Ped­alling Rev­o­lu­tion in Cuba

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Me­lanie Cham­bers

On the trail of a guer­rilla with a flower be­hind her ear, two women find ad­ven­ture and un­avoid­able ac­tivism

The Caribbean is­land is a beau­ti­ful, but chal­leng­ing place to ride. There’s a scarcity of sup­plies, rough roads and machismo. These chal­lenges can be over­come.

We were two women cy­cling alone through the south­ern tip of Cuba. From the amount of at­ten­tion we were get­ting, we might as well have been dogs danc­ing on our hind legs. Shock or sur­prise? Some­times we got sup­port, some­times it was some­thing else. “What did he say?” I asked. “You don’t want to know,” she replied. But I knew any­way what he meant – that machismo is the same in any lan­guage. I thought it might be dif­fer­ent here. Af­ter all, I was drawn to Cuba be­cause of Celia Sánchez, a revo­lu­tion­ary

hero who fought along­side Fidel Cas­tro. Af­ter read­ing Sánchez’s bi­og­ra­phy, One day in de­cem­ber: celiasánchez and the cuban rev­o­lu­tion, I be­came en­thralled with the woman Cubans say was made of iron and honey. Strong, yet com­pas­sion­ate.

As a life­time cy­clist and trav­eller, I iden­tify with this. In 1996, when plan­ning my first over­seas trip to Europe, I de­cided to cy­cle from Am­s­ter­dam to Spain. When friends said a woman on a bike was a tar­get, I scoffed. I could take care of my­self. I would see Europe the way I wanted to see Europe: on a bike, alone.

On that trip, I re­mem­ber sit­ting in my sweaty bike gear at a café in Vigo, Spain. I stood out. Maria, a lo­cal, rec­og­nized this and in­vited me into her home that night to stay with her fam­ily. She saw, and ad­mired, what I was slowly dis­cov­er­ing: that a woman on a bike can be just as re­silient, strong and in­de­pen­dent as a man.

It was never my in­ten­tion to cham­pion women’s rights when I be­came a travel writer. But the more I trav­elled with my bike and the more Marias I in­spired, the more I met women who in­spired me. I also like to think some men, those who think this isn’t my place, might see women dif­fer­ently, but I’ll never know for cer­tain. In this re­spect, I un­wit­tingly be­came a women’s rights ad­vo­cate from my sad­dle, tac­itly send­ing the mes­sage that I could do this all by my­self, on my own terms, with­out any­one’s per­mis­sion. I won­der if Sánchez felt this way. She was never just a woman: she wouldn’t al­low her­self to be de­fined by gen­der. She was many things. “The Mother of All Cubans” fought with aplomb and style, hid­ing mes­sages in a but­ter­fly jas­mine, the na­tional flower, be­hind her ear, fak­ing preg­nancy to ac­cess check­points and re­cruit­ing Cubans to bat­tle in one of the most pun­ish­ing en­vi­ron­ments on the is­land, her home and the head­quar­ters of the rebels, the Sierra Maes­tra.

Peo­ple said I was crazy to ride these moun­tains: “You know how steep it is, right? How hot?” The strate­gic jun­gle lo­ca­tion of the rebels’ head­quar­ters is also one of the least-vis­ited ar­eas of the coun­try. It’s cer­tainly not the all-in­clu­sive ex­pe­ri­ence of most trav­ellers, but this is what I wanted. And, from a bike, I felt more con­nected to the place and, of course, Sánchez.

My tim­ing, in Fe­bru­ary, didn’t co­in­cide with a Celia Sánchez tour run by Cana­dian-owned Can­bicuba, so I hired one of the com­pany’s guides, Airelis Gomez. Our 400-km route be­gan in Santiago de Cuba, the coun­try’s sec­ond-largest city, where Cas­tro an­nounced from a bal­cony in the main square the vic­tory of the rebel army over the Ful­gen­cio Batista-led regime. We’d fol­low the Caribbean Sea along­side the south­west coast of Cuba through towns such as Me­dia Luna, where Celia was born, Pico Turquino, the coun­try’s high­est peak and lo­ca­tion of the rebel head­quar­ters, and Pilon, her child­hood home.

