Cycling Cuba cover


By Rosa Jordan & Derek Choukalos

Hundreds of miles of lightly-trafficked highways skirt Cuba’s 3,000-mile-long coast. Hundreds more miles of paved and unpaved roads cut through the island’s four mountain ranges–and all through a culture unlike any other on earth. While the US government has conspired to prevent its citizens from discovering what Cuba is really like, Cuba’s government and its people display an openness that makes this one of the most interesting places on the planet to explore by bike.

Cycling Cuba, produced by Lonely Planet in January 2002, was the first cycling guide to the largest island in the Caribbean. Later in 2002, a US publisher also brought out a guide to biking in Cuba. These remain the only two Cuba cycling guides that have been published to date.


Cycling Cuba steers riders along 42 of Cuba’s best cycling routes, and offers a wealth of suggestions for making the journey a smooth and exciting experience. Cyclists will be seduced by the vibrant Latin culture, amazing scenery and lush tropical beaches of this island country.

From Barnes & Noble:

Climb the weirdest mountains this side of China, see ancient cave paintings on a pristine beach, or do a day trip on Havana's historic boulevard. Find out where to stay from campismos to private homes to beach resorts; where to eat–dining out and pannier fillers for every budget; maintenance tips, plus how to pack and transport your bike; and what to see and do in and out of the saddle.

Cycling Cuba is now out of print, but can still be purchased from various .com book sellers.

Rosa Jordan: Hope, Horror and Hitchhikers. Two Decades of Dangerous Living

Interview by Darren Davidson from the West Kootenay Weekender (Jan 22, 1999)

The life of Rossland’s Rosa Jordan is as much about hope as it is despair. She has witnessed the ugliest human behavior in some of the world’s most beautiful countries, watched devastation cripple already-destitute people, and even escaped the planet’s most dangerous place – a place she once called home.

At 59 years old, Jordan is an accomplished journalist, author, screenplay writer, and activist. In 1997, she published Dangerous Places, an account of her 20 years as a freelance journalist pursuing truths in the socio-political chaos of nations throughout Latin America. From civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador, ferocious earthquakes in Bolivia, a rat-infested jail cell in Ecuador, part autobiographical, the book sounds more like make-believe fodder for an Indiana Jones novel than a true-life account of two decades’ work.

“The thing that captured me about travel, besides the adventure, is that it pushes me past my own imagination, so that it becomes an educational experience beyond every other,” she says.

Jordan’s entire life has been a trip. Raised in Florida, she was a 15-year-old high school dropout who went on to graduate from UCLA in 1970, then to grad school in Mexico. She remembers the first day she drove into view of Rossland’s Red Mountain, part of a North America-wide search for a ski town “with more time” than the quickly-developing resorts elsewhere.

“The day I drove in I knew this was it. I bought a house the next morning.”

That was in 1974. Since then she has split her time between home in Rossland with her husband Derek, a writing studio in Malibu, California, and travel.

In 1998, the Showtime Network aired The Sweetest Gift, a movie for which she wrote the screenplay.

Jordan is currently juggling three hefty projects – development of a small jungle cat reserve in Ecuador, social justice programs for Earthways Foundation of Malibu, California, and a book about cycling in Cuba.

Jordan spoke to The Weekender three days before she and her mountain bike departed for Havana.

Darren Davidson: Of all your accomplishments, one that jumps out of your bio is that you are a high school dropout. Do you think a dropout in 1999 could accomplish the same things you have, as one from the Sixties?

RJ: I consider high school one of the least valuable ways young people can spend their time. I think travel and work experience, getting to know different kinds of people, are more valuable. Life experience would be a simpler way to say it.

DD: You graduated from UCLA in 1970. That must have been a wild time to be a university student, particularly in Southern California.

RJ: Yeah it was (laughing). It was really outstanding. It was political; students were not involved with their own narrow personal concerns but with the larger issues of the world and the country. It changed my world view.

DD: Are we living in a different world today because of the activism of the Sixties?

RJ: It was different then. I doubt it changed things overall. We’ve had a tendency to refocus on narrower concerns. There are always concerned people, but I’m not sure whether their numbers are greater or fewer.

DD: Tell me about your five trips to Cuba.

RJ: We’ve cycled the island twice, and at other times rented a car. Cuba has a gas shortage and there are a lot of hitchhikers. Everyone except tourists were required to pick up people waiting at bus stops. We weren’t required to but we did anyway. We packed the car. On one trip we picked up over two hundred hitchhikers in two weeks. We met a real cross-section of the Cuban people that way.

