Tag Archives: .SARA

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!

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

The Town That Rum Built

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Before coming to Cuba, it was my goal to somehow find a singular book that would finally make sense of Cuba’s long history. Our entire trip was irrevocably changed for the better when I stumbled upon Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: A Biography of a Cause. It’s a hefty piece of text (360-some pages), but I cannot more highly recommend this book for anyone travelling to, or even considering starting a conversation about, Cuba.

Every other book I tried to read picked up somewhere in the middle of the last Revolution, assuming that you were either already well aware of or simply didn’t care about the decades of revolution, culture, policy, and coups that had set the stage for La Revolución in which Cubans are currently living. Gjelten’s Bacardi, however, begins in the 1400s with a vivid description of Hatuey, the Tainó chief who refused to convert to Christianity and so was burned at the stake by colonial missionaries (and much later had the Bacardí beer named in his honour).

hatuey

Cerveceria

The book then traces the political history of Cuba to present day by following a single family, the Bacardís, who were intimately involved in every sphere of Cuban politics. It’s a work of history that reads like a novel, bringing revolutionary characters to life in a way that illuminates the heroic, the ugly, and the impossible choices at either extreme of the political spectrum. Above all, it illuminates the need for a third political space, for a blending of capitalistic competition and socialist community in order to bring the most success to all economic spheres of a country.

After both reading this book (and un gran aplauso for my notoriously slow reader of a husband who actually got it done before we left!), there was no doubt in our minds that our trip needed to begin in Santiago de Cuba, the original capital city of Cuba and the originating site of nearly every catalytical event in the Cuba we see today.

We arrived in Santiago after a 15-hour night bus, the first of many ridiculous travel days in and out of Santiago. We properly initiated ourselves to the city by spending our first afternoon at the Bacardi Museum, which, contrary to what its name suggests, is not a museum about rum (though don’t worry, there IS one of those just down the street!). Instead, it was the pet project of Emilio Bacardí in his role as mayor of Santiago, designed to bring a sense of civic pride and culture to his beloved city. The museum houses a lovely — if somewhat eclectic — collection of Spanish and Cuban art (including numerous sculptures by Mimin Bacardí), indigenous archeological artifacts, and our personal favourite: the Egyptian mummy that Emilio and his wife had specifically gone to Egypt to fetch (the book describes him as “having always wanted an Egyptian mummy…” because, well, don’t we all?), declaring it at customs as “dried meat.”

p1150252Upon arriving back in Santiago from Santo Domingo (read about that here & here), with quads screaming and a heel missing, we were out the door the next day by 10AM and didn’t stop walking until 6PM. Our first stop was the Cementario Santa Ifigenia, final resting place of illustrious figures such as the fallen of the 26 of July movement, los Bacardís, Compay Segundo, and José Martí, one of Cuba’s most inspired revolutionary voices.

Monument to José Martí, the Cuban national hero whose poetry united the Cuban people towards revolution and independence.

 

Crypt of Cespedes, the revolutionary land owner who freed his slaves in a move that ignited the Cuban war for independence against Spain
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Some very familiar names at this point in our travels
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We stopped for a moment of precious shade beneath a tree, where a friendly guard struck up a conversation with us, showing us around the graves, explaining the differences between “colectivo” graves of the poor and the “particular” crypts of rich families. He was a military veteran, having fought in Angola, and showed us his future spot in the colectivo wall of the Panteon de los Soldados.

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He then beckoned us over and showed us a tiny square in a vast concrete wall, one of thousands of colectivo cremated remains, but this one with a name and date hand-scrawled in black paint across the front. It was his brother’s grave, who had died suddenly only a year ago. His brother was one of the lucky ones with someone left who remembered to write his name. For all the famous graves contained in that beautiful place, that small grey square sitting on a weedy patch of parched grass at the back of the cemetery became the most sacred spot.

Burnt and thoughtful, we left el Cimentario and soon realized we were very close to another memorial of sorts: the former Bacardí distillery, nationalized in the sixties. From all my reading, I knew to keep looking past the giant red building now used as a national distillery, and across the railway tracks I suddenly glimpsed the familiar name on a concrete arch nearly worn away by years of scorching sun.

It was astounding to stand on the very spot where the former mayor of Santiago had built an empire in order to bring prosperity and stability to his beloved Cuba. Unfortunately, like most family empires (and like most revolutions!), there were some moments and characters that were more respectable than others in the Bacardí story. But as a whole, the Bacardís during the revolution era brought not only innovative business reform to Cuba on an international level, but also sweeping social reforms to their city and to business principles as a whole.

