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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

February 28, 2012

Never Ever Land (an inside joke)

(Sorry no pictures until we leave Cuba)

I’ve got one spoon and Horst has the other, it’s the third time we’ve had to put the tyre back on the rim and the tube looks like a Red Green project. The tube had one puncture and a long slash from the object (broach pin) as it rotated with the tyre when I touched the breaks; a stupid mistake on my part. It’s about 30 degrees Celsius out and all four of us are knackered. The cops that stopped by were watching us like we didn’t know what to do and kept commenting that we were doing it (roadside tyre change) wrong. I think they pissed Deya off because when the shortest cop leaned in to help, Deya politely told him to piss off, which they did, leaving us alone on the side of the road. By the time we finished all three bikes had to be push started because the hazards had been on for too many hours.

I’ve had many, many tyre changes and Horst has had many, many more. It was nice of the boys in blue to stop but they’ve probably never changed anything more than a 250cc 15 inch tyre and believe me, there is a difference. Despite that, we were able to get the tube to hold air with a bunch of patches, a load of rubber cement and thick layering of duct tape. Ah, duct tape…

As I was tightening the bolts on the fork slider, that’s the bit that the fork is seated in and the front axle passes through, I heard a snap! There are two screws and as always I tighten each half a turn at a time. I jumped back a little then looked closely at the two bolts, telling my comrades that I think I just broke a bolt. I couldn’t see anything wrong and the bolts seemed tight. Previously, when loosening the bolts I noted that they were bent and would not come out; I presumed this was caused by the accident in Peru. Consequently I also assumed that the outside bolt had snapped. I wasn’t too worried about it as long as everything was tight, I could deal with it later.

By the time we got home it was dark and hitting potholes at speed in the dark was a fine reminder of why driving at night in Cuba is not a good idea. The roads are worse than I first recognized when we got here. My tyre went completely flat about 15 minutes after we arrived, lucky I thought. The next morning I went out to take a look at the flat tyre and ponder my good fortune at arriving to the Casa safely when I noticed the fork slider was broken fully across the two screws, “well that sucks!” said I. Expletives ensued and then Deya and I discussed the need to change the tube anyways. I got to work.

I had a new Metzeler tube, heavy duty, and made the swap. As I was spooning, which is a bit difficult with a broken shoulder, I managed to pinch the new tube. I’m very careful about this part of the process but screwed it up anyways. The result was having Deya go to a ‘gomeria’, which is the rubber guy, to have both tubes patched. He did a good job; of course we were only charged 23 times the going rate. I guess that’s our privilege for being in Cuba.

Since then my tyre has had air but I haven’t ridden. The problem is that the part is a complicated one and here are the options we were faced with:
a) If we get it fixed in Cuba, which is possible, and it fails, which is also possible, then I have no front wheel. Try to get around like that!
b) If we order the part, about $700 Canadian dollars, it would arrive by DHL at about $600 Canadian dollars delivery. It is most likely to take several months to clear and least likely to ever make it out of Customs, due primarily to theft.
c) If we wait to leave Cuba, I can still ride it to the dealer in Cancun or get the part delivered in Mexico and change it myself.

We decided we would wait until Mexico and hope it doest break apart completely on the highway.

So that leaves us with a decision to make about touring the rest of Cuba, should we or should we not. Since most places seem to be the same and the difficulty we are having with repairs and such, we decided we had seen enough. I understand we are missing the better half of the island but then this is just the way things go, like when we missed Cañón del Pato due to two broken arms; shit happens.

Since we’ve had to kill time it gave us an opportunity to focus on a few things in Havana. We rented a flat for a reasonable price from a friend, this helped out on the budget too, though we would be tortured continuously by five feral neighbourhood cats. We cook like demons and eat like pigs gaining a bit of weight in the process with all the varieties of spaghetti and banana bread we can produce. It can be tough to find ingredients though, it took almost a week to find eggs and we are dangerously low on sodium bicarbonate! Also, Horst and Osly have been stuffing us with good German breads, paté and Nutella too. They have a direct line to the motherland. Happy times!

