This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
LOST: My buddy Lou and I, two skinny yanquis in the middle of Cuba, drenched with sweat, doubled over our bicycles, gasping for breath, exhausted. It’s late and dark and hot and sticky. We’ve come sixty miles today, lugging two hundred pounds of equipment, and despite our best efforts to stay on the main road, we ended up here, inside a field of sugarcane. Yes, inside it, buried in it, wedged between twelve-foot stalks, which arc over us like a canopy, painting the navy sky in narrow black streaks. We’d happily get on our bikes and cycle out of here if only we knew where “here” was, if only we knew which way was out.
I’m holding our map under Lou’s dim headlamp, searching for a clue to our whereabouts, when I hear a sound in the distance. A low, rattling sound. Lou and I exchange relieved glances as we wait, listening to the noise approach; then a young cyclist in cotton pants and boots emerges from the stalks.
“What’s the problem?” he asks, smiling.
“Lost,” I say. “We’re trying to get to Jagüey Grande.”
He shrugs. “I’m going that way. You can follow me.”
We pedal behind him, and after a few miles, he stops at an intersection. “I have to go straight. You should turn left,” he announces, looking expectant. But just as I’m reaching into my bag for a tip, his hand snakes out, grabbing something from my handlebar pouch. And then he’s gone, disappeared into the night, leaving behind only a slight suction sound, a whispered whooph that nearly evaporates in the breeze. For a second, I’m dazed, not even sure what he stole. Then I realize: It was just a plastic baggie. But it happened to be an important baggie. It was the baggie with my camera, my glasses, my driver’s license, my passport, and almost all our money.
“What was that sound?” asks Lou, straining his eyes in the darkness.
“He took my shit,” I mumble, dumbfounded.
Lou’s quiet for a minute, then straps on his helmet. “Let’s go after him.” We mount our bikes and take off as fast as we can, but it’s soupy with blackness and we’re fatigued, and after only a few minutes, our pace falters. It’s hopeless. We’ll never find him. Not here. Not now. So we just cycle along slowly, hoping we’ll come upon a town. Darkness whirls by, warm breeze, sugarcane. In the hazy recesses of my imagination, I picture the guy’s shit-eating grin as he opens my bag and discovers $4,000 cash, a U. S. passport, a New York driver’s license, and a palm-sized digital video camera. He’s probably wondering when the next flight leaves for Miami. Me, I can’t even think about America. With no money and no passport — no identification whatsoever — I won’t be going home anytime soon.
IT SEEMED LIKE a good idea at the time. Really, it did. Bicycle across Cuba. Sounds so ... dramatic. So stouthearted. So manly. And we were pretty sure that nobody had done it before. Not all of it, anyway. Not from tip to tail, not every painful latitudinal inch.
After all, the western end of the island is a military zone. You need special permission just to enter. Even with permission, you’d have a brutal ride: thirty-five miles over loose sand. After that, there are eleven hundred miles to go, through rain-forested mountains, across dry savannas, over winding dirt roads and diesel-dusted highways, knocking on doors for shelter, trading pens and lighters for food, and filling your water bottles from rusty public tanks. Cuba is bigger than Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and all the U. S. Virgin Islands combined — no small feat to cycle. We doubted that anyone had even tried.
Of course, like so many big ideas, ours seemed gradually dumber as we looked into the details. For one thing, and we realized this would be important, neither of us knew anything about bicycles. I hadn’t even owned a bike in more than a decade. Lou estimated that he’d cycled about two hundred miles in his life. Neither of us could tune brakes, adjust a derailleur, or even change a tire. We were what you might call, in bicycling lingo, idiots. Still, we began planning our route.
We decided to start at the western tip of the island, in the military zone, for a variety of questionable reasons. For one, we thought it would be nice if our route began on the left side of the map and progressed to the right, just like a sentence. For another, we knew that the western end was flat, whereas the eastern end was mountainous, and we preferred to start with the flat part. Finally, we chose to start at the western tip because it’s closer to Havana, so if we ran into early trouble, it would be easier to pack up our gear and bail out.
