Editor's note: Ted Kunz, our “Two-Wheeled Wanderer,” is back from Africa and contemplating his next move. But in the meantime, he’s digging through some past adventures in a series we're calling: “Wanderer Flashbacks.”
In his first blast from the past, Ted flashes back to April 2016, and a hike around a seaside city called Baracoa, located in "the revolutionary hinterlands of far eastern Cuba."
And, as with all of Ted's "Two-wheeled Wanderer Dispatches," the new missives continue to arrive via Ted's "beat-up" Apple iPhone 6.
“Those who control the mountains control Cuba.”
Who said it first, I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. Like many such sayings, that one is partly lore, partly reality.
Before anyone outside of Iberia ever heard of a place called Cuba, it was the cave-dwelling indigenous people who controlled the mountains, and thus, the island.
A brief history lesson
Then came imperial Spain, initially Columbus and Co. A flotilla of three ships, out searching for a shortcut to the riches of the East Indies was, essentially, lost. They bumped into the outer reaches of an entire continent, heretofore unknown to Europeans, and are believed to have briefly touched the eastern tip of the island.
People landed and settled. They gave it the name, “Cuba,” likely borrowed from the name of a tiny town in southern Portugal. There on that far eastern Cuban shore lies an enchanted bay, at the foot of some steep mountains. Today, this hamlet is a vibrant community called Baracoa.
Chief Hatuey — fact or legend?
In was near this enchanted bay where later Spanish missions began to settle in the early 16th century. As the “job creators” put down roots, the indigenous Cubans began to see the Spaniards less like mysterious friends and more like mischievous thieves. Led by their chief, Hatuey, the natives formed a rebellion.
These stories rarely end well. His warriors swiftly decimated, Chief Hatuey would be tied to a stake, firewood stacked at his feet. The conquerors gave Hatuey one last chance to accept Christ and thus go to heaven.
“Are there Spaniards in heaven?” Hatuey asked.
“Heaven is full of Spaniards!” came the response.
“Then I refuse. Send me to hell!”
Without delay, and with the clergy looking on, the crusaders lit the tinder at Hatuey’s feet.
Street-smart readers might feel a healthy skepticism about the truth in this narrative. As I see it, it’s no matter if this is historical reality or just old-fashioned lore: If the idea is widely believed, and sincerely held in the heart, then it is, like many useful delusions, as powerful as anything that could be called truth.
It’s definitely true in substance, if not in specifics. Through some mix of violence and disease, the Natives on Cuba were exterminated by the Spanish. To the best of my knowledge, there are no indigenous bloodlines remaining in Cuba today. Those disappeared Natives would be replaced by plantation labor shipped in from Africa on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today, around two-thirds of Cubans have African roots.
It is said that a person never dies if her ideas live on. The legend of Chief Hatuey lives on in many Cuban hearts. What underdog hasn’t deeply felt the “David and Goliath” inspiration of resistance to overwhelming power?
Getting to Baracoa
At this stage, I’m in my fourth month exploring Cuba. Feeling right at home, I go wherever I want, at any time I want.
Except to the ATMs. U.S. banks block Cuba. Well aware, I arrived on a sailboat carrying a fistful of Euros in each of my socks. Euros, because dollars are discounted 10% in Cuba. When I need it, I trade my Euros for Cuban pesos and Cuban Convertible pesos, the latter being the hard tourist currency.
Aboard a slow bus, passing fields of tobacco and sugarcane, I make my way eastward to the Oriente, or the “East,” to arrive in Santiago. At around 1.2 million inhabitants, Santiago is Cuba's second metropolis after Havana. The busy port city sits at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. Those mythical mountains, standing sentinel on the western horizon, were the bastion of the revolution. Up there, hidden in dense forest, is the place where Fidel Castro, Raúl, and a scrappy band of guerrilla soldiers made a rebel base of operations. Joining them was Ernesto Guevara, an Argentine physician turned motorcycle diarist turned radical anti-imperialist. Famously, the Castro brothers nicknamed him “Che.” The image of Che’s face is among the most recognized on earth, and around here, it is ubiquitous.
From Santiago there is only one more province to explore, the only one (of 15) I don't yet know: Guantánamo. Like U.S. states, each Cuban province has a distinct personality. Discovering and savoring them, slowly, is a pure pleasure. Baracoa, Guantánamo, which I understand to be the most beautiful place anywhere, lies nearly on the furthest eastern point, my ultimate destination.
I board a collective taxi for a 150-mile drive from Santiago to Baracoa. Riding shotgun a lime green 1946 sedan with suicide doors, in the plush backseat is a lone Argentine woman and a handsome couple from France. Our driver, Vladimir, is a tall, lean Black gent, this chauffeur gig is his side hustle. Normally, he’s a Russian language teacher. He seems to remember everyone’s name except mine. He just calls me “America,” with a big toothy smile.
Americans are a novelty in Cuba. When we visit, which is as rare as it is brief, we typically arrive into Havana, tiptoe around, then maybe hit a beach scene. Just as fast, we turn tail and dash straight back to our careers.
