The morning of December 28, I gave the bicycle its first real road test. I rode around 70 kilometres west out of Havana to a national park named Las Terrazas, in a province called Pinar del Río.

As with most of the rest of Cuba, there were very few hills, and those few I did see were rolling and gentle, so I hardly ever needed to change gears. The roads were much better than expected, and my 20 year-old bike held out well. The chain did not snap. The brakes did not go out. No punctured tires. My legs and lower back were feeling fine.

A 1950 Chevys or Russian Lada passed me every three to five minutes, and I overtook donkeys and horse-drawn carriages every few more. The carriages, called “spiders” in Cuban Spanish, usually have a two-wheeled carriage rigged up with wheels from old Soviet trucks.

Every time I passed a major intersection, large crowds of people could be seen, waiting by the side of the road for someone to drive by and offer them a ride. Apparently only three people in a hundred actually own a car in Cuba, and so for all the teeming masses without transportation, hitchhiking has long been the only option to travel long distances. In Cuban Spanish, this is called to pedir botella (“ask for a bottle,” no idea why), and the forty and fifty year-old jalopy vehicles that they wait for are called cafeteros (literally: “coffee machines,” apparently because they chug like one).

Pinar del Río is Cuba’s primary tobacco growing region, and both sides of the road for the majority of my trip were covered in vast landscapes of tobacco plants. Few things are more representative of Cuba than the cigars, and there is good reason why. The word tobacco itself comes from the language of the island’s indigenous Taino people (who were wiped out completely by diseases and the Spaniards in a matter of only about ten years). The people on Cuba have been lighting up stogies since well before Columbus, and their tasty smokes have gone on to develop worldwide renown. There is a story, apparently well verified, that in 1961, shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to Havana to buy up thousands of high quality Cuban cigars. The day they arrived at his office in the White House, JFK inspected the merchandise with a discriminating eye, then whipped out his pen and signed an executive order for a total trade embargo against Cuba.

I came across a campismo (a campground with cabins for campers) on the road at around the 60 km mark. Unfortunately, it was Cuban only. The place was empty, but the people working realized immediately that I was not a local, and would not let me stay. The rest stop in front of the campground had a small restaurant. I sat down and ordered a sandwich, striking up a conversation with a Cuban guy relaxing at the table beside me. He was from a town near Havana, and incredibly friendly. His name was Pedro. After he had milked my story from me through a few minutes of conversation pleasantries, out of the blue he invited me to visit his home, saying I could meet his family, stay with them, and would not have to pay a cent.

I found his offer suspicious. Certainly not many people in my country would invite a total stranger to stay with them after just a few minutes of idle chatter. He wrote down his address and phone number in my notebook, and I said that I might drop by on my way back to Havana the following day.

I was coming up to Las Terrazas Park, a major tourist destination, and was about to hit the toll gate, he explained. They would try to charge me an entrance fee of five convertible pesos, he said, but then he told me a secret trick to get past the gate without dishing out the five bucks. He got on his motorcycle and sped away, while I climbed on my bicycle, and we parted ways.

The rain started to pour down towards the end of the last ten kilometres, and even with my raincoat I was getting pretty soaked. It was coming down in buckets as I entered the park and came to a massive hotel that loomed incongruously out of the tropical jungle. I parked the bike and rushed unhappily inside, not looking forward to the inflated prices I knew were waiting for me.

The cheapest room was 60 dollars a night, the smiling lady at the front desk told me in perfect English. That was about three times my usual daily travelling budget. I did not have to worry, I soon learned however, because the hotel was booked completed full. I looked around the lobby. It was full of white tourists speaking Russian, English, French, European Spanish. The parking lot outside was full of gleaming rental cars.

I asked if there was any other accommodation in the area. Not for tourists, the lady said. How about for locals, I pressed. She told me that there was a campismo about a kilometre down a nearby side path, but she had heard that only Cubans were allowed to stay there. I thanked her and headed out to investigate.

I arrived at the campground rain-drenched, mud-spattered and looking as miserable as possible. I spoke with the director and promised to leave early the following morning. He looked out at the downpour and gave me a room to myself for five dollars. So I got lucky again. Thank God for the rain.

Later, when I mentioned that I did not have any food with me, I was asked to pay an additional buck for dinner, which was an overawingly huge bowl of rice, beans and chicken that I could not finish, even though I took it to my cabin and ate from it at three different sittings, including as breakfast the following morning.

Just like the first campismo I had seen, the place was nearly completely empty. The contrast could not have been more striking. This muddy campground designated for the Cubans was empty because they simply could not afford to spend five dollars for a night’s accommodation, while a kilometre away, hotel rooms costing hundreds of dollars a night were packed to bursting with foreign tourists who passed their evenings complaining about a global recession and believed that they were experiencing Cuba.