We estimated that the trip would take two full months, not because it would take that long to cycle across the island but because it would take us that long to cycle across the island. We chose October and November, in order to return home for Christmas with a tan. Then we got two Stumpjumpers and considered ourselves ready. We didn’t bother to look at the precipitation maps or the temperature indexes. We didn’t bother to consult any experts. We simply cleared our calendars for those two months, and when the first week of October arrived, we packed our stuff into Lou’s car and drove up to Toronto, where we caught a direct flight to Cuba.
Right in the middle of hurricane season.
We’re just getting comfortable, lounging around a thatch-roofed bar in María la Gorda, on the western tip of the island, when the hurricane strikes. It doesn’t look the way you’d expect: terrifying, tormented, raging with electricity. Instead, it looks merely like a hard morning rain, and as we amble back to our room to prepare for the day’s ride, we think it’ll pass.
We’re overconfident. Yesterday, we covered the first thirty-five miles, the military zone, and it went more smoothly than we’d expected. I took several falls when my bike hit the sandy patches, but it didn’t matter because nobody was looking. We cruised along the southern shore, the nearly transparent water lapping at the white sand, and somehow we did the distance in less than four hours. Then last night, the military guards and some of the hotel staff toasted us at the outdoor beach bar, saying we’d made history, that nobody had ever cycled the peninsula before.
So today we’re all ego, tuning our bikes in the rain, filling our water bottles from a public tank, unintimidated by the storm. But when noon rolls around with no break in the cloud cover, I start to worry. All around the hotel, employees are rushing around frantically, reinforcing windows with masking tape. It occurs to me that there’s probably a reason for this odd behavior, so I ask somebody, who breaks the news. It’s gonna be blasting at a hundred miles per hour. It’s gonna be here soon.
When I tell Lou, he looks alarmed.
“What’re we gonna do?” he asks.
“Start riding?” I suggest.
And sure enough, in half an hour, we’re on the road, hydroplaning wildly over potholes, trying to break through the hurricane’s wall. I’m shrink-wrapped into my rain jacket, which is stretched so tightly over my backpack that I can barely move my arms. In the saddlebags attached to my wheels, I’ve got all my luggage wrapped in plastic, but I know that everything is going to be soaked. The plastic was supposed to protect my things from rain. But this isn’t rain. This is a hurricane.
Riding against a thirty-five-mile-per-hour head wind is a Sisyphean affair, and it’s no use trying to enjoy the landscape, no use trying to make out the contours of the horizon. All we can see are gray streaks of rain growing dim as night falls. It’s five hours before we get to our destination.
Sandino is all but invisible at night, a little huddle of cinder-block houses along the road, with about ten electric lights among them. Lou and I knock on doors, asking for a place to crash, and find an obliging family with two spare bedrooms, which we rent for thirty-five dollars. We hang our clothes on the furniture to dry, then lie down to sleep. Outside, the wind is howling, the rain is bucketing, and trees are falling down. I dream about motorcycles.
Come morning, when we stumble into the living room, we get our first glimpse of Fidel. He’s on TV, telling reporters not to worry about the hurricane, that it always rains in October and everybody ought to know that. He looks old but strong in military fatigues. His manner with the reporters is very personal, very informal, standing in a big crowd of them, leaning close to each questioner, smiling as if they share a secret. He reminds me of Bill Clinton, the way he affects a rural sort of warmth.
After breakfast, we hit the road. Against the head wind, we go slowly, pulling into the next town at dusk. Sumidero looks a lot like Sandino, except the electricity is out, so it’s darker. We spot an old man standing on his porch, eyeing us in our spandex and our bulbous helmets. He waves us over, inviting us out of the rain, and we ask if he knows where we could spend the night. Sure, he says, hold on, and he disappears down a muddy alley. A few minutes later, he comes back with a younger friend, who smiles under a straw hat and shakes our hands furiously, saying, Welcome, welcome, my name is Antonio, welcome.
