Cuba is definitely not the easiest of places to get to, particularly after a wedding in the USA. And you really don't need a designer floor length silk dupioni shangtung bridesmaid's dress for climbing steep slopes covered in stinging nettles, in 35+ degree heat and almost 100% humidity, with an explosive bum. But... if you've got a sense of adventure, a sense of humour and no sensitivity to endless days of pork with rice and beans and sickly sweet fruit shakes, it can be a pilot's dream come true.
The people are charming, the sites stunning and the air buoyant. Sure, there are challenging moments, but if like me, you start laughing hysterically when in a tight situation, you will come home with well-toned tummy muscles. My travelling companion Gary can attest to this, as his facial 'laugh lines' prevented him from getting a snug fitting snorkelling mask!
So, two paraglider pilots from Tasmania, Australia, and a non-flying buddy from the UK hire a car and set out across Cuba with two Cuban paragliding pilots. It was a joint mission - to get to Holguin for the Cubans' granny's 90th birthday, and to fly as much of Cuba as possible on the way there and back.
I've always loved the 'dodge'm cars' at fun parks, and ducking around horses and carts, wheel barrows and cyclists at 100km/h on unmarked three lane pothole ridden highways, weaving through 1950's vehicles belching smoke and struggling along with eight or more passengers, all while listening to funky salsa tunes, was two weeks of childish play for me. Getting our Kia Carnival down narrow cycle lanes, doing three-point turns over hefty road bollards and reversing down steep and narrow 4WD tracks was all part of the challenge. The driving conditions led me to believe it was 'anything goes', and it always made me laugh heartily when, after doing something radical to get us out of a desperate situation (like a U-turn over the highway median strip, or parking in the centre of a three lane road) our Cuban friends would remind me that I was not driving in Australia now!
Unfortunately I got booked within one hour of hiring the car, so it became a job for all five of us to spot the traffic lights, non existent road signs, obstacles to be avoided, find our way through counter intuitive road design, and get ourselves out of the confusing one way systems when navigating around Cuban cities. There was many a night after a few mojitos (famous Cuban rum cocktail) with dinner, when trying to get back to our 'casa particular', we thought we were stuck in the 'ground hog day' movie. We would inevitably negotiate the same narrow lanes, turning up again and again on the same street corner, beside the same hustler, again falling into uncontrolled hysterics.
Anyway, back to the flying. The skill of the Cubans took me by surprise. Mostly they don't have any formal training or instruction and largely they learn on old shared DHV 2/3 gliders, donated by visiting foreign comp pilots. (If any of you have an old, large flying helmet you could send or give me to send, I know a Cuban pilot who'd be chuffed). Generally you have to walk to the top of the hill you want to fly, so unless you are fit, determined and brave, you won't get far with learning to fly in Cuba. Without exception, every pilot we flew with was welcoming, friendly, helpful, competent, skilled, caring and had a great sense of humour. They were happy to share their sites, offer advice, help out with carrying gliders, launches, etc. I think we Aussies could learn a bit there. Okay, so being a female pilot in Cuba may help a bit perhaps, but I am sure they do the same for the blokes.
Conditions were better than expected, flying all but one or two of the days we planned to. Our flying was stopped only by the strength of the wind. My Cuban friend had warned me before booking the trip that it was not the best time of year to be flying Cuba, which leaves me wondering just how much potential it would have during the peak flying season. We saw some amazing cloud formations. The air was consistently lifty, big solid thermals were abundant, there were lots of helpful and friendly birds, and the launches and landing options were all more than adequate. Generally it was no trouble getting to cloudbase and we could have done some great cross-countries if we had been set up for it. Can you believe our non-flying buddy forgot her driver's licence? Unforgivable! And our Cuban buddies were not allowed to drive rental vehicles (along with all sorts of other general living restrictions). We didn't take radios or GPS with us, as we were advised by the Cuban customs website not to. And my lack of Spanish would have hindered my chances of hitching anywhere useful if I did land out.
The Cubans have also got it sussed when it comes to organised flying. Inevitably they know the person at the bottom of the hill, who has a toilet, food and cold drinks. If you are not up for climbing the sites you can often hire a mule to take three gliders to the top of the hill for you. The kids in the LZ's know how to pack up gliders properly and carefully and love doing it. Ripe mangoes are falling off the trees. One of our gracious Cuban hosts took my non-flying buddy for a tandem early on and it was hard to keep her on the ground after that. I reckon she'll take up flying, it's just a shame she lives in England.
And if you get sick of the endless dinners of pork and congri (rice and beans) you can usually find pizza and mango shakes in most towns. The pizzas are very affordable at eight for $1 (that's more than enough to feed five hungry people) and the shakes are both refreshing and have enough sugar in them to keep you going for a long long time. Cuban beers are good and cheap. And mojitos are a fine way to celebrate a good day flying (even for non-rum drinkers like myself). But only after you've had a refreshing dip in a nearby waterhole or after a great snorkelling session in the clean seas if you are flying coastal.
The last few days in Cuba were particularly sad, knowing our time together was nearly over. The five of us had become quite a tight knit family, and leaving our two intelligent, witty, articulate and fun-loving Cuban brothers was not going to be easy. Not only did they look after us like royalty, but they gave us a rare insight into the magic of their Cuba. It is sad to think that under the current Cuban regime, we may never get the opportunity to return that favour. Our only consolation is knowing it was a mutually enjoyable and educational experience.
When talking about gliders one day, it came out that one of them, who is both shorter and slighter than me, weighed nearly as much as I do. This seemed a little odd, but they were quick to point out that emotions are heavy and he is a man with a deep soul. It is true. These two characters are fine men and Cuba is a wonderful country. Get there before it changes!
cBudget around US$50/day if you are renting a car (around US$20/day if you are not), and make an effort to go to the peso places not the US$ places. And don't forget to take all your old flying clothes and equipment to leave there for them.
Author's second note: Even more important, don't forget your loo paper.