I picked up Gomez, 31, in Las Tu­nas. Her long, painted nails and thinly shaped eye­brows epit­o­mized the look of most Cuban women, es­pe­cially Sánchez, known for wear­ing gi­ant hoop ear­rings and ac­ces­sories with her fa­tigues. (No woman should have to sac­ri­fice style for func­tion.) Once Gomez got to know me, she made me prom­ise I would pluck my scrubby eye­brows.

Grow­ing up in the coun­try­side, Gomez learned about Sánchez in school. “Celia. Fidel, Che, Frank, Camilo – we learned about them all. She was fight­ing for the right things and for putting a woman in a place be­side a man. It’s not ev­ery day you see a woman fight­ing as she did,” Gomez said.

Gomez’s fa­ther en­cour­aged her to ride. She won sil­ver in a grade school level 20-km scratch race three years in a row. At 15, she was only one of three women on her school team – her sis­ter was on the na­tional team.

”She was known for wear­ing gi­ant hoop ear­rings and ac­ces­sories with her fa­tigues. (No woman should have to sac­ri­fice style for func­tion.) “

Sánchez’s fa­ther was also her men­tor; when he first dis­cov­ered she was hold­ing se­cret rebel meet­ings, he gave her his mono­grammed ri­fle. Cubans say he raised his daugh­ter like a man.

For me, my step­fa­ther was the first per­son to tell me a woman could do any­thing a man could do. He also gave me a book about a Cana­dian woman who vol­un­teered in Belize to help save jaguars. She cy­cled ev­ery day af­ter work as rid­ing kept her grounded. Then, while liv­ing there, she con­ceived of a cy­cling fundraiser. I re­mem­ber think­ing, at 20 years old, you can re­ally do that stuff?

And so, with in­spi­ra­tion from the jaguar lady and oth­ers like her, I wrote my own nar­ra­tive. Never want­ing to be tied down by a house, or things, I did want to see the world on a bike. Travel writ­ing by bike be­came my ca­reer.

Gomez was ter­ri­fied about lead­ing our voy­age. It was her first solo-guid­ing trip. Get­ting stopped by the poli­cia be­fore we even be­gan prob­a­bly didn’t abate her anx­i­ety. Af­ter we ped­alled out of Santiago de Cuba, through the filthy, gritty black ex­haust from pre­rev­o­lu­tion Chevys and Fords, a cop stopped us for cross­ing the road in the wrong spot.

He asked Gomez for ID, looked her up and down and then turned his eyes to me. Scan­ning my legs, bike and face, his gaze was fa­mil­iar. Anger started to build inside my chest, but get­ting scrappy with a cop wouldn’t have got­ten us out

”A cop stopped us for cross­ing the road in the wrong spot. “

of that one. So, I did what I know would. I smiled de­murely. At this, I could feel the power shift. He won. He gained con­trol. Why did it have to hap­pen like that, still?

With a ges­ture, he let us go. Ped­alling un­til my legs be­gan to hurt helped to work off the frus­tra­tion.

As we left the city, the build­ings changed to tall golden grass and stalks of corn and re­minders of Sánchez: a school named af­ter her, fol­lowed by bill­boards. Heroinas de­la­p­a­tri­ayl arev­olu­cion, said one, with enor­mous faces of Celia and Vilma, Raul Cas­tro’s wife.

We ar­rived in Galleons, our first stop on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. We men­tioned to the host, the mother of the fam­ily-run home­s­tay (like a B&B, called cas­apartic­u­lar), that we’re here for Celia. “Unomo­mento…” she ran across the street and re­turned with an­other woman. The lo­cal li­brar­ian car­ried a pic­ture of Sánchez. In the photo, Sanchez’s hair was braided and wrapped around her head, like a Ro­man god­dess. “She in­tro­duced women to the fight,” said Dalvis Reyes Cobas. Iron and honey. For the rest of the evening, Cobas shared her sto­ries of Sanchez, and the group of women lis­tened in­tently.

