Monday, February 1, 2016

It was Christmas morning and I was stranded on the side of a windswept road in the thick Cuban heat about four kilometers from anything. Read on.

It was Christmas morning and I was stranded on the side of a windswept road in the thick Cuban heat about four kilometers from anything. To the west was Trinidad—I could still see a few steeples rising among red rooftops—and to the east was the Caribbean, deep blue in the late-morning haze. For nearly a week I had been traveling through Cuba, memorizing bus schedules and eating at Lonely Planet-approved restaurants. But increasingly the reservations and museum tours had started to feel like a list of things to check off, when all I really wanted was to escape the swarms of tourists who had descended on the island for the holidays, and roam freely through this strange and beautiful country.

And so on Christmas Eve—perhaps the biggest holiday in Cuba—amid fireworks and salsa dancing, I resolved that I would rent a bike and, on my own terms, spend a day riding along the Caribbean coast, swimming and talking to fishermen. I became obsessed with the idea of rolling through Cuba with nothing but a straw hat and a bathing suit. When you're traveling, sometimes your heart just fixates on something, and there's no shaking it until you've seen it through. In my case, I had to ride a bike to the sea.

Trinidad is a small Spanish colonial town on the southwestern coast of the island where red-clay tiles top pastel-colored houses and salsa music holds the nights captive. About 12 kilometers south is glittering Playa Ancon, a string of white-sand beaches that include a few resorts with hammocks hanging between palms and bamboo-walled bars that serve Cuba Libres at all hours, but also long empty stretches of clean sand and coral rocks where the lucky beach-stroller might find a washed-up conch shell.

Whenever you want something in Cuba, the easiest way to get it is to ask someone, anyone, on the street. The tourist's dollar goes very far here, and there is an extensive network of entrepreneurial Cubans eager to help you get what you want for the right price. And the price is, usually, fair.

"Ven! Ven!" said the first guy I asked about renting a bike, his dark eyes lighting up beneath a faded baseball cap. He waved his hand at me and set off up the cobblestone street past horse-drawn carriages and men selling peeled oranges. In five minutes we were at a light blue house with a white wrought iron gate and a tile plaque that read "La Casa de Rosa y Louis." Inside a woman I could only assume was Rosa led us to a back patio where a red mountain bike was leaning on its kickstand. It was too small and looked too old, but there was air in the balding tires and the brakes appeared to work. This was the bike for me, I thought. I could almost feel the wind in my hair, almost taste the hot salt of freedom. I handed over the money and rolled my new chariot out into the bright Caribbean sun.

What finally gave way were the pedals, or rather the bolts that hold the pedals in place. Usually bike pedals are opposed, like two points on opposite sides of a ferris wheel—when one is up the other is down. But just when I had really gotten out of town, into the province of cows and crickets, the arms that should have held my pedals in place began to slip and soon both were hanging down next to each other like a pair of swings.

Now I am a fairly versed cyclist—I ride about fourteen miles to and from work every day and have been doing so for nearly five years. I do my own bike maintenance, and would consider myself "handy." This, mixed with my complete infatuation with the idea of riding a bike through Cuba made it easy to overlook all the warning signs about this particular bike—that it was truly fit for a midget, that only half the gears worked, that the front wheel threatened to fall off every time I picked up speed. I only need it for a day, I'd thought.

But I did need it for the entire day, and now, alone in the hot sun, I also needed a wrench, a few nuts, and a bolt the size of my pinky finger.

Cursing myself and Rosa and Cuba in general, I started walking towards La Boca, a small town halfway between Trinidad and Playa Ancon. A few horse carts passed with workers in the back staring at me impassively. The sun blazed across the pavement—I could see the ocean further south, but all around me rolled prairie-like hills of burnt grass and prickly shrubs. I was in the gradual plains that slope from the Caribbean up into the Sierra del Escambray, Cuba's second-largest mountains where Che camped on the way to his first major military victory in Santa Clara nearly 60 years ago. Skinny white cows munched indifferently in the fields and the occasional kettle of vultures slid silently overhead, their enormous black wings hardly flapping in the steady sea breeze.

After half an hour, I came to the small fishing village. Had I come to this town under different circumstances, it would be impossible not to be charmed. A few bungalows along the main street with thatched palm roofs led down to a small pebbly beach at the coral-lined mouth of the Rio Guaurabo where two fishing boats listed gently. Salsa and regaton music mixed with the sound of the waves on the coral, and flip-flops were the norm.

But tired, sweaty, and parched, I was anything but relaxed. Walking past houses where residents were eating late breakfasts on their porches, I eventually came upon a shirtless man with a prodigious and shinning beer belly who listened to my predicament with gravity, examined the evidence, and motioned me across the street to his house where regaton music was streaming out of the open windows and door. He said his name was Miguel and that there were no bicycle shops in La Boca. Then he put a glass of water in my hand and disappeared into a back room while I made small talk with his wife.

Minutes later, Miguel reappeared with an enormous wooden box and beckoned me out to the porch where he quickly emptied the contents on to the floor. Nails, steel wool, bolts, string, razor blades, screws, bottle caps, wrenches, hammers that looked provisional, tacks, pipes, and every other kind of "replacement" spilled onto the concrete. We began combing it all for the bolt and nuts, or something vaguely similar, but it quickly became clear that though Miguel had accumulated an impressive collection of junk, he lacked a robust supply of bicycle parts.

