Getting off the tourist track, a couple of American bicyclists come across a baseball game and a better understanding of Cuban hospitality.
The one truth we knew about Cuba was that the country is crazy about baseball. That's why most American tourists who wend their way to Havana make it their sporting business to go to a baseball game.
We, or at least the "he" half of "we," just didn't expect to be playing.
My husband and I had signed up for a bicycle trip in Cuba run by a Canadian company. We figured bicycling would be a great way to see the country before the likely flood of U.S. tourism overwhelms the place.
Starting in Havana was exciting: Musicians were everywhere, playing their infectious Latin music; 1952 Chevrolets and fin-backed Cadillacs were basic transportation. We biked by once-fabulous colonial mansions, their crumbling balustrades hung with laundry. Political signs were everywhere _ billboards proclaiming "Seguimos en Combate" (We continue to fight) or "Tenemos y Tendremos Socialismo" (We have and will have socialism).
There were no signs of Fidel. The only cult of personality we saw was of Ernest Hemingway. It seemed like every bar and restaurant boasted of being his favorite haunt.
Then our bike tour headed west. For four days we were headquartered in towns in the lush Valle de Vinales, where rich, red soil grows tobacco and bananas. It was here that we saw the dramatic mogotes, limestone mountains that seemed to rise suddenly from nowhere.
On our first two days we pedaled past farmers tilling the soil with mule-drawn plows. We climbed steep hills where roosters strutted in the nearby grass and crowed at our efforts. Tethered to stakes at the roadside were skinny goats, bony Brahman bulls, exhausted water buffalo and gaunt horses. While people seemed well fed, their animals did not.
In this remote valley, the hamlets were simple clusters of huts with thatched-palm roofs. We passed close enough to see women sweeping their earthen yards in the cool of the morning. Their children were leaving for school, traveling by foot or on the back of a mule.
When we rode by a school during recess, the children, in their maroon and white uniforms, would run to the edge of the road, wave to us and shout, "Hola! Hola!"
We also got see a health clinic that was 9 miles down a pot-holed dirt road. It was quite bare, and its door mat was a pair of old shorts. We got an enthusiastic welcome since a Canadian couple in our group had brought a care package of antibiotics with them to distribute. Medicines can be scarce in Cuba.
The child being examined in the clinic was dressed impeccably in white patent leather Mary Janes, lace-edged socks and a crisply ironed pinafore. When she left, it was by bike: her father pedaling, her mother sitting on the front fender holding onto her precious child as they bumped down the road.
By the second afternoon we checked into the Hotel Horizontes La Ermita, which sits atop one of the series of hills that surround the dusty town of Vinales, population about 4,000. Our rooms were spare, the showers produced only a trickle of water, yet there was still an Old World grace. The mahogany-shuttered French doors in our room opened onto a balcony that looked out on a golden mountain range. And between our balcony and the mountains sat a jewel of a swimming pool and a thatch-roofed bar.
We wandered by the latter for a predinner daiquiri, wearing our New York Yankees hats. They were a bon voyage gift from our son, who was sure, given the popularity of Cuban native and Yankee pitcher Orlando Hernandez ("El Duque" to his fans) that the caps would be of great value.
And they were.
The manager of the bar, Jose, who spoke better English than we spoke Spanish, pointed to our hats and asked, "Are you Yankee fans?"
We explained that our son had given us two Yankee hats "to give to the Cuban people." We talked a little bit about beisbol, and then Jose said, "You must come and see our game tomorrow. Our hotel team is playing."
Then, turning to my husband, Mike, he added, "You must play with us. What position do you like to play, shortstop?"
The game was scheduled for 4 the next afternoon. So after our morning cycling expedition and a brief siesta, we pedaled into town. My husband was excited: A chance to see a game! A chance to play ball!
I was more tentative. We were leaving the safety of the trip's chaperoned paths and venturing into side streets where, for all we knew, people could be overtly hostile to two Americans on fancy 18-speed bikes.
And, because our bikes had no lights or reflectors, I wondered what would happen if the game ran past nightfall and we had to make our way back to our hotel in the dark.
That proved a ridiculous concern: A country that puts 25-watt bulbs in its hotel room lamps _ and limits the number of lamps per room to one _ is not about to have a stadium with mega-watt lights. There would be no ballplaying at night here.
The stadium was just two short blocks off the bustling main street of Vinales. It was about the size of a minor league park. Its stone outer walls were in disrepair, but inside, the field was a beauty _ dazzlingly green grass and an infield with well-maintained dirt basepaths.
We stood near the stands and about 25 feet down the leftfield line.