We’ve been hot on the trail of some interesting options to leave the island and missed several excellent opportunities by a day or so. In any event we have secured at least two different options, plus the container and air options which are not ideal but doable. One of the most interesting options which we’ve been researching is the US container that goes to Florida about once a week. It’s a bit of a secret but it might work in a pinch. For our US friends a note, as Canadians we can transport from Cuba directly into USA without restrictions. The trick is to find a non USA registered boat here.

We attended the Embassy’s Polar Bar to enjoy the Canadian beef shipped in from Montreal and some beer. We met interesting people there like the Deputy of Public Affairs Officer for the US in Cuba, an excellent individual. The Americans share resources (housed in the Swiss Embassy) and deal with the Cuban government officially as the ‘Interests Section’ but have no official diplomatic relationship. It’s a silly and ineffective relationship, including the embargo, which has been unsuccessful for over 50 years. Time to try something different guys; write a letter, Cubans are ready for the bigger man to stand up.

Our host Julio has been fantastic and has shown us around town a bit, taking us to an “Old Car Show” and generally pointing us in the right direction. Thanks Julio! Of course Deya and I like to keep busy so we’ve been studying daily in between searching for a boat, to keep the mind active and it has been very enjoyable. We have also been stirring the pot a bit as we like to do and delivered a seven page report on our experience as tourists to the Minister of Tourism. Hahaha…I doubt they will read it but if they do I bet it’s the first of its kind!

We attended the Customs Office to find out about where we needed to clear out of. During our visit I did a ballpark estimate of the level of productivity in the department. Productivity is based on a mix of two measures: Utilization and Efficiency. By making some simple calculations based on obvious observations we can get an excellent estimate of productivity. In the three hours that we were there I estimated about 8-12%! No Joke! You may not even be able to imagine what that looks like. We got our information from the Jefa (Boss) because the Specialist decided not to show up that day, then left.

We returned a couple of weeks later once we had figured out more about our transport needs. This time it was to confirm the documentation that we would need and the timings. The Specialist was in, fortunately, I guess. She (Specialist) told us that she would check to see what the requirements for documents were and let us know. After four hours of watching her mingle and chat we decided to swim up stream to the chiefs. The department Jefa wasn’t in that day so we went to her boss’s boss (that’s how we roll). By the way, my estimate of productivity was about 15-20% but it was tough to tell for sure because the jovial mood everyone was in. It was February 14th, lovers day, and people were generally moving about with more energy, though maybe not actually doing anything.

Within five minutes we were shaking hands with Fidel, not THE Fidel, but a big boss none the less and were seated in a board room with Fidel, the Administrative Manager and the Customs Legal Council. Deya was nervous and I was thinking, “Right on, action!” They answered our questions and set out a plan to make sure things got handled properly. It was the first bit of leadership we have seen since we got to Cuba and the funny part was that it was a guy named Fidel who showed it. At one point the Specialist was shown in to answer for her incompetence, Deya quickly shot her excuses down and politely, but firmly, pointed out that the folks in the board room did in ten minutes what she failed to do in four hours. Eeek, Deya was on fire! The Specialist was made to apologize and depart…lol..wow, what a good time.

Our next appointment came and we arrived a bit early, seems the whole office was waiting for us and we were shown in to the Jefa’s office without delay. We didn’t even need security passes, by now I think everybody knows who we are. After clearing up what was going to happen and generally getting the ducks lined up we left the office. I stopped to do another quick calculation because I was suddenly stunned; about 70-80% productivity. Too too funny, I don’t want to take credit for something we have never seen before in Cuba but the coincidence was just priceless.

We are now in our final days before departing and I have a calendar on the fridge with big red X marks for each day remaining. The ride off the island is going to be special and the team that is helping us out are just outstanding folks. I’ll talk more about it once we are back in Mexico, suffice to say, my heart jumps a little when I think of Mexico and see our North American brothers here in Cuba. To that end, it feels like we’ve almost made it but truth be told we have a long road still ahead of us and the challenges are still great. And that is great indeed.

Growing up in Cuba

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons*

“I was only three years old; of course I have no memory of the event at that time. It was 1959 when the revolution occurred and everything had changed. My father worked outside of La Habana for a sugar cane company, he was a hard worker and worked long hours, we were considered an upper middle class family. My dad bought the house we are sitting in now, though it didn’t look the same as it does now. Since we have always lived here we never lost the property.”