I began to make excuses, telling him I'd push on to find someone else, but he shook his head and motioned me to the side. And with swiftness that verged on recklessness, as if I might make a dash for it and he'd lose his chance, he stuffed two nails and what looked like the pin from a grenade into the pedal crank and began smashing away at it with the hammer. After nearly a minute, he stepped back and tried his foot on the pedal. It held.

"That will get you back to Trinidad," he said with a proud smile, handing me the bike.

And it did. It took almost another hour back the way I'd come, fighting a headwind and ignoring the cows, but soon I was standing in the casa de Rosa y Louis, sweating like a gringo and demanding my money back in pathetic Spanish while withstanding accusations that the broken bike was my fault and defending my conviction that despite appearances, it was not yet truly "fixed." I wrangled half of my deposit, and left feeling stupidly victorious.

By this time it was well into the afternoon and with the punishing sun and an empty stomach I felt my dream of a day at the beach evaporate. Not only was I weak with fatigue and dehydration, but my failure was demoralizing. The whole endeavor had assumed such profound status in my mind that it had become a kind of test as my ability as a traveller. I suddenly felt doomed to guided tours of old churches and endless renditions of the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack at polished restaurants exclusively for foreigners.

I wandered despondently from Rosa's until I found a Cuban cafeteria—small lunch counters people run out of their homes that serve a simple sandwiches with espresso. I sat down to eat in an old plaza and watched children play soccer with a crushed can while their parents checked emails on a nearby bench.

After recuperating slightly, I began walking again through the streets crowded with fruit vendors and taxi drivers, shrugging off incessant offers to buy cigars. I had been staying in the center of town and without a plan headed east into an area that I remembered didn't have much my guidebook found notable. The rows of houses seemed increasingly pinched together and just when the cobblestones gave way to dirt, the buzzing sound of salsa music caught my ear. I tracked it to a large boxed wagon parked in the middle of the street, surrounded by perhaps fifty leathery farmers. A few women stood or sat in their doorways and looked on, while the men brought empty water bottles to the wagon and deposited a few coins into the hand of a man who in turn opened a spigot to fill their bottle with a light brown liquid I thought at first might be fuel and then realized was beer. Quickly I found myself with an overflowing plastic cup filled and dancing with a nearly toothless man. This beer tasted like very old and very thick Budweiser, but it flowed liberally and I wasn't one to refuse the hospitality where I knew no one, and now had no where else to go. Every time my cup reached empty, someone new poured in some of his. We stood around and talked about the wind and old age. I danced with old campesinos and gulped the rotten liquid.

As the afternoon faded into evening I eventually wandered back to the Casa de la Musica, an open-air venue on the steps of the Plaza Mayor at the center of the town. I had stayed with the farmers and their wives until the wagon was empty, and now all that was left was dancing, and I wanted more than songs on repeat from scratchy speakers. Pinched between quaint balconied restaurants serving fried plantains and roast pork, and the austere Iglesia Parraquial de la Santisima, the Casa has some of the best salsa in Trinidad with rotating bands that play deep into the night. By the time I made it up the cobblestone steps, the party was in full swing, with everyone from young locals to suave old-timers spinning and twisting under the lights.

Salsa is spectacularly hard to dance, and nearly impossible to dance well, especially if you've been standing around a wagon of beer for the better part of the afternoon. But it is also a dance that forgives the novice and rewards the brave. Not long after arriving, I saw a young woman I had spoken with the previous night standing by herself and eyeing the dance floor. Her long brown hair curled over her shoulders and she waved when I caught her eye from across the crowd. By the time was had finished our third dance together, all thoughts of the day's broken bike had sizzled away, and Cuba seemed not so hopeless after all.

The next morning, after chasing away a headache with fresh squeezed juice, fried eggs, and pineapple, I set out. Again. This time, I told myself, I would only accept the perfect bike. This time I wouldn't let excitement get the better of me. This time I would not be persuaded by the first offer I was made.

I had no plan. I simply walked further before asking someone about a bike, which led to a different house, with a different shed where I then promptly agreed to the first offer I was made. This time it was a teal-colored mountain bike, and though I wasn't going to win any races, it was a far superior machine than the one I had suffered the previous day. Not only was it almost my size, but all pedals and breaks and wheels looked new and even withstood a few discreet kicks. I paid and once again, rolled out into the Cuban sun.

Back through the sloping hills, I felt a small triumph when I coasted past the ditch where my pedals had broken, and saluted Miguel's now quiet house as I rolled through La Boca. The next five kilometers ran roughly along the coast and I peered through mangrove trees and palms for glimpses of white spray. It was another scorching day and the water beckoned. At one point a young cyclist named Oreste came up next to me. He had a sparkling road bike and was even wearing one of those funny cyclist hats with a tiny brim. He ran a bicycle repair shop in town. "In La Boca!?" I exclaimed. No, back in Trinidad. As we rode side-by-side I told him of my travails the day before. He laughed.

"Yes, all of those bikes are breaking," he said mischievously. "They are too old and no one takes care of them. But sometimes they are good. Like your bike today. That is a strong bike."

"How do you know?"

"Because of the color."

It was good enough for me. When our routes diverged, he advised on the best way back and told me to stop in to see him on my return. I said I would, but first I had the beach.

It was Christmas morning and I was stranded on the side of a windswept road in the thick Cuban heat about four kilometers from anything. Read on.

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