Bike Gear 101 for the Casual Diehard 

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Biking has been a huge part of my life ever since we moved back to Canada and got rid of Josh’s car, making cycling our primary form of transportation. I love the physical act of biking, as well as all it represents: transportation that is better for our earth, better for my body, and much much better for the wallet. But for all my diehard convictions regarding biking, I often feel intimidated talking to other members of the biking community because I never feel like I quite fit in. They  blithely argue the specs of their $2000 hybrid road bikes, standing in their $300 custom bike shoes, while I sneakily wheel my Canadian Tire special past them all. The same holds for all the gear. Sure, it looks awesome, but I manage the streets of Winnipeg just fine in my old soccer shorts and a t-shirt.

I had never needed anything fancier because I had never biked longer than the 30 km or so that commuting around our lovely flat little city demanded of you. I was also skeptical of the need to spend tons of money on things that I wasn’t convinced made a practical difference to outcome. Did cyclists really need those spandex jerseys and fancy shoes? What were the things that were worth the investment for a good ride*, and in which cases could the borrowed/second-hand/super sale piece of equipment work just as well?

*”Good Ride” – A saratreetravels special term denoting a challenging but satisfying, exhausting but exhilarating cycle

Hence, this little guide to the gear needed for a good (& long) ride, of which cycling the Cabot Trail was the first of hopefully many for us. This guide is for all the people out there who are also “Casual Diehards” like me. Who love and believe in cycling passionately, but aren’t crazy about spending a ton of money simply to have new stuff if it isn’t going to make the ride. Who make cycling part of their everyday life because it makes sense to their everyday life. Who have never really thought to “train” (dear Lord, the number of people who sagely nodded and asked me if I was “in training” when I would mention we were going to cycle the Cabot. Training?? I would often nod sagely back and Josh-Bergmann-mumble the hell outta there).

“Josh-Bergmann-Mumble” – A classic maneouvre of extricating oneself from a tricky situation by muttering incomprehensible sounds under your breath while slowly inching away from the questioner and smiling.

My version of “training” – cruising the hills around Notre Dame de Lourdes, MB while on my rural Family Med rotation

You may note that every single piece of gear here is from MEC. I’m sure there are many other great places to find stuff out there (particularly second-hand, which would be even more awesome), but we tend to stick with MEC because we like their co-op mentality and their industry accountability, not to mention their quality and selection. And it’s within easy biking distance from our place 🙂

Soo, without further ado…

BIKES
We rented our bikes (Norco Hybrids, which were AWESOME) from Framework Fitness on Cape Breton Island, for many reasons: Our home bikes were definitely not up to mountain climbing, the logistics of bringing a bike on a plane escape me, and Framework was super cheap to rent from and then drove us right to the start of the trail from our Airbnb. They also provided helmets, pannier racks, and repair kits.

Moral of the story: Save yourself a ton of hassle and just rent bikes from these guys (or someone like them)!

SHOES
I biked using my New Balance runners I bought back in high school, and I had no complaints. Yes, my feet did occasionally slip forward on the pedals and required readjusting, but nothing that actually affected the ride. The one issue with runners is how soggy they get if it rains… which it did. Often. And generously. However, the one perk with biking by the sea is that you are blessed each night with stiff winds that managed to dry our shoes out by the next morning. In addition, we chose to take a break day between each biking day, which gave our shoes more time to dry. Biking with runners also gave us the flexibility to hop off the bike and go hiking (such as the gorgeous hike up the Skyline Trail midway through Bike Day 2) and have another pair of useful footwear for break days.

Skyline Trail:

Drying au naturel in Pleasant Bay:

Moral of the story: Clip-on bike shoes are not necessary for a good ride. Waterproof bike shoes would be amazing, but are crazy expensive and are not necessary for a good ride (but put on the Christmas list for rich Uncle Bob!)

SOCKS
When we shopped for Argentina, we found these socks at MEC that looked comfy and promised to somehow not get too smelly. And we have fell head over heels (punny!!). Super light and breathable, nicely padded, and with a new ankle guard at the back (and now in fun new colours!!), these socks are amazing. Also durable – our pairs have been hand-washed in many a river stream, and are still holding strong.

Moral of the story: BUY THESE SOCKS. In all seriousness, for a good ride, you need good socks that are light and breathable and that don’t slip down as you ride. WrightSocks are highly recommended.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5026-380/Double-Layer-Coolmesh-II-Quarter-Socks

SHORTS
Ohhh man, everyone’s favourite topic – the padded shorts! Are they actually necessary? Are they just an excuse for cyclists to look even weirder and more pretentious than ever? In my opinion after this experience, there are 3 components to bike shorts to consider: the length, the fit, and the padding (fun bike fact for you: the bum and groin area shall henceforth be referred to as “chamois” by us casual diehards).
i. Length – A good ride needs longer shorts. I didn’t realise how much the edge of the seat rubbed against one’s thigh until we did a quickie bike to our sea kayaking meeting spot and I just wore my regular city shorts.
ii. Fit – A good ride needs a snug fit. You don’t want to have to re-adjust loose shorts or pick out wedgies every time you hop on or off or put a foot down to steady yoursef. In addition, there is so much wind billowing in your face as you’re flying down the side of a mountain, and the last thing you want is that same wind billowing up your pants and creating a sail out of your butt.
iii. Padding – Truth be told, I have never done an extensive bike trip without padding, so I really have nothing to compare it to. But our padded shorts were super comfortable and my tailbone didn’t hurt at the end of a long ride like it does at the beginning of the city (read: non-padded) biking season.

