Tag Archives: cuba. travel

Hogs & Dogs: Extreme Camping in Cuba

Our summer vacation plans were simple and cheap: strap the camping gear onto the 1946 Harley-Davidson and plunge deep into the mountains of Pinar del Río, getting as far from hot, hectic Havana as we could without a visa. We were broke and stressed; our souls needed to sigh a bit among the pines and pure air.

 

This sounds nuts, I know. Who in their right mind vacations where there is no plumbing and more livestock than people? To boot, our transportation is a 72-year old motorcycle held together by string (literally; more on that later) and we’d be camping in a place where, incidentally, camping isn’t a thing. Add to this the general state of Cuban roads, the crippling August heat, and dearth of gas stations, stores, and food, and you begin to understand why the whole idea had family and friends from near and far expressing concern for our sanity.

lastunasbaches

But this wasn’t our first rodeo. Last summer we traveled nearly 2000 kilometers between Havana and Granma on that same Harley as research fodder for my new book. Yet this was something altogether different.

first rodeo

This time we were considering taking the dog.

 

Our decision wasn’t snap or capricious; we’d deliberated and debated – conversations which left me more comfortable with the idea of canine accompaniment but not entirely convinced. And being the youngest of four from a poor household (i.e. too self-centered than my station or accomplishments warrant), I wondered: how does bringing Toby benefit me? Unless I sold the story to The Sun or New Yorker, it seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward…

 

The evidence base, if you can call it that, was slim and partial for how Toby might comport himself on our odyssey. We’d spent a sublime weekend camping at seaside Canasí where he romped in the woods, lounged by the campfire swollen with tinned meat, and ran, tail between legs, from the surf. And there was no question the little guy loves to ride: every day, paws on the handlebars, ass pressing against José as we bank turns, we commute to Cuba Libro on the Harley. But what we were proposing wasn’t just a weekend within striking distance of the capital or a five-minute jaunt between home and work. This longer, more remote trip promised to be more intense. Way more intense.

commuting

The idea was a week-long back country camping trip covering over 600 kilometers through the mountains of Pinar del Río, towing a trailer with our gear and Toby in his cage. Never mind that Toby, a dog rescued from Havana’s mean streets, had never before been in a cage.

 

Both José and I have extensive riding and camping experience – he more of the former, me better-versed in the latter – but as a team we were motivated and adept. In short, we had the chops to make it happen, dog and all. Toby? I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react.

 

_____

 

For those not familiar with Cuba, let me explain why this plan sparked a second round of concerned emails, which now expressed fears for our sanity and Toby’s safety. First of all, there are no Harley-Davidson dealerships or parts sellers in Cuba. Should we break down in the middle of nowhere – if a cable or gear shaft or belt should go – we were on our own. Luckily, my pilot José is a crackerjack machinist, electrician, and inventor (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also easy on the eyes!) Plus, the Harley is made from real steel that can take a beating. Second, in Havana, you can’t just pop into a Petco for a doggie cage or AutoZone for a trailer. All this had to be built from scratch and scrap – on a limited budget. These weren’t hurdles we could throw money at. Complicating matters is the fact that there is nowhere to officially camp on the island – we’d have to be tremendously resourceful and somewhat careful to find practical, pleasant places to camp (last year we pitched camp too close to the naval base in Guantánamo). And one more detail troubled me: dog food isn’t sold in Cuba. We were used to cooking for him daily at home, but on the road? It’s not like we had a camp stove or anything.

chariot

The one-wheel trailer, hitch and cage were designed and built by José using salvaged wood and wire, supplemented by re-purposed refrigerator racks and dorm room crates dating back decades to my NYU days. The cage door was held in place with a bungie cord – release the cord and the door swung open. The cage (or “chariot” as my friend Chris prefers to call it), sat atop a suitcase containing our camping, cooking and snorkeling gear, plus our clothing, food and my reading/writing materials. The suitcase nestled perfectly in the trailer’s bed and elevated Toby and chariot above the exhaust pipe. Even with all this killer design and forethought, I wasn’t at all sure how Toby would handle it. José told me not to worry. Like that ever works.

