Daily Chronicle or so…

In collaboration with L’ItaloEuropeo

In this Daily Chronicle, or so… depending on the “ability” to connect to the Net along the way, I try to describe the relevant events of the last few days. See also the chapters of the Diary translated in English.

If you have any legitimate question, I will be happy to answer, mt@matteot.com.

Previous Chronicles

See also the previous chapters of the Diary translated in English.

1672nd day, Trujillo (S8°07.283′ W79°01.934′), Perù, August 31, 2014

map Colombia-EcuadorChronicle 114, Trujillo, Perù, August 31, 2014 08:00 pm – On June 21, 2014 at 5:30 in the morning, when the taxi that would have taken me to Havana airport did not show up, I went to the empty La Enfanta avenue and I stopped a Buick of mid-50s. I agreed with the driver to take me to the airport for a price much lower than the official taxis and I loaded the cardboard with the bike on the rear seats where it fitted perfectly in all its length, certainly the widest car I travelled on! Behind me, in the queue for check-in at the airport, there stood Kim, a Korean boy, who also had a bicycle, and was going to Bogotá. He begun his journey on two wheels in Los Angeles with destination the Patagonia and then Europe. The take-off was scheduled for 8:00 am but at ten o’clock we were informed that due to technical problems the flight was postponed to 8:00 pm. As it always happens in the hours of waiting one makes acquainted with fellow travellers united in the same fate. So I chatted with Sakura and Akan, two Japanese girls in my same flight. The decade I spent in Asia makes me feel closer to people with almond-shaped eyes that to my fellow Indo-Europeans.

All four of us, plus two bikes, landed on Colombian soil at night and we took a taxi-van to the hostel Sayta, in the ancient district of Santa Fe. The next morning at breakfast I found out that the hostel is a meeting point for oriental travellers and I was the only white among a dozen guests. My intention was to stop only for one day but, unpacking the bicycle, I winced when I saw that the rear dérailleur hanger was conspicuously bent as a result of strong pressure in the plane. The curvature was so pronounced that on low gears the lower pulley touched the spokes of the wheel, for the time being I could not go anywhere. When the panic passed, I asked for help to cyclists in the city through the site warmshowers.org. The first to answer was David, freshly graduated in physics who lives with his mother in the luxurious area of Chapinero. I was his guest for five nights while the bicycle was at his mechanic, who did a great job because the dérailleur itself was slightly bent too.

Cascata ColombiaDuring my stay in Bogotá I went around with my host meeting other young graduated. On one of these occasions, a friend of him was telling me of a young Australian couple who had lived in Canada and crossed Mexico by bicycle. I told her that eight months earlier in Monterrey, Mexico I met an Australian couple who had done exactly the same thing and were heading to South America. From a cursory physical description it could have been the same pair and the more details were added, the greater seems the possibility of being them, until it became an irrefutable certainty that they were the same two Australians. After a few phone calls, a meeting was arranged in a bar nearby and we all headed to this amazing coincidence, incredulous of how small this world is. When we saw the taxi with my possible friends, we all held our breath for a moment until when the car-door opened and I did not recognize neither the girl nor her partner! After all, there are 23 million Australians and this planet is not so small …

David asked me to stay for another week, when himself would have left for a cycling tour of Colombia and Panama, because my presence improved his relationship with his mother, creating a buffer that reduced friction with her. Also his mother, a pensioner who had worked at managerial level for public and private companies, told me I could stay as long as I wanted because I kept her company and her conversations were really interesting and instructive. But, by its very nature, a journey must continue, so on the morning of June 28, accompanied by David to the south-eastern door of Bogotá, I attacked the Andes central cordillera.

The Colombian capital, although it is at 2,700 meters, lies in a valley surrounded by a ring of mountains higher than 3000 metres and that must be overcome before going down a slope for a good forty kilometres. So I got to 700 metres of La Mesa, where I spent the night, and then went up to 1300 metres of Ibaqué, stopping there for two days as a guest of Tiena and her husband, who just days before hosted Kim, the Korean guy met in Cuba.