Moral of the story: Good bike shorts are a good investment for a good ride. Make sure they are long enough (mid-thigh), snug enough (no bunching around the groin or gaping around the butt or legs), and comfy enough to sit for hours both on and off bike. Note that “good” does not equal “most expensive”! We bought the most basic MEC pair (on sale, booyah!) and were very happy.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5040-474/Mass-Transit-Shorts

Josh resting comfy on his padded bum

JERSEYS
Like our favourite topic (padded bums!), a good bike top has 3 components, just slightly different from the previous three to keep y’all on your toes and vaguely engaged in this long and highly opinionated post: length, fit, breathability.
i. Length – The reason there are special “cycle jerseys” is in part how they are shaped, with a back hem that scoops down farther than the front and is lined with a grip to keep it from riding up your back. Also fun fact: Bike jerseys come with back hem pockets that are weirdly secure and can fit everything from sunglasses to granola bars, and are completely unobtrusive while riding. Very handy place to stash your bike gloves when going to the bathroom.
ii. Fit – Bike jerseys should be snug. Much like the aforementioned shorts, the last thing you want while struggling up a mountain is to have so much wind surging up and under your shirt that you become a human parachute who literally triples your efforts to get up said mountain.
iii. Breathability – Biking is hard. Hard work makes you sweat. Sweat, if collected and hugged close to your hard-working body, is very uncomfortable. Get a jersey that is light and breathable and quick-drying. The drying bit is necessary not only for while you’re  biking and working and sweating (as previously outlined), but also for at the end of the day when you want to rinse out your jersey because you’re travelling only with 2 panniers and so have brought a very limited amount of clothes (and also you’re wisely frugal and not going to buy more than 1 or 2 expensive bike jerseys).

Moral of the story: See the Moral of the Shorts. Invest in a good cycling jersey or 2. You really don’t need more than that, unless you’re planning on biking daily up a mountain for the next 6 years.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-483/Bolt-SS-Jersey

RAINGEAR
While cycling, the main concern for me isn’t getting wet (trust me, if it starts raining on a bike, you’re going to get wet no matter how snazzy your gear is), but getting cold. On Deluge Day 1, I was SO chilled by the rain and wind, and the last 2 hours of the ride would have been unbearable without the wind protection and extra layer of my raingear.
i. Top – Raingear is expensive and takes up relatively a lot of space, and here is where I don’t feel I can justify buying a specific “cycling” rain jacket that is then pretty useless as an everyday rain jacket (a cycling jacket is SUPER thin, doesn’t have a hood, etc.) I found a pretty perfect jacket on sale (of course!) at MEC – thin and waterproof but with a light lining so it can also be worn as a regular jacket for chillier nights, with a rain hood (I feel that a rain jacket without a hood is pretty useless!) My previous multipurpose jacket was bought 6 years ago to go to Argentina and only this year – after travelling through South America, Europe, Mexico, and Cuba – did the zipper break and the water-resistant coating wear off. So in my experience, MEC jackets are worthwhile investments 🙂
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5045-436/Aquanator-Jacket

ii. Bottoms – This is one item I borrowed (thanks Joanna!!). If I was at a point in my life where I was doing big bike or hiking trips every weekend, I would definitely invest in a nice light pair of rain pants for myself. But at this point, going on an annual trip doesn’t make it worth it to spend $60 on pants I literally wore once.

Moral of the story: You don’t need to spend money on a fancy cycling jacket. Buy a light rain jacket you could wear both on or off bike. Specific rain pants are nice to have on rare occasions, but ultimately just make sure you have a pair of light, wind-resistant-ish pants (eg. Even track pants) for those cold days on or off bike.

Rain jacket highly effective while cycling in a downpour…

…aaaand while dining on oysters!

GLOVES
Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more like a badass than sporting biking gloves. And, best of all for us casual diehards, they are also amazingly practical. Like so much (read: all) of our gear, we opted for the MEC option on super sale, and were not disappointed. They kept our palms from blistering, dried quickly and didn’t smell horrific, and had handy little areas on which to wipe your sweaty brow or nose. Our one complaint was that the area of most padding was over the lateral side, which would maybe make sense if you had bullhorn handlebars, but we would have preferred more padding around the thumb.

Moral of the story: Get some badass gloves for a good ride. Don’t spend big bucks, but if you find some reasonably priced ones with additional thumb joint padding, let us know.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-499/Metro-Cycling-Gloves

Dayum, that guy could take on any storm with those badass gloves!

MIRROR
I look forward to the day when bikes start coming with mirrors and lights and panniers, rather than having to piece them together yourself, since all those elements are not fun extras but are necessary pieces of a good ride. Our mirrors were (surprise!) the cheapest we could find at MEC, but they were perfectly adequate. Because we were renting bikes out there and weren’t sure of the frame specifics, it was very handy to have a mirror with an easy-to-apply velcro strap that could be adjusted to any handlebar. They did have a tendency to slide around and required frequent readjustment.