I woke up refreshed and put on some dry clothes for the ride back. Taking the highway back I made better time, and when I came to the turn off for the Havana suburb of San Antonio de los Baños, where the man I had met the day before lived, I hesitated, wondering what I might be letting myself in for if I actually came knocking.

I decided to take the risk. An hour later I rolled into the town. It was almost six, and I called Pedro, hoping he would be off work. He answered the phone almost immediately.

Hermano!” he responded heartily. “Where are you? In San Antonio?”

He lived nearby and came walking to the park to pick me up. On the way to his place, he took me by his workplace and asking me to inspect the fine craftsmanship of the wicker furniture his government office produced. Then he went to his desk and pulled out a big bottle of high quality rum, which he gave me as a gift. Later in Havana I saw the same bottle of rum in a store with a ten dollar price tag. I soon discovered, after careful prying, that Pedro’s salary was only twelve dollars. His gift to me, a total stranger, was worth nearly his entire monthly wage.

Then he took me to his house, which was nearby. He introduced me to his wife, the highest paid Cuban I was to meet in the country, who was earning a whopping 1040 pesos (around 42 dollars) a month working as judge for the entire district. Then he presented his eighteen year-old son and sixty year-old grandfather. I walked around shaking hands as he showed me around the house, and showed me into his son’s room, where I would be sleeping. The boy would be getting the couch.

I put down my backpack, got out some toiletries and headed into the family bathroom. The mirror was cracked. The razor on the sink top looked Jurassic. The shower did not work and the bathtub had no plug, so everyone washed themselves from a bucket held under the tap. When there was water, that is.

The family gathered around the dinner table and we shared some rice and beans. I asked how it was possible for people to survive on salaries so Lilliputian.

Pedro nodded sombrely and talked about all the measures that had become lifestyles: Nothing was ever thrown away, no old screw, no useful piece of wire or plastic. No half-finished plate of food was ever thrown in the garbage. He only shaved once every four days. Especially interesting was his description of the alcohol situation. Cubans loved to drink, he said, but most were relegated to making their own home-brewed rum.  For your average Cuban, buying a can of beer was an act of exceptional profligacy. “In Cuba, most beers can only be paid for with tourist money, and cost at least one dollar a piece,” he explained. I tried to imagine a can of beer at 7-11 costing $50 to $100 in Canada. The “tourist brand” beers like Cristal, Buconero, etc., that are found on the island are all produced by one Canadian company, he went on to explain, but its identity is apparently a closely guarded secret (in Spanish it is a sociedad anonima, literally: “anonymous society”). The company sells the beers for nine cents a can to the Cuban government. Then the government sells them to bars and private sellers throughout the island at 36 cents apiece, making twenty-five cents profit. Then, after that, the bars and street vendors charge their customers at least a dollar apiece, garnering 64 cents of their own.

Pedro’s wife, the judge, affirmed his statements with a sporadic nods and winces while she ate and listened to the conversation.

Then he went on to describe how much better things had gotten since the 1990s. During the “Special Period in a Time of Peace” announced by Fidel after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the value of the Cuban peso plunged to around 150 to one American dollar when the average monthly salary was only around 250. The price of a bar of soap hit 120 pesos, and most Cubans were forced to go sixteen hours a day without electricity. Constant shortages ensured that most necessities could only ever be purchased on the black market. The Havana Zoo was raided so that people could eat the animals. Restaurants chained their knives and forks to the tables for fear of having them stolen. People got married just so they could take the beer and cake that the ration market gave them for the special event and resell it on the street.

I had read a bit about the Special Period. It was truly nightmarish. Average daily caloric intake dropped from 3050 in 1989 to around 1860 in 1993,[1] and every adult Cuban on the island reportedly lost between ten and twenty pounds, while the death rate among the elderly increased by 20%,[2] and the government threatened the dreaded “zero option,” a last gasp contingency plan that envisioned Cuba surviving with its economy completely cut off from all other countries while the Castro regime ploughed ahead absolutely alone with its hard-line communist plan (similar to contemporary North Korea and 1980s Albania).

As Pedro discussed the hardships of the special period, I thought of the autobiographical writings of Juan Pedro Gutierrez, which described firsthand the miserable life in Havana after the fall of the Soviet Union, a horrorshow of filthy tenements overflowing with rats because the people had eaten all their cats, and desperate profiteers robbing fresh graves to sell human livers on the streets.

The story of the Special Period that is most representative of its political and economic madness for me is the tale of the madhouse orchestra. In the 1990s, the influential head of Havana’s Psychiatric Hospital, Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz, was a music lover. Through government connections, he contracted a full orchestra of 82 talented musicians, who were paid $295 a month (a princely sum at the time) to play Wagner, Beethoven and other classics exclusively for the inmates of the insane asylum. The musicians were on the government payroll and forbidden to play for anyone except the handful of disturbed patients docile enough to be sat in front of them. According to the accounts of the orchestra members, most of the audience spent the concerts either frantically imitating the musicians with invisible instruments or wandering catatonically through the chairs.[3] It was surreal, but no musician dared to refuse the position, because it was the only way to get enough government money to live even moderately comfortably.