The electricity is still out when we pull our bikes around to Antonio’s place, so we stand in the kitchen with his wife, Xiomara, who’s cooking beans and rice by candlelight. Xiomara has her straight brown hair cut to her shoulders. She has high cheekbones and a flirtatious smile, and she’s given her good looks to their daughter, Angelica, a nine-year-old with deep black eyes and rose-colored skin.
When the lights finally come on, Antonio fixes a bath for Lou. First, he takes a bucket of water and drops a bundle of exposed wires in it, with two of the wires sticking out over the side of the bucket. Then he sticks the two stray wires into a wall socket, and the underwater bundle makes a loud popping sound, hissing and steaming. In about five minutes the water is scalding. As Lou washes up, I sit with Angelica, who tells me about her schoolwork. She’s studying Cuban history, she says proudly. They’re focusing on the early colonial years, and she beams as she recounts the tale of Diego Velázquez, who sailed across the Atlantic in 1511 to stake his claim on Cuba.
“For what country?” I ask.
She frowns, confused.
“Do you know what country he was from?” I ask again.
Pursing her lips, tentative, she says, “The United States?”
CUBA HAS NEVER belonged to the United States, but for more than two hundred years American politicians have been working to rectify that. In 1783, our second president, John Adams, floated the idea of seizing the island from Spain. In 1801, his successor, Thomas Jefferson, speculated that Cuba would be a “most interesting” addition to the union. And in 1823, our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, took the idea even further, comparing Cuba to a ripe apple that should be “severed” from the tree of Spain so that it could “fall to the ground” of the United States.
But the first American to make a physical grab for Cuba was Theodore Roosevelt. It was 1898, and Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, an undazzling position he bore with flush-cheeked ambition. Roosevelt was well aware that the Cuban people had spent three decades fighting for independence from Spain and that victory was almost theirs. Still, he decided to get involved, entering Cuba with six thousand soldiers, outnumbering the Spanish troops eight to one at San Juan Hill. In spite of the odds, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders suffered twice the casualties of the Spaniards and barely won the battle. Nevertheless, that same year, Roosevelt — still riding high on the victory — was elected governor of New York and became president in 1901. (It is a testimony to his facility with public relations that American children are still taught to call the Cuban War of Independence the Spanish-American War.)
If Roosevelt was the first American to use Cuba as his personal launching pad, he certainly wasn’t the last. Over the next four decades, prominent U. S. businessmen, from du Pont to Capone, maintained discreet control of the island. They installed a series of corrupt presidents, who pandered to foreign investors and helped turn the island into a tropical country club where tourists ruled and the third of the population that was black was forbidden, in some places, to walk on the beach. To ensure tranquillity, the U. S. Army built a pair of bases, one on the northwestern coast, the other in the southeast.
By the 1950s, foreign interests controlled 90 percent of telephone and electric services, 80 percent of public railroads, and 70 percent of petroleum imports. Of course, most Cubans never saw an H. Upmann, let alone a Ben Franklin. A quarter of them were illiterate, and many, if not most, suffered from malnutrition. The infant-mortality rate was astronomical, and by the late fifties, things were coming to a head. Though hungry and barely armed, many rural Cubans were ready to revolt against the Havana establishment. What they couldn’t predict was that they’d find their leader in the heart of the Havana hubbub, in a young, ambitious lawyer, an idealist in his late twenties willing to wade in the mud for as long as it took to rise to the seat of power.
BY THE TIME Lou and I pedal into Havana, we can see just how different the capital is from the rest of the country. We’ve come two hundred miles in two weeks, battling our way across the Pinar del Rio province, a tumbling landscape of tobacco and sugarcane, of box-shaped mountains and vine-draped porches, where hunchbacked old men till the soil with oxen and children rush to the road when we pass, shouting, “Oye!”