Moral of the story: If you were buying a mirror for your daily commuter bike, I’d recommend buying one that attached more firmly than this one. But for a travel mirror, this did the trick (and did I mention it was cheap!)
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/4011-495/Mountain-Cycling-Mirror

PANNIERS
Buying a second large pannier was the biggest investment we made for this trip. Panniers are unfortunately not cheap, but a good pannier is absolutely unequivocally inarguably necessary for a good ride (/for even the shortest commute). Let’s return to our Rule of 3s, Pannier Edition: size, waterproofness, portability.
i. Size – For our 2 week trip, Josh and I both had a 30L pannier, and one 15L pannier to share, which was more than enough room.

ii. Waterproofness – My daily pannier is literally a canoe drybag with a pannier hook attached, and it’s fantastic. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be in existence anymore. Our new pannier (dubbed “Big Blue” because, well, we’re super creative like that) is not waterproof, but did come with a rain cover that was put to the test immediately during Downpour Day 1, and proved very effective. Our 15L (aka “Junior”) is not at all waterproof and has no rain cover, but that obstacle was surmounted by keeping only our rain gear and our plastic bag of toiletries in him.
** Practical packing tip: Rolling up clothes and packing them in empty tortilla bags not only keeps things super organized, but also dry in case of an unexpected deluge!

iii. Portability – I include this component not because any of our panniers were particularly comfortable to shlep around off bike, but to publish my bewildered rant about WHY DO COMPANIES NOT MAKE PANNIERS WITH BACKPACK STRAPS?! WHY NOT?!! ARRRRRRRGH.

Moral of the story: Every good ride needs a good pannier of adequate size with some form of waterproofness – if the shell itself is waterproof that is much preferred, but the covers do work well. And for the love of bikes, if you find a pannier with backpack straps, let me know IMMEDIATELY.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-448/World-Tour-30L-Pannier

Meet Big Blue:

Junior & Red, respectively:

UNDERGARMENTS
**Are there still people squeamish about TMI? If so, maybe skip this bit. Lots of info ahead re: anatomy and chafing**
i. Top half – Before leaving, I actually tried so hard to research what to wear under my jersey before leaving because I had NO idea what protocol was, and couldn’t find anything helpful. So in the end, I did not wear anything under my jersey. I realise this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I do not need bra support of any kind to avoid backaches or whatnot, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that nipples are inherently evil. Some people apparently wear a light tank under their jersey to help with sweat / avoid nipple chafing, but neither Josh nor I found this was necessary. Top commando all the way!

ii. Bottom half – Here’s something I just found out on this trip (thanks Velodonnas!): Bike shorts are meant to be worn commando (whaaa?) and chamois (pronounced “shammy,” dear casual diehards) cream is to be liberally applied to both short-chamois and human-chamois to prevent chafing of your sensitive bits. Dutifully before leaving, I purchased my very own Hoo Ha Ride Glide Chamois Cream and divvied it up into carry-on-friendly containers for the flight over. However. I feel unfit to give an accurate review of Ride Glide’s efficacy since our first bike day was also a day of torrential, unrelenting downpours, and therefore all bits of me – chamois and otherwise – were thoroughly purged of any hint of cream, with no hope of reapplication in the rain. And my sensitive were pretty dang sensitive during subsequent rides. Nevertheless, I did use Ride Glide daily with reapplication after 3-4 hours of riding, and found it helped especially to reduce chafing in the inguinal crease.

As far as application goes, I did not love the euphemistic instructions given by the chamois bottle (WHICH nooks and crannies?!), so here goes my own version:
**More TMI warnings ahead!! But if you’ve been okay with nipples and inguinal creases, you’ll probably be okay with the following** Apply a generous (at least loonie-size) dollop of cream to the perineal body, posterior labial commissure, and over both labia majorum. Then take another very generous dollop and spread over both inguinal creases, right down to the gluteal fold.

Moral of the story: Be comfortable. If you find wearing a bra helps your back and neck ache less, do it. If you find wearing a bra just makes you sweat more, get rid of it. If your inguinal creases are peachy keen but you are feeling itchy and sore behind your knees, try some chamois cream there. Our bodies are chatty and like to inform us of how they’re feeling – don’t be afraid to listen and look for solutions to address its specific concerns!

And now, just enjoy the good ride 🙂

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Off the trail

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For this trip, while I was struggling to get through my first year of Clerkship (third year of Medicine), Josh outdid himself in travel agent mode and spectacularly organized all accommodations on the booked-months-in-advance Cabot Trail, as well as ensuring that we had adequate time between cycling days to rest our mountain-naïve bones. Our first rest day was spent in a state of relative shock. Having survived Deluge Day 1 on the trail – which consisted not only of 100 km of riding, but also approximately 100 litres of water absorbed into our bike shorts – we did little else in Chéticamp except consume large quantities of of donair pizza and poutine at Wabos Pizza Sub & Donair (not sure what it is about donair and Cape Breton, but it’s everywhere and it’s excellent), as well as Nova Scotian Jost Vineyards “Great Big Friggin’ Red,” which was much like the province itself: hilariously unpretentious on the surface, but addictively delightful once sampled. (Also, surprisingly elusive – while I faithfully trolled each wine list and LC for the rest of the trip, I have yet to track down another bottle of GBFR, much to my distress.)

Our peaceful porch at Albert’s Motel

Assembly line lunch-making, optimistically assuming we WILL be able to eat lunch without it drowning on the trail the next day:

Where we’ve come from, where we’re headed:

We rolled into Pleasant Bay, aka Rest Day 2, only moderately soaked this time: we nearly escaped the rain on Trail Day 2 except for our final half hour of riding, when we encountered our first mountain descent, highway construction, and a sudden downpour all at once. However, our Airbnb accommodations had not only a private bathroom with beautifully fluffy towels (real towels quickly become one of the greatest luxuries when using travel towels for any length of time), but also one of the largest and most comfortable beds ever known to cyclist-kind. We lay down just for a moment to talk about our evening plans… and woke up 2 hours later, ready for anything 🙂 Our Airbnb host Jeff had left not only a 20% off coupon for the restaurant where he worked, but tips on when the live music started – one of the many advantages to staying with a local! We ended up at The Mountain View Restaurant 2 evenings in a row to enjoy their enormously generous glasses of wine and literal toe-tapping local fiddle music and Highland dance. In between Mountain View visits, we spent our time on the Pleasant Bay beach, a mere 5 minute walk down the hill from our house. The mesmerizing sound of the waves dragging beach pebbles along the shore and the odd beauty of lobster traps piled against the harbour made for a delicious way to pass an afternoon.