“I was the youngest of the three kids, each separated by 7 years, don’t ask what my parents were thinking with that schedule but that’s how it worked out. Luis was 10 at the time and Paco would have been 17 years old. My oldest brother Paco was born with a slight disability having some limited capacities; this would create some complications later. He still lives here with me though my mom and dad have both passed. But at the time the country was feeling a lot of tension and there were many protests and small rebellions against the incredibly corrupt government, just prior to the revolution.”

“The country had seen almost all of its growth in the years prior to the revolution and very little after that. It was stinking with wealth and with violence, drugs, prostitution, gambling, murders, etc., a real paradise for some and a hell for others. The second Great War had made its mark with industry and wealth and with a long and complicated political history in Cuba. The United States had muscled a contract to have unrestricted access to mining and military bases as well as the rights to interfere with Cuba’s sovereign issues at their leisure, this was called ‘Enmienda Platt’; so much for the idea of sovereignty, it allowed for a condition where Cubans had very little rights to their own country.”

“Of course you know about Fidel and how he originally led a band of students in an armed assault in Santiago against Batista, which failed. This put him into prison where he represented himself, since he was a lawyer, and eventually got out of prison and ended up in Mexico. He and a group trained and returned on the boat known as ‘The Granma’, you’ve seen it in the Museum of Revolution downtown, landing in Coloradas a province of the Orient. He then led the revolution. There were 82 people on the boat, one of the sailors fell overboard but was rescued lending great moral support to their effort.”

“You know, at the time, everyone supported the revolution, everybody. The rich, middle class and poor people all supported the revolution. Fidel was not alone; it was not a revolution of one man. But in 1961 the ‘Peter Pan Project’ occurred. By now Luis was 13 years old. The large companies were annexed and my father lost his job. Medium size companies were starting to be taken over by the government and eventually even the neighbourhood butcher would end up as a government distribution centre causing most of these small businesses to close.”

“You can imagine that during this period there was a lot of confusion. My aunt, on my mom’s side was in an uproar. She was a bit of a nut. She was in prison for protesting against Batista and then again for protesting against Fidel, nuts. Of course the Peter Pan Project didn’t help her. Since the take over of Fidel the support for the revolution took a terrible turn. Many of the supporters that wanted the revolution didn’t want the change in economic structure that Fidel implemented; just a necessary change in leadership, there was no doubt that Batista and the US Government were responsible for the terrible conditions of the majority of Cubans which facilitated the revolution. But a socialist and communist system was not the answer for most. This meant that in this year there were new revolutionaries fighting from the very high mountains against Fidel that he himself fought from.”

“During this time of confusion the rebels printed a ‘fake law’ for mass distribution posing as an official government notice. The new law stated that the parents of all children under 15 would lose custody or parental rights to their children and that the children would be sent to the USSR for reprogramming. This would cause widespread panic amongst the Cubans. Parents began sending their children to the United States by the thousands. With the exception of my mother, her whole side of the family left Cuba under the strenuous pressure of my rebel aunt, including my brother Luis. Of course, the years after saw the Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron (US sponsored attack by mercenaries) and the Cuban Missile Crisis which pitted us in between the USA and USSR, a very low time for Cubans. Sadly the embargo had put us into the loving care of the Soviets and there we had no choice but to adopt communism, something Fidel said he never wanted, but what were we to do?”

“Luis by now, I’ll remind you, was 13 years old and military service was a requirement for males aged 15-30 years so the conditions for him to leave Cuba were running out. Under my aunt’s pressure he was sent, I was still very young and my older brother Paco was disabled so we stayed behind. My parents didn’t want to leave Cuba like so many others had. It was prior to this time that we were the only occupied house on the block. So many of the affluent people had left for the United States leaving everything behind, as though they were going on a short vacation, to return once the dust had settled. Of course they never did and lost everything in the process. Again, we never abandoned our homes so we didn’t loose anything, really. This explains all the angry Cubans in Miami, I guess.”