Out here in the eastern hinterlands, in contrast, my presence makes me an especially novel “Norteamericano.” Every time a Cuban hears my goofy “John-Wayne-speaking-Spanish” accent, and asks where I'm from, and then hears my answer, they pause and look me over. Deep in my eyes, oftentimes.
We drive along, this big steel boat swaying in the curves, passing through the city of Guantánamo, the capital of the province itself. Horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and cyclists galore, the traffic is an even split of pre-1959 American steel, compact Soviet sedans, and modern European and Chinese models. Our ride, this beloved old Ford, is well maintained and surely retrofitted with a Russian- or Chinese-supplied engine.
Chugging up a good hill, off to my right I can see the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. It isn’t imposing from afar. Rather incredible to think that U.S. forces and Cuban forces sat on either side of that ordinary ground, heavy guns pointing at each other at all hours for 50+ years, one part terror and ten thousand parts boredom.
I can’t help but recall that dramatic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” where Jack Nicholson (playing Colonel Jessup) gives his powerful, fiery discourse about “standing on that wall” and how we “can’t handle the truth.”
Put up a wall, and suddenly grown men are stricken with angst about who’s on the other side of that wall.
We descend the other side of that gentle hill and now we’re on a paved road along the most incredible stretch of totally uninhabited coastline. Ocean waters chopping at the rocky shore to my right, tall mountains to my left, deep blue skies and a stiff, tropical ocean breeze powers through our open windows. This very well could be the most glorious stretch of seaside I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some.
Up and up
We begin to ascend yet again. This time, it’s truly steep and winding. In places, almost treacherous, a remarkable feat of highway engineering. Before the 1959 Revolution, there was no road to the far eastern village of Baracoa. In 1961, under the supervision of the “Heroic Guerrilla” and new Minister of Industry, Che Guevara, road construction began, part of Fidel’s plan to redistribute resources from Havana, a highly overdeveloped, mafia-run capital city, into rural infrastructure including factories, roads, schools, and hospitals.
Over the summit, our driver slows the old jitney to a stop. It’s an opportunity for artisans of various crafts and sundry to push their wares. And push, they do. One clutches chocolate bars; she presses her fist gently into my shoulder and holds it there. Maybe out of shame, I buy one. It’s tasty. I offer Vladimir, our driver, a chunk. He passes. “I’ve eaten too many. I’m sick of the chocolate.”
Later I would learn that there is an abundance of cacao in this region. Guevara, in his rural development role, would order the construction of a chocolate factory in Baracoa. Safe to say, the locals have chowed an awful lot from "Che’s Chocolate Factory."
Brakes squealing down the backside, a Cuban biker gang follows us into Baracoa. They’re roaring in on hodgepodge bikes, all sporting black leather biker vests plastered with local patches. “Live to Ride, Ride to Live," is a motorcyclist’s mantra, no matter the local ideology.
I arrive in paradise, a city of maybe 100,000 built on a glorious seafront. A mix of Spanish colonial architecture and drab, Soviet-style apartment blocks. I walk the length of the malecón, then on narrow city streets. There’s a comfortable plaza with the classic Catholic church facing the square, the basic Spanish blueprint for virtually every town in Latin America. Neatly trimmed bushes and trees, the post office off to the side, a few blocks of bustling pedestrian sidewalks, pizza vendors standing next to their fire ovens built on a cart. A convenience store sells a simple mix of stuff, including soft drinks and Cristal, Bucanero, Mayabe, and Cacique beers by the can.
There is virtually no advertising in Cuba. In its place, there are a lot of revolutionary images and slogans.
Some of those slogans have a way of getting inside the heart. “All the wealth in the world isn’t as valuable as knowing your neighbors,” for one.
Small scale business for private accounts are taking hold. Women mix the most delightful smoothies — strawberry, guava, banana, papaya. Young men cut hair on their porch; the scene doubles as a meeting place for dudes.
Not far off, I find a “casa particular,” or a resident home offering rooms for around $35 a night. The owner keeps a large book with a precise record of guests, including my passport number. The proprietors split the revenue with the government.
That night, I’m off to the Casa de la Trova. Among countless other passions, Cubans can definitely do music. A brass and percussion band plays the classic “Guajira Guantánamera,” that heart-swelling number about a crush on a pretty peasant girl from Guantánamo.
A good mix of drinks on offer, and of course that sweet Cuban rum, mixed as a mojito if you please. The party extends into the streets. Charismatic Cuban men make a gentlemanly pass at all the visiting women. My date, Paola from Argentina, is popular. She shares a salsa (or is that a tango?) with a few handsome players, while I get a welcome break.
It seems everyone is out tonight, dripping with sweat and conviviality. And what else? There’s no cable TV at home. No screeching monkeys on 24-hour talk news. No forever shopping. No bottomless internet.
One morning, early, I head out for a hike. No exact route, just in the direction of the dominant peak on the horizon. The heaping mound is called “El Yunque,” or “The Anvil,” for its steep slopes and square top.
On a smooth country road, El Yunque still well in the distance, an old tractor chugs past, then stops just ahead. People climb up and hop in the high-walled trailer. Why not? I climb in, too.