View from the porch:

Pleasant Bay beach day:

Mountain View does not skimp on wine!

Of COURSE we would bump into a fellow Winnipegger staying at the same Airbnb… Judy, hearing your voice in the hallway was the best surprise of the trip! 🙂

Rest Day 3 was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the rest days, and in some ways, the pinnacle of the trip. To arrive at Hideaway Campground in Dingwall, our Trail Day 3 destination, we had to summit North Mountain, the most challenging ascent on the trail, made even more daunting by the fact that, for the first time, we had to cycle in blazing sun and the subsequent heat that accompanied this rare Cape Breton phenomenon, as well as manoeuvre through kilometres of construction over the slope of the mountain. Having successfully negotiated all the above, we rolled into Hideaway and made our way to our most delightful accommodations yet: The Lighthouse. (When our bike guy heard Josh had booked the Lighthouse, he went into rhapsodies of acclamation for Josh’s excellent planning, since apparently this is the most coveted spot to stay on the island).

Waking up to this view every morning made every gruesome turn of the pedals up North Mtn well worth it:

That evening, we walked the two kilometres or so to the “Secret Beach” whose existence had been hinted at by our previous Airbnb host. The Hideaway staff member had assured us that it was a sprawling white sand beach, “Just like Verrraderrro, Cooooba” (those are not rolled Latino Rs, mind you, but rather the piratey Nova Scotian variety). While not precisely like Varadero, it was beautiful, secluded, and the definition of restful.

The following morning, our actual Rest Day 3, was definitely the least restful of the rest days, but in the best possible way: We cycled 5 minutes down the highway (in city clothes, which just felt wrong after growing accustomed to padded shorts and jerseys!) to Eagle North Kayak, where we spent the afternoon with local sea kayaking guide Mike and 4 lovely tourists from Ohio. Together, we navigated the sea-bird strewn marshes and white-capped waves of the wild Atlantic. Then, to cap off an already-perfect afternoon, Mike offered Josh & I the use of his kids’ paddleboards to try in his harbour.


We had grand plans to go out for a lavish dinner that night, but realised no view could top the one from our own cabin porch. So, we cycled to the Red Store (aka the one store in the entire Aspy Bay area), artfully packed slices of Donair pizza and cold beer into our paniers, and enjoyed a delectable evening of star-gazing from the Lighthouse.

Trail Days 4 and 5 were back to back, with no rest days in between. We detoured off the official Cabot Trail on Trail Day 4, following the serendipitous advice of a local we chatted with while buying ice cream, who advised us to veer off onto the Coastal Loop to avoid the horrendous construction that had taken over South Mountain. Not only did we successfully avoid all construction, but the Coastal Loop views and unavoidable encounter with the Neil Harbour Chowderhouse made the detour well worth it.

Trail Day 5 was beautiful and bittersweet, both looking forward to the triumph of completing the trail and dreading the end of such a spectacular journey. We stretched it out, enjoying a languid brunch of bacon-ginger pannekoeken at The Dancing Moose Cafe, celebrating not only our grand journey on the trail, but also our 6th wedding anniversary. When we got married 6 years ago, we had no way of imagining all the adventures we have since experienced and written about on this blog… so I can only imagine what we’ll look back on in another 6 years!

On the trail

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There are two maps one uses when cycling the Cabot Trail, and one is infinitely more useful than the other.

The first is a regular map that shows the trail (a paved, two-lane road shared by cyclists and motor vehicles alike) making a circle of the northern half of Cape Breton, with really no exits or intersections. There’s no way to get lost on this trail, so there’s really no need for this one.

The second map, however, is the elevation map, which essentially looks like the EKG of a mouse on steroids. It does not take long to learn that your sense of distance will not be measured by street signs, but rather by the number and steepness of ascents and descents left til your destination.

Here we go!!

Elevation treated us well for the first day. Tyler the Bike Guy drove us to the trailhead in Baddeck, from which we pedalled 97km. This is less masochistic than it sounds since this was the flattest leg of the journey and we figured it was best to make as much headway as possible.

Our “What have we gotten ourselves into?!” faces, when Tyler drove away from us in Baddeck and we realised we actually had to face the trail alone…

About a quarter of the way into the day, however, the clouds grew ominous.

They have a saying in this sea-battered part of the world that goes “if you don’t like the weather in Cape Breton, just wait 15 minutes.” Not to cast doubt on the local wisdom, but after 15 minutes of the skies opening up and casting off their icy burden of rain-bullets on us, we were starting to doubt the local wisdom. A lesser deluge may have dampened our spirits, but it was impossible not to laugh in the face of this frigid 4-hour baptism of precipitation. By the time we arrived at a dining establishment (we had packed sandwiches, but knew they would disintegrate in an instant if we took them out of their bags), we were squeaky-clean and smelled fresher than any cyclist ever has.

(Apologies to the Belle View restaurant in Margaree, however, for leaving such colossal puddles on your floor. Thanks for the hot chocolate!)

We arrived in Chéticamp that evening, wrung out our clothes and our bones, and rested in the satisfaction that it was all uphill from here (har har)…

Limbering up for Trail Day 2:

One blissful rest-day and one corny elevation pun later, we embarked on Trail Day 2. This was technically our shortest trail day, barring the fact that two mountains stood between us and our next stop in Pleasant Bay. We bid à bientot to Chéticamp, relishing the freedom of carrying nothing but the panniers that hung from our bicycles. And then the mountain came.

