Tag Archives: .JOSH

Wall to Ourselves

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Wall to Ourselves

Sara and I have been fortunate to learn, time and time again, that if you do some serious planning and take the extra time, you can always get away from the crowds and find yourself in truly breathtaking situations (and you can read about them here, here, and here). But in China, a country where the crowds themselves are breathtaking, we weren’t sure if that feeling of solo exploration would be possible.

Spoiler alert: it is. But I’d be lying if I said we never doubted ourselves.

Being 6,000 miles long, there are many points from which to access the Great Wall, each with different amenities: some are fully infrastructured, with restaurants and shops on the wall itself, while one section features a toboggan slide (which is something that I would totally do on a return visit!), but also, of course, major crowds. However, far along the eastern end of the wall, where the Chaohe River flows in from what was once Mongol territory, is a little town called Gubeikou (‘old north gate’). It has a very weird internet presence in that many travel sites mention it, but few offer any concrete details about how to get there or what to expect. The two stretches of wall on either side of the river are called ‘Crouching Tiger’ and, you guessed it, ‘Hidden Dragon’ (okay, technically it’s actually ‘Coiled Dragon’, but why else would a dragon be coiling unless it was hiding??). All of these seemed like good enough reasons to give it a try.

Finding our way to the bus through Beijing’s massive Dongzhimen station was technically uneventful, though it felt like an adventure because it was our first time being completely on our own in China, having to memorize the characters for our destination and then search for them on literally thousands of buses. One perk of being in the most populous country in the world is that the buses leave every 10 minutes, but even then we found ourselves sardined in the far back between our backpacks and the collection of shiny new kitchen appliances that someone had bought in the big city and was taking back home with them.

After three hours we arrived at the city of Miyun, at which point Sara used some very impressive bartering to get us a spot on a van that was going to Gubeikou. The van was filled with Chinese tourists, and knowing that Gubeikou was not a large place, we figured we were all going to the same hostel.

Forty minutes later, however, the driver pulled over, shouted ‘Gubeikou!’ and we found ourselves on the side of an empty highway, alone with our backpacks. To our right, there was a town that did vaguely resemble a photo I’d seen (a decorated arch, an ornate stone building, and beautiful winding canal), but that photo had clearly been taken before some kind of zombie apocalypse that had evidently occured since. The ornate stone building now had padlocks on the doors and boards over the windows, and the canal was literally clogged with logs and branches. Worst of all, there was not a Great Wall in sight.

I got the sinking feeling one gets when one finds themselves in a Chinese ghost town without internet or a vehicle and it’s getting dark and there isn’t even an unlocked building where one might spend a chilly, disappointed night. We wandered up the cobblestone road, only to find more of the same, when suddenly a single taxi came trundling out of the shadows. We stood shamelessly in the middle of the road, hellbent on getting into it and going ANYWHERE.

The driver (who already had a passenger, but seemed pretty chill) didn’t seem to recognize anything on the map we showed him, but kindly let us in and drove us a couple minutes out of the ghost town to what seemed like a sleepy but inhabited town and stopped outside of a building that said, in English, ‘Teachers residence’. Very appropriate, but no luck at actually finding someone inside willing to take us in for the night.

It was pitch black by now, and we had lost all sense of direction as the cab meandered through an uphill labyrinth. We stopped by some sort of field, and suddenly the driver was talking to an older gentleman who had come running from the void. From their facial expressions (which we are apparently terrible at reading), we thought that they were both equally confused. Suddenly, however, the driver let us out and the other man led us to a low building, opened the gigantic square iron door (classic China!), and welcomed us to our hostel.

The man turned out to be the hostel-owner’s father, whom she referred to in text messages as Master Ho, which of course only added to his mystique. As a gesture of good will, he made sure to procure several chives from the darkness outside for us to add to our instant noodles. He and Sara had a long conversation that was completely unintelligible to either of them, but she thinks it may have been about my height.

I woke up the next morning still hesitant about where we’d ended up. But when I set out to find some eggs for breakfast, breathing in the relatively smog-free air, my doubts were immediately assuaged.

The spine of the Crouching TIger…

At this point, we had to choose which section of the wall we were going to attempt. ‘Coiled Dragon’ was lower, gentler, and marked on a detailed GPS map. ‘Crouching Tiger’, meanwhile, was steep, winding, and accompanied by the following instructions: cross the bridge and look for some steps on the right.

We deliberated for a moment…then set off towards the bridge. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

That’s tiny me at the bottom of the roller coaster.

The scrubby landscape sloping up the steep flank of the Crouching Tiger’s spine makes it easy to imagine (or actually see, if it’s the year 1200) Mongol hordes invading from the north.

The Trans-Siberian Railway trundling under our feet, straight from Moscow.

