Electric wheelin' is AWESOME; it can bring you to a variety of places, escort you on your adventures, and allow you to explore new unfamiliar terrain. Recently I went to Cuba, and brought our Commuter bike along with me. I love that it's completely collapsible, and can fit nicely in a medium sized suitcase. I knew I had a lot of territory to cover in Havana in four days, so having an electric bike would help me pack in a lot more than I'd be able to do just on foot.
I booked an Air BnB the day before I left, because I couldn't get a confirmation from any pensiones or hotels; WIFI is super limited in Cuba, but I'll get back to that later. Yudelsy, my AirBnB host picked me up at the airport with her beautiful 4 year old daughter. I chucked my bike in the trunk, and we were off! Now, I don't know how much you know about Cuba, but the cars are mostly giant, beautiful restored classic cars from the 50's. When Fidel Castro came into power in 1959, he banned all car imports. Arriving in Cuba was like stepping back in a perfectly preserved time capsule. I looked out the window at the hundreds of customized, brightly colored vintage dinosaurs lumbering past us, leaving us in the wake of their fumes. Sea foam green, bright pink, turquoise, cherry red; Cuba is a constant shifting colourpop. Life in Cuba truly is life in color.
I told Yudelsy that I had a bike in my suitcase, and she looked at me, mouth agape, and said, "You have a bike in THERE?! How?" I explained to her in my sub-par Spanish that yes indeed, I did have a bike inside my suitcase, that it was collapsible, and electric as well. When we got to her flat it the Chinatown neighborhood of Havana (although, just for the record, nothing about Chinatown is actually Chinese) I opened the suitcase and showed her the Commuter. I unfolded it, showed her how it worked, and let her daughter honk the horn. She told me that the bike was beautiful, and that I should really be careful riding around the streets of Havana. I plugged in my bike, and decided to explore a bit so I could have a sense of the streets, how they worked, and get a general layout of Havana before I set out on bike.
The first thing I noticed outside of Yudelsy's building was a park, where kids were playing and everyone over 7 years old was scrolling through on their smartphones. It seemed so out of place amongst the antiqutated classic cars, brightly colored ruins, loud music and dancing to have everyone so focused on their mobiles. This, I discovered, was a wifi park. To use wifi in Cuba, you have to first buy an hour long wifi voucher from an ETECSA store or grab one from a scalper on the street. The wifi costs about $2 an hour, and is available only in 200 places in all of Cuba.
People don't really have wifi at home yet, so this is how Cuba connects with the rest of the world. It's actually kind of nice, because you can be completely off the grid if you choose. I made a mental note of the wifi park for Instagram later and left.
I decided to walk toward El Malecon, an eight mile strip of road, seawall and esplanade that runs along the ocean. I landed in the middle of a really windy storm which caused massive waves to crash over the Malecon into the open windows of cars; it was an insane thing to watch! Two tourists were walking along el Malecon and a wave crashed over their heads, soaking them from head to toe. I'm not sure how they didn't see it coming, but since no one was hurt, it was actually pretty hilarious to watch; I hope that doesn't make me sound evil.
After taking a few photos and getting in trouble for climbing atop a statue for a better view, I decided to explore a bit more, maybe head back toward the direction of my Air BnB. In the middle of crumbling buildings, something caught my eye; there was a large, reddish iron crucifix sculpture jutting out of the rubble like a giant overlooking the city.
I decided to get a bit closer and discovered that the entire street the cross was on was filled with beautifully painted murals, psychedelic ironworks, sculptures, plants and bathtubs, graffiti and people everywhere. I had discovered Callejón de Hamel, a funky art walk showing local Afro-Cuban culture and cuisine. I came on a Sunday, during their weekly rumba street festival and it was packed with people playing music, looking at art, and eating and drinking at some of the several "casas" littered between exhibits. I snapped a few photos, talked to a few locals, and sat down in a casita for some beer and food. Unfortunately, all fo Cuba seemed to be out of food...and beer, so my dinner consisted of two "mojitos" made from Cuba's sketchiest rum. I walked home through the dimly lit streets and fell asleep to the sounds of what I can only describe as Havana's finest drunken karaoke.