Leaving Chéticamp and facing the road ahead

My last experience with mountains was Cuba’s Pico Gayón, which for me was definitely a Pyrrhic victory. I technically made it to the top, but not without leaving every ounce of decorum, pride, and excess oxygen behind. Needless to say, I was nervous for this.

Fortunately, Sara had used her med-student authority (they don’t legally have any, except over their spouses) to get me to pick up a secret weapon before this trip, and for this I will be forever grateful. Armed with my nifty new inhaler, I could feel my lungs working their hardest without ever experiencing that familiar burn and tightness that would have previously forced me to pull over. As the incline steepened, I shifted to the lowest gear and hunkered down for the long haul. Progress was comically slow, but always steady, and every switchback revealed a majestic new cove or inlet filled with the sparkling Atlantic. It was a redemptive experience, to say the least.

Our first “real” ascent… oh, how innocent we were then!

These were the ascents. Day 3’s was undoubtedly the most brutal, with the blazing sun and a 13% grade (that’s a third steeper than the aforementioned Arlington Bridge…and for four unrelenting kilometres!). By Day 5’s ascent, however, we felt like naturals.



Then came the descents. While the ascents did feel less daunting as we became accustomed to them, we never became desensitized to the thrill of careening down mountainsides on two wheels, or that perfect balance of self-reliance and surrender.

Trail Day 1 graciously provided us with what I like to call our ‘training mountain’ (and before the deluge, no less!). Less than half the height of the next days’ mountains, we still pulled over after the descent to exclaim to each other about the drawn-out adrenaline rush we had just experienced. Such wonderful prairie innocence.

If you ever see a photo or postcard from the Cabot Trail, it’s probably of Day 2’s Mackenzie Mountain. Its harrowing switchbacks tumbling toward the ocean make for a fantastic aerial shot. They also make for a steep learning curve (pun inevitable) for flatlanders like us, especially when combined with a sudden downpour at the last minute and a lot of construction. This descent felt the most challenging, as we rapidly learned that switchbacks need to be taken very slowly, especially since it’s impossible to see more than fifty feet in front of you. Still, as the ground levelled out at the bottom we felt we had truly reached a milestone in our cycling careers.

Far be it from me to judge billion-year-old landforms, but in my opinion Day 3’s North Mountain is undoubtedly the best… both in the traditional sense of wonderful, as well as in the more masochistic sense of most challenging and therefore ultimately most rewarding. Its monstrous height (the tallest on the entire trail) combines with slightly gentler curves than Mackenzie Mountain that allow a rider to reach ludicrous speeds while fully taking in the vastness of the landscape. The momentary rush of adrenaline becomes a prolonged state of mind as the descent lasts long enough to alternate multiple times between shrieks of glee and deep contemplations of one’s own insignificance in the face of nature’s magnificence. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Day 4 lacked any major mountains (though it did contain some major seafood chowder), which brings us to Day the Last, which included the talk of the proverbial town: Cape Smokey. Frequently, when we’d tell people our general itinerary, they would respond with “Oh, so you haven’t done Smokey yet!” Though not nearly as tall as Mackenzie or North Mountains, they were always keen to inform us about how steep it was. One Cape Bretoner in particular reassured us that “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a car(rrr) or a bike, I just close my eyes and hope for the best!”

And though we kept our eyes open the entire time, I can see their point. If North Mountain was thrilling on a spiritually-moving level, Smokey was just pure fun, a roller coaster with no seatbelts. The ocean felt closer than it did on any of the previous descents, and there were a few spots that zigged and zagged so wildly (and seemingly unnecessarily) that I actually laughed out loud. Yet just as the roar of the wind in our ears reached a deafening climax, the ground levelled out and it was all over. This daunting task that we had set for ourselves was complete, and besides some very sore knees we were undefeated.

Lakies Head

The last few hours on the trail were not unlike the last few hours of summer camp: calm, relatively uneventful, and bittersweet as we knew this adventure was coming to a close. The Englishtown ferry met us at the end of a long spit of land hardly wider than the road itself, a surreal iron barge after a week of tiny fishing boats. Our two bikes were dwarfed between SUVs and Winnebagos, and there on the other side stood Tyler the Bike Guy like an ode to narrative symmetry. As he kindly secured our bikes to the rack on the back of his car, we bid farewell to a place that had simultaneously tested and enchanted us more than most places could in less than a week’s time.

Home stretch, cradled by the ocean

Forever Heroic

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As I write this, I wonder whether the last part of Santiago’s slogan — heroica siempre — sounds a little too adoring of Fidel’s revolution. Cuba is not some socialist utopia, and Castro is no Gandhi or Mandela (though he certainly had some bromance with the latter). That said, there is a real heroic element about the David & Goliath story that is the Cuban Revolution. While Castro’s David is certainly not innocent (I guess the original David wasn’t either), he is the one leader who has stood up to America’s Goliath and succeeded.

You can’t listen to many Latin American leaders for long without hearing the phrase ‘el coloso del Norte’. This nickname for the U.S. (the Colossus of the North) is the result of the Monroe Doctrine, an 1823 American policy statement that declared the entire Western Hemisphere (aka: the U.S. and Latin America. Oh yeah, and Canada.) as part of the United States’ ‘sphere of influence’. It was essentially America’s declaration that they were now joining the big leagues of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands who had ruled the colonization game for so long. In the two centuries since, this has manifested itself in the form of American-backed coups, assassinations, and manipulative free trade deals in Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, and, before 1959 at least, Cuba. These have left millions dead and hundreds of millions more impoverished.