We had hoped to get away from the crowds…we never dreamed we’d manage to get away from all of humanity entirely. I alternated between feeling so incredibly connected to history and feeling like a kid on the world’s biggest play structure. Even though the modern Mongolian border was hundreds of miles away, the sense of being on the very frontier of something ancient was palpable. Awe is usually a momentary state, but this lasted the entire six hours we were on that wall.

 

Now and then the path veered away from the wall, into fields of pink blossoms and unearthly white rock.

The view from below

The view from above

Gubeikou, you had us worried for a moment, but you were truly unforgettable.

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The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

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The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

Whaa?? Where am I? Oh, hello!

(*dusts himself off and looks around to get his bearings*)

Returning to this blog feels (I can only assume) like falling through a hole in space-time, like Lucy discovering Narnia, or Jack Skellington finding himself in Christmastown. But maybe this Twilight Zone-esque bewilderment is an appropriate metaphor for a Western traveller whose first foray into Asia was a week-long sortie into one of its busiest, most ancient metropolises (metropoli?).

Though going to China for a single week seems preposterous, the planetary alignment in this case (Sara having an actual Spring Break due to a clerical error the previous year / that Spring Break coinciding with mine / both the aforementioned Spring Breaks coinciding with the end of her medical exchange in China) was too good to pass up. We decided that the best way to immerse ourselves in this wildly different world was to spend the entire week in the bustling city of Beijing.

 

The sprawling 3,000-year-old Imperial palace, ominously known as the Forbidden City, is practically synonymous with Beijing. Standing in its first plaza, vast and paved enough to put an IKEA parking lot to shame, one gets the impression that the sole intent of this place was to intimidate visitors, to suggest the size of the army that could be assembled in such a gathering place. And then, after crossing that infinite expanse of concrete, one passes through the extravagant arch on the other side and enters…ANOTHER INFINITE EXPANSE OF CONCRETE! AND ANOTHER! These plazas repeat themselves almost to the point of absurdity, with decadent names such as Hall of Eternal Happiness and the Hall of Infinite Prosperity, finally culminating in the Imperial Garden, a refreshing Eden of exotic trees that feels like the organic nerve centre of this massive geometric body. The effect is staggering.

Breathing the fresh air of the Imperial Garden.

 

Sara making herself at home in the Hall of Literary Brilliance.

 

The next day we took the metro (which, incidentally, is a great crash course in Mandarin characters, since all the stops are just some combination of the words for north, east, south, west, gate, bridge, lake, and river) to the Temple of Heaven Park: equally majestic, but with the intimidation factor replaced by lush tranquility. Here we saw the mellow side of the otherwise frenetic Beijing lifestyle: people dancing, elderly folks doing gravity-defying tae chi, and parents playing with their kids.

 

I insisted we take a fairly lengthy metro detour to see one of my favourite architectural wonders (/anomalies): the CCTV Headquarters, aka THE PANTS!

If you are ever in Beijing, you absolutely must visit the Wangfujing Snack Street. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also delicious and completely unique. Where else can you find live scorpion kebabs, heaps of tentacles, or whatever donkey wallow is?

Our final major destination was the Yongzhe Lama Temple, Beijing’s largest Buddhist establishment. If the Forbidden City was formidable and the Temple of Heaven tranquil, then the Lama Temple was, in a word, reverent. A ubiquitous blanket of fragrant smoke keeps each individual alone with their thoughts, free to explore the sacred maze. I was fascinated by the worshippers, recognizing the looks on their faces but not the bells, flags, wheels, and statues that held such meaning for them.  Being an outsider in a place so intimate made me think of the old parable of the blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant and thus think they are touching something different entirely. What I was witnessing was indeed a very new and different part of the same proverbial elephant than I’d grown up with.

 

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Beijing’s hottest travel destination, and although you won’t find him in Lonely Planet, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being referred to as such. My friend and fellow teacher, Travis, played the role of perfect host throughout this trip, letting us stay in his apartment, keeping me up til 3:00am on the night of my arrival to break me of any potential jetlag (watching him play hockey in a freezing cold arena for two hours helped, as did the copious amounts of beer and jianbing at the local expat bar afterwards!), helping us with everything from buying a metro pass to asking for less slippery chopsticks in restaurants (the wooden ones make it a LOT easier, okay!!), inviting us to hang out at the Canadian embassy after a ball-hockey game to partake in the finest hoser beverages in all of China, driving us to and from the airport, and finding the best spots for Peking duck (thanks Han!), hotpot, and malatong. T-Rav, I can’t believe we ACTUALLY got to take you up on your invitations to see you in your natural habitat. Xiexie for a fantastic time!

Sara and Travis greet me at the airport with a sign taped to a hockey stick using a band-aid.

