Cuban Harley Culture

In the introduction to my forthcoming book (see note 1), I muse briefly on how similar Havana (my adopted city) is to New York (my birth city): the garbage and grit; taxi drivers with higher degrees; the self-contained neighborhoods – it all feels very familiar. Another characteristic both cities share is they teem with subcultures worthy of an urban anthropologist. Poets and punks, gym rats and drunks, shylocks, gamblers, sluts and thieves: here, like there, we’ve got the full spectrum of human passions, vice and interest crashing together like waves on the Malecón.

This past weekend, I was (gratefully, willingly) thrust into one of Cuba’s most prismatic and emblematic subcultures and scenes: I rode along on the country’s first Harley rally. For the record: the trip from Havana to Varadero was only the third time I’ve been on a Harley in my life. The first was a joy ride in what was clearly foreplay and a bid to get something more corporeal between my legs than a thundering motor (in this the fella failed, for which I’m thankful: at that destructively drunken point in my life, the last thing I needed was to hook up with a biker bartender). The second was a thoroughly platonic and enjoyable ride home from the year-end party in Habana campo hosted by the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) and the third time was this past weekend, when over 50 riders made their way to Varadero on pre-1960 bikes from as far as Pinar del Río and Camagüey for three days in hog heaven.

As you may imagine, my muse was working overtime in this new and captivating environment, populated by cool people with their own language and subtext. Since everything I know about biker culture I learned from Easy Rider and Altamont, I was keen to experience the 1ro Encuentro Nacional de Harlistas Cubanos firsthand.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Al contrario: I was inspired and surprised. Because although as a group these folks cultivate and maintain an identity wholly dedicated to, nay obsessed with, Harley Davidson, they remain, al fondo, 100% Cubano.

If you know Cuba from the inside, you know this subculture phenomenon – be it goth, gay, or black – hasn’t always fit in well or properly with the macro unity concept that is the glue for us here in one of the world’s last bastions of socialism. Of course, when there’s USAID or other sovereignty-compromising dollars in the middle, peor todavía. Worse still with reason since I believe all human relations should be driven by mutual respect, regardless if it’s in the realm of sex, economics, culture or politics. In short: you don’t tell me how to live, work or play and I’ll return the favor.

What was even more striking still was that on the whole, these Cuban bikers are more closely connected to their global counterparts and importantly, their US brethren, than any other community I’ve encountered here (see note 2). As a group, they speak (almost) as much English as the slickest jineteros and what’s more, the main biker groups here – LAMA and Harlistas Cubanos – have foreign membership, long timers like me who live here and love bikes. And the mix works seamlessly because beyond the bikes, gear, and foreign presence, what grounds and unites these folks is their Cubanilla, with all the idiosyncrasies good and bad that implies.

Even before we rumbled out of Guanabacoa towards Varadero, the gossip was flying. And believe me: these Harley folks are more chismoso than a kitchenful of bored housewives. I learned all about Antonio’s marital strife; the petty divisions and squabbles among different riders and groups; and how Vladimir got his hog and Oscar lost his. Thanks to the gossip mill, I was privy to the anonymous alcoholic’s struggles and how much Fulano paid for the silicon tits and ass of his funny, sexy, back seat Betty. The grapevine was heavy with juicy fruit, but what impressed me the most was the handful of folks who didn’t gossip. Those are the ones to ponder further, I figure – above all because I abhor gossip as an entirely negative pursuit. With the anti-chismosos, I’d found my people (see note 3).

What also struck me as totally Cubano was the fury for everything with the Harley Davidson logo. I know brand loyalty is common to riders the world over, but Cubans can go overboard like nobody’s business – especially when it comes to logos and bling. And this was no different: there were boots, belts, shirts, jackets and vests, jewelry, headbands, bandanas, flags, stickers, and business cards all emblazoned with the Harley label. Boy, did I ever look out of place with my Hawaii-kine style, particularly when everyone was throwing devil horns and I’m waving the shaka. But while I may have looked out of place, not for a moment did I feel out of place – another sign you’re hanging with Cubans.

If you know this place and manage well in Spanish, you know that there is no one who can make and appreciate a good joke like Cubans – especially when the joke’s on you. And these bikers are tremendous jokers – jodedores constantly dando cuero. No one is spared, least of all me, and these Harlistas ribbed me good-naturedly at every opportunity: about how I leaned into curves (not that well, apparently; ¡que pena!); about my addiction to roasted pork (see note 4); and my penchant for hopping on the back of anyone’s motorcycle, anytime. I’m sure they have words in biker parlance for promiscuous back seat bitches like I was this weekend, but in my case, it ended with a forged love note that had everyone busting a gut. But at least I fared better than another foreigner who had his gold chain vicked by a muchacha ‘fren’ giving him a massage; he never heard the end of it.