But not Cuba. La Revolución has never negotiated with the U.S. on anything but its own terms. It has maintained a decent standard of living without owing (or losing) anything to the U.S, which is more than can be said for most of their Latin American neighbours. They have built industries (sugar, coffee, tourism, and, of course, rum and cigars!) that can and do compete on an international level, something that can’t happen when American companies flood the market. (For a more local example, think of how Canadian farmers struggle to compete with cheap American beef.) For this reason alone, the Cuban Revolution deserves to be called heroic. That, and the fact that Castro has avoided more CIA assassination attempts than anyone else in history. Well done, bro.

Che Guevara’s words, “Always towards victory,” remind us that the revolution is not something that happened once back in 1959, but an ongoing state of resistance against American military and economic control.
Hasta La Victoria Siempre

Debris from the American spy plane that illegally entered Cuban airspace during the Cuban Missile Crisis, unceremoniously placed on display on the side of the road outside of Havana, makes for a powerful symbol of resistance against ‘The Colossus’.
Fighter Jet Wing

Now, way back in Part One of these rather verbose politico-economic musings (to be fair, you were warned!), I wondered about the price of such a stable and egalitarian society. One doesn’t have to wonder long…especially when one lives in a country that is ‘glorious and free’, governed by the ‘charter of rights and freedoms’, and is constantly bombarded with media from the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’.

I think the answer is obvious.

The freedoms that Cubans lack are disconcerting to Canadians and Americans, who value that much-debated f-word above all else. Cubans are not free to leave their country without a difficult-to-obtain visa, they are not free to form political parties, and freedom of the press is non-existent. We are right to be troubled by this, but let’s put it in the context of their other Latin American neighbours…

Cubans are free from debilitating poverty and unemployment. Cubans are free from organized crime and drug wars. Cubans are free to access quality education and health care, regardless of race, gender, or wealth. Cuban businesses are free from being acquired by American corporations, and their markets are free from being flooded by cheap American, made-in-China products. None of this can be said about the rest of Latin America.

Excerpts from Castro’s speeches adorn billboards in every city. This one says “We will begin the march and we will perfect that which we need to perfect.”
Perfect What We Will Perfect

So what, then, is it that needs to be perfected?

La Revolución has succeeded in breaking many of the bonds that keep the rest of Latin America down. What the Castros (or whoever inevitably succeeds them as they reach the end of their impressively long lives) need to do next is to find a way to merge those OTHER freedoms, the ones that Canadians and Americans enjoy, with the freedoms that they have fought so hard to win. They need to find an unprecedented way to be free from America while still granting democratic freedoms to their citizens. If they succeed, they will not only have provided a road map for other Latin American nations (heck, even Canada!) to follow, but they will have finally earned the title ‘forever heroic’.

Jose Martí, buried in his mausoleum here in Santiago, was the poet that united Cubans, of all races, to fight for Cuba’s independence from both Spain and the U.S. The next few years will see if his dream is fulfilled.
Jose Marti's Grave

Farewell, Cuba, and good luck going where no nation has gone before.
Havana nights

West: A Farewell to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

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Uncouth ways of getting from A to B characterized our travels around Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province, from the very moment we left Baracoa… which is, incidentally, in Cuba’s easternmost province. Or, more accurately, from about two hours after we left Baracoa, at which point the bus came to a halt on the top of an idyllic mountain pass.  The driver got on and off the bus several times, finally to conclude, in a succinct announcement to the passengers, “Estamos rotos.” We are broken. Talk about an existential interruption to an otherwise relaxing travel day!

Over the next half-hour or so the lingering effects of the bus’ air-conditioning began to give way to the piercing Cuban sun, and one by one we all got off the bus. Like the cast of Lost, our isolation brought out the best in us (this was the point, after all, where Sara started penning the first Cuban installment of our trusty blog) and the worst in us (like the Italian guys who immediately stripped down to their briefs and got unpleasantly day-drunk off their souvenir rum). Regardless, though, we all let out a cheer when, six hours later, the second bus out of Baracoa came into sight. Though it carried passengers of its own, it was still able to accommodate us all, even if some of us (read: one of us in particular) had to sit on the floor. (In all honesty, once I abandoned all sense of decorum and just lay down in the aisle I was actually incredibly comfortable!)

Josh and the art of having incredibly appropriate reading material for the occasion:
Zen

All of this to say that by the time we arrived in Viñales thirty-five hours later, we were quite excited for some alternative modes of transport. And Viñales delivered. What followed was, in the spirit of WestJet travel writing, ‘three perfect days’ of exploring this otherworldly paradise on horseback, bicycles, and cattle-trucks.

Day 1: Horseback

While the cycling culture of Viñales is what initially drew us there, it soon became apparent (though not entirely clear why) that certain trails on the map were not for biking. Instead, the local wisdom seemed to advise that horses were the best bet. Seeing as horses tend to be just as common on Cuban roads as cars (or bikes…or bicitaxis…or motorcycles with sidecars), we decided to go for it. Our very knowledgable casa hostess hooked us up with a friendly father and son, both named Eduardo, who took us out on a very comprehensive tour of the Viñales countryside. It immediately became clear why they had frowned at our idea of cycling these trails:

Viñales is one of those bizarre microclimates that gets a daily 4:00 pm thunderstorm.  As such, paths like this one are perpetually running red with iron-rich muck.
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Our faithful steeds for the day and our guide, Eddy Jr. (On the right. Obviously.) Eddy is 11 years old and more skilled working with horses than we could ever dream of ourselves. We also enjoyed swimming with him later in a beautiful lily-pad-clad lake as he challenged us to races and handstand competitions.