 

A first and unforgettable experience of Peking duck.

 

A toast to Canada’s finest spirits, hockey team, and expats!

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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Today Hospitable

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At first, the second phrase in Santiago’s sloganhospitalaria hoy — doesn’t seem to fit into a discussion on Cuban politics.

Yet as we discover more and more of Cuba’s skewed, seemingly backwards economy, it becomes clear that Communism isn’t always to blame, but rather an ‘ism’ that we are actually much more familiar with: tourism.

Let me explain: one of the assumptions that people have about Cuba, which has turned out to be very true according to nearly every Cuban we’ve spoken to on the subject, is that professionals will often quit their jobs in order to find better-paying work in the tourist industry. We’ve read about multiple casas where both the husband and wife are doctors, yet their main source of income is the rooms that they rent out to travelers. We made friends with a young woman who had greatly enjoyed her brief teaching career, but had switched to cleaning rooms at a hostel because it paid better. This seems to be the one grievance that Cubans are pretty unanimous about.

 Yolis and I had some good conversations about teaching (her favourite unit to teach was ‘marxismo-leninismo’!), though she now works at a hostel for better pay.  Her husband, Felix, took us to a friend’s place for some of the freshest lobster we could ever taste!

 

So who or what is to blame for this ‘brain drain’ of talented individuals from necessary professions to seemingly mundane jobs? Communism is the quick answer, but I strongly believe it’s not the right one. Tourism is a real industry in Cuba, on which entire cities and sub-industries can be built. There’s money in tourism, and public sector jobs like medicine and education are going to struggle to compete, regardless of whether it’s a communist dictatorship or a socialist democracy.  

It’s hard to fathom this, coming from a place like Manitoba (where our biggest effort in the realm of tourism is putting the word ‘friendly’ on our license plates), but it makes a little more sense if we substitute a different money-maker into the equation. When I was teaching in Gillam, for instance, it was a real challenge to get students to see value in post-secondary education when Manitoba Hydro was right there, offering them very well-paying jobs straight out of high school. Though cleaning rooms in a hostel seems much more servile than working as an electrician for Hydro, the principle is the same: teaching, nursing, and doctor(ing?) don’t actually generate any new wealth, therefore industries like hydro (in Manitoba) or tourism (in Cuba) are always going to be luring people away. This isn’t to condemn these industries — they bring much-needed capital to their respective communities, after all — but rather to make sure we’re pointing fingers in the right direction.

Casas particulares (‘private houses’, which makes more sense when contrasted with nearly every other business in Cuba, which are public) have become an insanely popular way for Cubans to make some extra money.  While they are technically a capitalist business venture, Castro and Marx can still approve of them because the means of production (i.e.: the bedrooms and kitchen) are still owned by the workers, thus avoiding a bourgeois-proletariat relationship.  Ulises, our Sierra Maestras casa owner is a great example of this system’s success.

 

(Of course, saying that a profession like medicine doesn’t generate new wealth is only true in countries with public health care. In an unfortunately-not-so-hypothetical developed country where health care is still private, doctors would never leave the profession because they can charge whatever they want for their services. But then, that’s the reason this whole Communism thing has been so tempting for so many countries in the first place, isn’t it? 😉 )

The challenge, then, is for the governments of these countries to invest money in the professions where talented people are needed. The Canadian government, for instance, pays its doctors much more than it otherwise would in order to keep them from disappearing to the States where they could make more. Likewise, the Cuban government needs to start paying its doctors/nurses/social workers/teachers more than it otherwise would in order to keep them from disappearing to the tourist industry where they could make more.  The problem is not one of ideology, but rather of maintaining the delicate balance between industry (where money is made) and public services (where money is used to create healthy and just societies).

This point was made abundantly clear to us during a conversation with a Cuban shop owner. “I make more money selling trinkets to tourists in one week than a doctor makes in a month. That’s not right!” To which we nodded in agreement.  

Then she continued: “In Canada, you could just open your own private clinic and charge whatever you want.” To which we emphatically shook our heads in disagreement.  

“No,” said Sara, “the government pays doctors more, but it’s still a public system, so it’s free.”

The lady paused in confusion. “But…Canada is a developed country, isn’t it? Like the United States?”

“Public health care is part of being a developed country,” we explained. “The United States is developed in some ways, but many of its people can’t even afford things like healthy childbirth or necessary surgeries.”

The conversation meandered in other directions after that, but it was good for all three of us to see and deconstruct this spectrum that many perceive to be true: communist Cuba at one end, capitalist America at the other, and progress moving definitively in the direction of the latter. Especially as walls are brought down between these two neighbouring nations, it is essential that Cuba see this spectrum for what it is: a myth.