 

Once everything was strapped down and secured, we placed Tobito gently in his cage. He was more enthusiastic hitched to the Harley than when we tested it in the living room. So enthusiastic, in fact, he started barking as soon as we hooked the bungie cord into place and didn’t stop until we unhooked the door (every couple of hours once we were on the road). It was 600 kilometers of non-stop, on-the-road barking – maddening for us, but he was a happy camper. He wagged his tail wildly, caught the wind of the open road upon his face, and sniffed eagerly at the goats, cows, and pines as we passed. He often had an erection. By the time we got home, he was hoarse from so much barking and we were aurally traumatized. But he was a trooper and a champ, never messing his cage, protecting our camp at night and hopping gleefully in and out of his chariot by trip’s end.

toby in LR

tobyin chariot w LR

 

We’d pre-cooked five days of meals for Toby, freezing it and storing it in a little Styrofoam cube. It kept well for four days and the last meal we fed to an emaciated country dog who devoured the almost-turned liver and rice. Once the precooked meals ran out, we fed him hot dogs and canned meat balls cooked over the campfire.

 

When we caught bad weather (repeatedly), we would quickly pull over and bivouac under sheets of plastic. Together with trailer, Harley, chariot, and gear, Toby, José and I would huddle under a plastic teepee and prepare our little cafetera to enjoy some sweet, hot, dark espresso as we waited for the skies to clear. We had no camp stove, but lo and behold! At our first rest stop, José whipped out a ‘revelberro’ – a one-burner wonder made of two steel pieces: the base which gets filled with luz brillante and the burner, which is placed on top. In Cuba, you learn something new every day and though I’ve camped the length and the breadth of the island – from Granma to Guanahacabibes, above and below waterfalls, on the beach and in the bush – I had never seen one of these nifty units before. It’s not only great for camping, but also blackouts, hurricanes or when you forget to pay your gas bill. Note to self: see if José’s sister will sell me her revelberro. Toby didn’t partake of the rich and delicious café Cubano, but we granted him tent access during thunderstorms and rain. Hot dogs and meatballs, tent privileges and unparalleled adventure: this is one lucky doggie.

 

We crawled out of the tent after one of these summer storms broke and found a horse grazing under a double rainbow. On the far west coast, when the clouds shipped out after a nighttime tempest over Guanahacabibes National Park, we wished on shooting stars. We shared crack-of-dawn coffee facing the caves from where Che commanded troops during the Bay of Pigs with the site’s historians one day and sipped the best espresso (served in little coconut shell cups) with a campesino family in their dirt floor home the next.

tobes rainbow

No cell phone service, no showers or tour buses or air conditioning: camping in Cuba is not for the fastidious or faint of heart. The lazy or timid also need not apply. But if you’re looking for a unique adventure – natural, cultural, logistical – consider this alternative. Even if you don’t have a car or bicycle (or Harley!), a similar trip to ours is possible. Parts of it you won’t want to replicate, like when one of the seat springs (about the size of a small peach), busted in two on a remote road cleaving between mountains. Suddenly I was leaning dramatically to starboard. José cut the motor and set to bending and re-threading the spring to make it shorter, but strong, reinforcing it with several lengths of twine.

 

If you’re game for this type of trip, it helps if you speak Spanish and can build a decent cooking fire, but with gumption, a phrase book, and healthy stash of protein nuggets and nuts, you can camp here way off the grid and without leaving a trace. If you’ve dreamt of this kind of vacation, you may find these tips helpful, honed over 15 years of camping on the island:

 

  • For reasons related to Cuba’s wonky supply chain and environmental stewardship, do not depend on bottled water. Pack a filter or purification tablets to ward off thirst and protect your gut flora. Cuban pharmacies and almost every home also stock hipoclorito de sodio; add two drops to every liter for potable water.

