Cubanacan, the island you don’t know

I exchange two hundred euros for peso cubano and I get two hefty handful of money, probably weighing about one kilo. In my mind there is a thought: Am I able to spend it during the next month? The two different currencies in circulation in Cuba is just one of countless, sometimes absurd, surprises waiting for newcomers who want to experience the realities of Cuba. I will mention many other later on, but at this moment I admit that every moment being here the question rises: Cuba, how is it possible? Havana, nowadays, lets you feel the atmosphere of the late fifties, or maybe even the time of prohibition. Thick fog covering the evening, massive, roaming road cruisers passing swiftly along perpendicular and parallel avenues. Orange lamps create classic light reflections on rain-flooded holes in the road. Malecon is perhaps one of the most famous boulevards in the world. Well, its great splendor may already be over, but it is still a cult meeting place, a romantic hangout for couples and a promenade with vibrant life most of the time. It is here where people from Havana spend carefree moments sipping a bottle of local rum and talking.

The question is: What am I doing here? Well, together with three friends we decided to travel along Cuba by bicycle having a perspective as close to Cuban as possible. In addition, to make this adventure a bit more special, we decided to buy local Cuban bikes and to use almost exclusively moneda nacional. The goal is to get deeply into the realities of life on the island, about which, undoubtedly, countless stories have been told so far. Our first, seemingly prosaic point is to stop for the night in Havana, buy a bike and set off for the journey.

It turns out that the biggest shopping malls, supermarkets and bicycle shops have an average of one bike of your choice (at best a few pieces of the same type bike). It is not going to be easy task, but interesting architecture, the famous American cars from the 50’s and friendly Cuban people will help us to put a bit of the effort of searching bikes into the background. The help comes with the rain. Avoiding being completely soaked, we hide under the arches somewhere in the city. A few Cuban female students come over. During a brief talk they decide to help us find our bikes. The long walk across the city takes a couple of hours but at this point we reach the alleged bicycle center. Here we are, sitting in someone’s house, which resembles a fast-food kiosk with a bicycle repair shop. We squeeze through the narrow corridor to the kitchen, then to the back, so between a washing machine and a concrete mixer there is someone frying burgers and someone else centering bicycle wheels. What is going on? To my surprise, there is the first bike presented to us. It is like new, presumably coming from black-market. We determine the details and arrange a pickup of the other bikes tomorrow. We try to make the best use of the time, not only during the day, but also at night. So getting to know the beauty of the city is enjoyable. Days go by, but the bicycles are still not ready. They are being collected, repaired and prepared, as someone said. With the help comes professional bike mechanic. He has the most old-school tool set I’ve ever seen in my life. Every now and then he, full of pride, hits different bike parts with a hammer, then drills a hole through brand-new frame and gives the final shape of the individual components using big nail. At some point I start to be little anxious, but after a while I step down and feel calm again. After all, this is Cuba, here everything is done in a little bit different way. This is already our fifth day in Havana, on the opportunity of fixing bicycles, we also managed pretty well to spend lots of pesos on having fun. The day zero is coming. The following morning we set off on our bikes with sidebags. The first case, after barely five minutes of pedaling, one of our seat posts breaks. It needs to be replaced, but luckily we know the workshop where we can fix that. As it turns out, is the first and by no means the last repair which we will experience during this journalist cycling expedition.

Before the final departure from Havana, the bikes break down another three times. This time it was pedals falling off and loose screws in the crank. Some accidentally met enthusiast mechanics help us. They were enjoying this beautiful Sunday afternoon fixing their about 60 year-old U.S. auto wading up to their elbows in grease. In the end, also covered in grease, we manage to get out of the town. Has it not been for our busy schedule and the rising pressure that bicycles may not eventually cope with the ambitious goal, we would have have probably stayed a little longer.

Havana is undeniably captivating capital. Nevertheless, I am relieved to feel the pressure of the big city coming off my body. Finally, one can experience peace and some extra space. We keep cycling till dusk and then pitch tents in a random place on the Caribbean Sea. Full of optimism, all of us await the morning…

The project: “Cubanacan, the island you don’t know”

Participants: Peter Sudol (idea of the project), Peter Tomza, Gustaw Dudka and Radek Okieńczuk

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