Black Market Biking

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Black Market Biking
by Lea Aschkenas



While reluctantly becoming a group tour participant in Havana, Lea Aschkenas finds a way to mount her own mini revolution on a bicycle.


When I returned to my hotel late one night at the end of my first week in Havana, I found Amaury, a bellboy I'd befriended the day before, waiting for me in the lobby.

"Lea," he called out. "I have some important news for you."

But then as I approached, Amaury put his hand up as if to stop me, rolling his eyes in the direction of one of the overhead lights.

"The camera," he whispered.

"What?" I asked and, throwing in my most commonly used Spanish phrase, added, "No entiendo."

Havana Che

Instead of explaining, Amaury took a step backward and, like a slow motion salsa, continued to do so each time I stepped forward. Only once we arrived in a shaded area of the lobby with Amaury backed up against the wall, did we stop our dance.

Just as I was beginning to wonder exactly what sort of news Amaury had in store for me, he spoke.

"I couldn't tell you over there," he said, "because there's a hidden camera in that light."

"How do you know?" I asked, wondering why no one else was retreating to dark corners to converse.

"When you're Cuban, you know these things," Amaury said cryptically. "But it's okay now. We're out of range."

I glanced up at the offending light, but it seemed the same to me as all the others.

I looked skeptically at Amaury, but he didn't seem to notice. He was a man on a mission, and he'd arrived at his destination.

"I heard you were looking for a bike," he said, lowering his voice so that the word "bike" came out like a whisper, a bad word disguised in hushed tones, the name of a disease. A criminal act.

In fact, if Amaury was suggesting what I suspected he was renting me a bike on the black market--then it was indeed an illicit act.

After a week of being toted back and forth in a tour bus to Spanish classes at the José Martí Language Institute, I had started searching for a bike so I could get around on my own. Cuba had no bike rental shops, but still I made an attempt to go through the official channels. When the language and cultural exchange program I'd come to Cuba with went on an afternoon cycling tour coordinated by the University of Havana Bike Club, I asked our guide if I could rent one of her group's bikes.

Cementario

"This is the last day we have them," she said. "Tomorrow they go to the province of Pinar del Rio for a three-week trip."

The bikes would not be back in Havana until the day before my flight back to the States.

Next I asked Alvaro, our Cuban tour guide, who everyone kept calling Orlando and who, even though I took pride in paying attention to his name, still refused to speak with me in Spanish and preferred calling me "Lady" to "Lea." When he caught me in a pensive moment, Alvaro would demand, "Lady, smile."

Although I saw him every day for a month, I never really knew Alvaro. Unlike the inquisitive Cubans I met everywhere else, Alvaro never asked anyone in my program anything, not why we chose Cuba, not what we thought of his country, not how long we planned to stay or if we might travel. Alvaro was, quite literally, just our tour guide, a nicely dressed man who picked us up at our hotel every morning and, during the drive to school, highlighted the successes of Cuba's Revolution. With the same monotone voice, he detailed the history of every building we passed on every ride we took through the city.

"Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras was built in 1982," he'd drone into his microphone, quoting the number of beds and detailing the services available. "Panaderia San José is the oldest bakery in Havana. The José Martí Museum in Plaza de la Revolución is the tallest building in Havana. The José Martí statue in Parque Central has 28 royal palms surrounding it because Martí was born on the 28th of January, 1853."

Only once, when we passed by the popular Coppelia ice cream parlor with its endless peso line for Cubans and its short, speedy dollar line for tourists, did Alvaro stray from his official script, letting slip an understandably snide aside.

"Cubans will wait hours for their ice cream," he said, adding with a pained smile, "but the dollar moves quickly because we know you don't have the time."

I chalked up Alvaro's lack of charisma to his precarious position as a tour guide for a group of Americans. Historically, in pre-Revolution times, the planeloads of wealthy Americans who flocked to Cuba came for several of the same self-serving reasons'climate, casinos, cigars, and cheap prostitutes.

Imperialists billboard

But after the Revolution or, specifically, after the U.S. blockaded Cuba, the character of the island's U.S. tourists changed completely. Today the few Americans who came to Cuba came with a common leftist political conscience and a shared disdain for the behavior of their predecessors.

The people in my Global Exchange program'tourists who preferred to be called by any other name'were not the type to sign up for formal tours like those Alvaro led. And I think that, in leading us around his country, Alvaro was as out of his element as we were.