Father and son watch us as we descend into one of the many caves that hide in the forest.

Our trek took us to a family coffee farm, much larger than the one we had stumbled upon in the Sierra Maestras. One of the (incredibly exuberant) employees gave us a detailed tutorial on the sorting, splitting, and roasting processes. He became a recurring character in our journey when he popped up that evening as the MC at a dance club across the street from our casa.
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Sara trots past a secadora, the giant huts used to dry tobacco leaves.
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Inside the secadora, tobacco leaves dry for months after having been sorted according to where they had been on the plant (top = more sunlight and older leaves = stronger flavour, but burn much faster. The balance of top-versus-bottom leaves is what creates the exceptional smoothness and even burning quality of hand-rolled cigars). 90% of the farm’s tobacco leaves will be sold to the government to become Cuba’s signature export, while 10% remain here, hand-rolled with no filler added, to make some of the smoothest and strongest cigars in the world.
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Throughout the day (and in a few of the pictures above), we could see the legendary mogotes in the distance, giant limestone monoliths that look as though they were dropped out of the sky. I wondered if it was possible to get closer to these, to actually walk right up to the point where they rise abruptly out of an otherwise Manitobanly-flat prairie. The next day would answer my question.

Day 2: Bicycles

Our obviously-very-well-connected casa hostess somehow made two bicycles appear the next morning, pointing us down the street which would eventually turn into a highway that wound through the mogotes. We got out onto the open road and felt the familiar exhilaration of highway cycling, except that instead of the grain elevator-dotted cornfields of southern Manitoba we were surrounded by mogote-dotted tobacco fields.

Tinker Creek’s star cyclist brings her skills to Cuba.
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Yep, you can! (Walk right up to the base of a mogote and touch it, that is). Most mogotes aren’t this vibrantly coloured…this one bears the Mural de la Prehistoria, a gigantic work of art depicting the evolution of life on earth.
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Our reward for our early start was having the entire mural to ourselves to experiment with cycling selfies. And some brief respite from that piercing Cuban sun.
Mural y mogote
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As the heat was reaching its peak, we sought refuge in la Cueva del Indio, a magnificent cave that once served as a natural fortress for an entire indigenous people. Half of it is filled with water and requires a boat to navigate, giving it an eerie River Styx quality.
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Day 3: Cattle-truck

The one typical Cuban treasure that Viñales lacks is a beach, but there are plenty of taxis willing to drive you the 2ish hours to nearby Cayo Jutías for a fairly significant price. When we asked our casa hostess (who by this point was starting to seem less well-connected and more positively magical) if there was a less expensive way she said yes, and that she would arrange it for the next morning. We just had to be at the door by 8:00.

While there were no cattle on the truck, it certainly could have served that purpose. About 15 of us cozied up on the bench that ran along the inside edge, and Sara was given the noble task of pulling the door shut as it swung open on every bump.
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Sara and I enjoy the Cuban tradition of bringing a drink with you into the ocean.
Jutías drinks!

Who needs a resort when, as you lie on the deserted end of a remote beach, a friendly fisherman approaches you and asks if you’d like to buy the lobster he just caught? We went out for a quick pre-lunch dip, and five minutes later heard him shout to us, “I have your lobster! I’ll just leave it on your towel!”
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The aforementioned 4:00pm daily thunderstorm, combined with some washed-up driftwood, provided a perfectly ominous photo-op.
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While our days were filled with nature at its most gorgeous, our nights were filled with fascinating people, like our hostess’ husband Eddy (yes, there are apparently a LOT of Eduardos in this part of the world!) who worked at the local cigar shop, and two lovely German travellers with whom we spent the evenings eating, dancing, debating the complexities of Cuban politics, and sharing stories from the days’ adventures. ¡Muchas gracias a todos de ustedes para compartir estos dias lindisimos con nosotros!

Eddy instructs us on the finer points of cigar-smoking. “Don’t use the lighter, it’s too direct. Light this stick of cedar paper, and then rotate it gently.” “Ah, like roasting a marshmallow,” I say. He doesn’t respond. I should have known…marshmallows are quite an enigma in Latin America. (But seriously, it’s like roasting a marshmallow.)
 

Our Deutsche travel buddies, Steffi and Marta, inspired us with their own travel stories and the incredible work they do back in Germany, before a game of Dutch Blitz that lasted well past midnight.
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¡Hasta próximo, Viñales!

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Happy Birthday, Castro

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Warning: After five years of saratreetravels, be prepared for some sentimentality in the post ahead…

In our other travels, we have always arrived home at the beginning of August in order to allow us ample time to prepare for the beginning of university classes. This inevitably meant that we have spent August 13, our wedding anniversary, not only jet-lagged and rather grouchy at being back home instead of in Argentina/Morocco/Mexico, but for whatever cosmic reason has also always resulted in Josh suffering from some kind of illness. Hypothermia, infected leg wounds, travelers’ diarrhea… August 13 has become invariably linked with quality time in the Emergency Department.

This year, with my classes not starting until the end of August and Josh not having to go back to work until September, we realized that August 13 could actually be celebrated while still in the midst of our travels. And not only that, but only after our trip was already booked and we were beginning to research our first few topics for political analysis did we realize that August 13, 2016 was not merely our 5th wedding anniversary, but was also one Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday**… and we would all be celebrating together in Cuba.

August 13 found us in the beautiful clutches of Baracoa. Having rung in our anniversary by dancing until midnight with some new Baracoeses amigos, the perfect anniversary gift was to spend the next day soaking up the unparalleled lazy majesty of Cuban beaches with (you were warned… excuse me for a moment as emotion takes over!) the unparalleled magic that is the company of my travelling partner, fellow passionate scholar and pragmatic idealist, and most importantly, my very best friend.

