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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Guantanamo: 11am

Suffocating 33-degree morning from the cool, comfortable, and now overcrowded bus. This small and proud Cuban town had another purposeful yet vaguely familiar bus terminal, reminding me of every other terminal I had arrived at throughout South America on my travels thus far. Two months into my travels, seven or eight terminals later—or was it just one? They had all displayed the same ruthless efficiency, devoid of personality. Entering this Cuban town, the bus terminal gave no hint as to the town’s character.

Armed with the address of my casa particular, I walked towards the taxi stand indifferently, hoping for nothing more from this town than to catch a glimpse of the American prison and hear the thoughts of locals on their infamous town, now a symbol of American hypocrisy and shining human rights commitments. Tired from the bus ride—the stifling heat doing nothing to help—I let the taxi drivers do their job and approach me, an obvious gringo, a head above the other Cubans and 60% whiter, sporting a beard most would only remember from a revolutionary past. I was kidding nobody—fresh meat.

First off the mark was a jovial taxi driver named Gomez, or some ambiguous Latin name. This was to be my first time riding a motorbike taxi in these travels; in fact the first time I would grace two wheels since my unfortunate accident fice years prior. This accident has remained in my memory as perhaps the single stupidest event in my 22-year life. The young, naïve, overweight 16-year-old that I was, stepped onto my father’s motorbike that I had begun learning to ride that week. This fine Saturday was a turning point in my young life, the first weekend my parents had left me alone, with the house to myself. I did as any young New Zealander would have done—put the word out to all my friends at school that this weekend the regular 50 or so drinking buddies and chicas would grace my parents’ empty house.

Early afternoon and trying to pass the time I decided that taking a spin on the motorbike would be a good use of my time. Keeping my father’s weapons in mind (keep them out of reach from excitable drunk teenagers) and the film I had seen the night before, I thought an even better way to pass the time would be to ride around the house on the motorbike with my father’s 12-gauge pump-action shotgun imitating my favourite action star, Terminator 2.

All went well driving around the house, shotgun riding behind me, occasionally stopping to grab the shotgun and shoot off into the distance with only the pump-action’s sound to spur my imagination on. I had my final pass around the back of the house approaching the garage. I felt my role-playing had been a weak effort thus far having yet to shoot the gun while simultaneously driving—my fateful mistake was of course that Terminator didn’t have a pump-action but rather a Winchester-action. This small, inconvenient fact eluded me in the heat of the moment; like an actor center-stage in the middle of a soliloquy whose mind was as far from an interrupting fire drill as was the intricacies of weaponry, or for that matter simple good old-fashioned rationality. Coming down the driveway with gun in one hand, the other steering me timidly down the driveway. Then all of a sudden things turned horribly confusing. From my hazy memory I can deduce that something went terribly wrong with my hand on the accelerator.

As if this was not enough, the concrete wall of the garage—made of cinder blocks stronger than my bones—suddenly and out of nowhere moved into my rapidly accelerating path. This purportedly stationary wall was moved into my line of vision by some great inexplicable metaphysical force, contradicting what I was led to believe—by my fat, sixth form, gambling-addict physics teacher—as irrefutable laws of nature. Newton’s third law of motion however still maintained painful consistency. Needless to say, a broken shoulder later, I vowed never to ride a motorbike again, but riding through Guantánamo streets on the back of an old American bike, driven by a sturdy Cuban driver with the warm Caribbean air blowing into my unprotected face I felt like a minor Greek God. This was the beginning of long, daydreaming sessions whereupon the fanciful notion of buying a motorbike somewhere in South America first occurred to me.

Suffice to say the people of Guantánamo town thought little of their town’s name being defecated on by the prison camp 20km out of town. I asked around, without little more reception than bad words that would make baby Jesus cry. I had wanted to go to the base and simply say to the guard at the front (for I had no desire to enter fearing that I would not return) “What you’re doing here is wrong.” Protest is no reason to lose dignity, and who would take seriously a raving maniac? I asked my family in my casa if it was possible to go out to the base; I was met with a resounding ‘no’ and a look of bewilderment. They clearly wanted no part of it or the possible trouble it would raise with the eminent authorities. Alone it would have to be. Asking around the taxi stands I was met with a similar response. Fine, all is well.

Rent some sort of moving device? That option was also precluded from me. This small town received few tourists and consequently was short on this service. The average tourist to Cuba is European, middle aged, middle class on either a packaged tour for two weeks or with a cheap plane ticket for two weeks, armed with their Lonely Planet books and a small digital camera that no Cuban could hope to own. The remaining minority consists of politically motivated tourists, sex tourists, students and old well-wishers.

Shooting out from the humble pace of small-town Cuban seaside back toward the crash-hum-beep of Latin American metropolises, I flew back to Caracas. I had been here one month previously and had been led around with other political tourists by helpful revolutionaries. They shed light on the progress made from the politically and economically harsh 1980s and 1990s, in which the real wage halved.

I moved onward toward Colombia. After 40 hours in a bus I found myself in another South American metropolis, this time however it was much more agreeable. Bogotá was an undeniably happening city. Vibrant, it was alive with cafes, art galleries, street theatre and the smell of words floated down the cobblestone alleyways. Yet it was another city, and even the freest of people were still oppressed by the millions of lives around them, the mass of concrete dwellings and the sound of frustrated taxi drivers making their way through traffic. There I saw carefree motorcyclists riding helmetless through the traffic. Taking in all the freedom the city had to offer, as envious pedestrians and taxi drivers alike look on to the laughing madmen on motorbikes who’ve tasted the intoxicating thirst-quenching wine of liberation. They were kings upon themselves.


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