The same hap­pened again at the casa the next night in Marea del Por­tillo, far­ther along the coast. “Can you tell me about Celia?” I asked the owner. She too ran inside her house and grabbed a pic­ture of her­self as a teenager stand­ing next to Cas­tro. She worked at the nearby ho­tel that Sanchez helped build for Cuban farm­ers. “It was meant as a place for farm­ers to rest. She fought for the rights of farm­ers, labour­ers, women and chil­dren,” she says. Three years af­ter Celia died, it be­came a tourist-only re­sort.

On Day 3, we con­fronted the Maes­tra Moun­tains where horses and bug­gies sub­sti­tuted for cars. Our hy­brid bi­cy­cles, laden with pan­niers, bounced over the cracked pave­ment and gravel. The road was a di­vid­ing line be­tween two di­verse to­pogra­phies: to our left was a bright blue sea as wide as the sky, its spray sprin­kling our faces; on our right, a dense and dark jun­gle emit­ting heavy hu­mid­ity weighed us down.

The heat also em­anated up from the black as­phalt. No clouds of­fered shade as we be­gan our first of many steep climbs. Legs slow­ing down to a painful rhythm, I saw the re­mains of a rusted ship’s hull pro­trud­ing out of the wa­ter. Rev­o­lu­tion ghosts. Breath­ing heavy and tak­ing it all in, de­spite the heat and pain, I felt it was mo­ments like this that re­mind me why I love what I do.

The far­ther I cy­cled through Sánchez’s Cuba, the more I dis­cov­ered sto­ries of a sim­i­lar self­as­sured and de­ter­mined spirit. With ev­ery bill­board, paint­ing or other re­minder of Sanchez, I felt like she was be­side me, beck­on­ing me to keep go­ing, and to not take any crap along the way. Lur­ing us up each peak was al­ways a revo­lu­tion­ary plaque or sym­bol. But the most revered was a mon­u­ment in the town of El Uvero. At 5:15 a.m. on May 28, 1957, the rebels won their first mil­i­tary vic­tory. Sánchez was there. Ped­alling on, it was eerily quiet with the back­ground hush of ocean waves and rev­o­lu­tion ghosts.

On our third day, dur­ing our long­est ride of a tough 90 km, we rested out of the mid­day sun un­der a gazebo at the trail­head to Pico Turquino – Cuba’s high­est peak at 1,975 m. Just be­fore the start of rev­o­lu­tion in 1953, Sánchez and her fa­ther hiked 11 km to the sum­mit car­ry­ing a life-size bronze bust of José Martí, the first na­tional in­de­pen­dence war hero, to com­mem­o­rate his cen­te­nary. Sánchez’s strength mo­ti­vated me through the re­main­ing hot and hilly 40 km.

On our fi­nal day, 80 km f rom Man­zanillo to Las Tu­nas, the head­winds were so fierce the farm­ers in the rice field walked faster than us. Watch­ing the tall golden stalks of sug­ar­cane lean­ing side­ways, I thought of all the places, and cul­tures, where I faced skep­ti­cism as a woman on a bike. “Why you no mar­ried?” asked the Ital­ian shep­herd. “Where’s your hus­band?” queried the Peru­vian B&B host.

In these con­texts, I al­ways felt I had to jus­tify my­self, my unique sta­tus, by rid­ing faster than my usual pace to en­sure I wasn’t the “slow” girl. Or worse, I wouldn’t have to push away some­one’s wan­der­ing hands. Can’t I be alone and not be lonely or needy?

Dur­ing our fi­nal evening in Las Tu­nas, I sipped strong mar­gar­i­tas at a bar with Gomez. My new skirt, pur­chased in the mar­ket that af­ter­noon, flut­tered del­i­cately on my tanned mus­cu­lar thighs. Wear­ing frilly clothes and lip­stick, I rev­elled in be­ing girly again. Fem­i­nine isn’t weak. That I was fem­i­nine and fierce was glo­ri­ous. We weren’t dressed up to pick up. We were dressed up be­cause we could be. Iron and honey.

”Peo­ple said I was crazy to ride these moun­tains. “

leftRevo­lu­tion­ary Celia Sánchez

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