DD: You say Cuba is one of the most interesting countries in this hemisphere. Is that because it is a communist state?

RJ: No, it has to do with the fact that virtually all the information we’ve been given about Cuba has been misinformation. It’s different, novel—and not capitalist. The average North American goes into culture shock there for the lack of things to buy. You can come into a town of 10,000 and find it difficult to locate a shop selling coffee. But the extraordinary thing about Cuba is its people. Castro has not created a ‘new man’ as he promised he was going to. But his 40 years of emphasis on sharing and working together for the good of the community has made a difference. The people are very open and sharing, not only with me as a foreigner but with each other. Wandering in and out of each other’s homes, helping each other. Part of that is the result of low income, but it’s also their mentality. If a Cuban did me a favor and I offered them money they’d say, ‘I didn’t do that for money. I just did it to be helpful.’ That’s from someone who’s making ten dollars a month.

DD: Is Cuba a safe country to go to?

RJ: I would say it’s the safest country in this hemisphere. By no means dangerous.

DD: So after you’ve finished cycling Cuba you will have peddled four thousand kilometers. You must be in good shape.

RJ: (laughing) Not nearly good enough. I whine a lot when I ride.

DD: As a freelance journalist for twenty years, what did you write about primarily?

RJ: Socio-political issues mostly, in places where I encountered and observed social or political confusion. I did them occasionally for larger papers like the Toronto Star or the LA Times, but usually for small lefty publications in the US.

DD: You’ve encountered some fascinating stories. Can you share a few of them?

RJ: In 1979, I arrived in Nicaragua the morning [ousted dictator] Somoza left, and hitched across the country. He had fled at four in the morning taking all the nation’s liquid assets with him and the national airline, which he landed in Miami. The Sandinistas had just achieved victory and didn’t yet know that it was just the beginning of another war [against the US-backed Contras]. I’ve also made several trips to El Salvador. In 1992, during the last year of their civil war, I drove a donated four-wheel drive pick-up truck filled with supplies, tools, and medicines, from Malibu, California, to Cuidad Romero, a refugee community in El Salvador.

DD: How did you manage to get thrown in jail in Ecuador?

RJ: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A drug bust was happening. There was a known American drug trafficker in the region. Their solution was to arrest all the Americans in this area. My boyfriend and I were just passing through. I managed to throw a note out the window of the jeep as we were being taken to jail. The woman who retrieved the note followed the instruction, which was, ‘Please call the embassy.’ The vice-counsel showed up and got us out [after four days in jail.]

DD: How’s the skiing in Argentine?

RJ: Nice. Chile’s sensational. I was there in September—their spring. There was plenty of snow.

DD: You were in Bolivia after an earthquake. What was that like?

RJ: That was in 1973, in a town high in the Andes. Streets were in rubble. People were living in what looked like bombed-out buildings.

DD: Would that be one of the more difficult scenes you witnessed in your travels?

RJ: No. The more difficult things are like, well, in Guatemala, where I’m doing a social justice project now for Earthways Foundation. In 1982, the Guatemalan military came in and killed all the males over the age of six and made the women and girls watch. The army still patrols through the village. Having to watch people living under the gun is the worst thing to see. The hardest things I’ve witnessed, in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and to some extent Mexico, is where the military is used not to protect but to oppress its own people. It’s terrifying as a foreigner being there, and awful to watch people who don’t have the option of leaving.

DD: Have you been back to Central America since Hurricane Mitch hit?

RJ: No. The area we’re working in is in the mountains, so they didn’t lose their homes but have suffered the repercussions of the shock only indirectly. They were migrant farm workers on the coffee and banana plantations annually, and the crops there are destroyed, so they’re more destitute now than they were before.

DD: It doesn’t sound as though things can get much worse for people in some of the places you’ve been. How can you put that in context for someone living here.

RJ: Well, when things get that much worse, people die. Period. These are people who cannot call on their own government for help. What do you mean how do I put it in context? I don’t know. One thing I will say is that when you are actually among such people, it’s not all negative. There’s a courage which is very beautiful, a sharing, a grace that’s often lacking here. I am amazed by the children of Cuba, for instance, who have virtually nothing by way or toys, yet are way more contented than kids here. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because their lives don’t revolve around ‘things.’ Parents give them time. Sometimes I think it’s possible for material values to overtake human values.

