching. We learned from them that Castro is referred to as "El Commandante" and has no fixed residence in Havana, since he is constantly hiding from the C.I.A. When we had said our good byes, Fred and I had a hell of a time finding a taxi and nearly had to walk back along the creepy Malecon.

We had arranged a private taxi to pick us up at five in the morning. He also served as our wake up call. I made him promise that he would drive slowly, but given the state of his old clunker, this wasn’t really a concern. Our mammoth box tied to the roof of his antique Lada, we plunged through the darkness of the Havana streets while listening to our elderly-but-robust driver ranting again El Commandante. He called him "El Viejo" or "El Loco," though. It was the first we had heard anyone saying anything against Castro. In line at the airport counter we met with a hetero couple from Santa Barbara, a competitive cyclist and his photographer girlfriend, both of whom were looking sickeningly glamorous for six in the morning. It was their second time in Cuba, and they had come to buy photographs, including a copy of the one we had seen on the wall of La Floridita of Hemingway and El Commandante.

The sky was just beginning to lighten as we crossed the tarmac and boarded the plane. I was missing Cuba already.

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