But what most drove home the Cubanilla for me was that bedrock Cuban principle driving relations on-island and off which these folks have in spades: what matters above all else is family. Blood, extended, new and departed. And it wasn’t only the adorable kids along for the ride (many in mini Harley gear), but how you know your back is covered when someone falls ill or that someone will lend a hand when you need a new part, mechanic, or lover and an ear when you’re down. As a group, the Harlistas Cubanos function as one big, complicated – dysfunctional at times, but happy all the same – family. United by their love for their bikes, the road, and their patria.

It’s a weekend I’m sure I’ll never forget. If you’re in Havana and want to experience what I’m talking about, stop by their weekly event at La Piragua (Malecón and Calle O, in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional), held every Saturday at 5pm. You just might get lucky and spot me in some colorful get up on the back of a hog, throwing a shaka to my new friends-cum-family.

Notes

1. A perennial work in progress that’s like a so good, but so bad lover you know you should finish with but somehow can’t (or won’t), I’m determined to get this sucker published in 2012.

2. Granted, I don’t hang out with dissidents who are all up in that foreigner action – and not in a good, healthy way like this bunch.

3. Also a sign of my people: so many Harlistas smoke cigars and give them away like candy, I smoked none of my own stash the whole weekend and returned to Havana with healthy stores thanks to their generosity.

4. And let me tell you: the three puercos asados they laid out for the farewell lunch were the tastiest I’ve had in 10 years here, trumping memorable pigs eaten in a bohio in Pinar del Río, on a secluded beach in Las Tunas, and during carnival in Holguín.

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29 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

29 responses to “Cuban Harley Culture

  1. Ole

    I liked the story, but it was spoiled for me by the gratuitous, and political Anti-US slam:

    “In short: you don’t tell me how to live, work or play, and I’ll return the favor”

    Please forward a copy to Fidel & Raul with all possible Haste! They seem to have missed that particular message some 53 years ago.

    I’ll still give you a Shaka back when I see ya’! I named one of my boats that, years ago. Had a Great airbrushed rendering on the transom!

    hasta lumbago,

    Ole

  2. Wow, wow, and wow. Before I was born, my father was a biker. He actually gave up his bike when my mum told him she was pregnant with me. I think that’s why I’ve always had a fascination with the biker gangs and I had no idea there was a subculture like this in Cuba. Wow.

    If I could even catch a glimpse of this when I visit Cuba in December, I’ll be a very happy girl.. :D

    • These folks definitely give new meaning to the word “gang!”

      Every Saturday at La Piragua (Calle O y Malecon), there’s a fun pena with the Harley clubs, antique and sports car clubs and more. 5pm. There you’ll get more than a glimpse!

  3. Pingback: Cuban Harley Culture | connergo's Blog

  4. Dan

    Hey Conner- we bumped into the LAMA crew in Vinales last year and they certainly operate differently than “gangs” here in the US- a nicer bunch of bikers will never be found. And, anything with 2 wheels works for LAMA, no snobbiness about “the marque”, cool old 2-strokes parked alongside the hogs and Brits….. and they were happy to talk to me even tho I was on the person-powered 2-wheeler!

    • Yeah, Im the person-powered two wheeled rep when hanging with this bunch!

      What was interesting to me as a newbie was the total lack of snobbery: even the folks on rice racers (Japanese bikes) were welcomed w open arms…

  5. Brian

    Hola Conner,
    Actually have been considering an old Enfield from India (now motorcycles, used to be guns…:) .

    It would be amazing to ride with you all!

    Brian

    • Bro!!! por fin you’ve decided to join the conversation! The “experts” here tell me there is not one Enfield left in Cuba. Me? Im looking at a Triumph. Watch out! besos

  6. Great video of this first trip is here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=458763537470502

    Im in a shot or two!

  7. Sweet video (with music and English subtitles) of this event, courtesy of Cuba Absolutely http://vimeo.com/43027314

  8. Pingback: Havana Bad Time (see note 1) | Here is Havana

  9. This might be my favorite article of your so far. How was it riding along the country side on a bike? It had to be great right? One question though… where did they get these Harley’s and how did they afford them? These are pretty expensive even in the US.

    • All these bikes are pre-1959 (Cuban revolution). they are old and expensive (for cuban standards) to keep running, but worth every penny from what the guys always tell me.

      You can read more details about the history of the bikes in this month’s issue of On Cuba Magazine (print version; don’t know if they got it up on the site yet, they were having difficulties and my connection here in havana is too slow to check!)