We pass other pedestrians. Fit men in white Guayabera shirts wave as we chug by, those four front square pockets symmetrically spaced and stitched. Wearing shabby clothes and with my mother’s Mediterranean features, I don’t really stand out. Watch my kinesthetics, though, or notice my straight white teeth, or hear my broken Spanish, and it’s obvious I’m not from these parts.
“Donde eres?” they ask. Where am I from? I tell them I’m a “Yanqui.” Some have never seen a real “Norteamericano” before. They get excited to see me.
The tractor comes to a junction and prepares a turn away from El Yunque. I shout for a stop. Hopping down, I pass the driver some cash, a 3 peso note with the face of Che Guevara on the front. It’s worth about 15 U.S. cents, or about enough for one tasty ice cream cone.
Walking again on dirt, a thick jungle on both sides, a little lost, I come to a shack. A compact, intense, yet friendly gray-haired man makes eye contact. The next thing I know, Hector invites me in for a coffee, where I meet his petite wife, Haydee.
Suddenly it’s like a Cuban version of those corny old movies. Out in the hills, a traveler stumbles upon a farmhouse. The old farmer and his wife invite him in. Then, much to the weary traveler’s surprise and delight, the farmer's daughter steps out, dressed in her Daisy Dukes.
It was exactly that. Linda has an easy smile and is athletic, a competitive fencer, no less. “Guajira Guantánamera,” indeed.
They talk me into a hike and a picnic lunch. Hector pulls out a gunny sack, we fill it with pots, pans, and metal utensils; guava, yucca plant, and a portion of pork. He furls up the opening and hoists the big sack over his shoulder. On our way out we pass a store. I grab a six pack of Cacique beer. The name is Spanish for “Chief.” Chief Hatuey, to be sure.
While we hike, I learn that Hector shines shoes in Baracoa to supplement his retirement pension. He’s retired military. With a wild look in his eye, ebullience and enthusiasm, he proudly tells me he was trained in “cohetes.” I have to think for a minute. That’s not an everyday Spanish word.
It hits me. “Cohetes” means “rockets.”
I don’t know what to say. In my best Spanish, I say the same thing I often say to military veterans.
“Thank you for your service.”
I am not convinced evil exists as some dark force, but if it does, it might think of itself as good.
The four of us hike up a steep hill. On top, a mountain shack in a meadow, the image of Che stenciled on the front door, like a Christmas wreath. Inside, a dirt floor. Two women, cousins of Linda, both also in bikini tops and Daisy Dukes, seemingly oblivious to their own magnetism.
We make our way downhill to a secluded stretch of jungle on a river. Smooth rocks on the shore, we build a fire and Haydee begins cooking. We swim. We frolic. We climb out on a long branch and dive into a deep pool, over and over again.
On a giant green leaf, lunch is served. Other than our crushed beer cans, there are no disposable items in our picnic. None of the jobs that come with making that stuff, either.
After lunch, hiking out, we come to a junction. I’ve still got El Yunque on my brain. I promise to meet my new friends again. After slipping Hector a wad of Cuban cash, I trek another few miles towards the base of the flat-topped peak.
I can’t find a trailhead. A shy guy clad in long jean shorts, golf shirt, knee-high socks, and leather loafers is standing there along the road. Pointing towards Yunque, I ask, “Which way to the summit?”
Next thing I know, I've agreed to give him five Convertible Pesos, or a little less than five bucks, and he's guiding me up the severe climb at an absolute breakneck speed.
I’m certainly not in great shape at this point in my life, but when it comes to hiking uphill, I'm no slouch. I relish the burn. I've got adolescent fantasies running in my head. I'm charging up the mountain, filled with the love of the most devoted soldier, headed to rescue peasant fighters.
“And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.”
True love of the underdog. I’m straining to keep up with this man! I can’t hear him breathing. I can’t see his face. I can’t believe the ease with which he is dropping the hammer. And the sickle!
Olympic medal count is one metric for measuring a country’s prosperity. Adjusting for its 11 million people, Cuba’s medal count is often on par with the U.S.A., per capita. Adjust that figure for economic resources, and Cuba wins the Summer Olympics more often than we’d like to think.
I’m saying these people are structurally tougher than us. I’ve had too much of the good life. Too many whoppers. The reminder is hitting me hard. This hurts.
Maybe an hour later, we hit the summit. My clothes are soaked. I'm dizzy, gasping, pounding a two-liter water bottle.
My shy, humble guide? He's calmly smoking a cigarette. Never even took a sip of water. He's just taking in the view. Standing there in his leather loafers, quietly showing the American how the guerrilla spirit cannot be beat, who still controls the mountains, and just how Cuba, the bastion of imperial resistance, remains Cuba.
In next month's Flashback, Ted takes us back to the spring of 2012. Exploring the rugged backcountry of Bolivia, he is humbled after a major motorcycle mishap. In search of medical care, villagers step up to assist as he struggles to ride out of the Amazon basin and over the spine of the Andes to La Paz, the world’s highest capital city.