How much about Cuba can you discover by traveling through the Viñales Valley on a bike? Turns out, quite a lot.
Moments before my plane touched down in Havana, an Australian had turned to me to ask me why I was going to Cuba. I guess I was not exactly sure myself. As an American, I am not supposed to travel to Cuba, but there is something about a forbidden fruit that makes it tastier than the stuff you can buy at the grocery store. Remember how drinking alcohol lost something once we became of age? Exactly.
After a short stay in Havana, gravitation and my Lonely Planet guide lead me to the relaxed town of Viñales. My guidebook tells me that in 1999 the valley was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. I make a mental note to Google what such a declaration actually entails.
Walking through the slow streets as I make my way to the Cubanacán travel office to rent a bike, a young man rides up flashing me his yellow bike. “You want to rent my bike?” he asks. “Best bike in all of Cuba. Try it out if you don’t believe me”
I give his bike a spin around the block. The gears change and the brakes squeak to an eventual halt. It seems as good a bike as I will find anywhere else and the fake shocks give the impression that the rider means serious bike riding business. I give him five pesos to use it for the day and he tells me to look for him around town when I come back to return the bike. “If you can’t find me just ask anyone where José is.”
With José’s mountain bike cruising underneath me, I set out from Viñales to the seaport of Puerta Esperanza (Port of Hope) on Cuba’s Northern coast, a nice 50km bike ride through the oft-photographed Valle de Viñales.
The ride meanders through a curvy country road between limestone cliffs looming across the green landscape. It is a backdrop of beauty that geology has spent 100 million years sculpting; prehistoric rivers slowly carving underground caverns that collapsed to form the valley, their former walls the cliffs.
Puerta Esperanza itself is a dwindling seaside village whose port has been out of operation since 1951. A place whose present is best understood by romanticizing its past. Its rusty pier stretches out to the sea longingly, reaching out to beckon boats that stopped coming long ago. Unhurried streets are flanked by fishermen’s shanties and ancient mango trees that still bear fruit, a tribute to the 19th-century slaves who planted them.
I eat my sack lunch on the waterfront and send away a disappointed kid who is sure I wanted to buy shells, special shells that only he knows how to find.
Sated from lunch and relaxed from the languorous ambiance, I walk from the retired pier over to a building with Che’s face on the side. Before getting close enough to snap a picture, a shirtless teenager emerges from it puffing a cigar. He tells me that I need to walk back the other way since this is a military zone. I turn around, content that if I am ever asked in any of my frequently absurd bar conversations about a good place to invade Cuba by sea, I can deviously drum my fingers together and say, “I know just the place . . .”
I continue unsystematically walking Cuba’s best bike through the streets, absorbing what I could of the present, smiling and nodding at residents. When I pass a house with several plastic tables in the front yard, a lovely woman rushes out to inform me that I must stop off at her restaurant for a mojito. I agree, taken in by her surprising green eyes and the prospect of a cold drink before the uphill battle back to Viñales.
As I drink she passes my table to cast shy little glances my way. Just before I fall in love, she stops by my table and gyrates her pelvis towards me. “You want fucki-fucki?” she asks. Assuming her proposition involves some sort of financial commitment, I decline. She smiles a suit-yourself grin and walks to the side of her house where she matter-of-factly says to someone I hope is not her husband, “No, he does not want fucki-fucki.”
A few kilometers into my return, my mind drifts off, contemplating the alternate universe where I would have said yes to the woman. Lost in speculation, the seat of Cuba’s best bike suddenly slams down onto the frame. I stagger off the bike to appraise the damage. A man whom I had just passed as he crept along the road on his tractor pulls over to admire the broken seat with me in the universal way males assess all things broken.
He tries to raise the seat to its original height and tighten the bolt, but without success. He shows me how the groves of the screw had been worn down in the place they were needed. “Chinese parts,” he says, “always break. Where are you from? Italy?” I tell him. “Oh! United States!”
He smiles, wild with excitement about my origin and goes back to his tractor where he loosens a nut from under its seat and brings it over to my bike. He places this over the other one, covering the stripped grooves and is able to right the seat. “Cuban creativity beats Chinese garbage parts,” he announces with a proud frustration.
I offer him a few pesos for his efforts but he waves them off indignantly, content for the day with a $12 monthly government salary and his kindness.