I know that the winners of the bicycle competition Giro d’Italia in 2014 were Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, only because I am in their native land. Here I learned that they trained climbing and, I presume, descending along the 45 kilometres of road that on July 4 I started to climb. This section of the highway is called “la linea”, but the name does not correspond to the fact because it is not straight at all. On the contrary, it is an endless series of curves on the side of the mountain covered in lush equatorial vegetation, that gets steeper up to the pass at 3300 meters. Here for the first time I really felt the effect of the rarefied air, breathing deeper and heavier. The natives of these lands have developed two genetic mutations that help them to live comfortably at high altitude: a particularly expanded ribcage in relation to the rest of the trunk, which gives them that appearance of being a bit ‘squat; and a greater number of red blood cells allowing the blood to carry more oxygen to the organs. The other effect of altitude is the low air temperature, and although this is the Equator where the sun is really at peak, it does not exceed 10 degrees Celsius during the day.

chiesa notteWhen people ask me whether it is tiring to bike on a mountain, I replay: only the uphill, the downhill is restful! And so it was descending the Western Cordillera until the city of Armenia, where I stopped one night by Hernando, who also hosted Kim the week before. From that point on, the Highway 25 goes into a long, flat valley, arriving at Palmyra, where I paused for one night at Ramiro’s, a twenty years old mountain bike champion who competes, and often wins, competitions around the country. That night, guests were also a couple of Canadian cyclists from Vancouver heading to the Patagonia. Two adventurous types who in the past skirted the coast of British Columbia as far as Alaska southern islands with two canoes, stopping to sleep on beaches and eating only fish caught during the day. But what I find most remarkable is that they travelled overland from Cape Town to Cairo, across the entire African continent without flying, I would be afraid to do it!

Matteo Tricarico - Cali ColombiaThe next stop was Cali, reached on July 8, where I stopped for three days and was forced to buy a new pair of eyeglasses because the pestiferous dog of my hosts, Carlos and Paula, chewed my old ones. The good news is that the eye examination did not result much difference from the last one dating back to seven years ago. At Carlo’s I met Angel and Martix, a pair of Spanish cyclo-travellers. During the winter he performs as a mime and clown in a Swiss circus and in summer they cycle around South America, stopping in rural schools and centres for destitute children to perform funny shows.

On July 12, I arrived in Popayan, called the White city because the houses in the colonial historical centre are completely painted in white lime, except for some details of palaces and churches, such as stucco or doors frames, which are varnished in vivid colours. Almost every shop-sign is made of brass, instead of neon, creating an atmosphere and feeling of old, as it was in the past when everything was less bright and more mysterious.

chiesa bianca23.5 Kilometres south of the White City, at 11:30 am, on the main Colombian national highway 25, for the first time in my life I had an experience that I would had rather avoided: I was robbed. They were two boys, maybe not even 20 years old, on a scooter. They stopped me between two curves that did not allow the visibility for more than a few tens of metres. The older one pulled out of his belt a black automatic pistol, he showed it to me and said “camara”. At that point I realized that it was a robbery and not the usual meddlers who often approach me with questions. I opened the bag at the handlebar pulling out the camera, while the older took off the MP3 player that I kept attached to my arm. The younger one saw that in the bag there was also the video camera and tried to take it but I stopped him. At this point, the older again pulled out his gun and pointed it at me face at 30 centimetres distance, while the younger took possession of the video camera and the phone. Then, they looked around and jumped on the motorbike, before disappearing behind the curves. I was still pretty shocked, or rather trying to fully understand what had just happened, when cars begun to pass again. The entire robbery lasted no more than fifty seconds. Everything went incredibly fast, quick as a blink of an eye during which the road was deserted, although I believe that the coming of cars would have only postponed the armed robbery some other point further into the mountains.

I like to think, and I always say, that 99% of humanity is good, and that the task of the police is to protect her from that other 1%! Unfortunately, here in the New World I have to revise these statistics because personal safety in these countries is a real and daily problem. In all my life this was the first time I had a gun pointed at my face, but all the locals I met have been victim of one or more violent crimes with firearms or knifes. On October 5, in Peru, there will be local elections and in the slogans of all parties stand out the words “más seguridad”, a sign that the problem is tangible and strongly felt by the inhabitants. They even advised me to keep ready a small amount of money, around $ 20, no less because it would be offensive and not credible and more it would be too much!, ready to give in the likely event of being “asaltado.”

farfalla marroneThe reasons for this criminal violence are countless and start from the pre-Columbian cultures with their human sacrifices, throughout the whole bloody history of colonization with slavery and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples. Until today when Maoist guerrillas, especially in Colombia, have been in conflict with government for decades, so spreading the use of firearms. There is to add the modern abyssal economic and social inequality, lack of education and the violent culture presented by the media, the believe of the inhabitants of the third world in general that a westerner is always richer than them, and many times the are right. Let’s also consider that these two young robbers perhaps were coming from a family in degraded social and financial conditions. And even supposing that they were under the influence of heavy drugs, so abundant in these parts, I can almost understand them, but certainly not justify them because certainly they did not do it for hunger. I am sure that the money they will earn from selling the camera, I do not think that they will use it to make movies !, will be used for purposes far more trivial but more enjoyable.

