A People-to-People Reality Tour to Cuba
|Old Havana's pastel-colored colonial buildings. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.
In an effort to heighten awareness of the effects of the U.S. trade embargo and to help establish people-to-people relations between Americans and Cubans, Global Exchange, a nonprofit organization, facilitates legal travel to Cuba through a variety of cultural programs, reality tours, and language programs. I chose an 11-day Eco-Bicycle Reality Tour that began and ended in Havana, with a long tour of Cubas western-most province, Pinar del Rio, sandwiched in between. Global Exchange offers different tours to Cuba each year designed to foster intercultural relationships and understanding.
Our small group of norteamericanos was met by members of the Cuban bike club, Club Nacional de Cicloturismo "Gran Caribe," who became our teachers, navigators, and playmates over the next 12 days. Our well-worn bikes shared the road with pre-1959 Chevrolets, rusty Russian sports cars, horses, and crowded camellos (humpbacked buses). We lunched with cheerful, well-educated Cuban children at a local primary school, then stopped by the Universidad de la Habana to see one of the few buildings still in good condition in this dilapidated city. This country of over 11 million people boasts a 97 percent literacy rate and leads Latin America in primary education.
We spent most days on our bikes riding anywhere between 10 and 45 kilometers a day. Side trips included revolutionary hot spots like Che Guevaras hideout and Malagons grave. We stopped and chatted with weathered rice farmers and cowboys on horseback as they led their oxen to the fields. We swapped smiles and "holas" with men, women, and children sitting on their porches, waiting at bus stops, riding their bicycles, working in the fieldsall very kind, curious, and living in an apparent state of harmony.
One objective of our reality tour was to learn about the agricultural practices and ecology of Cuba. We hiked through a tropical fruit garden, peddled past shade-grown coffee plantations, and swam in the natural pools formed by the waterfalls of the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. We even attended "cave school" at Escuela Nacional de Espeleologia. Natural treats such as guava pastries, fresh bananas, and pure sugarcane juice were always plentiful, and one day we joined a Cuban farm family around their kitchen table to share a feast of organic vegetables and free-range poultry.
Each night before dinner I spent time getting to know my new Cuban friends. We discussed family life, politics, religion, hopes and fears, including their concerns over another possible food shortage. Following September 11th, Cuba has experienced a sharp downturn in tourism, which in recent years has become the backbone of the economy.
Back in Havana, I spent more time with my new Cuban friends in their own neighborhoodsenjoying live Jazz Cubano, sipping cervezas in the darkness of a sudden electrical blackout, and walking along the Malecon, the major boulevard that follows Havanas shoreline.
On my last unforgettable evening in Havana, my good friend Alfredo invited me to his apartment to meet his family. I rode sidesaddle on his bikes rear rack, and as he weaved through the crowded streets and dodged knee-deep potholes, I inhaled the aromas that filled the city aircar exhaust, roasting chicken, cigar smoke, wet pavementas if I was taking my last breath.
Cycling through Cuba as a "reality tourist" transformed me into an activist for both the Cuban people and the American traveler. I write letters to my representatives, send medical, school, and bicycle supplies, and support organizations such as Global Exchange. Now is an opportune time for all of us to take an interest in getting to know our Caribbean neighbors.
TAMARA M. SEYMOUR writes from Portland, OR.