Chasing Celia – Two Women Bike the Impossible in Cuba’s Storied Past

Iron and Honey

A ride through Cuba’s revolutionary past

 

Words:: Melanie Chambers

“You won’t make it on that bike,” said a Cuban man in Spanish.

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Laden with panniers, our hybrid rigs bounced over chunks of loose pavement, the result of a hurricane several years ago. This day, however, with salt spray in our faces, my guide and I, both experienced cyclists, made out just fine. I imagined that Celia Sanchez, Fidel Castro’s right-hand woman, often felt like this­­­­—underestimated.  

 

Bike and Cuba's flag together


Sanchez was the reason I traveled to Cuba. After reading her biography, 
One Day in December: Celia Sanchez and the Cuban Revolution, I became fascinated by the woman whom Cubans assert was made of “iron and honey.” Both fierce and loving, she developed schools and social programs, yet also participated in armed jungle combat.

Known as “The Mother of all Cubans,” Sanchez introduced other women to the revolutionary struggle with aplomb and style, hiding messages in the flower frequently found tucked behind her ear, faking pregnancy to cross checkpoints, and recruiting fighters in one of the island’s most punishing environments—her home and the rebels’ headquarters, the Sierra Maestra.

The 400-kilometre Sierra Maestra circuit we planned to ride in Cuba’s southwest corner is one of the country’s least visited areas, where farm fields vastly outnumber all-inclusive resorts. I’d been warned that it was “too mountainous to ride,” but cycling seemed the most intimate way to experience Sanchez’s life, covering the same ground she had and staying in family homes called casa particular. Furthermore, it seemed fitting to hire a female guide. Airelis Gomez works at a furniture shop but also guides part-time with Canadian outfit CanBiCuba. With impeccable eyebrows and formidable legs, she embodied the spirit of Sanchez….

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