When that first moment of shock passed and I started to think straight, I continued for a couple of kilometres until a small shop and I called the police who asked me what clothes they were wearing. To make an official report I would have to retrace my steps to the station for about fifteen kilometres. This crime will never be recorded in the official statistics of Colombia, but only in my own. I gave up any hope of seeing my stuff and with it the videos of Cuba and Colombia that I did not copy to my computer. In the end, the real loss that I suffered is the sentimental one and the fact that there will be a hole in the visual narrative of the journey.

andrea ivan con mia biciAnother interesting stop was the city of Pasto, reached after 200 kilometres of ups and downs between 600 and 2800 metres, on a road cut into the rock of the mountain. Here the slopes are very steep and from valley to valley vegetation goes from being green and lush, for the presence of a small river, to arid and thorny where the water does not get. Long gullies are almost bare of flora, with the sole exception of succulent and dry thorny shrubs, while others, at lower altitude, are more lush with low trees like high bushes. But there are also thick forests of pine and birch trees along the slopes of Cerro Morazurco. In the city I was a guest of Andrea and Ivan. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in literature on “Las autobiografías de Escritores”, analysing how these authors write of themselves. She runs a company of city cycling postal service. They are two cyclo-travellers preparing for a trip to Ushuaia starting in September. I acquired a new Pansonic camera, waterproof up to five meters that records both videos in Full HD and pictures with 16 Mega-pixel, thus reducing to a single device videos and photos, which means less volume and weight. In fact, the robbers lightened me in more than one way.

On the morning of July 19, I left Pasto in the company of Ivan and Andrea who wanted to spend a night camping in Pilcuan valley, about seventy kilometres south of the city. The first half of the way is a climb from 2600 to 3300 meters and down to just 1800, where we stopped for the night putting our tents just a few meters from the banks of a Rio Guaitara tributary. We were surrounded by a thick forest of coniferous trees mixed with other vegetation typically equatorial. The next morning we parted, I continued toward the nearby border with Ecuador and they went up the slope of mount Navarrete to return home.

quitoThat same day I reached the city of Ipiales, the last on Colombian soil, from where it begins the true Andean culture as shaped by the Inca empire. The border of Ecuador is located at 2800 meters of altitude, between mountains covered with forests of pine and fir trees. Without realizing it, I crossed the line of Equator, thus passing to the southern hemisphere and continued along the Pan-American to the capital city Quito. , which I reached on the afternoon of July 25th. Here I stayed with Diego and his wife, both cyclists enthusiasts who are parents of a nine years old girl and a seven years boy. I stopped for only two nights with them and I took a full day to visit the cit centre, which is rightly a World Heritage Site for its magnificent colonial civil and religious architecture. I headed south on the 35 and I was a guest of Bruno in Ambato. Burno lived mostly in Brazil, his mother’s country of origin, and here he runs two restaurants left him by his father. Bruno travelled extensively in the Americas and Ambato, where he has been living only for a year, was standing to be claustrophobic and he was looking for a way to get away for a few months, a problem common to many …

gingla con fiumeGeographically, this was the closest point I would get to the vastest expanse of jungle on this planet: the Amazon. And I could not miss to visit it. So, on July 31, I took the highway 30 which, via Baños, goes down to Puyo at the edge of the forest. The road descents to the valley where dense vegetation becomes increasingly impenetrable. Black and white Capuchin monkeys become common inhabitants of the forest canopy and in the cracks of the slopes water is channelled down from the mountain to the vast Amazon basin. Before in millions of trickles, then in thousands of wider and wider streams, then hundreds of rivers that flow to create the most majestic of all: the Amazon. Thus, rainfall and humidity of the Pacific, via the spinal column of the forest, after 7000 km, ends up in the Atlantic, after helping to feed the place with most varied terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity.

