Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bicicletas de Cuba

During the last week, your humble correspondent was absent from the blogosphere, having undertaken a humanitarian mission to the island nation of Cuba (there was an acute rum surplus that I was helping them out with) (actually, the purpose of my trip was more interesting than that, but if I told you what it was, faithful reader, I would have to kill you). Ever cognizant of my blogging duties, I sought to bring a bicycle-y perspective to my trip by (a) riding a bicycle while in Cuba and (b) taking photographs of bicycles while in Cuba.

The first endeavor proved more difficult than the second. Despite being full of bicycles and rather bike-friendly, Havana has, as best I could determine, no outlet for the rental of bicycles. One bike shop has a sign on its window that says "ALQUILER DE BICICLETAS" (BICYCLE RENTAL), but when I asked inside, they said they don't rent them out anymore. In fact, they seemed not to have any bikes on hand, or even any parts of bikes. What they did have was a lot of tires.

Eventually, I found the solution in the same place where most solutions to vexatious problems are discovered: at a bar. After a long day of walking around Havana, photographing bicycles and engaging in top secret spy business, I repaired to my hotel's sidewalk-front bar for a few ice-cold cans of Bucanero Fuerte and some relaxation. By and by, I put down the book I was reading and got to chatting with the bartender, a bus driver, and a hotel employee charged with playing guitar for the entertainment of tourists (of whom none other than I were present). After about an hour of discursion on divers topics, I mentioned wanting to rent a bike but not having found a place to do it, and the guitarrist offered his cousin's bike, which he averred was in good condition but wanting use. We settled on the price of $10 / day for three days (a princely sum in light of Cuban wages, but a savings for me if I should need to take two cab rides a day, which I would have), and he agreed to drop off the ride the next day.

Rented Bike in Cuba

I would say that this photo, on which you may click to see a larger version, doesn't do the bicycle justice, but in fact the bicycle was not deserving of justice. It was a "Summit" brand, made in China, with the rear wheel sporting but one speed, the threads on the rear axle pretty much stripped, and the chain looped loosely around the smallest chainring. Also, like most bicycles in the world, it was too small for me. But Cuba, of long necessity, is the land of making do, and I figured I should do the same.

I took to the streets on the Summit, pedaling slowly and steadily with my heels to make up for the lack of leg extension. It was a little bit faster than walking. Havana is replete with all-purpose fix-it shops, usually outfitted with a welding rig, lots of tools, and many strange spare parts, along with the most important element of a mechanic or bike shop anywhere in the world: dudes sitting around. I quickly found on of these, and one guy adjusted the seat for me while another engaged me in a lengthy discussion about Barack Obama. After a while, I set out again, now somewhat more comfortable, since I didn't have to bring my knees up to my chest to pedal.

In this way, I roamed the city some. I fell once, when I threw the chain while pedaling up a hill. I had to get off and walk on another hill. I did not go very fast, but I did manage to blend in better than I could on foot, which was nice, because I hate being a spectacle, plus, when people in Cuba notice you and decide you must be foreign, they attempt to call out to you in what they surmise to be your native language. When people made me for American, they had the custom of saying, "Happy holidays," which was initially amusing, then irritating. Sometimes they made me for French or German, in which cases they would say things I couldn't understand, since I don't speak those languages, and I'd respond, in Spanish, "What?" And then they'd say, in Spanish, either, "Oh, I thought you were a [Frenchman or German]," or "Huh! Are you [Spanish, Colombian, Puerto Rican, or whatever country they randomly guessed I was from]?" In addition to parrying these national origin questions, I took some pictures. Here they are:


The ubiquitous Bici-Taxi, preferred short-haul public transit method of Cubans. They come in recumbent-ish versions, as above, and in more upright styles, usually with multiple handlebars welded together (see below) to provide many riding positions (or accommodate many sizes of rider). Many have radios, and some have noisy car horns or horns that sound like car alarms. They go slowly, but steadily.

A driver and his friend wait out an afternoon thunderstorm.

A more intrepid driver labors through the downpour.


Bici-taxis are cool because when they're not in use, they are great for maxin' and relaxin'.

This one says "McQUEEN" on the front. Lightning or Steve?

Here is a typical bike: All utility, one speed, crazy, old-school rod brakes.

Integrated coat rack.


Cargo bikes.

Bike art.

Hotness, thy name is Fiat. (Yeah, it's a car, but it weighs less than a downhill bike and costs less than a road bike. And it is awesome.)


blanca sombreritos said...

Marcel Duchamp's art is channeled in la habana... hola Marcelo Delcampo!

Brendan said...

How come you get to hang out in Cuba while I only get to hang out in the park? Is this the lawyer's life? I want to be a lawyer!

chillwill said...

luckyeee! (not sure how to type it the way Napoleon Dynamite says it) great post! fantastic pics! i need to paddle there, its only 85 miles!

btw, as you mentioned, maxin' and relaxin' in the back of a bicycle taxi when not pedaling is very, very, very, very nice! especially when making out at the beach with your senorita!

El Presidente de China said...

Indeed, chillwill, that is my favorite way to make out at the beach with your señorita.


Sebastian said...

Great pictures. I never seen bikes like that in my life.

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