Classic old-timer
Classic old-timer

One of the most popular dishes in Cuba is pan con hamburguesa, which in other words, is kind of a hamburger.  The preparation process involves making it ready first and then heating the entire thing in the toaster, in a way that the meat always stays cold, almost as if it was taken from a refrigerator. It just so happens that the service in state-owned companies (meaning almost all of them) is extremely slow and rarely of high quality.

Chilling on a rooftop
Chilling on a rooftop
Pedro trying very special, home-made juice
Pedro trying very special, home-made juice

I seriously admire the undisturbed peace, even if it’s five minutes till the end of the world, a saleswoman would keep cutting bread always in the same, careful and slow manner, cut each of the following ten sandwiches, one after another. Then apply some cheese resembling cottage cheese and leave it in the toaster for a few minutes, making sure nothing gets burned, she would wait until the cheese is boiling. After this sequence is completed, she would proceed to the preparation of the next sandwich.

Rum & cigars, everywhere
Rum & cigars, everywhere

Diablo helping us out
Diablo helping us out

Hershey is a former industrial giant and here is an abandoned cane sugar factory. Back in the days, more than 3000 people worked here with the production. The plant was built in the 20’s and had been operating efficiently and profitably selling sugar to the United States – where it was used in the production of Coca-Cola. As you can guess there was a decline of plant’s glory at the start of the Cuban revolution in the 59 ‘.

It has been turned into train repair yard and some buildings were adapted to produce ceramic tiles. In order to save the business some other utopian business plans had been drawn, such as creation of waste paper processing factory. A group of Polish people have even designed required buildings, the building even have been built! What’s so strange about that? Well, the problem is there is no paper waste on Cuba! In order to facilitate production, it ought to be imported by ships and then brought by trucks to the factory, which creates more work than effects.

We leave the factory. Moments later another bike breaks down. Accidentally, a passing-by cyclist turns out to be a professional athlete and bicycle mechanic at the same time. We get to know Luis “Diablo” Gil , one of the leading road bike riders on the island. He actively participates in the annual rally Vuelta a Cuba and his training schedule involves cycling 120-160 km each day. Impressive. He is a very open and easy-going guy, so we quickly make friends.

Colorful cars, everywhere on CubaColorful cars, everywhere on Cuba

Diablo tries to be honest with us and gives our Cuban bikes a tiny bit of chance to finish the entire route. Looking at him struggling as he replaces spokes, tightens slack parts and uses the fundamental repair instrument – a hammer – I start to believe it might be true. At this point one thought appears in our heads for the first time: depending on the condition of bicycles we might need to come up with alternative scenarios rather than only cycling.

We give our bikes a little rest today, so we decide to take train to cover one stage of our journey. While waiting at the station there is a train service unit stopping-by. I enter it to explore the interior. There is a crew of four train mechanics and one lady serving as a cook. She skillfully handles red-hot pieces of metal and runs the dishes in a mobile stove on the rails.

The service carriage

The service carriage

Nice day for cycling

Nice day for cycling

Our train pulls up. We manage to convince the conductor to pay for the tickets using local Cuban fare. It is a success in Spanish negotiations. We load the bikes onto the train taking us from Hershey to Matanzas. During the few hours’ drive at the terrifying speeds topping 40km/h, we make about 70 stops. Along the way, there are horse saddle traders, a guy with eight bags of mandarins and uniformly dressed students, all of them getting on and off.

At the train we get to know an elderly man named Roberto Ruesco, a retired teacher of history, theology, and philosophy. He invites us to his house. On-site we service our bikes, organize bags and Roberto encourages us to refresh and take a shower. In the bathroom I find a heater connected with bare, uninsulated wires to the flowing water. It would not be so surprising if it hadn’t been for his insisting on us undressing in front of the bathroom. Weird guy! We manage to avoid the suspicious situation and having already bathed we decide to e-va-cu-ate! A Pedro sums it up “let’s get out of here, this place it starts to be a complete Matanzas!” (whatever that meant at the time, ever since a word ‘Matanzas‘ became a synonym of weird situations going on)

Abandoned property

Abandoned property

Sandwitches with meat, premium food

Sandwitches with meat, premium food

On the way out we stop at the state-owned pizzeria. A crowd of people gathers around and with lots of noise going on a waitress at some point loses her patience. She removes all the items containing the word “pizza” in the name from the wooden menu and states that “today there will be no more pizza”. When the crowd disappears, I ask again if the pizza is “really gone“. The waitress smiles and somehow manages to take our orders “over the counter”.

Street bars also tend to be special, particularly those referred to as “3rd category state bar“. Sometimes, a waitress and a manager would open a bar then after an hour it turns out that the bar is closed – because there is nothing for sale. In another case, the supply is rarely more than tobacco and rum. Occasionally they serve beer or mysterious red drink in a plastic container, often sealed with blue wax seal to the wall. No joke.

Main railway linking Havana with other major cities

Main railway linking Havana with other major cities

This bar has plenty of menu items

This bar has plenty of menu items

Sitting at the bar right next to me there is a customer with a machete in his hand. I look outside and there’s a group of men grilling something resembling a dog, or a very, very skinny pig. An interesting fact is that when a Cuban farmer kills one of his cows, he might be sentenced for 20-30 years in prison. Not much less punishment is for those in possession of a black market beef. The Fidel’s policy is to ensure a sufficient supply of milk, thus the government would control the number of cows pasturing on meadows. Nevertheless, they do eat beef on Cuba. Cows are slaughtered under the state’s supervision. Fidel ensures that everyone has access to education, rum, cigars… and milk.

Our Cuban adventure gradually turns into experiencing the country through meetings with various bike mechanics. There are constant problems with bikes, for instance, this time the wheel is completely decentered.

I try to find another bike repair shop. There is a welcoming and friendly guy inviting me to his house. His daughter sits on the couch and watches cartoons, a young lady of the house serves freshly brewed coffee in the meantime and our conversation is constantly interrupted by parrot screaming aloud. And I think to myself, how can you not love this country?

Rationed rice has arrived

Rationed rice has arrived

Bikes under constant repair

Bikes under constant repair