Unlike solidarity sojourners from other countries who flew to and traveled through Cuba on their own, U.S. travelers were denied this luxury by their government. The U.S. Treasury Department only granted visas to those with specific professional affiliations such as journalists, doctors, musicians, or artists. Anyone else who wanted to visit Cuba legally had to do so on an established package tour whose every detail could be scrutinized and manipulated by both the U.S. and Cuban governments.

One morning on the way to school as Alvaro was telling us about the character of Havana's various neighborhoods, I asked which one Fidel called home.

"Where does Fidel live?" Alvaro repeated incredulously as though I had just asked what size underwear the president wore.

"That's confidential," Alvaro said. "No one knows where Fidel lives. And it's necessary that it stay this way for security purposes."

Callejon de Hamel

During the Revolution, Fidel didn't have a home. His young son and wife lived in a house in the Vedado neighborhood, but Fidel moved between any number of abodes offered to him by friends, relatives, and fellow revolutionaries. In one such home on 25th Street, Fidel would enter and exit through a back window to keep a low profile from Batista and his cohorts.

I had not spoken with Alvaro since our conversation about Fidel's whereabouts. And when, several days later, I told him about my discussion with the bike guide and asked how else I might rent a bicycle, he looked at me with a similar expression of disbelief.

"Well, that's it. The bike club is authorized to rent bikes," he said, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, slightly lifting his arms while he did so, his palms facing upward, open and empty. "There is no other way," he repeated.

But I knew there was more to the story. From my short time in Cuba, I had learned that here, on this island caught between capitalism and communism, there was always another way. And so, apparently, had Amaury.

"I have a bike that you can rent for a week," he said, leaning forward so that his back was no longer against the wall, although his face remained in shadow. "Only three dollars a day."

"Is it your bike?" I asked. "How do I get it?"

"It's a friend's bike. It's here now, outside, if you want to see it."

Biking in Cuba

I nodded, and Amaury motioned for me to follow him as he emerged from the dark. I walked behind him past the reception desk where one of his coworkers smiled knowingly at me. We stepped outside into the warm night and crossed the street to the hotel's parking lot. Virgilio, an older man who guarded the cars, waved to us as we came close.

"La bicicleta," Amaury said to Virgilio and, turning to me with a proud smile, added, "He's guarding your bike."

Virgilio unlocked a fence at the back of the parking lot and then disappeared behind a corner. He surfaced again a few minutes later, wheeling out my prize'a beat-up maroon, single-gear Flying Pigeon, one of the many 50-pound clunkers China donated in the early 1960s. The upholstery stuffing in the back seat sprouted out through several long, diagonal cracks like weeds in a city sidewalk.

"Test it out," Amaury said. "Give it a spin around the block."

The bell didn't work, and the brakes worked just infrequently enough to trick me into believing maybe I just hadn't squeezed them hard enough the previous time. A dangerous assumption, which nearly caused me to collide with Amaury as I finished up my test drive and skidded down the steep slope, which led to the hotel.

"Probably it's best to walk it down the hills," Amaury suggested, patting the handlebars like an overprotective parent. "It's not a new bike, but it should get you wherever you need to go."

I didn't disagree with Amaury. I'd seen the bikes people shuffled around on in Havana and my Flying Pigeon, although it rode more like a grounded refrigerator on wheels, was nothing to scoff at.

Cuban flower vendor

From the seat of my Flying Pigeon, I saw a different Havana than the one I'd experienced my first week. Without Alvaro's narration, the city opened up to me on its own. No one shouted out statistics about infant mortality rates or recited the history of the UJC, the Union of Communist Youth. I chugged along past newsstands and elementary schools and peeling, nearly empty but still open pharmacies. I stopped whenever I wanted, to buy a guayaba or mandarin orange at the farmers' market or to detour down less trafficked side streets. I was happy, free, sweaty, and anonymous, or as anonymous as you can be in such a communal city as Havana.

Biking in Havana, I soon discovered, was a social event where two, three, and sometimes even four people piled onto a single bike. One morning on my three-mile ride to school, I passed a family of four'a mother and daughter squeezed onto a rear seat extension and a baby in the father's lap up front. Soon I got to know the bikers along my route, not necessarily by name, but by face, and we'd wave to each other as we passed.

If, that was, we passed each other at all. These were not fast bikes, and soon I gave in to the lethargy of my Flying Pigeon, completely losing track of time in the surreal 1950s land of 21st century Havana.



© Copyright 2006 by Lea Aschkenas from Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press. All rights reserved.




Lea Aschkenas has written about travel, literature, and life for the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Salon.com. She has also contributed to the books Travelers' Tales Central America, Travelers' Tales Cuba, The Unsavvy Traveler, and Two in the Wild. Visit her website at www.leaaschkenas.com.

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