alligatoreIn hot Puyo I decided it was time to migrate to warmer climate areas along the Ecuadorian coast. I had spent last month and a half cycling the high and cold Andean peaks, so I retraced my steps to Ambato and then went to Guaranda. This last stretch of road was as physically tough as scenically enchanting. The road climbs up to 4,300 meters reaching the plateau at the foot of the volcano Chimborazo that, all covered in white glaciers, rises in the shape of a perfect cone for other 2,000 meters. It was the first time that I rode where the thin air is a significant factor and I had to stop to catch my breath for a few minutes every couple of kilometres. On the plateau, the temperature was just above zero and I sought shelter in a farmer’s hut to change and put on long pants and warm jacket. Out of the five members of the family, only two daughters in their twenties spoke a little ‘Spanish, because they used to go to the market to sell the potatoes they grow, the others three only knew Quechua, the Inca’s ancient language. In the room where a faint smoky charcoal fire glowed, they offered me a plate of rice, potatoes and corn that I practically devoured with two spoonfuls. Feeling a ‘bit better, I kept on cycling on the bare plateau, covered only by white stones and tufts of yellow grass where herds of alpaca with wool the same colour as the soil were grazing. Numbing with cold, tired and panting, I began descending to the Pacific, from which I separated nine months earlier in Mexico. On August 6, I saw again the ocean dark-blue waters at Puerto Cayo, about forty kilometres south of Manta.

The coast is dotted with fishing villages partially converted into resorts with hotels of every level to accommodate Americans and Canadians, who come here to surf the waves, but especially young Argentines and Chileans who are here to party. The busiest and best known town is Montañita, a concentration of bars, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and discos. Of these last there are as many as six very large ones concentrated in four city-block, all of them without walls but with only the roof. From ten at night to six in the morning, thousands of youngsters in their early twenties dance without pause. I had been warned of the storm of decibels that every night descends on the town and found a hostel more than a kilometre from the city centre but, despite the distance from the source, the sound waves made the glass of my window vibrate. Throughout the night, streets become like a theater where jugglers, fire-eaters, magicians, mimes and street performers of all kinds are performing in talent shows, which often involve the audience. The night-life is concentrated in a small space and it is impressive for its vitality.

costa ecuador panUp to Guayaquil, I cycled the coastal hills covered with low trees and scrub vegetation, and then I went straight south to the Peruvian border. Looking at the map of these countries, I have always wondered why major pre-Columbian civilizations developed up in the mountains rather than along this strip of flat land between the ocean and the mountain ranges and now I got the answer: that area is completely deserted. It is a rocky and barren expanse, very similar to the Iranian highlands or the desert of Egypt for the proximity to the sea. There is the same contrast between the deep blue of the ocean and the rocky sandy beige dotted with thorny shrubs. As in any respectable desert, there is always a strong and constant wind which, in this season, blows from south along the coast. In the northern hemisphere, from Alaska down, I always had tail-wind while here I will have head-wind up to Patagonia. An Argentinian cyclist called this the Yin and Yang of the American continent. Such adverse conditions are slowing me down and the monotony of the surrounding environment does not help my morale. At least the ground is flat and I think that I will miss this flatness when I will be at 4,000 meters in southern Peru and Bolivia …

bienvenidos a PeruOn August 16, I crossed the Peruvian border, stopping for a couple of nights in Tumbres. I continued south relatively quickly, despite the headwind, reaching Trojillo after 600 kilometres of barren land along the highway 1. Here I am a guest of Sabrina and Max, this last a Swedish man, class 1954 and 25 years older than her. An interesting guy who just nineteen travelled overland from Stockholm to the border of India with Myanmar, a journey throughout Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet, a route that today is no longer feasible. The two dedicated a room of the large house into a guest-room for travellers who contacted them via the websites Couchsurfing.org and Warmshowers.org. The place is busier than a real hostel and in the last four days have come and gone: two Brazilian boys, a German couple and Karel, a 63 years old cyclo-traveller from the Czech Republic. He began this journey with his son and son’s girlfriend in Chile, but they stopped in Bolivia while he kept cycling alone to Bogotá and then for a month in Cuba. The occasional travelling visitors are just an addition to a small group of regular guests of the house, where almost every night goes on a little party with spirits flowing like lemonade. As a rule of the house, ever passing guest is required to prepare a dish of his country and Max asked me to cook “spaghetti alla carbonara” with true Italian Parmesan cheese. I have not yet determined the date of departure, as soon as I decide I’ll let you know …

1600th day, Havana (N23 ° 08 099 ‘W82 ° 22,655’), Cuba, June 20, 2014

cuba mapChronicle 113, Havana, Cuba, June 20, 2014 15:40 – It is always a problem to visit an island in a cycling trip. In particular, Cuba is especially difficult to reach despite being only 200 kilometres from the southernmost tip of Florida and 250 kilometres from the Yucatan peninsula. This is due to the lack of sea connections, that by far I favour to plane both for ideological reasons and to avoid excessive trauma to the bicycle. In fact, the bike easily get damaged when it is carried on a bus or a plane, but does not get damaged when herself carries. Despite these practical and “humanitarian” considerations towards my means of transportation, my itinerary throughout West Indies could not be complete without crossing Cuba.