The players were dressed in an odd assortment of clothing. The third baseman wore a T-shirt, cut-off jeans and deck shoes. The rightfielder was shirtless and in brown jeans and loafers. The first baseman _ the hotel bar manager Jose _ was elegant in khakis, Hush Puppies and the dress shirt he had worn to work.
Then there was the shortstop: He wore a pinstripe baseball uniform and cleats. And he had all the diving moves and sharp throws to support his outfit.
The teams were playing with a ball that was larger than a hardball but not quite as big as a softball. No balls or strikes were called, and the catcher, a position manned by the at-bat team, had only one responsibility: Catch any ball that was not hit and lob it back to the pitcher.
Mike was impressed with the fielding during warm-ups, the centerfielder catching up to a fly ball deep in the outfield and hitting the cutoff man with a perfect throw.
Mike was getting nervous about his ability to play with these guys. But Yankee caps in hand, he waited for the inning to end and jogged to home plate. Everything came to a dead stop.
All these players were probably wondering what a guy wearing Spandex bike shorts and red cycling jacket was doing on their field.
"Hola," said Jose.
"I brought these caps, one for each team," Mike said.
"So, you want to play shortstop?" he responded.
Maybe four decades ago he would have, but for now, Mike decided to forego the honor. "How about catcher?" he asked.
When he crouched behind the plate American-baseball style, the Cubans became alarmed. One of them rushed forward with a chest protector and facemask. Mike waved the gear away, but, following his teammates' gestures, backed up and took his stance about 10 feet from home plate _ where the Cuban catchers had stood. He then spent two innings retrieving balls for the pitcher.
Mike even got a turn at bat, grounding out to the second baseman.
When the game was over, we gave our Yankee hats to Jose. As captain of the winning team, he kept one for himself and gave the second to the captain of the other team.
The next morning, as our touring group assembled early on the hotel's driveway, a small Lada chugged up to the entrance and disgorged six hotel workers. We recognized one as the third baseman, another as the rightfielder. And they recognized us too. They walked over, gave us a high five and, pointing to Mike, swung their arms in an at-bat gesture.
It made us realize that this is why we travel _ why we came to Cuba on a bike tour. Their greetings made us feel that, in this small and struggling country, where people are living under an embargo and through a 42-year-old political system that affects them in ways we can't begin to understand, we had connected.
Penelope Lemov is a writer for Governing magazine in Washington, D.C.
If you go
GETTING THERE: There's been a dramatic increase in sanctioned trips to Cuba. Cultural institutions such as the American Museum of National History in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have put together continuing-education trips to Cuba. So have cultural clubs such as Talk Cinema, which has organizations in several major cities.
Technically, it is not illegal for U.S. citizens to go to Cuba. What is illegal, under the Trading With the Enemy Act, is to spend money in Cuba without first obtaining a license, which is what the sanctioned trips do.
Many Americans ignore the law and enter Cuba via flights from Mexico, Canada or Jamaica. For details on enforcement of the act, contact the Center for Constitutional Rights, 666 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; call (212) 614-6464.
We got to Cuba via the Canadian tour company MacQueen's. The company booked seats for the group on a charter flight from Toronto to Varadero and arranged for all hotels, meals, bicycles and tour guides. The cost of our trip was about $2,000 per person, for one week.
For more information, contact MacQueen's Island Tours, 430 Queen St., Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, C1A 4E8, Canada; the Web site is http://www.macqueens.com; call toll-free 1-800-969-2822, fax (902) 894-4547.
FOOD AND HOTELS: In the countryside, we stayed at three-star (out of a possible five) resorts left over from the pre-1953 days when U.S. businesses invested heavily in hotels in Cuba. With the great influx of Canadian, German and Spanish visitors, Cuba is restoring these, some to greater effect than others. The food in our hotels and the restaurants to which we were taken was uniformly bland and boring. Lunch and dinner typically were rice and beans plus chicken, pork and occasionally fish; for dessert, we were served, in this land of fresh pineapple, canned pineapple rings or pureed guava.
The saving grace: Even the blandest of hotel restaurants had a band playing salsa, rumba and cha cha music, the infectious beat taking your mind off your meal.
It is also possible to eat at paladares, restaurants in private homes. To be legal, a paladare can serve a maximum of 12 people and must limit its menus to the usual chicken, pork or fish and the ever-present rice, beans and plantains. Many legal and illegal ones are all around Havana and even in small towns such as Vinales. The food is often livelier than in the restaurants, with lobster sometimes served.
PAYING THERE: Bring cash. Cuba does not take credit cards from U.S. banks, so any drinks, food or souvenirs you buy are cash-only.