Bill and Joe’s Cuban cycle adventure

Summer 2005

RMT members Bill Rawcliffe and Joe Sheridan were among 28 cyclists who raised an amazing £19,000 for educational aid to Cuba in the CSC’s sponsored bike ride to Cuba in April

Thanks to the tremendous generosity of friends, family, workmates and many RMT branches and regional councils the minimum funding required to participate in the CSC Cuba Cycle Challenge 2005 was achieved and then surpassed.

Monies raised will be used to purchase vital education equipment for disabled Cuban school children.

Then it was the hard bit; our challenge to cycle 350 kilometres across Cuba from Trinidad on the Caribbean coast over the Escambray Mountains and to Havana, on the Atlantic coast.

Whilst for some, the distances were not particularly challenging, the heat, which was in excess of 33°C some days, coupled together with some steep and lengthy hill climbs ensured everyone had to work hard. However, the rewards were tremendous. It is a unique way to see the country and meet the people, some of the scenery was dramatic and to cycle through tiny villages and see how people live away from big cities and tourist resorts was totally refreshing.

But the highlight for me were the Cuban people, always smiling, always happy, curious as to what we were doing and why and despite having very little in terms of western consumerism, generous to a fault.

Cycling through Sitiecito I passed an elderly gentleman on a rusty old Chinese cycle complete with a cardboard box tied on the back. He shouted a greeting and waved. I waved shouting ‘Ingles’. Several kilometres further on the elderly man reappeared. He opened the box on the back of his cycle and motioned me towards him and handed me four fresh mangoes. I attempted to protest; he only had eight in the box but shaking my hand got on his cycle and left.

We were greatly impressed by the sheer number of schools; they were everywhere we went, the children always shouting and waving, which brings me to why we were actually there, having completed the cycling, which for me was no mean achievement, we attended the May Day Rally in Havana’s Revolution Square, together with some 1.3 million Cubans ‘singing the Internationale’ was something to behold.

The next day we travelled to Havana’s Abel Santamaría School for blind, partially sighted and disabled children. Having had our introductions and presented the school with initial gifts, which included speaking calculators and a speaking watch for each of the 144 children at the school, we were invited to see every corner of the school.

The experience left everyone visibly moved and more than one of the men reduced to tears. It was a marvel to see the dedication of the teachers and what can be achieved with so little. Visually impaired children learning the 2X tables with wooden blocks, a small blind boy sawing a piece of MDF with such vigour and enthusiasm; the saw was so blunt he was almost burning through the wood. The art and craft classes, where the children were making the most beautiful models and pictures, despite a crippling shortage of basic equipment such as glue. A small computer room where a blind boy, having learnt the keyboard by heart, could be left to use a computer alone by listening to taped instructions. Partially sighted children learning to type on archaic machines. The school has over 60 teachers, doctors, nurses, and support staff for 144 children.

The experience was indeed moving; these children are the ones branded by the United States as terrorists a threat to their very survival! The illegal economic embargo causes shortages in the most basic school materials including glue, paint and paper. We were told how the United States holds the patent on Braille equipment and will not allow anyone to sell the equipment to Cuba.

Why was it so moving? It is hard to pin down; it’s a mixture of rage at the United States, embarrassment at our own government’s craven support, self-pity that despite our own massive wealth and resources, children here in Britain are not as well looked after, but overall it was an overwhelming sense of hope for the future that these children represented.

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