“Not having immediate family in the USA my brother ended up in an orphanage until he was about 16 years of age. Over those years he was beaten and raped repeatedly. I asked why my aunt’s family didn’t take him but they said it was just too difficult trying to take care of themselves in their new country. I never really understood. By the time he was release from the orphanage he was taken into foster care by an American family who owned a small locksmith shop in which he worked to help out. He never lost his motivation to study and never blamed anyone for his plight, eventually finishing a PhD from Boston University in Sociology, becoming recognized as an expert in child sexual abuse. Luis and his partner moved to Puerto Rico where he died of AIDS in 1996 on my father’s 82nd birthday. Dad was in such good spirits I couldn’t bear to tell him about Luis so I waited a couple of days after the birthday. I told him Luis died of cancer; Dad never knew about Luis’ lifestyle or the abuse he suffered, there was no point in telling him now; Dad lived a couple more years before passing, joining my mom.”

“Life went on and things were fairly primitive, the socialist effort and external pressures had reduced things to a meagre existence for Cubans. By 1980 the ‘Mariel Exodus’ occurred. I remember this; some embassies had started to offer visas to Cubans which caused thousands to rush the embassies. It became violent with people being crushed and shot at by embassy guards. At one point a bus tried to breach a gate of the Peruvian Embassy, both the Venezuelan and Peruvian Cuban guards were shooting, in the crossfire a Peruvian embassy’s Cuban guard was killed. The bus load of Cubans rammed the gate and requested asylum.”

“In response to the poorly thought out offers of the Peruvian government towards the visas, Fidel pulled the security around the embassy to avoid any more shooting. The worst happened and over ten thousand Cubans rushed the embassy. It was horrible, it’s the same place where the Hotel Occidental is now and you have seen the place, across from the Greek Embassy. There was violence, rapes, crimes; it was disgusting, people were defecating beside each other, eating the grass and bark from the trees. Everyone was going, people just running down to the embassies, they would come from all over the country and just abandon their cars and motorbikes, right in front of my house! Very bad people went there, many friends and most of my neighbours, this was a bad time.”

“It became so bad that the government began sending aid into the embassy and issuing passes for Cubans to leave the embassy and return home while still maintaining their rights to asylum in the foreign country. At this time a few boats turned up on the shore, coming from Florida requesting that their families be allowed to leave with them. The government allowed the families to leave but also many others, in fact they would load the boats regardless of family relations. After the first few boats arrived and left a few more would turn up, then a dozen or so, then hundreds. By the end of this process 150,000 Cubans had exited by sea and this was known as the Mariel Exodus.”

“This was a major blow to the ideals of the government, having so many Cubans leave in such a manor. The government recognized that they needed to improve life for the people and sough support from other socialist countries. It led to a time of gluttony and waste, we had everything, colour television, cars, food, luxury items and you name it. These were the years between 1985 and 1990 and represented the highest point in living standards that we had. After that though the Eastern block collapsed, the wall fell and the support for our country and crops completely stopped.”

“The recession and collapse in the 90’s of the Soviet Union became known as the Special Period. Everything was difficult to get: food, gasoline, clothing, everything; if there were 5000 bicycles on the streets there were only 5 cars. The government did a good job at keeping everyone employed but even though you had a job there was nothing to buy. You can imagine the difficulty we faced and the embargo gained some strength during that period to make things worse for us. At one point I remember a big riot downtown, people were smashing windows and stealing things, the military was there and finally Fidel came down to deal with it directly and calmed things down. Fidel talked on the television daily in those days, asking us to stick together, to help out our neighbours, believe in the revolution and our freedom and to work hard to get through this difficult period. Maybe we did, I don’t know.”

“What I do know is that this special period, in my opinion, was good for Cubans. We learned how to stick together, to work and survive. There was so much less waste, unlike the late 80’s when fuel, water, food, entertainment, etc. were in such abundance and so regularly spoon fed to us that it was totally taken for granted. Soya for example was considered food for cows. Through the 90’s a specific disease developed that you might know as Scurvy. People didn’t eat vegetables, but it wasn’t the lack of vegetables so much as it was the richness of the Cuban diet, people expected meat. This attitude changed and remains changed today, Cubans eat more fruits and vegetables.”