DD: Sounds as though people who live in this part of the world cannot completely appreciate what it is we have, compared to those in places you’ve visited.

RJ: I would also submit that we do not truly appreciate what they have.

DD: What was your motivation to travel to places that seem, to most people, dangerous?

RJ: My motivation has changed. Originally I traveled to get away from where I was, the US South. Then I began travelling for adventure. But the thing about travel that intrigued me most was that it pushed me past my own imagination, so that it became an educational experience beyond every other. I never traveled looking for danger. But I believe that the places perceived as most dangerous often aren’t. For me the most dangerous place is the suburban neighbourhood. The US is extremely dangerous. I have suffered danger there.

DD: How so?

RJ: There are lots of guns. In the homes and on the street. I was attacked when I was a young woman. I’ve had a gun pulled on me. And incessant robberies. In a nice suburban neighbourhood in Los Angeles my house was burglarized six times in five years. When people ask, ‘How can you go to El Salvador during the war?’ I would point out that more people were killed in LA on an average weekend than in El Salvador during a week of war—and this in a population about the same. I guess I believe that there really are no safe places. And I wouldn’t want to quit living because of that. Life is a dangerous place. So why not relax and enjoy it? (laughing).

DD: Do you think the media nowadays does a responsible job of reporting the realities of what oppressive governments are doing in nearby countries, countries with which we are partners?

RJ: No.

DD: Is that because political news from Third World countries doesn’t sell papers or boost ratings?

RJ: I think the media is very biased. Biased toward entertainment, popularity. I’m not convinced journalists understand that the most important thing that they can do is provide background and make connections. They’re a bit too preoccupied with the superficial.

DD: Is there such a thing as investigative journalism anymore?

RJ: Very little. There are a few around that I admire deeply like Jonathan Quitney of the Wall Street Journal. There are some really good ones. But much of the funding for investigative journalism has dried up.

DD: Would you consider a show like “60 Minutes” to be investigative journalism? It seems to be the benchmark for our times.

RJ: Well, they do some of it. Television in general I don’t think has the capacity to do what print journalism could do because of its short time frame and its need to dramatize. You know, more emphasis would be given to the rescue of a whale under a polar ice cap than to the elimination of an entire species.

DD: Talk about your effort to save the small jungle cats in Ecuador.

RJ: I once rescued one of these cats from a hunter in Mexico, a margay. It’s like a miniature ocelot, about the size of a house cat. I brought her to my home in Mexico, and later to Colorado, where she was hit by a car. It occurred to me that there are really no safe places left for these animals. I wanted to do something environmental on my own, apart from just giving ten dollars to Greenpeace. My daughter and I came up with the idea of trying to develop a reserve for this particular species, and we did, in northern Ecuador, near the Columbian border.

DD: Do you think people in wealthier countries like Canada will ever be able to convince governments of poorer nations,  specifically those with indigenous peoples, of the long-term viability of ecotourism versus industries like forestry and mining?

RJ: No. I’m not sure you can even convince the indigenous people of that. But for those groups that are interested in preserving the environment, we can try to support the development of non-destructive projects. For example, we went into the Ecuadorian Amazon to set up a reserve there because an indigenous tribe, the Secoya, asked us to. But Occidental Petroleum came and offered a great deal more, and the tribe decided to let the company proceed with petroleum extraction in their territory. All it saw were the economic rewards, not the environmental, health, and social damage. Like the Northern Alberta First Nations tribes that sell off all their timber. Timber money is immediate. Ecotourism, if it comes at all, takes an investment which they don’t always have.

DD: With regards to the script you wrote for the TV movie, The Sweetest Gift — how does one go about selling a successful Hollywood screenplay?

RJ: I have no idea (laughing. I wrote it about five years ago, with no contacts in Hollywood and no marketing skills. I had written an unsuccessful book about a girl who worked in a massage parlor in LA, a semi-prostitute. She subsequently went to work for the film industry. She knew I was working on the screenplay and asked if she could show it to her boss. He showed it to somebody else and ultimately a producer got hold of it who liked it and worked on it till he got it funded. I really had nothing to do with that.

DD: Fate.

RJ: I think that’s what it was.

DD: What do you value?

RJ: (pausing) I value hard work, creativity, personal initiative, a sense of community. I really believe that quote, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”