Frustratingly, the Bacardí-Castro story is one of so many “what ifs.” What if Castro had recognized that private business owners could also hold revolutionary socialists ideals, and allowed them more freedom in the day to day operations of their companies while still holding them to the cooperative ownership and accountability of the new revolution? What if the Bacardi empire had continued to focus on their passion for both an independant Cuba and a successful rum company, rather than allowing their energies to be completely consumed by taking down Castro at any cost? Driven by petty personal loss (because let’s be clear: the financial “losses” garnered by the Bacardi empire after the Revolucion still allowed the family members villas in Spain as well as mansions in Flordia – not exactly a crushing financial collapse), the Bacardí family chose to support a Republican party whose policy included bringing Cuba back under American control: the very thing that both the Bacardí family and the Revolución spent their lives fighting against.

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Santiago de Cuba is a hot and crowded city, crowded with generations of individual memories bristling against the collective shape of the city’s place in national history. It is an important and fascinating city, but also an exhausting one. There seems to be no place to rest, no tranquilo corner where one can be refreshed and filled with a new sense of impudence to face another day. It was in search of this rest that Josh and I packed our bags, apologized to our defeated feet, and sleepily went to station to wait out our bus to Baracoa.

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First Impressions 

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We arrived in Cuba after a seemingly impossibly short flight… well, an impossibly short flight preceded by a classic Josh and Sara route involving a 16 hour road trip with our roommates to the Traverse City Film Festival, a Real Madrid vs. Chelsea football match in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some intense archery and cake auctions and Gravitron shenanigans with Josh’s siblings at the Alma County Fair, and a quick road trip to Toronto with my wonderful mother in law.

Pasties in the Yoopee
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Josh and his mom… alias the Pres-B-Rapperz (please, please ask Josh for a repeat performance!)
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¡Hola Cuba!
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With our only direct flight option being to fly into Varadero, our plan was to arrive there at 1:30PM and get out of there as fast as possible. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of opinions surrounding Cuba, and we were no exception. We had placed Varadero firmly into the category of tourist kitsch, brimming with resorts, overpriced key chains, and restaurants proudly advertising English-speaking servers. However, the vagaries of buying Cuban bus tickets online meant that the only bus that would bring us directly to Santiago de Cuba had us spending the next nine hours in Kitschityville Horror.

Resigned to our fate, we found a friendly Swiss guy to share a cab to the bus station from the airport (he was actually on his way to visit a friend in Vancouver, but as a flight with a 12 hour layover in Cuba was the same price, he had decided to hang out in Cuba for the day), found a guarda-equipaje for our bags (in other words, for $2CUC, we stood them behind the chair of friendly cleaning lady in the bus station), and then we ventured onto the streets of Varadero…

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…And two blocks behind the bus station, found the most glorious white sand beach, sprinkled with only a few sunbathing bodies and a generous serving of reggaeton. Up the street from the water was a neighbourhood dotted with restaurants, where we received our inauguration to Cuba’s frustratingly charming habit of handing you a hefty menu while rapidly reciting the few choices that are actually available. (Side note: My favourite game while dining is now witnessing Josh’s unfailing optimism/denial* as he asks about a different dish that the waiter didn’t mention but perhaps may still be available, and then watching both the waiter’s and Josh’s faces fall into bemusement as the available menu options are repeated.)

Our unexpected welcome to Varadero
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Our resolve to consume only bottled water products lasted exactly how long it took us to realize that all cocktails contained ice cubes. So far, so good! 😉
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Ron de 3 años y Añejo de 7 años. 0.70 cents and $1.20 respectively
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While “No hay!” (We don’t have it!) is indeed ubiquitous in Cuban restaurants, the promises of apathetic service and bland food simply do not deliver. Avocados, spiced tomatoes, tender beef, fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and of course, the classic (and classically named) rice-and-bean dish “Cristianos y Moros” — literally Christians and Muslims — are served in huge quantities by generally smiling waitstaff

So what have we gathered so far? That some sections of Varadero are undeniably kitschy and removed from Cuban reality, while others are definitely not. That some food and certain sabores are lacking in Cuban restaurants, while others are most definitely not. And that some Cubans work in jobs they are not suited for and could care less about, while others (…following me yet?) definitely do not.