The widespread idea of the island is that it is almost a mythical place. Personally, I wanted to see with my own eyes a place crystallized in time, due to isolation forced by the U.S. Embargo and self-imposed by its own rulers, before it vanishes and the island is taken by the tentacles of globalization. It is the last countries in the world with an absolute dictator who is also a charismatic example and inspiration to other third world nations. Like other demagogues, who took power from another tyrant after a bloody military campaign, called “revolution”, the intellectual Fidel and the pragmatic Raul Castro, his younger brother and eminence grise, have firmly held the reins of command since 1959.

The dream of every dictator is to have an external enemy and the Castros have been lucky enough to have the strongest of all, the United States. It imposed the embargo on the island after the nationalization of 70% of its land and 80% of its economy, that were previously in the hands of both mafia and U.S. companies. Fidel has created around this economic blockade, used as an excuse for everything that has gone wrong over the past 60 years, a radical-nationalist as much as a paternalistic-socialist regime putting backwards the island economic clock. The country has been on the way of underdevelopment for the last 30 years, with population’s living conditions visibly degrading yearly and with no possibility of change for ideological-mental blockage of the Lider Maximo. One can not expect much from a country that has suffered 400 years of Spanish colonization, 60 years of U.S. protectorate and another 60 years of dictatorship. The latter has suppressed any form of democracy and, at the same time, continues to proclaim and glorify a mythical people’s power that has no basis in reality, leading to a de facto complete apathy and disinterest in politics that benefits even more the controlling elite.

On the positive side, the regime has educated the entire population, although the high level of education is not matched by an equally high level of real knowledge. It has also given a house to almost everyone and has created free access to healthcare. But, was it really needed a civil war, followed by six decades of tyranny, to achieve such results? Unfortunately, I predict that with the death of Castro and his ideological orthodoxy, even the few social advantages, such as a degree of equality, social justice and lack of real economic classes, will be lost. The new government generation will be forced to open up the country to the usual multinationals that will build factories exploiting educated and very cheap labour force. In other words, Cuba will follow the same fate of some Asian countries where wild industrialization has created a wide social degradation, a large class difference as well as an irreparable ecological disaster.

Matteo y el CheOn May 4, 2014 at 17.25 I set wheel on Cuban soil, landing at the airport in Havana. At the exit there was a small orchestra playing songs from Habana Social Club repertoire. Three pairs of mulattoes dancers danced at its notes. Behind, a dozen flaming U.S. models cars of the 50s were parked, ready to take tourists to the city. In a single glance, there were three of the most common stereotypes associated with this island, all perfectly in tune with the romantic idea that we have of this place. Too bad that, after spending nearly two months travelling around the country, I found out that: these small orchestras do not cross the invisible border of areas frequented by tourists; the majority of the population is not mulatto but white Caucasian; cars of the past half century, although very common in cities, are no longer the majority.

Unfortunately, the Cubans do not spend their lives dancing and this is a shame because I find typical dances of these parts exceptionally compelling and seductive. Maybe, I missed the most important opportunity of my life to learn to dance the Salsa, though, nowadays salsa schools are more common abroad than here. Another pity is that Cubans do not spend all their time playing those cheerful rhythms, even though words are often sad, that made their popular music universally recognized as a true fine art. The peculiarity of Cuban music, compared to other similar of South American countries, is its high African component. Elsewhere, it was significantly weakened or even suppressed by the colonizers, in relation to Spanish in particular and European elements in general.

Like in a parallel universe or in another dimension, the laws of mechanics here respond to different set of physical laws, otherwise it would be unexplainable how so many cars built more than 60 years ago are still in circulation and used daily. The fact that these wheeled dinosaurs have only mechanical and no electronic components, a transistor can only be replaced!, allows the islanders to repair them with adaptations worthy of Guinness book for imagination. I saw some of these engines, which have no fewer than six cylinders but normally are V eight, held together by iron wires and metal plates or glued with steel putty. Curved “winged” models of the early 60s are derived directly from rockets shape of the time. These cars are simply elephantine and their exhaust pipes smog emission of black Venezuelan oil is so dense that clouds the view for a few seconds. By comparison, the much more modern, efficient and boxy Soviet Lada, which make up a large part of Cuban auto-park, are not just another ring but altogether another species of car evolution.