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  11. maninhavana

    Hi Conner,
    I love your writing, as always, and the way you describe Cuba. I wish I could have been there for the motorcycle rally. I’ll bet it was a blast.
    You may be interested to know that two other organizations featuring Cuban Harley riders, besides LAMA, are MOCLA and Habana Harley.
    Here’s a link to more info on MOCLA, Motos Clásicas de Cuba: http://www.suizacildrencuba.ch/Mocla/Association%20Friends%20of%20Cuba%20-%20Harley_files/harleyi.htm.
    Here’s a link for Habana Harley:
    http://habana-harley.com/
    In August, I published a 181-page book on Cuban Harley riders. It contains more than 1,000 photos and dozens of interviews with Harlistas. It was designed for iPad You know I’m going for a real niche market – bikers who use iPads.
    Anyway, the book is available on the iBookstore:
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/cuban-thunder/id547990081?mt=11
    Saludos,
    Tracey

    • Hey Tracey – thanks!! I didn’t know about your Harley passion (or maybe I did – things are a little loco lately!)

      yOu might check out my article in On Cuba about the rally; also MOCLA doesn’t exist anymore, according to my Harley buddies.

      I wish I had an iPad and could check out your work. Anyone out there want to donate? Gratefully accepted!

  12. Thanks, Conner – I will check out your article in On Cuba. Too bad about MOCLA. I guess it’s not easy to keep these organizations going. Hope to see you the next time I am in Cuba. I am a faithful fan of yours… Cuidate, Tracey

  13. After reading some of your articles, I’m laughing at those who honestly believe that sending american tourists to Cuba will carry democracy to the island. I’m leaving a link to your blog in a couple of places. If they don’t read by themselves, they will say you’re not real and I’m just inventing you.
    So you like rock’n roll?, here (http://www.puntoyseguido.us/lomdlv.html), I’m playing cuban bands eventually, next sunday nov 11/ 2012 I will be playing some cuban metal again.

    • Welcome to my world Iyamiami. And while it seems like you’re calling me a tourist (1. ouch; 2. false) and anti-democratic (1. fascist is more like it, all my friends tell me so; 2. today is the big election day and if there were 2 words to indicate democracy doesn’t work in its US form they are “hanging” and “chad”), Im glad you stopped by to spread the word about Cuban metal and your program. This will definitely interest some of my readers. I can’t listen to it due to bandwidth problems, but if you ever get a program on Sirius/Xm. let me know!

      Also, I see you’ve posted my link to the Harley post on Yoani’s blog (oops! I just threw up a little in my mouth!) which is sending me some nice traffic. Gracias…

  14. Oh no, by any means, where did I call you antidemocratic?, please…..being a democratic person is not enough to spread democracy, but that doesn’t mean that you are antidemocratic at all…now I did call you a tourist, but only because all I see in your articles is the respectable perspective of an american tourist about Cuba.
    I share the same sensation of throwing up a little when visiting Generacion Y, but probably for different reasons than you, I put the link there precisely because Yoani Sanchez is one of the persons who is asking for american tourists. Now if you really want to vomit, I suggest cubadebate.
    Sorry, I honestly forgot about band width, we will be in satellite radio during the first months of 2013 (if we don’t change our mind) I will let you know if. Thanks for your answer..

  15. Hola Miami

    Funny, for a “regular Cuban” you sure seem to lack the most evolved and coveted of Cuban characteristics: a sense of humor! (But you have that sabe-lo-todo in spades por dios).

  16. Well, to be a democrat, you are very good censurando comments that only expressed respetuosamente a different point of view than yours….so, nobody is perfect, but, what was the joke that I missed? Zapata dying in a jail? Good luck with your excelent sense of humor.

    • Im not sure what you’re driving at, but since I work on evidence base: of 2.479 comments posted on this blog in the 2 or so years Ive been doing it, I’ve only not published a total of two comments, ever. And I never alter people’s comments. I did have to go back and delete some already published comments on Those Faithful Cubans post when the jeva of a certain nawey discovered the “prima”, sparking a cyber passion play acted out in the comments section. But that’s another story…..

  17. Really? then somebody must have stolen my comment of november 6 at 10:17 PM, the one you replied judging my sense of humor and calling me a sabelotodo. But that’s fine. I have some more. Feel free to delete this one too.
    Less than 3000 comments in two years? My blog has 19212 in one year and I’m not even a journalist…but let’s face it, all written by sabelotodos without sense of humor like me. We are a plague. Bye connergo,

    • I dont know of what you speak – Ive received 2 comments from you, both of which I published.

      PS – fewer than 3k comments in 2 years doesn’t bother me a bit. on the contrary: Ive always been a quality over quantity type of gal. Along the lines of: ‘its not the size of the sword/hammer/pipe, but how you use it.’

      Ciao pescao!

  18. Pingback: Birth of a Biker Bitch | Here is Havana

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