When there is a single and controversial political ideal that unites a country, it can be tempting to assign all responsibility for the small faults and annoyances in a country to that ideal. But with excruciating honesty, we admit that in our own country there is merchandise that is occasionally unavailable (I worked at Blockbuster on Friday nights, I saw the madness that ensued when we were out of Little Man!) and service that is occasionally the absolute worst (anyone else remember the terrifying Sub Zero lady?)

Yes, la Revolución has caused some difficulties, as further days of travel and future blog posts will uncover. But in our first few hours in Cuba, we happily discovered that first impressions can make a big impression on unfounded opinions.

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*Editor’s note: While Sara has indeed derived much entertainment from my interaction with waitstaff, optimism/denial are not entirely accurate. Example 1: when you order pizza on the side of the road and the guy asks “cheese?”, it is not unreasonable to ask “oh, what else is there?” If he had simply said “cheese” — full stop — I would have accepted that that was the singular option and that, for some reason, he felt the need to state that. Example 2: when the waitress takes your order for pork, then asks if you want rice with a side of pork, I can not be alone in thinking that clarification is needed, amiright??**

**(Turns out no clarification was needed. I was, in fact, being offered pork with a side of rice and pork.)

Collision 

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After finishing my official month at the hospital, I stayed on in Tuxtla for another ten days with my family, enjoying the freedom to sleep in, help out around the house, and await Josh’s arrival in Chiapas. After nearly five weeks of living on my own, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the thought of living as a couple once again. My time alone in Tuxtla had taught me an incredible amount about myself that I simply would not have learned in the same way if I was traveling with someone else. From the seemingly mundane (but for me, actually quite revolutionary!) lesson of learning to appreciate and even enjoy technology, to the possibly life-altering opportunity of being forced to work in both the ER and Pediatrics, to the maddeningly frustrating yet impossibly proud moments of having to depend solely on my own Spanish skills for communication, to the terrifying yet indescribably rewarding moments of having to depend solely on my own social skills for friendship… Because of experiences like these, I’ve always found it incredibly valuable to spend some time apart from each other, continuing to build our individual lives, and then also adding all the new lessons and challenges learned as individuals to our shared married life.

But as amazing as travelling alone can be, and as amazing as married life can be, the truth is that the transition between the two can be tricky. However, the Tuxtlayork crew were incredible (as they tend to be) at immediately welcoming Josh into our group and planning a week full of activities to show off our beloved Chiapas. As the experienced Chiapeneca, I got to play hostess to Josh, instructing him in the art of combi-riding, introducing him to the wonders of the Cañón del Sumidero, and ensuring that he was well-versed in the flavours of Tuxtla, including my favourites of michelada and tascalate. With Tuxtlayork, we returned to Sancris for a final weekend, and from Sancris, left on a twelve-hour round trip to seek out some of Chiapas’ maravillas:

Sancris 4.0: Columbian arepas, Mercado de dulces, & Maya Vinic fairtrade coffee!
Arepas!!
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Yes, that’s a chingón of souvenirs!
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Las cascadas de Agua Azul
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Misol-Ha (where Josh beat us back to the bus by swimming across, rather than walking):
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Palenque: site of Mayan King Pakal’s legendary reign
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Site of torture and subsequent decapitation of criminals (yep, the torture seems gratuitous)
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With all our exchanges coming to an end around the same time, our final few days in Tuxtla were a blur of goodbye dinners and tearful hugs. We kept each other positive by talking about next summer – Sandra was going into her final year of medicine, so we decided a combination celebration/reunion was absolutely essential. The only question remaining is in which country it will be held!

Jammin’ … classic setlist of Radiohead, Romeo Santos, Fall Out Boy, and Heathen Eve originals
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Despedida 1.0 😦
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Marimba lessons from the experts
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Beautiful farewell dinner (complete with Mexican sushi!) with our host families
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Far sooner than I was ready for, it was our turn to be dropped off at the Tuxtla airport to catch our flight to Cancún and continue the next leg of our Mexican adventure. Thankfully, the airport was tiny enough that we could disregard all the PASSENGERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT warnings, and Valeria and Valeria escorted us with besos and a running photo-documentary all the way to the security checkpoint… at which point our final hugs were supervised by armed guards and the Valerias were then escorted back to the waiting area.

Despedida 2.0 😦 😦
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No es un adiós, es solamente un ¡Hasta pronto! a mi querida Chiapas.
And for the moment, es un ¡Hola! a Quintana Roo

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