Havana, by contrast, is another planet, a modern metropolis, a place with hotels and fancy restaurants, fresh-baked bread and discotheques. We dig in and enjoy, but after three days of luxury, we begin to feel guilty, so we remount our bicycles and head east, back into the real Cuba, rural Cuba, the other forty-four thousand square miles.
It’s a relief to be back on the bikes, and although we’ll miss the soft mattresses and air conditioning, we’re glad to be rid of the hustlers, or jineteros, who circle the streets of Old Havana selling illicit everything. In fact, we’re so happy to be away from them that we let down our guard. In the town of Matanzas, we ignore people who warn us to lock our bikes. In the town of Cárdenas, we let a crowd of strangers mill about our equipment while we eat lunch. And by the time we get to the savanna near Jagüey Grande, we feel relaxed, even safe.
Then it happens. Nightfall, the sugar field. Two skinny yanquis lost in the middle of Cuba. That’s when we get robbed. It takes a full thirty minutes of cycling through night soup before we find a town. Another twenty minutes, and we’re telling our story to three cops. One of them wears a uniform. A second wears a white sweat suit. The third wears green fatigues.
They walk us to the police station. The floor is littered with car parts and cigarette butts. I’m put in a tiny office with three new cops. Two of them glare at me while the third spits out a series of rapid-fire questions: Name and address? Married? Parents’ names? It occurs to me that these are strange things to ask a robbery victim.
How did I get to Cuba? What airline? How big was the plane? How much did my ticket cost? Did the plane make any other stops? Then he asks for my address again. Again about the price of my ticket. Again about my parents. At first, I’m confused. I can’t figure out where he’s going with this. But when he asks my address for the third time, it hits me: He isn’t trying to help me; he’s trying to trip me up. He thinks I’m lying.
And as soon as I realize that I’m being tested by this cop, I can feel my heart rate quicken. It’s 2:00 A.M. One of the plainclothes is asleep, snoring. Then the guy in fatigues comes into the room with a fifty-pound sack of oranges. In another room, Lou is answering the same questions. I realize that this isn’t likely to be over soon.
It takes two hours to convince the cops that we’re not spies, but they’re not done with us yet. They still have to hammer out a report on a manual typewriter, get a sketch artist to draw a picture of the thief, and send out an alert to the Cuban National Police detailing our description of the suspect. By the time they’re done, it’s morning. Outside, roosters are bleating freedom cries. Inside, Lou and I are imploding with exhaustion.
At 9:00 a.m., they throw us into an unpainted, unupholstered patrol car, which sputters and stalls and stinks of gasoline as it hurdles over potholes, heading back to the scene of the crime. We’re in the custody of about thirty officials, mostly out of uniform. They stand in the middle of the sugar field, arguing among themselves, waving their hands wildly, trying to guess where the thief might have gone. Lou and I fall asleep in the car.
In mid-afternoon, they take us to another precinct for a lineup. Along the way, we are assured that the whole thing will be anonymous, that we’ll be looking through a one-way window. When we get there, two fat guys take us to the “one-way” window, which is actually just a square hole in the wall covered by venetian blinds. There’s no windowpane, and as soon as they’ve lined up the suspects, they flip open the blinds, leaving me and Lou face-to-face with eight guys who can see us just as clearly as we can see them. None of them looks remotely like the thief — our guy was young, light-skinned, clean-shaven, muscular, and fairly short. We’re looking at tall guys with dark skin, skinny old dudes, even one guy with a full-grown goatee.
After explaining this to the cops, they finally give up and take us to a private home where we can spend the night. It’s about 5:00 p.m. We huddle in our room, trying to figure out what to do. Two things seem clear:
1) The police have no idea what they’re doing.
2) They’re wasting our time.
We decide to leave town quickly, but we aren’t sure where to go. We know that we’ll have to go back to Havana if we want to get more money. But we also know that if we can’t get money, we’ll have to go home. After three weeks and three hundred miles, we’re not ready to give up so easily. There are two things we want to see: the crocodile-infested Zapata National Park and the Bay of Pigs. Then we’ll talk about giving up.