“The other great thing the special period did for Cubans was to rewrite the dependence on socialist countries into more self reliance. Cuba began to be recognized for its ability to produce results for itself despite the siege around it. A double edged sword also occurred at this time and that was tourism. Until the 90’s Cuba had virtually no tourists, a few Canadians and some Russians. This increased dramatically and helped to develop many other industries in Cuba. There’s a quote about tourism being the locomotive of industry, as it pulls along and other cars begin to fall in behind. It happened like that and not just growth in hotels and restaurants but mining, petroleum, etc.”

“But we also started to experience other things along with the tourism, crimes that we hadn’t seen before and really had no laws in our criminal code to help us deal with them. Things like pimping and drug dealing; they appeared in the 90’s and it was confusing, creating new legislation on how to deal with these kinds of things. It was certainly a great period of learning. Tourism though quickly became our number one industry surpassing sugar cane which at one point in our history we lead the world in production.”

“You asked me how things have changed or progressed up to this date. I don’t know that they have progressed. There is an incredible lack of initiative among Cubans, this is due to a lack of incentive and our greatest resource, human potential, is wasted. There is certainly not enough housing for Cubans; it stunts development of both the people and the economy. It is hard to say where we will go from here, maybe I’m not the one to ask because I’ve had a pretty good life in Cuba, after all I grew up with and English teacher instead of a Russian teacher, but the future seems to me to be on a knife’s edge. A tremendous support comes from Venezuela, in the past Canada was our greatest supporter and ally and your Prime Minister Trudeau did a great honour to our country and our freedom. But now that other powers are in play, what happens in they fail, if Chavez gets sick and the tune of support stops playing for Cuba, we’ll feel that deeply, economically.”

“We are far more open to other non socialist countries now but we are still a third world nation and have a long way to go. If we should do something it should be to consider the Japanese who, with their cultural mindset, have mastered themselves and their small island. They could be a model in some way for us but again, I don’t know.”

For several evenings we sat on the porch with our good friend sipping fine Cuban rum, the soft scent of fresh tobacco and deep glow of a cigar’s ember pulsing across the evening table. Our friend told stories with great detail, having been in the middle of some fantastic events and lived through times and events that we have only read in books. An intellect, realist and proud Cuban, it was our pleasure to share his time.

February 10, 2012

Viva Cuba Libre – I still don’t know….

(Sorry no pictures until after we leave Cuba)

Deya wanted to stay at a nearby Campismo in Viñales, which is a campsite for tourists. The story is that people used to camp here but now it’s all buildings and restaurants. It was a pretty good deal at 15 CUC per night. We enjoyed the independence and not having to deflect sales pitches from the local houses. We were also able to reduce our costs by cooking ourselves which we rather enjoy anyways. To our good fortune we bumped into Steve from England who was sharing a tour with Alex from Germany. These two guys made a regular dinner party at our place for the nights we were there. For me, being able to have conversations in English with people who take you for who you are was a relief and made the days at the Campismo most enjoyable. Deya of course was on a mission to find beans and made friends with the local staffers by teaching them how to make crepes. Once the boss explained that crepes were not pies, cakes, pancakes or bread they were all excited. The staff even agreed they would enter the crepes into their next regional competition, every one was impressed and we now had a supply of fantastic beans!

During our stay we checked out another Casa Particular named Villa Noel. It was beautifully set back away from the road and alone. With a quiet country look and walking distance to the town Deya was keen on staying there. Fortunately the price was right and the folks who owned it were fantastic. We scheduled our stay once our time ran out at the Campismo; the Campismo was fully booked by 20+ people from Norway. It would have been fun to stay with that crowd but fate was taking us else where.

The Casa Particular was the best one we have stayed in around Cuba. The people are good, the food is great and the kind of guests that seem to be attracted to this sort of home fit our style of people. We were able to meet and spend some time with a German couple, then a Swedish couple and finally a couple from Switzerland. As luck would have it we would bump into the couples again and if fortune smiles on us we will see them again in the near future. It is these meetings I enjoy the best about our travels and while I’ve only given it one paragraph, the people we now know deserve volumes but those volumes are for us.