Anniversary breakfast
(¡Gracias a la querida Ykira por el desayuno perfecto!)
 
Street party that night for Fidel’s 90th… Or was all of Cuba celebrating with us for our anniversary?? 😉
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Joshua, traveling and marriage bring out both the best and worst in someone. And even after 5 years of both (both traveling and marriage, as well as both the best and the worst!), there is no one else I’d rather have by my side as I continue the adventure of building a meaningful, sustainable, community-centered life.

J+S

Epilogue: After a perfect day at the beach, I was swimming towards shore when a clear-green frond suddenly wrapped beneath my ribs and a million razor blades attacked my stomach. As I un-gracefully hurled myself out of the sea and began panicking onshore from the pain, a couple of helpful Cubanos lounging on the beach nodded knowingly in my direction. “Ah, hay aguas malas,” they stated matter-of-factly. “Medusas.” Jellyfish. I suppose after five years, it was my turn for some anniversary trauma!

Jellybelly

**There couldn’t be a more fitting present than this: This also happens to be the 90th post by saratreetravels!! 😀

East: Me ripie como un yare*

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*Baracoesa phrase, literally: “I shredded myself like a leaf.” Hard to explain to a non-Cuban, but this is a very colloquial phrase meaning that one enjoyed oneself a lot at a party.

As we groggily stumbled off our night bus, we were slapped by a sensation we hadn’t felt since arriving in Cuba a week earlier: The hint of a breeze. Make no mistake, it was probably still +30°C at 6:30AM, but there was a freshness in the air, the sweetness of ocean salt that soothed our parched lungs. We clambered into the bicitaxi our host had reserved for us and creakily made our way through the sleepy streets of Baracoa.

Baracoa1

Cuba’s capital of cocoa, Baracoa is a misty, beguiling city that meanders along the coast and invites one to slow down, dig your toes into the silky black sand beaches, squint against the sun melting into El Yunque. In other words, the perfect place to calm one’s soul after the exhausting marble brightness of the inexhaustible Santiago.

Beach

El Yunque, “The Anvil,” Baracoa’s ominous landmark mountain, softly looms over the town
El Yunque

Morning breakfasts included not only smoky Cuban coffee, but also cups of pure, rich, silky chocolate. ¡Que paraíso!
Chocolate

Side note: This was Christopher Columbus’ landing point after sailing for months into the inky unknown, and I found it interesting that even at the very cradle of Columbus’ entry to the Americas, it was marked by only one small statue and zero fanfare. And yet it seems an unavoidable topic in the States, cropping up continuously in textbooks, monuments, and even a national holiday. Perhaps more Northern Americans should take their cue from the people living where history actually took place, and realize that this topic does not deserve the relevance it currently enjoys. And now moving on…

Baracoa malecon

Our days in Baracoa took on a lovely languid quality. Only a ten minute walk from our casa was a delicious black sand beach sprawling the entire length of town. If you followed the beach to the tip of accessible land, you reached a turquoise lagoon, on the other side of which we were promised was hiding a tiny white sand beach.
Lagoon

At this point, you had a choice. You could wind your way through the palm woods and eventually come to a bridge of shaky single planks stretching to connect to the outstretched fingertip of the fishing village across the bay. Or, you could strike up a conversation with a fisherman who then offers to row you across the lagoon in his tiny boat.

We opted for the latter.
Friendly rowing fisherman

Playa Blanquita
Blanquita

Since our mysterious fisherman was nowhere to be found on our return trip, we meandered through the village and crossed via the bridge, which was in itself an adventure:
Bridge1

Bridge2-Sara

That evening at dinner, our friendly waiter not only delivered excellent service, but also a proposal: “You can’t get to know Baracoa if you stay in town,” he insisted. “I can get a car and take you into the mountains to see beautiful natural lakes… And La Reina de Cacao.” Now he had our attention. We couldn’t visit Cuba’s cocoa capital without meeting the Queen of Cocoa, could we?

So, bright and early the next morning, we met back at the restaurant and piled into a cab with Félix and Yolis, our newfound Baracoeses tour guides. The day was spent rowing through canyons to discover freshwater pools hidden deep in the mountains, feasting on fresh seafood caught that afternoon by Félix’s buddy, and, yes – visiting La Reina de Cacao in her kingdom.

La Boca de Yumurí: According to historical tradition, the Guamá people jumped off the canyon shouting, “Yo moriré!” (I will die!) rather than succumb to Spanish colonial rule. Centuries later, the canyon and river are still known as “Yumuri” in their honour.
Canyon Yumuri

Swimming at Yumuri

Walking through La Boca

Josh making friends with our lunch
Lobster Josh

Young cocoa plants (looking NOTHING like we had imagined!)
Cocoa

Dissimilar to our familiar brown powdered “cocoa” in every way, cocoa plants contain a white lychee-like jelly surrounding the raw beans
Tasting cocoa

La Reina de Cacao en su reino
Reina de Cacao

When Félix and Yolis realized our fifth wedding anniversary was the next day, they insisted that we ring in the occasion by dancing until midnight. 12:00 found us at La Terraza, Baracoa’s one and only night club, salsa-ing to “Ah-ah-ah-ah… Hasta que se seque el Malecón” (one of Cuba’s five essential songs) and toasting the beginning of five years of marital adventures with Cuba Libres and our newfound Baracoeses amigos.

And as per usual, the adventures would just keep on coming… 🙂

Silhouettes on beach