The “Special Period” has never officially ended, Pedro explained. The country has been in a steady state of constant economic crisis for the past twenty years straight, only recently somewhat alleviated by Venezuelan oil and tourist revenues.

I asked what they thought of the government. To my surprise, they were all staunchly fidelista. Fidel was a great leader, they all agreed. An exemplary human being who stood up for what was right and refused to bow before pressure. He had balls and heart, they said. Have you ever heard him speak?

I woke up the next morning to Pedro telling me how the radio had announced that there was a problem with the city pipes and there would probably be no water in the whole municipality for the entire day. “It happens two or three times a week,” he explained to me with a smile and shrug of the shoulders. “Sometimes the electricity goes too,” he added, “but that is only maybe once a week. It used to be much worse before.”

As we sat down to breakfast, I pulled out a questionnaire that I had made and asked the family if they would mind filling it out. During the course of my trip I would distribute it to dozens of people throughout the island. It contained these six questions:

1. What is something that you think foreigners do not know about Cuban culture?

2. If you could have dinner tonight with any Cuban, living or dead, who would it be?

3. If you could travel to any country in the world, which would it be and why?

4. What are the things that you love most about Cuba? What is Cuba’s biggest problem?

5. If you had to give your level of personal happiness in your daily life over the past month, between one (horrifically miserable) and ten (incredibly happy), what number would you give?

They set to work filling out my questionnaire as soon as they were done their meals. When Pedro handed it over, my eyes dipped curiously to the last answer. He had given his level of happiness as a full ten! In spite of not having running water, in spite of frequent blackouts, in spite of all the horror stories he had told me the night before, he was outrageously happy. And judging from his personality, that was how he genuinely seemed. Then I scanned up to the second question. Who would he like to have dinner with tonight, if he could spend the evening with any Cuban, living or dead? Answer: his family.

I commented that in my country that answer would probably never occur to people filling out the form.

“Well, if you take a good look at your life, or almost anyone’s life,” he explained good-naturedly, “if you have a happy family life, and solidarity among your friends, it doesn’t matter if the whole world outside is falling apart.”

I nodded.

“Does it?” he asked, looking at me quizzically.

I thought he had a very valid point, and told him so.

I was supposed to meet with some friends at eleven O’clock that morning, and it was already getting late. I had told Pedro that I would have to be leaving shortly after breakfast, but our conversation was so interesting that I was reluctant to leave. No problem, he said, picking up the phone and calling a friend who was driving into the capital in an hour and asked him to give us a ride. Pedro had business downtown anyway, he said, and would go with me. My legs were a little sore and I was glad for the help.

About half an hour later a van pulled up and the two of us piled in the back. There were already a half dozen people inside, and we joined the raucous conversation. Everyone had chipped in a few pesos for the gas. The music the driver had in the tape deck was playing a Cuban song entitleed “Of What Life Gives You”:

“…Don’t give up trying to achieve your dreams.

Not everything in life is about money.

Friendship is worth more, love is worth more.

You should never, ever forget it…” [4]

I asked them to drop me off in front of the Carlos Tercero Shopping Centre in downtown Havana, a huge, cavernous supermall with four stories of the highest quality imported goods found on the island. I pulled my bicycle out of the van and bid them all goodbye with several hearty hugs and handshakes, thanking Pedro for everything he had done for me.

They pulled away with a farewell honk and I rolled the bike into the shopping centre. I still had about a quarter of an hour before I was supposed to meet my friend, so I went to the food court and bought a hamburger. As I sat down to eat, I noticed that the music playing inside the air conditioned comfort of Havana’s Mecca of Cuban capitalism was in English. It was George Harrison:

“…I got my mind set on you, I got my mind set on you,

But it’s gonna take money, a whole lot of spending money,

It’s gonna take plenty of money to do it right child…”

The irony seemed so thick and the culture shock so unexpected that I could barely eat.


[1] According to “Cuba’s Food and Agriculture Situation Report” published by the USDA in March 2008.

[2] According to the article “Health Consequences of Cuba’s Special Period” published in the July 2008 Canadian Medical Association Journal.

[3] This is reported by Andres Oppenheimer in his book “Castro’s Final Hour,” based on interviews with several orchestra members.

[4] “No desmayes tratando de lograr tus anhelos / No todo en la vida simplemente es dinero / Vale mas la amistad, vale mas el amor / Nunca lo debes olvidar…” I made sure to get Pedro to write down the lyrics in my notebook before we separated. The title in Spanish is “De lo que la vida te da,” and the singer is Frank Reyes.

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