Normally, with my top speed of 28 kilometres per hour on flat, I am almost always the slowest on the road. In Cuba, I felt as fast as a fireball overtaking carts and carriages pulled by horses, which are the main means of transport outside urban areas. There are of all kinds: some with wooden wheels and springs that seems to come out of 19th century painting; others are adapted with auto-mobile tires and rims; some do not carry more than two passengers while others are true omnibus carrying tens; but all have in common, I repeat, that are much slower than me!

old cars La HabanaI stayed in Havana until May 7, wandering through the various city central districts that follow one other along the coast and around the deep bay. I was amazed by the elegance and sophistication of the architecture. Harmonious columns supporting charming façades ornamented with delicate polychrome stucco follow one other without interruption in every street, competing for the title of street gem. Every corner tells us of a capital city of the New World that displays wealth, luxury and opulence of a nation proud of its commercial and economic success. One can not but wonder how it would have been if in 1959 all this had not been suddenly stopped by the Revolutionary barbarity. Since then, this urban jewel is literally crumbling for neglect and abandonment due to lack of money to make the slightest restoration, even the most essential to avoid roofs falling or to keep the buildings standing. It is like an aristocratic lady who for the last 60 years has always been wearing her best dress and putting on her jewellery to go to work in the fields. By now the crochets are completely frayed, the silk has holes everywhere, the diamonds are entirely opaque and the gold is oxidized like vulgar rusty iron. As if such a level of degradation was not enough, no new constructions have rejuvenated the city that seems to have suffered an earthquake or bombing. Havana is nothing but the most striking example of a whole country that from a golden, or silver, age has slipped slowly, but surely, to a state of architectural, cultural, social, economic and intellectual underdevelopment.

On May 8, I left Havana heading east along the northern coast and I slept on the beach near the seaside resort of Santa Cruz del Norte. The next day I stopped in the city of Matanzas and in the evening, while I was sitting on a bench in the Parque de la Libertad, a woman greeted me with hand from a few metres away. Judging by her sober dress and haircut, because Cuban normally dress in very tacky fashion, I thought she was a Canadian or a European. In fact, she was Yanira Marimon, a couple of years younger than me, she is a poetress, winner of national awards such as: “La Rosa Blanca” in 2006, with “Donde van a morir las mariposas” best children’s literature text and literary critics price for her collection of poems “Contemplación Vs Acto” in 2010. This last work is dedicated to her father Luis, also a renowned poet and actor who died at the age of 44 in unknown circumstances in Las Vegas (Nevada, USA), where he just arrived as a political refugee. She is the editor of “Revista artistica literaria Matanzas”, she also writes prefaces to poetry books and novels and she gives literature lectures. Judging her on the basis of her poetic works, she would come out as a pessimist, depressed and sad person, but it can not be otherwise for a girl who lost her father so young, although she did not spend much time with him for he was hardly at home and was in an advanced stage of alcoholism.

Poets do nothing more than to exploit and take advantage of their emotions and feelings, amplifying them and then transferring them into words that, in the case of Yanira dealing with the death of a parent, can not be but bleak. Actually, she is a solar and smiling girl, witty and funny, sometimes even euphoric and almost always cheerful. I spent with her the next couple of days, as a guest in her house where she lives with her mother, one son age 17 and a daughter seven years old. The first was born of a relationship in her youth, while the second of a sentimental bond with film-maker Joel Barbaro. He created animated short films with plasticine puppets and international success came with “20 Años”, considered by film culture as one of the three best Cuban animated films of the past decade. I watched it and found it so well done and full of meaning that I decided to put it in my Youtube channel (http://youtu.be/3iukwsQ_kxE). The success gave Barbaro a chance to leave the island and now he lives in Germany with an Argentine woman with whom he has a daughter. The power of poetry runs strong in Yanira’s family, because the paternal great-grandmother was already writing sonnets, three generations of verses composers. But the chromosomes change, or at least are changed by economic conditions, in fact, her oldest son decided, instead of going to college, to take cooking classes in order to work in international hotels where a chef earns millions more than the most talented poet.

On May 13, I started to explore the island, heading eastward along the Carretera Central, which despite being the main road of the island, is just a strip of asphalt with a narrow lane in each direction. The traffic is almost non-existent and composed mainly of a few trucks, buses and carts carrying goods and people in these sparsely populated rural areas. The government rhetoric pays particular attention to farmers, who are portrayed as an idealized symbol of true socialism. For the first 500 kilometres, the countryside is green, flat and dull, with grazing land interrupted by vast expanses of sugar cane fields, that since the Spaniards arrival has been the island only economic and cultural drive.

