Holguin for One Day – April 4

Holguin city tour, Cuban Apple support, and why you should never let a Cuban touch your bicycle (unless it’s necessary!).

Holguin may not be as metropolitan as Havana, as immaculate as Bayamo or as lively as Santiago de Cuba, but it’s a nice city full of parks, plazas and walking streets and it quickly grew on me.

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Holguin, although it’s the third largest city in Cuba, feels very provincial. There are chickens walking around, about as many horses on the streets as there are bicycles and I even heard a pig squeal in the middle of the night! Anyways, if you’re sleeping with the windows open, there’s no need to set your alarm. If the horse hooves hitting the pavement don’t wake you up, the roosters sure will!

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At the same time, it feels urban. Lots of street art everywhere and once you get to the top of La Loma de la Cruz, you’ll see the city spreading across the valley seemingly forever.

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Our original plan was to leave Holguin on the morning of April 4. But we had complications. A couple of us had bike assembly issues.

When I opened my bike bag in the Havana, I found a note from the US Customs letting me know they went in and paid a visit to my bag. Why they were interested in what was leaving the country, as opposed to what I might be bringing on the way back in, is a mystery to me. They messed with my carefully wrapped up bicycle and loosened my brake wires. Why they would loosen my wires is another mystery.

So, as a novice to this whole bicycle thing I had a hell of a time trying to put the wires back in and hope I’m doing it right. Nedene helped, but we couldn’t hook the brakes back in to the wheel no matter how hard we tried. I wanted to find a bike shop in Holguin to take my bike in, but according to Nedene that should’ve been my last resort. “Don’t let a Cuban touch your bike” is one of Nedene’s commandments and I trust her judgement.

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Why wouldn’t you let a Cuban touch your bike? Many Cubans have bikes. You see bicycles everywhere. Well… 95% of bicycles on Cuban roads are the single-gear Chinese monstrosities that are heavy and nearly indestructible. A Cuban way of fixing a bike is to use some elbow grease and pure force. That’s how one broke Nedene’s pannier on her last trip to Cuba. Most Cuban bicycle repairmen have never dealt with derailleurs or even brakes (in these single-speeds you brake by paddling backwards). But at this point I felt I had no choice. I tired, we all tried, and I still had no brakes. So I asked the host at our casa to take a look at my bike (I noticed he also had a decent looking bicycle). He loosened the wires and rethreaded them again and eventually got the brakes hooked on. They needed some tweaking and at first my back wheel was getting caught (it again was doing that a few days later), but eventually we got it to work. I’m still not 100% sure that the brakes were perfectly aligned on this trip, but hey, I survived.

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I went for a test ride around a few city blocks (brushing up on the street signage that’s not quite North American and may actually be more European. An upside-down triangle with the word PARE is a stop sign and that yellow round sign with a white X is what, a yield…?). I learned how to navigate horses and horse drawn carriages. I eyed the deep gutters on both sides of the street and realized I need to stay to the right, but not too far to the right. I also noticed that everyone was obeying traffic laws and no one seemed annoyed at my confusion.

Satisfied that my bicycle was now functional, I decided to go and explore Holguin on foot. I took Siri with me (two days after she had her stroke and my phone still had battery life. Not bad, Apple. Battery life on the iPhone 4 was just abysmal, but iPhone 6’s is impressive) and hoped I could find a phone doctor for her.

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On one of the side streets I found a guy sitting in front of a table cluttered with phones and phone parts, who was repairing a phone. Hopeful, I said hola and told him my phone no tabajo. I gave him my iPhone.

Visibly amused he called his friends over and they all passed my phone around, laughing at my naivete.

“This is Cuba, not England,” one said.

“What is this? A phone?” said the other.

I was ready to take my phone and walk away in a sulk, but then one of them winked at me and told me to follow him. We walked maybe three city blocks to an old building that had several stands on the ground floor. A pizza stand, someone selling screws, another one selling tomatoes, and a guy with a lop top in front of him. I handed the phone over to the guy with the laptop. He looked at it, pressed some buttons, clicked on his laptop and repeated this for a while. After about 10 minutes he handed the phone back to me.

We were back in business! Siri was no longer having a nervous breakdown, the graphics were no longer glitching all over the screen and I was able to turn my phone off! I was visibly grateful. The lap top guy quoted me 10 CUC for fixing my phone and I was so pleased I gave him a 20 CUC. (Sorry fellow travelers. I do that a lot, ruining the second and third world for everyone else. Paying more instead of haggling for less. I realize that it’s customary in some places to haggle and try to pay less, but I think it’s ridiculous when the price quoted is well below what I’d have paid in the States. I wouldn’t be surprised if I took the phone back to an Apple store in Seattle and was charged $100. Also, Cuba is not a haggling economy. They’ve had over 50 years of State set prices, so haggling isn’t really part of the culture.)

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Now it really was time for some town exploration.

One place to visit in Holguin that’s an absolute must is the hill with all those stairs. This is La Loma de la Cruz with a 465 step climb to the top. I headed over there because I like walking and needed some exercise.

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I took off strong, but soon had to take little breaks. I wasn’t the only one struggling on to the top. On the way up I met a guy who looked Eastern European to me, and hoping he was Polish struck up a conversation. (I’m Polish and any chance I get I try to speak Polish! This doesn’t happen very often, because Seattle doesn’t exactly have a large Polish community.) He turned out to be Russian, by the name of Sergei, and so we continued our climb to the top together.

Sergei told me a lot about himself, his ex-wife, his kids, his business rebuilding boats, his life in Toronto and all the time that he spends in Cuba every year. Listening to him talk I started to realize that there must be a reason why so many Eastern Europeans are drawn to Cuba.

Altogether I haven’t spent that much time in Cuba. I visited it twice before, both times on an organized tour, and even this time I was in Cuba just a few days before meeting Sergei. And yet I had already met a couple of Polish girls (on my previous trip to Cuba), a Ukrainian woman (this same morning in Holguin) and soon I would be meeting a whole lot of Czechs. I was also hearing Russian and Czech on the streets in Havana a whole lot.

So I began to wonder what it is that attracts us so much to Cuba. And I concluded that it must be homesickness. Not homesickness for a place, but one for a time. Because while Eastern Europe changed, Cuba remains so much like the Eastern Europe we remember. It’s nostalgia. Americans have their own nostalgia, which usually has to do with 1950s prosperity and American exceptionalism. And it’s no secret that many Eastern Europeans miss the time before capitalism. I know I do. And while China doesn’t even resemble a socialist country anymore and places like Vietnam are becoming more and more like China, Cuba still remains relatively unspoiled by western culture.

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Anyways, here I am at the top of the stairs! And Holgin.

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