Five kilometers down the road, as I am thinking about how my opinions about the embargo had changed since my arrival and wondering whether it will be lifted under the Obama administration, Cuba’s best bike veers violently to the left nearly crashing. The left pedal has snapped off. It lies several yards behind me on the road. I pick it up and hold it in its former position, trying to will reconciliation between bike and prodigal pedal. Chinese trash parts. The metal rod holding the pedal in place has decided that enough is enough, and snapped off.
The road is empty and I’m alone with with Cuba’s most useless bike, 20 kilometers away from the nearest human contact. Without other options, I walk the bike up the road. As other bikers overtake me, I feel self-conscious that I appear to be what my high school track coach would have referred to as “A little wussy boy who couldn’t ride his bike up the big hills.”
I finish off the last of my water and realize I will be lucky to make it back before midnight. I stop and look off into the distance where limestone cliffs shoot shockingly up from the emerald ground. Above it all, the sun blazes intensely from its blue heaven. Why do I never bring enough water? At the top of a hill where I’ve stopped sit three men underneath a tree by the side of the road. They shout to me, “Eh!”
I walk over to them and they extend a plastic glass of rum. “We are drinking rum because it is Saturday!” The rum comes from a little carton resembling a juice box. I raise it high and toast Cuba.
“Oye, where you from?”
“United States! Bush doesn’t let you come here does he?”
“No. That’s sorta why I’m here.”
“Where did you learn Spanish?” he asks, then continues without waiting for my response. “Take another drink of Rum! It’s Saturday!”
The three Cubans are waiting for a car or truck that will take them south. They are beaming and vibrant; perpetually slapping each other on the back to express the pleasure they take in each other’s company. Pablo is round and young; he is not actually waiting for a ride but instead waiting with his friends to keep them company. He is very interested to know if I like Fidel and Raul. I tell him that anyone was better than our last president and he laughs, relieved. I put my bike on its side to wait with them for a ride.
His two friends, Pancho and Luis, are father and son, heading south to visit relatives. Luis is an electrician, militantly hidden behind a pair of aviators. He gives Pancho a look of caution every time he gulps down a swig of rum. “Slowly, we have all day,” he admonishes his son. Pancho just laughs, “Don’t worry papí, Cuba will never run out of Rum!”
After an hour goes by, I ask if there really will be a ride passing. “Yes, yes,” assures Pablo, “you just have to wait. If one does not come in 20 minutes, no problem, I will bring more rum.”
Luis looks at the broken bike suspiciously, mumbling something about the Chinese. When another half hour passes, Pablo brings more rum, “The Cuban way of waiting,” he says as he raises his drink. “Viva Fidel, viva Raul, viva Che y viva la revolución!”
He passes me the rum and I toast Cuba and Barack Obama. The Cubans wait festively while I begin to worry a truck is not coming, impatiently surrounded by incredible natural beauty and unassuming friendliness. After a while the tractor chugs past with its driver beaming and waving while yelling, “America!”
I keep asking them if a truck is in fact going to pass. Pablo laughs off what he calls my American hurry. “No te preocupes,” he says. “One is coming very soon. I can feel it. Here, have a shot of rum. We only drink on Saturdays, and sometimes on Fridays, and always on Sundays because it’s the Lord’s day . . . and on Mondays too if my woman is still angry with me for drinking on Sunday.”
Luis, who has been eyeing my broken bike for a long time, takes out his machete and walks over to a fence post to hack off a large chunk of it. He cuts grooves in the chunk and then fastens it onto the bike with electrical wire. It hangs doubtfully from where the previous pedal has jumped ship.
After a few minutes of staring down his makeshift pedal, he lifts the bike and rides it in circles on the road. Grinning like a child who has gone on the big toilet for the first time, he brings it to me for inspection. I get on the bike and try it out. It works! Cuban creativity has once again trumped Chinese garbage parts.
With the bike once again Cuba’s best, I say goodbye to the trio. They insist I make a toast before I left. I toast Luis and tipsily continue the ride.
On the way back I pass a half dozen cars from the fifties, running on nothing but the Cubans’ will to keep them on the road. I ponder how the Cubans are making it all work. How despite the world’s most powerful country being eager to bring about its collapse for fifty years, the country is still running — at times as crudely as its classic cars, but still running. If the truck never comes, something else does.
Towards the end of the ride, as the sun begins its violet escape behind the limestone cliffs, I look down at my bike’s wooden pedal. The electrical wire is slowly loosening under the strain and will not last long. But it is functional and it will get me to where I am going without needing to go further. It is a temporary solution that allows the bigger problem to be pushed into the deep and hopeful sea of Cuba’s tomorrow.