My New Cuban Love Affair

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]So it’s International Women’s Day (see note 1) and a full moon – two events which occasion a certain randiness and frisk in these parts. And I’m feeling particularly frisky these days thanks to my new love affair with a certain Francis.

Francis is my new bike.

My trusty steed…

Before I wax poetic on the new steed between my legs, let me take this opportunity to digress a bit with a few words about the personification of one’s transport.

I was once in love with a guy who drove a truck – lived with him for over four years actually – and it fell to this unlucky fella to teach me to drive (see note 2). During my schooling, he also taught me the importance of naming your vehicle. Your car (or truck or bike) has a personality, he explained. You need to communicate with one another and work together. A name facilitates this inorganic synergy between man, movement, and machine; completes the anthropomorphic picture so to speak. I took his point. The one and only car I owned (co-owned and only for three months), was a beat up Audi named Otto. My mom’s Subaru is Harriet the Chariot. My sister’s 1982 Peugeot is Bruce. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Rocinante, Mugsy, and Hoss – great cars all.

When I got my new bike, I knew I had to have a name.

But after a month zipping across Puente Almendares, pedallling the pristine macadam bordering Parque Monte Barreto, and bracing my ass against potholes and train tracks, I still didn’t have a name. Clearly it was time for outside counsel. I put it to my friend Lucia, she of the Bambi filets

Her first question: male or female?

Ever-practical, Lucia cut to the obvious question I’d failed to ask. I had been so focused on a name that would translate equally well in English and Spanish, that I’d completely neglected to consider gender. Standing there in her bedroom it occurred to me that I didn’t want only linguistic inclusivity, choosing a name that would make sense in both my languages, I also wanted gender inclusivity.

“How about something gender neutral?” I wondered aloud.

“There aren’t many gender-neutral names!” Lucia’s 10-year old wunderkind piped up. After a few beats she asked: “How about Michel(le)?”

“Good one!” I said, knowing that girls of a certain age (even hyper talented Cuban ones) need encouragement and positive reinforcement. “But this bike doesn’t seem like a Michel(le).”

Wracking my brain for neutral names I’d come across in Cuba, I asked: “How about Francis?”

And a bike was born.

That was a long digression, I know, but I’m taking the Vin Scelsa defense here (see note 3).

_____

 I first cut my two-wheeled teeth in Manhattan (site of my one and only drunk “driving” accident, when I went down hard in a greasy Chinatown alley, erasing a patch of freckles the size of a one peso coin in the process), then in San Francisco, and now in Havana.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to glide along a deserted big city street under a moon so full it makes even me want to lactate, there’s something of the magical hidden from you. Every city has a side that only night owls see, of course – anyone who has walked home from a bar or ballgame in the wee hours has experienced this frisson with a city’s secret side. It’s exciting and slightly illicit somehow. With the wind in your face and the caresses of night billowing your hair and clothes about the faster you pump the pedals only heightens the sensation. Whether I’m coasting down Paseo or along Avenida 31, dodging potholes in Playa, or startling stray cats from their dumpster diving, on my bike I feel free in a way approximated only by orgasm. In short, city cycling unshackles something in the spirit.

Gliding through Havana’s landscape on a bike makes me look at things differently from when I’m walking (or driving, it goes without saying). I’m higher up for one. I see over hedges and into windows. I discover shortcuts and side streets I didn’t know existed. I note every parked car (my greatest – and most realistic fear – cycling in Havana is that I’ll get “doored”) and each driveway. In my experience, riding in a city requires a level of alertness not necessary while walking and opportunities for observation not possible while driving, which makes me keenly aware and appreciative of my surroundings while mounted.

I carefully consider other cyclists now and their habits, from the old dudes who poke along, pants rolled to the knee, to the shirtless young studs who ride as confidently as any Midtown bike messenger, cigarette dangling from their lips. The deplorable state of Havana’s street lighting is hammered home on these late night jaunts, as is the real possibility of encountering a drunk driver. And is there any city that smells like this one? Pedalling along, I get glancing whiffs of savory sea mixed with the off-putting tang of rotting garbage and wet earth if it has rained, dried leaves if it hasn’t.

By day, Francis takes me wherever I need and want to go: to check my PO box across town; to immigration; the grocery store; the theater; and my sister-in-law’s house. Errands that used to take an entire morning using public transportation are completed in an hour or two with Francis. Friends I put off visiting because they live far away now have me landing on their doorstep any day, any time. This in itself is liberating, not only for the time and money I save, but also for how refreshed I feel when I arrive – tired, sure, but refreshed like after a long swim or hot bath.

