Jerry Siegel is a popular figure in the Santa Barbara area. The consummate volunteer for events and non-profits-he is perhaps best known for his tireless work with the Special Olympics. For that entity, he was the driving force in getting athletes from other countries to stay here in Santa Barbara en route to competing at the Special Olympics World Games last year.
But there are three little known facts about the local attorney. 1. He was a U.S. Supreme Court Law Clerk and worked as a U.S. Federal Prosecutor out of New York, where his area of focus was white collar crime, the Mob, as well as being an ancillary part of the famed French Connection case.
The second thing is, that he is an avid bicyclist who has traveled by two wheels in many parts of the world. Jerry’s latest adventure was last month in Cuba. Endorphinrelease.com asked Jerry about his trek to a land not-yet fully opened to Americans.
Sunrise at Playa Larga
Story and Photos by Jerry Lawrence Siegel
I was originally going to go with a friend from England, but his wife fell ill so I went with this group of 10 Aussies. My friend had signed me up, and I flew to Cuba via Mexico to meet the group for a 10-day trip. I’ve been able to visit Communist countries, the U.S.S.R., China, and Vietnam, but until now was forbidden like any American from going to Cuba, so I jumped at this chance when the opportunity presented itself.
I picked December because that’s when Cuba was supposed to be the coolest. When I got there, it was over 90 degrees with humidity (Laughs)! I met the group near where they launched the Mariel boatlift (In 1980, faced with an economic crisis, Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro made an agreement with the U.S. to let anyone seeking political asylum, to come to America. Over a period of six months, over 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the U.S.)
The interesting thing is, I arrived the day before Castro’s burial, so I ended up watching that on television. The next day, we left on our trip through the western part of the country. The roads were both flat and mountainous and we averaged about 40-50 miles a day. The biggest challenge was not the terrain, but the heat and humidity. Being form California, I wasn’t used to the humidity. We rode early in the morning, but you could really feel the heat. To stay hydrated, you would drink a bottle of water, refill it, drain it, fill it up again and then guzzle it down again. I couldn’t believe how much water we drank! But the scenery was the reward.
Riding west of Havana towards Vinales – mountains and tropical forests – tobacco used in the finest Cuban cigars is grown in this region
Morro Castle is a fortress that protects the Port of Havana
After leaving Havana, we made our way south to the Carribean Coast and made a stop at the shore at the site of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Some of this area reminded me a little of home. Santa Barbarans can relate beaches with beaches everywhere.
Jerry Siegel on the shore near the Bay of Pigs Invasion site
Afterwards we then moved onto the site where (revolutionary) Che Guevara stayed during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Cueva de las Portales, the site where Che Guevara hid out during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Che later left Cuba to go to Bolivia where he was captured and later executed.
Traveling by bicycle, I was able to get a more in depth look at Cuban history. I really learned a lot about the history, the people…things that I didn’t know before. After the tour, I spent two days with my host Oscar Gregorio Martinez and his family. His family was great, they really took me in. I was fortunately fluent in Spanish, so we could converse. And boy they loved talking about post-Castro politics and a lot of things, especially baseball! Through them, I got to experience what Havana was really about, the place, the people. And the food! The food was really simple, very basic, but just terrific.
The accommodations were simple but very clean, as was the entire city. Cubans have great healthcare and education, but they virtually don’t have any money. Traveling is very limited and people don’t have cars. That made the roads not crowded. The vintage cars are used as taxis around town.
Havana’s famed taxis
I’ve been to a lot of countries like this, but I have to say there was no sense of oppression of its people. And I was never forbidden to go anywhere I didn’t want to go. It is a safe place to be and has virtually no crime, possibly because they have capital punishment. They harbor no bitterness towards Americans, just a curiosity. And boy do they love their baseball. Did I say that already (laughs)?
The thing that surprised me was that although Old Havana itself was very clean, it was also really deteriorated. Some buildings are held up by 4 x 4’s. There is virtually no internet even though everyone has cell phones. They are going to need a lot of improvements in the infrastructure to accommodate people if they want visitors to come. I didn’t go to the northeast shore, but I heard that the area is very modern.
Old Havana has a rustic charm, albeit with much-needed improvement
But while they need to fix some things up, it’s a place that has a certain romance because of writers like Hemingway. I think the people make up for the lack of amenities of their country with their warmth and generosity, like my host Oscar and his family did. The people are lovely, high spirited and irrepressible. And after spending time with them, I learned that like everyone around the world, Cubans just want a good life like we do.