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Thu May 16 2013: Last days in Cuba

After almost a month on the island, our time in Cuba was coming to an end. From Vinales, we doubled back on the main Autopista past Havana towards Playa Giron on the south coast. There were some nice beaches that were a lot cheaper than the resorts at Varadero and Cayo Coco, but we were really here to see the Bahia de Cochinos - The Bay of Pigs.

Bikes take a break

We rode through the swamplands of Zapata, the largest wetlands in the world and home to crocodiles, lilypads and marshes. There, we found an all-inclusive resort (first one of this trip) right on the beaches of Playa Giron, and immediately gorged ourselves sick on several rounds of complimentary cocktails that were more sugar than alcohol.

The resorts was filled with locals and backpackers, and after we left the bikes parked outside our cabin, we were relatively unmolested and enjoyed sunsets and mojitos at the rustic, 2-star budget resort.

Poolside at Playa Giron

The infamous Bay of Pigs, a lot more peaceful than it was in 1961!

Just outside the resort is the Bay of Pigs museum, which housed military vehicles from the period of the invasion as well as a photographic history of the ill-fated attempt of US-backed Cuban exiles to wrest control away from Fidel Castro after La Revolucion.

Outside the Bay of Pigs museum

The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was important for a number of reasons. Successfully resisting the US-backed attack made Castro a folk hero to communist nations all over the world. It's also rumoured amongst conspiracy theorists that Kennedy's assassination was linked to his wavering support of the military operation, pulling critical air-support at the last minute and dooming the invasion to failure while costing lives on the ground. Fingers point to angry high-level US military officials orchestrating the enigmatic assassination.

It was very interesting walking through the exhibits of the museum and seeing the invasion from Cuba's point of view: the deification of Castro's military expertise and the bumbling incompetence of the "insolent Yankee invaders". To see history retold from two different sides really gave perspective into how our beliefs and attitudes are so easily influenced and shaped by textbooks, museums and propaganda. At the end of the tour, even I wanted to shout out to world, "Viva La Revolucion!"

Musicians practice in Cienfuegos

After a couple of days at Playa Giron, we took a short two hour ride to Cienfuegos, the port town where we would meet up with the Stahlratte again to take us back to the mainland. A month in Cuba was more time than we needed, and the lack of Internet access made us feel very isolated from our friends and family that we normally kept in touch with via Skype and social networking.

Now we were on the opposite side of the dreaded "schedule" - trying to find ways to pass the time and dodging the hustlers at every street corner, while waiting for the ship to take us off this prison island! Honestly, we did feel a bit trapped, not able to leave when we wanted to, and I understood now the plight of many on the island, not having the resources to leave the country. Never did we look so forward to throwing up our lunches overboard!

"In every neighbourhood: Revolution!"

Over 50 years have passed since La Revolucion, and the politics of the country is still defined by it, using the resistance as both a solidarity cry and a means to control the population.

Canadians are the primary visitors to Cuba, and our flag is ceremoniously decorated all over the place

Most of the Canadian tourists are from Quebec, as French and Spanish are close enough to get by. Many of them spend much of their time and social security cheques in Cuba. We saw lots of older Canadian men in the company of young Cuban JineterAs (female hustlers), exchanging their companionship for gifts, meals in tourist restaurants and accommodations in resorts and hotels. In Cuba, Canadians have a bad reputation for being sex predators, targeting child prostitutes. Very sad.

"What kind of bikes? How many ccs? How much? How fast?"
Cienfuegos means "100 Questions" en espanol...

The buildings and culture in Cienfuegos are supposed to have a very French flavour to it - residents from Louisiana and Haiti immigrated to this part of the island at the turn of the century to become rich sugar barons. Not knowing anything about French architecture, I just took a few pictures and said, "Oui, oui!" to the French Canadian tourists milling around the area. And tried to keep small children away from them as well...

Main plaza in Cienfuegos

YuTong tour bus bought from fellow comrades in China

Who let these dogs out?!?

Cobblestone streets of Trinidad

We arrived a few days before the Stahlratte was scheduled to leave, so we had some time to explore the area. The main attraction in this region is the town of Trinidad, about an hour away. We rode along the road hugging the south shore, not doing a very good job dodging the tiny crabs that were sunning themselves on the hot asphalt. The air was pungent with smushed crab from all the vehicles going back and forth, which made me a bit hungry.

Trindad was just meh. This is my meh face.

Trinidad is a tourist trap. It's supposed to be a well-preserved slice of Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. In reality, it's a bunch of restaurants and souvenir shops with tons of foreign tourists that invade the town in long Chinese luxury tour buses from Cienfuegos. The buildings were nice-looking though...

I dunno. I think we're just getting Cuba'd out at this point.

Riding through the cobblestone streets of Trinidad

Neda picks up some fresh fruit on the ride back from Trinidad

We got our hair cut at the local hairdresser. Our final souvenir of our time in Cuba

In retrospect Cuba was both fascinating and frustrating. It was definitely the most different place, politically, that I've visited, and the whole communist brain-washing, police-state, inform-on-your-neighbour, control-the-news-and-Internet thing was something I loved to see in person. Neda lived through it, so I don't think it was that interesting to her. We learned a lot more about the pivotal role Cuba played in the history of the world and its status as a pawn between the superpowers, and got to experience this education from their point of view. We visited Miami years ago, and Cuba gave us new insight into the Cuban-American community there - something we were embarrassingly ignorant of.

Having spent almost a month on the island (more time than we needed), I'm not sure if we'd ever go back again. I don't feel like we travelled through the country as complete outsiders and I do find myself deeply interested in anything Cuban that pops up in the news, now that we can actually read the news again.

Next up: Escape from Cuba!

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