On May 18 and 19, I stopped in Ciego de Avila where Yanira put me in contact with Félix Sánchez. Born in 1955, he is a writer, sociologist and, at the time, convinced revolutionary who, given how things have gone, became very critical of the regime. I spoke with him a whole day learning about many of the inconsistencies of real socialism and the true condition of Cuba, as I am reporting in this chronicle. In 1990, Felix went to study Social Sciences in Moscow, then capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and three years later he left it as the capital of only one of these republics, Russia. This short overseas experience, combined with his strong analytical and critical skills, makes him one of the most prolific, profound and enlightened writers of short stories and novellas who lives in Cuba. Here the publication of a book does not follow market rules as in the West, where the quality of a work is second to its commercial success.

matteo con maschera (2)_resizeIn my view, people like him shed a positive light on the Cuban population of which I had particularly negative opinion as a result of meetings with various people in tourist places and not. Cubans think of themselves as friendly, hospitable, talkative and cordial people, features that can be found in most of the human population, irrespective of nationality and culture. Personally, I also found them ignorant (in the sense that their geopolitical condition leads them to ignore the outside world), rude, pushy and presumptuous people, these latter two adjectives differentiate them from Asians. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it is a very good looking population, ethnically diverse and physically attractive, although I find that both men and women dress in tawdry and vulgar way. Several times, the owners of houses where I stayed or girls in the street, proposed or offered themselves to be my Cuban girlfriend. A couple of times, even muscular young men asked me if I fancied their company. I like to believe that these latter offers were made to me only because now I have quite long hair.
   
Between Camaguey and Las Tunas there is the Sierra de Najasa, where the terrain is a bit ‘more varied and interesting because it is wavy and the vegetation is as it should be in a subtropical country. But one feels to be at the tropics arriving at the majestic Sierra Maestra where a lush forest of acacias, ficus and palm trees covers the slopes, as it was in the past all over the island before colonization and agriculture exploitation. Continuing south-east, after crossing the Sierra Maestra, there is the other capital, the city of Santiago de Cuba. Between Santiago and La Havana lives the same competition that exists between Milan and Rome, Saigon and Hanoi, Cairo and Alexandria, St. Petersburg and Moscow, Brussels and Antwerp, New Delhi and Bombay, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Two cities that embody two distinct souls that always exist in a country: administrative and commercial. Although, not in all countries these are in different cities, for example in England, Argentina and France, the capital contains both of them.

For the first time in Santiago I found a cheap seafood restaurant, because, although Cuba is in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, where fish should be more common and cheap than bread, it is almost impossible to eat seafood, which is reserved for export and for international hotels. Cubans by far eat more pizza than Italians, which is definitely the most common and economic food on the island. This should not be surprising because it is dish easy to prepare and requires very few ingredients. In general, in Cuba the food is very bad and, for being a country at tropical latitudes where two-thirds of the planet flora biodiversity is concentrated, it is scandalous that there are no more than three or four types of vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. In other tropical countries markets, such as Vietnam or India, there is plenty of vegetables choice throughout the year, many of which are local herbs that are not grown but simply collected. Cuban food lack of variety is due to a deficiency of agricultural technology and to loss of knowledge of native herbs that grow wild throughout the year. The deficiency of goods is evident in every stores where shelves are half empty or filled with a single product. Instead, what impresses for variety and quantity, is the amount of alcoholic and distilled beverages mainly of sugar cane. Rum is available for all tastes and pockets. Cubans freely consume it in the street and it is quite common to see people of all ages who casually walk with a bottle in one hand and a plastic cup in the other, because it is rude to drink straight from the bottle and only alcoholics do it.

On May 29, I arrived at Baracoa, the easternmost tip of the island, via the road that passes a few kilometres from Guantanamo Bay. In this place lies a U.S. military base, transformed into a concentration camp, synonymous with torture, cruelty and contempt for human dignity. A place that will go down in history as one of the most infamous. Here Americans brought back the legal system to what it was in the Middle Ages by applying the same techniques of interrogation and torture of the Catholic Inquisition or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Defendants have no right to defence, justified with the fact that the prison is not in federal territory and therefore its law does not apply. The base itself is an anomaly, a abuse that the United States imposed to the newly formed Republic of Cuba at the time of independence. Fidel, who created a kind of militarized zone around it, has been very careful not to even try to eradicate it, well aware that the warmonger neighbour does not need a real casus belli to unleash an invasion but that it is very good at create a fake one as demonstrated throughout its history, from the Mexican War to the sinking of the Maine to the occupation of Iraq.