Lemons into lemonade: because of America’s embargo against Cuba, the only American cars in the country are from the 1950s).  Not only have they, through sheer ingenuity, kept these cars running for over half a century, they’ve turned them into a major tourist attraction.  Thanks, Yeridan, for hooking us up!

 

Move Over, Motoco!

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Going into this trip, we knew the first half was going to be a little hectic. Eastern Cuba has so many specific things to see and do, and we were determined to see and do them all before making our way to the more tranquil, schedule-free West. Sara’s already mentioned the chaotic scorching excitement of the city of Santiago, but even our rural venture into the Sierra Maestras had two clear objectives: the Comandancia de la Plata (the jungle hideaway from which the Castro brothers and Che built their revolution), and Pico Turquino (Cuba’s highest peak). The Comandancia was everything we hoped it would be: mysterious, inspiring, and basically untouched since it served its purpose nearly six decades ago. As far as hikes go it was nothing too challenging, thanks largely to the fact that the heavily armed guerillas who blindfold you and carry you through the jungle have now been replaced by nicely tended paths. The next morning, however, all that would change.

Full disclosure: We did not climb Cuba’s highest peak. The trail was closed which, as we were warned, was often the case. Our host, however, recommended a different peak, one which we could actually see right from our casa. He hooked us up with an energetic young guide named Alexi who was happy to accompany these two fit Canadians on a merry little stroll up Pico Gayón.

Our host’s recommended mountain top was one which we’d already appreciated from afar, as it stood benevolently over our casa.

Even fuller disclosure: There was nothing merry or little about it. I have previously said that Argentina’s Motoco was the most grueling experience my body has been subjected to, but after Gayón, I would get a job at the top of Motoco and make that my daily commute. Alternatively, I now have big plans (please hold me to this!!) to talk to my doctor about exercise-induced asthma. Or heat-induced asthma. Or humidity-induced asthma. Or using-venomous-plants-for-handholds-as-the-sun-chars-your-flesh-while-fire-ants-devour-your-feet-induced asthma. Any one of those really. Regardless, for some reason my heart and lungs decided at that moment to unionize and go on strike against me, while Sara and Alexi bounded up the mountain, apparently without any internal labor disputes

About a quarter of the way up, I look back at our progress and still have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

Sara and Alexi use a metal cable, anchored to the top of a near-vertical stretch of rock, to hoist themselves up.

This fairly accurately portrays my feelings for most of the ascent. #NoMakeUpSelfie

I do owe some major kudos to my two companions. Sara, with her trademark compassionate hard-assery, was immensely kind and encouraging whilst refusing to give into my requests that they go on without me (her responses to those requests gradually morphed from “Think of how disappointed you’ll be if you come all this way and don’t reach the top!” to “You gotta keep moving or the fire ants will literally kill you”, both of which were true and motivating in their own way). Alexi, meanwhile, maintained the patience of a saint for the entire trek, using all the time that I was lagging behind to discuss with Sara the fascinating ecology and geography of the region.

Alexi and Sara kindly waiting for me to catch my breath before continuing on.

Some of the beautiful local flora.

Finally, after hearing “We’re almost there” for an overly-generous number of times, Alexi and Sara disappeared completely from view and I heard Sara shout, in Spanish, “Only 2 kilometres left!” As my heart sunk, she added, “Just kidding! We’re standing on the summit!”

With the last of my energy, I hoisted myself over the last few fallen trees and finally came to a pleasantly breezy meadow with a literal old rugged cross marking the summit. Alexi was waiting with bananas and guava juice, and the 360° view of the infamous Sierra Maestras was indeed breathtaking.



The trek down was as treks down always are: physically easier, but more mentally challenging due to the constant reminder of how far you have to fall. Thankfully all our knees held out, and the worst injury was sustained by Sara, who took it like a champ.

A significant portion of Sara’s heel had grown quite close with her blister-bandaid, and thus decided to accompany it as she removed her socks after the hike.

As we reached the bottom, I thought there could be no physical sensation lovelier than level ground beneath my feet. Alexi managed to top that, however, by offering that we stop in at a neighbour’s place for coffee.

It turned out that this neighbour was, in fact, the farmer that owned the forest of coffee trees we had walked through at the beginning of the hike. As chickens clucked around us, he showed us his roasting pan (conveniently located next to a pot of boiled fish heads), ground the beans with a giant mortar & pestle, scooped the grounds into a homemade filter, and percolated the coffee on his wood stove. A few minutes later we were enjoying the freshest cup of java we could ever taste while listening to him explain the ins and outs of coffee farming.



So all’s well that ends well, I suppose, though my quads would fiercely disagree.

Fullest disclosure: Now that I’m fully recovered, I would actually quite like to do something like that again. Just don’t tell Sara, or she’ll find a way to actually make it happen before we head home.