While in Viñales we discovered a small clothing factory; mostly denim, tops and bottoms. They had a matrix of about 105 styles and sizes, and like other places we checked out they measure productivity based on how many people show up for work. How many people show up for work is up to the people as it was expressed and so this determines the level of output on a daily level. Looking at the process one could see that the productivity level of the people that did show up for work was abysmal. When asked if this was a normal way for Cuban companies to operate we were told it was and in fact they have won awards for their high level of productivity! Ouch! This would confirm some of the other things we have been seeing.

We left Viñales having thought of it as a success. The road back to Havana was easy and we ended up staying at a friend’s suite in Havana. Our intention was to stay in Havana until we found a way off the island. Once we got here our host Julio turned things around for us, a real resource of information and a quiet place to relax; we felt as though we had been taken off the firing line of tourist under attack by Cuban money lifters. Most tourists complained about being hassled quite consistently by Cubans looking to get some money. In fact the owners of the Casa Particulares have the same problem but many don’t know it.

As it goes here, the ‘helpers’ approach you and offer to line up a house to stay at with one of their friends. It’s not a friend of course and what they are doing is extracting a fee, typically about 25% of the total stay and up to 50% of the total food purchased. These ‘helpers’ do nothing to earn this money other than harass tourists every few minutes yet the local home owners seem to think they won’t get any business without them? It drives away the tourists, increases the prices and pisses people off. Also these ‘helpers’ don’t pay taxes and the home owners have to pay quite a bit of taxes. This is bad business for Cuban tourism at any rate.

While in Havana we have been meeting people and getting to know the area around where we live. What’s disturbing is that the level of black market here is extremely high. Cubans trade in everything! If you go to the market and buy potatoes from the guy with the cart outside, it’s illegal. Potatoes! Of course you wouldn’t know it other than they are expensive and it seems retarded that it’s black market potatoes but if you want them that’s the only option. Potatoes aren’t the only thing, pretty much anything you can dream of is on the black market. It’s all so permeated that I think it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between right and wrong here and you probably buy stuff without even knowing you’ve contributed to a crime.

But why are potatoes a crime, for example? Well, like many things here, they are in thin supply and so things are imported or produced (remember the low productivity) at a high cost. There is then another cost added which some studies put at least 20:1 for non-perishables, that’s theft! That is to say that one dollar of stuff stolen costs about twenty dollars to replace the entire loss. And don’t think theft here is minor, from what we have seen and understand it’s rampant, unchecked and out of control. It would seem the only reason people even show up for their 15-20 CUC per month salary is to steal from the companies and government organizations. I really don’t believe I’m exaggerating!

So why don’t the Cuban steal from tourists? They do but what isn’t common is a violent mugging or what one Australian couple suffered after leaving the airport. The couple were told to put all their belongings, including purses, etc. in the back of the cab, when they got to the destination they took their luggage and the cab left. All their money from the lady’s purse was gone, over 500 bucks. It doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen.

So why doesn’t it happen much more than that? Well, there are rules here which makes me proud of the government, here they are: First, don’t mess with kids; Second, don’t mess with weapons; Third, don’t mess with drugs and Fourth, don’t mess with tourists. Having said that if you end up getting caught in one of those categories I understand that your whole life has just taken a major turn for the worst. Good job Cuba!

From Havana Deya and I took a day trip with our new friends Horst and Osly. Horst is a German fellow working for a company here in Havana and is a BMW rider and Osly makes about the best illegal potatoes that I’ve ever had! We headed to a place called Playa Giron. About six or seven years after Cubans won their freedom, the Rum Company Bacardi financed a military assault against Cuba and the landing took place at this particular beach. It was a failure of course but highlighted the plight of the Cuban people against the powerful US companies that created the incongruity in social-racial and economic class that caused a revolution in the first place. As you know those companies and wealthy families still want their island back, of course sovereignty and freedom are not given the same value outside of the United States. When we look at the history of this conflict there is only one way to describe it, “Old, tired and stupid”. Everybody is holding on to something that changed a long time ago.

As a special note on this day trip that ended up as a night trip and slightly epic was my 4th, 5th and 6th tyre puncture. What a pain, we have made about 55,000 kilometres through the Americas without a flat and now that we are in Cuba I can’t make it 500 kilometres without a laceration or two. Hmph. Going to go search for tyre patch kits tomorrow, thank goodness I have a spare tube because there are none for my bike on this island.