And oh, how the boys seem to like a girl on a bike. Perched on Francis, riding along 3ra Avenida or the Malecón, I bask in all the piropos trailing me as I pedal by: ‘¡Mami, llévame!’, ‘Que rica estás, rubia’, ‘¡Ay! Si yo fuera tu silla, mi cielo’ make me smile. And the best part is that I can mutually admire these men of all type and stripe and then be safely, happily on my way.

This post is dedicated to Chris and Alexis M, and Julia F who made my partnership with Francis possible; and to Cornelius S who introduced me to the joys of cycling the big city.  

Notes

1. Though largely ignored or unknown in the United States, International Women’s Day, observed each March 8th, is a huge deal in Cuba when every guy shows appreciation for the women in his life with flowers and shouts of ‘¡Felicidades!’ Even strangers proffer the celebratory phrase and many restaurants gift a single gladiola to all female patrons on March 8th. It’s one of the silver linings of machismo, I guess. 

2. I’m fond of making rules for others to live by – have been ever since I declared several decades ago that white people should not have dreadlocks. More recently, I’ve decided that men – I don’t care if it’s your dad, brother or lover – should not teach women to drive. It just adds to the universe’s general conflict and woe.

3. Vin Scelsa has been making what’s known as freeform radio for some 40 years now. His show Idiot’s Delight helped shape the paradigm which holds that the DJ can play and importantly, talk about, whatever the hell he wants. As you might guess, Vin talks a lot on his show, often about stuff not at all music-related. And as he’s fond of pointing out: if you don’t like it, change the station. Precisely my philosophy at Here is Havana.

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27 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban phrases, environment, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

27 responses to “My New Cuban Love Affair

  1. Kelly

    Hi Conner, have taken many bikes to Cuba. Ride them while we’re there, leave them for people who can benefit (everyone) from having a bike. People look at us (strangely) at the airport with our bike boxes and ask questions (price to bring etc). I hope your readers will take note and realize it’s not too much to bring their old bikes that are sitting in the garages collecting dust to someone who could use it.

    I have 4 lined up (2 adult and 2 childrens) for our group to take in March. Our community is very outdoorsy and we all ride for pleasure and as transportation. We always know before we go who will get the bikes. We love our daily bike rides in Cuba and have met and seen some of the most interesting people and sites (we’re not City people in Havana isn’t going to happen). We met (a) the postman in Varadero, I thought he was selling something but he explained how he delivers mail (yelling out on every street), When we told our friends about meeting the Postman they enquired how we received our mail, we explained that it is delivered to the door everyday, there were surprised. How about a post on mail (delivery) in Cuba!

    Enjoy Francis and let me know if you need a patch kit.

    • Yes! Yes! Yes! Its easy and cheap to bring and leave a bike here. Especially for you Canadians. Please do consider it next time. The demand for bikes has always been healthy but I predict w rising prices and increasing undependibility of public trans, the demand for bikes is going to skyrocket. I know we could use a couple more at our weekly bike polo matches!

      Thanks for writing in and the offer of the patch kit – I tend to frequent my neighborhood ponchero….

  2. Couldn’t agree more about the joys of city biking. People say, “Isn’t it stressful?” But I find it remarkably mind-clearing: you can only focus on that one task, and not on all the other tedium. And the physical change of perspective, as you point out, is great–it’s fun to be taller!

  3. Love this post Conner. Good to see you finally stuck the fun between your legs!!!

    Note: From one bike fan to another, you should know that when you’re pumping your legs for all they’re worth atop Francis, you’re actually “pedalling” your gender neutral companion. If you were also selling your wonderful stories out of a basket on Francis’ handlebars then you’d be “peddling” your wares at the same time. Keep the tales coming!

  4. Dan

    The standard airlines bike box is an excellent way to bring stuff to Cuba, pack in whatever will fit along with the bike because (at least the last few times I have done this) the cost is the same regardless of weight, whereas other luggage gets charged by the kilo. Eighty bucks was the most recent bike box charge, I think, well worth the cost when you see how useful and needed the bike is in Cuba! and, you KNOW that the cubans will keep it running forever even if they have to weld stuff to it to repair it. And yes as many tires and tubes as you can squeeze in also….

    • Great tip, Dan. From where and how do you travel (charter, third country)? This also is a factor….

      • Kelly

        Hi Conner,
        I know Sunwing only charges $30.00 for each bike and they can only weight I think 30KG or you are charged extra. Super simple and bike boxes can be picked up at most bike shops. We always pack the extra tubes and tools in the boxes (but keep the weight in mind) Kelly

      • Dan

        my trips are all from Montreal, the nearest airport to my US home with regular flights to Cuba, and OCCASIONALLY the agents at he Cubana desk will allow excess luggage without a massive surcharge if they know it is going to be left in Cuba….. worth a try….

      • I’ve also seen a $20 tip to Cubana counterpeople (in Havana, granted) work wonders! Thanks for the tips Dan.