 

  • Food can be an issue in Cuba (now there’s an understatement!). Even if you’re on the fanciest organized tour, you will probably go hungry at some point in your trip. Bringing packaged soups, pastas, and dehydrated meals from home, supplemented by vacuum packed tuna, Spam, and the like, is a great strategy. Also, high-protein, lightweight anything (beef jerky, Clif bars, trail mix) will be a life saver at some point. You can round this out with peanuts and other on-the-ground snacks; our little sack of chicharrones kept all three of us happy during our recent odyssey. Fruits and veggies can be procured en route, but availability and variety depend largely on the season. Fresh pork is sold everywhere – looked for ‘ahumado’, smoked cuts, which keep beautifully. Eggs are also widely available; keeping them from cracking is the tricky bit, but an experienced camper/packer will figure it out. Hard boiling them for a roadside picnic is another option. Canned goods are sold in tiendas; those at gas stations, like the one where we stocked up in Sandino, can be gold mines.

 

  • Mountain regions and (some) beach areas are the best bets for finding practical, beautiful places to camp. For mountains and valleys, I suggest: the Escambray, Sierra de los Órganos (Pinar del Río), Valle de Yumurí (Matanzas), Sierra de Cristal (Holguín) and the region around Baracoa (excluding Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, which is off-limits to casual campers). For beach camping, good opportunities abound in Guanahacabibes and the adjacent coast of Pinar del Río, Playa Larga (Matanzas), the beaches between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the Las Tunas coast and beaches around Yumurí (access from Baracoa). Canasí is ever popular and there will likely be Cubans camping there when you turn up.

 

  • If you can’t find an appropriate camping spot, try one of the scores of ‘campismos’ around the country. Technically these are not for tent camping and only a handful rent the concrete cabins to foreigners, but with a bit of conversation and cash, you’ll likely be able to convince administrators to let you pitch your tent. These are always located in beautiful settings, from mountain to sea, along rivers and tucked into valleys.

 

  • Cuba is, overall, quite safe. Locals tend to be more curious and protective of campers than any sort of threat and they’ll surely want to chat you up, which is part and parcel of the charm of this sort of trip. Offering a slug of coffee or swill of rum to people happening upon your camp will result in lively conversation, unsolicited advice and maybe even new friendships!

 

  • Pack biodegradable toilet paper. Be sure to pee and poop off the beaten trail and bury the latter, please!

 

no-trace-before.jpg

Guanahacabibes campsite in full swing

No Trace Camping

Guanahacabibes campsite, 12 hours later upon leaving

  • Burn all paper garbage, bury the biodegradable, and pack out the rest. At several points during our most recent trip we cruised the mountain roads with a plastic bag filled with tin cans tied to the motorcycle seat. While this elicited strange looks from passersby and the cans rattled annoyingly, disposing of them properly in the first available garbage provided great satisfaction.

 

  • The May-October rainy season is hot, sticky, buggy and wet. Usually these are afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been rudely awakened at 3am by water dropping on us through the mesh tent roof. If you break camp early and move on to your next destination, setting up before the thunderclouds roll in, you can beat the worst of it – most of the time. Ponchos are an important tool at this time of year. Not only will they keep you dry, you can use them to cover campfire wood so you’re not eating raw and cold once the clouds move out.

 

 

I wasn’t sure about taking Toby at the outset and even mid-trip, when José declared he’d go camping with Toby again in a heartbeat, I wavered. But once I saw Toby leaping into his chariot with a mini-erection somewhere around Valle de San Juan, barking like mad, I was already planning our next adventure to Pan de Guajaibón.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, cuban beaches, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, hiking, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Uncategorized, Writerly stuff

Apretando Mi Corazón: Cuban Emigration

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All my friends are talkin’ about leavin’, about leavin’

So goes the little pop ditty in heavy rotation on one of the satellite radio stations I favor. I’d bet my life Cuba never crossed the songwriter’s mind, but it so easily could have been written by my friend Alma, my prima Anabel, or my colleague Jorge.