FIDEL CASTRO never gave up. In 1952, he made a bid for office, but a military coup canceled the election. The next year, he took up arms, leading a group of 120 revolutionaries in an attack on a military garrison. They lost spectacularly, and most of the survivors, including Castro, were deported to Mexico.
Unfazed, Castro began preparing for another round. In Mexico, he and his men recruited a young Argentinean radical named Ernesto “Che” Guevara, bought a failing forty-foot yacht, and, with some difficulty, motored back to Cuba in December 1956. They crash-landed on the rocky southwestern shore and hustled into the Sierra Maestra Mountains. There, they set up an elaborate camp, with medical facilities, a dining hall, and a radio tower, from which they broadcast political dispatches across the island. In those broadcasts, Castro promised to build new roads, to provide free health care and education, even to bring electricity to the countryside. And fourteen months later, when Castro’s rebels advanced out of the mountains, they were joined in the streets by tens of thousands of peasants. By the time this makeshift army arrived in Havana, it was so great in number that the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, fled.
Once in power, Castro began making good on his promises, building roads and electrical lines, schools and hospitals. To pay for these projects, he seized all the country’s large farms and factories. To him, it seemed fair enough, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. To the owners of those businesses, however, it seemed like theft. Those people were mostly American businessmen and the Cuban upper class. So it was no surprise when wealthy Cubans began fleeing in droves; nor was it a surprise when the U. S. government took pity on them, creating the largest financial-aid program since the GI Bill, offering low-interest home loans, credit distributions, and job-training programs. And, on the sly, the refugees were also eligible for a special CIA project: a plot to overthrow Castro.
Determined to reclaim their position in Cuba, hundreds of Cuban exiles signed up for that mission. They were flown to CIA bases in Guatemala and Nicaragua for training, and on April 17, 1961, they landed at the Bay of Pigs, a desolate swampland on the south-central coast of Cuba. Their plan was to take the beach, build a fort, and advance north to Havana.
But the CIA had made one mistake: It had underestimated its opponents, or more specifically, had undercounted them. By April 1961, Castro had given every citizen the title to his home and every poor farmer a patch of land to keep. He had closed the universities and sent educators into the countryside to eradicate illiteracy. Hospitals no longer charged for their services, and many food products were free. So when Castro made the call on April 17 for the Cuban people to defend their government at the Bay of Pigs, tens of thousands of young men and women flooded the beach, and in seventy-two hours, the battle was over. Almost twelve hundred invaders, all Cuban exiles, were captured, then ransomed to the U. S. government for $53 million in food and medicine. It would be the last transaction between the U. S. government and Cuba.
TO AMERICANS, the Bay of Pigs is a battle. To Cubans, la Bahía de Cochinos is a place. And the Bay of Pigs is quite a place, surrounded on three sides by a marshland known as Zapata National Park. By the time Lou and I arrive, we’re more than ready for the soothing splendor of wilderness, and we spend a full day in the company of a bald, burly park employee named Francisco, who takes us out in a flimsy sedan, raising German binoculars to his eyes and pointing out dozens of species of birds — flamingos, herons, ibis, wrens, and the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, which hovers above a quarter-sized nest holding two tiny eggs. Francisco flashes delicate smiles, pauses at a watchtower, smells the air, and predicts rain. And at the end of the day, we invite him out for a drink in the dining area of a crocodile farm, where we sip beers surrounded by reptiles lashing at the walls of their cages.
The next morning, Lou and I cycle farther south, to Playa Girón, the landing site of the Bay of Pigs invasion. As we pass through town, a tiny middle-aged woman with cropped hair and dark, glittering eyes rides up beside us on a blue Chinese bicycle, asking if we need a place to stay. When we say yes, she offers a room in her home, and we accept, following her to a colorless six-story apartment building, then lugging our bikes up three long flights of stairs.