On May 31, I started to return to the capital following the Circuito Norte via Holguin, which is much more picturesque than the Carretera Centrale, but is has long stretches of dirt-roads in Sierra de Cristal and in Alturas de Maniabon. The towns and villages are all the same, with beautiful mansions crumbling like in Havana and a central square with town hall with the inscription on the façade Poder Popular (people’s power). In fact, one does not understand how the People exercise its power since the elections for National and Provincial Assembly are decided by the central party with blocked candidacies, where voters have no choice of candidates and a good 50% of the ballot cards are left blank and 20% are voided. Another feature common to all these towns are giant posters of the heroes of the revolution and by far the most represented is Ernesto Guevara. Surely, if the Che did not die young in Bolivia, where the Lider Maximo sent him to be killed worried that his light would put him in the shade, he would have become an old, boring, bourgeois bureaucrat forgotten by history. Personally, I do not identify nor agree with this killer, because he killed many innocent people!, and with his vision of the world based on the armed struggle as the only way to free peoples from oppression. I prefer historical figures who made non-violence as their weapon like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela in his last phase.
For one day I stopped again in Ciego de Avila, where I spent an afternoon with Felix, this time not talking about Cuba, but the philosopher Karl Marx. I found myself in complete agreement with Félix that Stalinism, Maoism or Castrism have nothing to do with the Communist Manifesto or the Capital and the philosopher can not be accused for the atrocities committed in the name of his misrepresented and manipulated philosophy. All socialist revolutions occurred in underdeveloped countries, such as Russia and China, in stark contrast to the Marxist thesis that these should have occurred in industrialized countries where the Proletariat had full class consciousness. Not in predominantly rural countries where such class consciousness was completely absent. In 2005 Radio 4, the cultural channel of the BBC, has launched a contest among the listeners of the program In Our Time, asking them to choose their favourite philosopher out of a list of 20 of the biggest names from ancient times. The winner was by far Karl Marx. One certainly can not accuse British people of being hardcore Bolsheviks, but certainly Marx’s thought, in more than 160 years after its formulation, is definitely contemporary. In modern global and industrialized world, there is the same alienation of nineteenth century British workers. Workers’ conditions have not changed much and are even worsened in both developing and developed countries, in the last for the inhumane working conditions in factories, in the latter due to lack of work which leads to a competition for a limited number of jobs.

On June 8, I returned to Matanzas guest of Yanira and her family and the next day I went to renew my visa expired five days earlier. Since in the extension module is required to put a real address and officially I could not stay at Yanira’s house, I had be engaged to her to reside with her, so now I’m in possession of a visa type A-1, i.e. family visa …

On June 13, Yanira and I went by bus to Havana, 90 kilometres far away, because I was invited to attend the event Ciclomundi (www.ciclomundi.it/) that took place in Italy. Only international hotels in the capital have WiFi networks where I logged on Skype with my computer. The video conference with the audience of Ciclomundi lasted 45 minutes where I told my cycle-travel experience and answered questions. That night we stayed at Luis Lazo’s mother’s house, a writer friend of Yanira who was able to escape to Washington DC a couple of year earlier, after starting a web blog criticizing the regime. Yanira told me that over the years most of her college and artists friends have left for both political and economic reasons, a brain drain that is bleeding the country of its most vital intellectual resources, leaving the field free to ignorance, or worse, indifference.

On June 18, the day of my birthday, I brought the whole family to the local Chinese restaurant and the next morning I cycled to Havana to the hostel where I left the cardboard box to pack my bicycle and to embark on a flight that will bring me to the Colombian Andes.

PS: Yanira wrote for me the following sonnet, composed expressly for the occasion of my birthday and departure.

Por si vuelves, Matteo, te he dejado
las puertas entreabiertas de mi alma,
mi callada quietud, toda la calma,
el camino más bello y desandado.

Para que no te alejes demasiado
me quedo con tu paz, con tu recuerdo,
la certeza que vuelves, que no pierdo
la ternura y tu beso que he guardado.

Para fundir los dos nuestro destino
y volver a desandar este camino
sé que regresarás un día, mi amor.

No te tardes demasiado, mi chiquito,
mi viajero, mi amor, mi italianito,
trae de vuelta tus manos, tu calor.

(Yanira Marimón, 18 Junio 2014)

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