Or me.

The song is entitled Ghosts and we’re surrounded by them here as certainly as the water which hems us in, as omnipresent and nebulous as the bureaucracy that hobbles Cuban greatness.

Can you hear me sighing? Crying? Thankfully not, but somewhere out there, not too far from where you read and where I write, there’s a Cuban pining for the friends that have left or for those they’ve left behind.

Or not.

Emigration is a little like death: everyone has their own way of grieving and no one has the right to judge – least of all me with the relative freedom of movement I enjoy. Some people block out departed loved ones as soon as that exit permit is stamped or the fast boat slips silently from shore. Until they’re due back for a visit, in which case copious gifts are expected. And they always do. Return, because the pull of this patria is too strong to resist indefinitely and bear gifts because the guilt – self-imposed and otherwise – of leaving is heavy. Besides, what better way to prove the grass is indeed greener than to come loaded with loot? (see note 1)

Where will her roots grow? Photo by Caitlin Gorry.

What it amounts to is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ It’s a wholly common coping mechanism here, in fact. Or rather than a way to cope, it’s simply part of the cultural sofrito. After all, many a liaison – and even marriages – (mal)function due to ‘out of sight out of mind,’ and the related ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ Until you do, but that’s another story.

Some Cubans, meanwhile, go to the other extreme: they pine and fret and share each morsel of news with every person they meet. Iraida got her driver’s license; Alain saw his first St Patrick’s Day parade; Yoselvis likes Burger King, McDonald’s not so much. This is my approach for keeping close everyone I left behind in my own émigré drama. Willingly taking leave of a lifetime of friendships – most Cubans don’t realize we share this in common.

Emigration is a knotty business, muddled by politics vs. agency, needs vs. desires, illusions and disenchantment, resignation, empowerment, circumstance and happenstance. And I’ve faced a lot of loss and separation on this end. Many of my Cuban friends and family – relationships I’ve fed and nurtured over the past 10 years with all the creativity and passion my heart allows – are leaving. Invariably, I’m tipped off when they suddenly start speaking English and going to every doctor they can, even the dentist.

The details of leaving vary, but the reasons rarely do. Frustrated and fed up, my friends want meaningful work at a dignified salary; yearn to improve their families’ station; and itch to experience something beyond their block, barrio, or province. A leave-taker myself, and with what I know beyond this city, island, and hemisphere, our emigration conversations have been in-depth and interesting.

My 20-something friends ache for independence – from mom and the state – though many are clearly unprepared for the reality fleeing the nest and flying solo imply. My 40-something friends, meanwhile, are tired. Tired of only having water un día sí, un día no; tired of waiting on the bus, permissions, and promises that may never materialize; tired of hunger and boredom and heat without respite, tired of the shortages and struggle and slogans – the endless luchita that erodes the will to go on blackout by blackout.

Just today, after a rash of events that included death of the family dog, a trip to the pediatric hospital and stint at the police station (neither resulting in prolonged care or detention por suerte), a friend reached the end of her rope: “I’m a revolutionary, but there are limits to what a person can take. I can’t take any more. I’m ready to get on any lancha or plane to get me out of here.”

I relate to both groups: fiercely independent, I began working at 13 and left home four years later, so I get my young friends’ anti-dependence stance. What trips me up and out, though, is how they replicate the precise behavior they condemn: they don’t participate in any community endeavors like the block association, because they say the block association doesn’t get anything done. In turn, the association blames ineffectual municipal authorities, who blame overworked and gridlocked provincial authorities and on and on goes the blame game up the hierarchy in a cycle of non-action.