Her name is Maritza and her apartment is an oasis of hue: blue walls, a yellow tablecloth, pink bedsheets. There’s a photo of Che Guevara on one wall and a collection of glass figurines on a small wooden bureau. We’re surprised to find a hot shower in the bathroom, and we both bathe, changing into our cleanest dirty clothes.
With some coaxing, Maritza sits with us for dinner, but she doesn’t eat, saying she’s not hungry. She notices that I’m sniffling from a slight cold and offers me medicine, a difficult item to obtain in Cuba. I accept, and she looks pleased, and somehow, as the evening progresses, we open up to her, tell our story, how we’ve been robbed and have very little money, how we must return to Havana to see if we can get more. Maritza frowns, says that crime is very uncommon in Cuba. She apologizes in the name of all Cuban people, saying it’s terrible when one person makes the whole country look bad. She tells us that Cuba is a wonderful place and that she hopes we don’t get a bad impression, that she has a friend who can drive us to Havana, that she can keep our things at her house, can do our laundry for free, can guard our bikes, and that we can pay for our room and board when we return with more money. We’re stunned. This poor, single woman offering to help a pair of Americans—here, of all places, in the Bay of Pigs.
When Maritza’s friend arrives the next day in his 1957 Chevy, we kiss our hostess on both cheeks, then make the drive back to Havana in less than four hours.
Once in the city, I suddenly feel alone, scared. We have less than $300. We can’t use American credit cards, because they aren’t accepted by Cuban banks. We can’t withdraw money from our accounts. We can’t write checks. Nothing. The Western Union office will make transfers only to Cuban citizens, and even then there’s a maximum of $300.
On three hundred bucks, I could probably make it a month in, say, Guatemala. But in Cuba, fat chance. The Cuban economy doesn’t adhere to market principles; you pay whatever the Cuban government feels like charging, which is usually more than you’d like to pay. As far as Castro is concerned, the main reason you’re allowed in the country in the first place is because you’ve got the cash to help save his foundering economy. Knowing this, we figure we’ll need at least three grand to finish our trip, and even that’s cutting it close. We check into a hotel and spend a restless night, wondering what sucker will be willing to send us so much cash.
Before we can focus on money, though, I’ve got to get a new passport. This is a little tricky, since there’s no American embassy in Cuba. Instead, I have to work through the United States Interests Section, a division of the Swiss embassy where a few American diplomats hang out, much to the chagrin of Castro, who routinely accuses them of espionage. When I meet with them, they look less like spies than a couple of regular American barbecue kings, sporting button-down short-sleeves and well-worn khakis. Without hesitation, they accept a blurry computer printout of my passport, which, thank God, I had on disk. Getting it off the disk was another adventure, but two days later, I’ve got a new passport that says ISSUED AT: REPUBLIC OF CUBA, CITY OF HAVANA.
I also ask the spies about money, and they tell me to have a friend wire money to the Department of State in Washington, D. C., then it’ll be wired down to Havana. Hurrying back to my hotel, I call my editor, heart pounding.
With a sigh, he agrees. The money is coming. Now all we have to do is survive while it processes. It takes a week. We get by on the kindness of strangers, begging at times. A family takes us in, feeds us, and allows us to spend three nights in their home without pay. It’s the only way we make it.
By the time the money arrives, I’m sick and tired. We’ve been in the country for more than five weeks, have cycled only four hundred miles, and during that time, we’ve taken no more than four hot showers, eaten approximately seven decent meals. I’m ready to give up, go home, leave the bikes with Maritza, and never come back. But I can’t. We can’t. We came here to discover Cuba, and now, for the first time, frustrated and exhausted, anxious and irked, with barely enough money to survive, I feel like we’ve finally found it.
BACK AT MARITZA’S place, our spirits brighten considerably, and not only because she’s done our laundry, has a hot shower, and prepares a steaming plate of fried bananas with fresh fish, but also because she’s such a cheerful soul, chatting excitedly about her week and saying that she’s called several friends along our route who will be expecting us. In particular, she tells us to visit her friend Leonor, who lives in Cienfuegos, the next stop on our itinerary. So in the morning, Lou and I take off for Casa Leonor.