  5. Candysita

    Felicidades on your new relationship!
    I wish for you as satisfying and fullfilling affair with Francis as I have had with my Mercedes (Meche for short after the babe on the Mexican novella Las Aparichio) for the past 16 years.
    After thousands of kilometres, we are both older, not so pretty, have wide seats, but are still strong as a horse. Our joints are a little creaky but nothing a little lubrication won’t cure. We have only one speed (slow) unless we are flying down a hill and sometimes it is difficult for us to stop quickly. We have not joined the high-tech world and there are no hand brakes or gears for us. Our colour has faded from a fire-engine red to a washed-out pink, but we still get ogled on the street, especially when I am wearing a short skirt and Meche her kick-ass wicker basket.
    When we first met, we were greeted with obvious stares and smiles, because those in our small town in the Oriente were not accustomed to Yuma girl-on-girl action, but now several other women have discovered the joys of a two-wheels and the freedom it allows you.
    It, as any relationship, will be a learning experience. You will both come to an understanding of how to either hike your short skirt down, or bunch your long skirt up to avoid entanglements. After a few months of bumpy roads, test the rigidity of Francis’s saddle to avoid getting a “thrill” of the worst kind, should it be jarred a little loose. Sometimes, in our old age, we both forget to slow down at a horse-dung filled puddle and both have to have a bath when we arrive home. Meche loves being clean and grime-free.
    Guard your new love carefully. There is not a day goes by that I am not offered money for my dear Meche and many men covet her for themselves, saying, despite her age ( circa 1960’s) she is the prettiest thing they have seen and she reminds them of their youth and less worrisome days gone by. There will always be someone trying to steal Francis from you. And should you have to part for more than a couple of weeks, wrap your beloved in oil soaked pages of Granma to keep the ravages of time (and salt) from spoiling Francis’s splendour.

    • Awesome comment and tips Candy! Ive been donning short skirts and tights, but this winter has been so mild (read: HOT) that this is becoming unsustainable. I’ll have to master the short skirt tug and long skirt bunch before long….Meche sounds like a keeper! And thanks for the maintenance tips: I feel I need a tune up class already – Havana’s streets are wreaking havoc on my dear Francis.

      Ive got a great lock and a snap off seat which, together with the parqueadores *should* keep him safe. It’s too bad there are so few bike parking lots these days. One of the upsides of the Periodo Special was how bike friendly this city was, with designated lanes and parking lots.

      Some friends are trying to get me on the Cine Pobre bandwagon and Im thinking of returning to Gibara after many years’ absence. Tips?

  6. Candysita

    Mi hija, I have sent you facebook message on tips for Cibe Pobre

  7. Pingback: My New Cuban Love Affair | connergo's Blog

  8. Another great piece Conner. For those flying from the UK, Virgin will transport your bike FOR FREE! From their web site:
    >>If you’re planning a cycling trip and only your own ride will do, you’ll be glad to know you can bring your bicycle with you at no extra charge – as long as it doesn’t weigh more than 23kg.<<
    That seems like a deal to me…..
    xxx

  9. Hi Conner! I’m so happy that you love your bike and that it’s making such a difference in your life. Alexis and I are missing our Cuba days big time (especially as I sit here looking out at the wet snow falling in the street).

    We found getting our bikes to Cuba rather easy. We fly pretty often with our them. In case anyone wants to know our method (there are many), here’s what we do! Remove the wheels, pedals, seat and bars and lay it all in a strategic pile on top of a tarp (with the frame sandwiched between the wheels). Wrap the tarp around the pile and tightly secure with a roll of saran wrap and some packing tape.

    The result? A weird looking package that looks nothing like a bike. When we check in at the airport we tell them we have “bike parts”… and with a little eyelash batting, I’ve never paid extra to fly with a bike on any airline, domestic or international.

    A few tips: Be sure to remove the air from your tires. Also, try packing your bike this way a few days before you set out to travel. The first time you do it can be a bit tricky. Having a friend to help also makes a huge difference!

    Hooray for happy bike times! Enjoy the sun for us and we’ll see you next year (with more bikes!).

    -Julia

    • Oh Julia you do not know how much I adore Frances! Already folks are calling me the crazy yuma because I bike to Centro, Santos Suarez, Boyeros – everywhere! any time, day or night. It is so liberating and I have to say thank you thank you thank you again for the donation. I have a friend who’s a bike mechanic and he’s doing a few “havana-friendly” adjustments for me to improve performance. loving it!

      Great tips for bringing in the bikes (eyelash batting indeed!).

      Today I WILL pop my bike polo cherry – if it doesn’t rain. Meeting chris at LRN for lemon tart and coffee beforehand.

      Besos!

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  12. Max

    Please, photos of Cubans on Bikes! Yo corazon la bicicleta mucho!

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