I ask if a renovation or re-thinking of these mechanisms is possible (obviously it’s desirable), but they give me ten reasons why it isn’t practical. When I suggest that they volunteer or campaign for those positions in local government where they might affect change, I get the same response. It’s a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy a la vez: things won’t get better because the people charged with improvements are ineffective and/or shackled so why even deign to try to fix what’s broken or work towards positive change? So they cross their arms and give in to the inertia – while eating grandma’s home cooking with provisions provided by her and the state, in clothes washed by mom, after which they shower in a bathroom they’ve probably never scrubbed themselves. They are resigned, leisurely.

Out of sight, out of mind? Photo by Conner Gorry.

I know that sounds harsh and as if I’ve written them off. But I feel for this generation. They did get the fuzzy end of the revolutionary lollipop after all. They were born into the hardship of the Special Period, just missing the halcyon Eastern Bloc boom, when you could take your honey out for dinner and dancing on the average salary. The emotional, exuberant revolutionary hey day when the entire country put their backs and minds into creating a more just, equitable society was also before their time. To boot, their lives were proscribed by all kinds of dubious innovations like ‘emerging teachers’, the camello, and reggaetón (see note 2).

But there have been positive changes in their lifetimes, too, and when I ask them about the relaxation of restrictions on private property and enterprise or the very public push for full integration of LGBT Cubans into society for instance, they say ‘too little, too late’ or cite non-causal factors for such strides. Many didn’t participate in the national debates that generated these changes, nor have they read or heard Raul’s speeches specifically dealing with these issues – and even thornier ones like travel and the meager salary problem.

When I point out that not all change is good and ask if they’re prepared to take the good with the bad, they say yes – reflexively. Change for the sake of change is their position. And it leaves me wondering what they believe in; I’m coming to think that even if they know, they aren’t prepared to fight for it.

On the whole, my 40-something friends are nostalgic for the late 80s and agree much has changed since then – for good and not so. Back then, you couldn’t even dream of procuring an exit permit to travel abroad (a restriction the majority believes should be lifted, though this involves complexities not everyone is willing or able to recognize). And they praise recent changes, though often such praise isn’t forthcoming without prompting. It makes their resignation doubly troubling – they have the historical context of how great this country was and the maturity to take the longer view (see note 3) but still they want out. When I ask these friends what they would change, they mention freedom to travel (something my own country doesn’t extend its own citizens – another thing we share in common) and less bureaucracy. Some say they want Liberty, capital L.

Mercurial, that liberty thing. Do they realize tyranny comes in many flavors? And that consumer capitalism, powered by its ‘save yourself if you can’ underpinnings, is among the most bitter?  And if you can’t save yourself? Tough luck.

For many, the choice is reduced to resignation or emigration. Neither of which will deliver the liberty or change they so desire, I’m afraid. To be clear: I wholeheartedly support my friends working towards leaving; after all, I did it myself, I left my country and I can leave this one too when I want to. But I miss them something awful once they’re gone.

To the resigned, I say – if you’re going to stick around, stick up for what you believe in. A better Cuba.

Notes

1. OK, so maybe that’s a little crass. Cubans know better than anyone how hard life is here and generally have a genuine desire to help out those back home. Still, doubt creeps in when I learn about the rent-a-bling businesses in southern Florida which lease chunky gold-plated watches, chains thick enough to moor a boat, and rings for every finger to Cubans returning to the island. These doubts are reinforced when I turn sad watching family ruptures at the airport and friends say: ‘that’s all a show, muchacha. Take it with a grain of salt.’

2. This program trained massive amounts of teachers in the minimum amount of time. The idea was to improve the teacher to student ratio, which took a nosedive as older, more experienced teachers retired – often to offer private, complimentary classes to those students who could afford them. More often than not, these emerging teachers weren’t much older than their charges and depended on videotapes and other teaching aides to compensate for their lack of experience. By all accounts, it wasn’t a good approach. Camellos were double-humped hulks pulled by big rig cabs that held over 300 passengers when packed. You still see them in the provinces, but they’ve been phased out in Havana. If you don’t know what reggaetón is, I envy you.

3. Difficulty in taking the long view is not just limited to Cuban youth, I’ve found.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Uncategorized