It’s one of our most tranquil afternoons, cycling along dirt roads, skirting the southern shore on the leeward side of the island. While it’s been several weeks since the hurricane, we pass countless houses with flooded yards, bridged from road to doorway with planks of wood. When we arrive in Cienfuegos, we’re surprised to find a modern city — or, at least, modern by Cuban standards.
Leonor’s home turns out to be a sort of monument to communism, decorated with pictures of Lenin, Mao, Che, and Leonor’s husband, Armando, in his younger years, sporting military fatigues. These days, sixty-year-old Armando is short and wiry, wearing a yellow school uniform outgrown by one of his young friends. Armando was in his teens when the revolution began, and he fought at the Bay of Pigs. “I, like many people in that year, received military instruction and arms and go to destroy the bandits,” he recalls. “Everybody in Cuba receive military instruction. If one day the United States invade Cuba, the war never finish, because all the Cuban are soldiers in condition to defend the revolution in any moment and in any situation.”
Armando and I spend the evening in his den, debating politics, while Lou snoops around the house, taking pictures of Leonor’s ancient kitchen appliances. Leaning back in his leather chair, wiping his hair from his face, Armando rails against “the capitalism.”
“In the United States, homeless. In Cuba, everybody have a home. In Cuba, don’t exist people that not have any means to life. Everybody have means to life.”
Later, we settle in front of the TV for a speech by Castro, which turns out to be a denunciation of the U. S. embargo. After several minutes, I look at Armando from the corner of my eye, expecting him to be uncomfortable, embarrassed by this. He isn’t. He’s asleep. Next to him, Leonor is leaning back in a rocking chair, also asleep. I head for bed. Lou’s already out cold. I pull back the sheets on my bed, climb in, and disappear into a fantasyland, a paradise of beer and peanuts, unaware that as I sleep, Cuban immigration officials are hunting for us, carrying orders to stop our journey.
MOST AMERICANS in Cuba don’t have trouble with the immigration department. Castro wants you there. After all, as an American, you’re more than just a walking wallet; you’re a potential ally. If you have a good time in Cuba, you might speak out against the embargo. For Castro, that’s invaluable. The embargo is every bit as crippling as it was intended to be, prohibiting any foreign company from doing business with both Cuba and the U. S. If, for example, a British fast-food chain wanted to open a franchise in Havana, the company would promptly be banished from the United States. Needless to say, that’s a loss few companies are willing to take, and those that do take the risk generally prefer to ship top-dollar tourist items, like soda and cigarettes, not the low-revenue products that Cuban citizens need. As such, tourists rarely lack for amenities, while in the general population, scarcity is customary, dearth routine.
There is one place where food and medicine enter Cuba from the United States without difficulty: the U. S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay. Located in the far eastern portion of Cuba, a landscape of sandy plateaus and cascading rocky cliffs, Guantánamo is hardly the “hot zone” that it’s made out to be in movies like A Few Good Men. Though the perimeter is surrounded by Cuban guards, forty years of stalemate have tempered the hostility on both sides, reducing confrontations to an occasional middle finger or mooning.
The American side of Guantánamo resembles nothing so much as a suburban subdivision, freckled with shrubbery and cul-de-sacs, movie theaters, Laundromats, even a golf course. The Cuban side is indistinct from any other small Cuban village, with disheveled buildings, tattered roads, stray dogs, and beggars, including one little girl in a ripped dress who keeps trying to steal money from Lou’s pocket.
We check into a hotel on the edge of town, and we’re just starting to settle in when Lou and I are accosted on the back patio by a group of five men who tell us to follow them into an unused room. At first, I’m skeptical, but when one of the guys produces a card that says immigration, we go along without argument.
Inside the room, the windows are boarded shut and there’s no bed, just a telephone and a few plastic chairs that are difficult to see in the darkness. Right off the bat, the immigration guy starts thinking of reasons we should stop our trip. First, he instructs us to return to Jagüey Grande and help the robbery investigation. Then he warns us that the roads ahead are poorly paved, that the mountains are too steep, that there’s a hurricane. But when we tell him that we don’t care about catching the thief, that all of the roads have been poorly paved, and that we’ve been through a hurricane, he gets firm. You can’t finish your trip, he says finally, because you don’t have a permission slip from Havana.
“Well,” I say, suddenly smiling, “we’d really appreciate your help getting permission. You know so much more about the system here than we do.”
It seems to work. By the time we walk out of the room, he’s promised to call us by 5:00 p.m. with an answer from Havana. But when five rolls by, then six, then seven, we realize we’re being jerked around. Lou and I have a conference. Two things seem clear:
1) The immigration guy has no idea what he’s doing.
2) He’s wasting our time.
We decide to slip out early in the morning. We’re only 120 miles from the finish line. With a little luck, we’ll get there without getting caught.
And the next morning, we’re off, heaving over mountains, spinning our pedals wildly on the uphills, then barreling down at forty miles per hour, then huffing it back up. By evening, we’re within fifty miles of the tip. All we want is to collapse on a bed — even a lumpy Cuban bed — but we know we can’t. If we go to a hotel, we’ll probably be apprehended. So at dusk, we swerve off the road, stash our bikes in some bushes, and spend a night tossing and turning on hard ground.
Sunrise, we hit the road again. Same thing: five-thousand-foot peaks, blistering sun, salt crystals on every skin surface. Only this time, we’re operating on about two hours of sleep, and when we arrive at a ten-mile dirt road leading down to a lighthouse, we wonder if it’s an optical illusion. Our trip is supposed to end at a lighthouse on the eastern tip. Could this really be it?
We power down the road, bouncing around on rutted mud and rocks, wobbling and groaning as we jump bumps and skid through slicks. And after half an hour, almost unbelievably, we’re there, staring over the windward passage toward Haiti, the first people ever to cycle across Cuba.
There’s a small staff working at the lighthouse — the operators, the cooks, a security guard, and a medic who’s wearing a Red Cross T-shirt and drinking moonshine out of a plastic cup. He offers me a shot, then another, and pretty soon I’m getting tipsy as we stare out over the vast water, the sun dropping behind us.
“I’m drunk,” he mumbles, and at first I just nod, like, “Yeah, well ...” But then he gets more serious. “I’m drunk, but I’m proud.” He juts out his jaw. “I’m Cuban!” With a flourish, aware that everyone is watching him now, he walks over and grabs a nearby statue of José Martí, a hero from the War of Independence. “Cuban!” he shouts, hugging the statue. “We’re with Castro until we die!”
And somewhere in the back of my mind, something clicks. All this time I’ve been agitated about not having a good time in Cuba. Because I like the idea of the place. I like the history, the people, and I like that it’s a social experiment, a grand, sweeping vision that reconstructed an entire country from the bottom up. The whole thing sounds great on paper, this share-and-share-alike bit, but being here, I’ve been disappointed. I’ve felt that the place is full of filth and squalor, that by my standards, it’s as free as prison. I’m sure, in fact, that I’d be miserable here, where I couldn’t leave my province without special permission, where the electricity goes out for half an hour a day, where information is controlled by the government.
All this time, I’ve been trying to like the reality as much as I like the idea, but I haven’t been able to. And yet, sitting next to this medic, this effusive, proud medic, I realize that I’ve been disappointed precisely because I don’t live here. The people of rural Cuba, the people outside of Havana, the majority of Cubans, aren’t comparing their nation to ours. They don’t know anything about us. They’re comparing their nation to what it used to be. And looking at it that way, a lot of Cubans are satisfied. In fact, most of the people we’ve encountered are satisfied. Many of them not only like Cuba, they love it. Francisco loves Cuba. Maritza loves Cuba. Armando loves Cuba. Leonor loves Cuba. This drunk, happy medic loves Cuba.
I don’t need to love Cuba. They do. And they do.