I woke up at 5.30AM to take the commuter through empty streets and watch the sunrise somewhere. With virtually no traffic, carts, or horses out this early, I was able to zip around old Havana at top speeds. This was the first time I'd taken it on any rough terrain, usually just riding around decently paved streets in NYC. I decided to really test it out. At top speeds I purposely hit just about every pothole, rock and trench that I could, deep, fast turns, and 20+ MPH zigzags. Basically, I tried to beat the sh*t out of it (sorry Boss!!) I was pleasantly surprised that, while not recommended I'm sure, the Commuter didn't get squirrelly at all in the potholes or when going super fast. It didn't feel sketchy at all, and I felt safer than on my BMX. I also love that it just goes, without lag, immediately. This proved to be super handy later during traffic when cars would come bombarding toward me down the street and I'd need to get out of the way super quickly, to you know, not get run over.
I rode around for about an hour and a half, without making a dent in the battery (also surprising, but then again, I weigh less than what the bikes were tested with). I was starving due to my mojito dinner the night before, and remembered I'd seen a small restaurant next to the ocean when I was walking the Malecon the day before. I rode up just as they were opening, and had a stale sandwich with some of the best pineapple juice I've ever had. After breakfast I hopped back on the Commuter and rode to Callejón de Hamel again, to see it in the morning light without all the throngs of people. I got a much less obscured view of all the different paintings and sculptures, and met the cutest, friendliest kitten.If it weren't against every international regulation, I would've brought little Sammy home with me.
I said a tearful goodbye to my new furry friend, and biked over to Old Town Havana to check out some music, the Capitol building, historic Hotel Inglaterra, and the Paseo de Martí, a famous stretch of road in Old Havana where all the classic cars drive. From where I was, it ended up being about a 15 minute ride, bobbing and weaving through taxicabs, classic cars, stray dogs, and horse drawn carts. This was a totally different experience than the walking I'd done the day before. Not only did it cut the travel time by about 75%, but it was absolutely exhilarating. Being on a moving vehicle that you're driving/riding yourself among the locals was just....fun. And cool. People waved, honked, and when I was stopped or pulled over, asked me about my bike. The consensus was that the Commuter is very pretty, very fast, and cool that it's "electrica como una moto!!!"
I made it to the Paseo del Prado, and watched all the classic cars drive toward me on the Paseo, with the Statue of Jose Martí looming in the background of Parque Central. No matter how many classic cars you see in Cuba, it never gets old. Ever. These cars have been built, rebuilt, some practically from scratch, and painted in just about every color of the rainbow (ROYGBIV, I still remember that from school!). I could've sat there forever, maybe I did. Countless cars, hundreds of them. I looked down at the time on my phone, and it was surprisingly getting pretty late into the afternoon. Time to move on, I needed to change my money and buy a wifi pass.
This was basically my introduction to Communism; queuing. I had enough Cuban money, thanks to Yudelsy, to buy a few wifi passes for the rest of my time in Cuba. Scalper wifi passes obviously cost more for the convenience, so I spent the next 1.5 hours in line to get the most wifi for my remaining $7 CUC. After presenting my passport to buy the vouchers, having no water and getting hungry, I needed to go to a "casa de cambio" to change my American dollars. This was another hour in line, in direct sunlight, which turned my New York skin into a lovely shade of scorching red. I changed $120 dollars into the one of two Cuban currencies, so I wouldn't have to go back and wait again.
Cuban pesos on my pocket, I rode my bike until I saw a restaurant that looked like it had some food and live music. The restaurants are pretty accommodating to travelers, so it wasn't an issue that I had my bike. If it had been, I would've just folded it up and carried it inside. We should have carrying bags for these, right? Anyways, Cuban food consists of ham, egg and cheese sandwiches or pizza. And sometimes chicken and shrimp. I chose pizza and bought the largest bottle of water they had. All I have to say food-wise is that you don't go to Cuba for the food! I think that perhaps the sudden abundance of tourists has overwhelmed their resources, but I cannot be sure. However, it's not even an issue because the people, beauty, color, music, and liveliness surpasses any expectation I could've had even for the best food; Havana is lovely.
I listened to the music for awhile, tipped the band a few pesos, and thought about buying their CD until I realized I own nothing that still plays CDs. My kingdom for a Discman! I figured it was about time to upload some photos, tell my mom that I'm alive, and drop off my bike. At the wifi park a few kids approached me about my bike and checked it out. The sun set over the wifi park and about a hundred smartphones, and I went back to Yudelsy's for an early night.
Beach day. Up early again, this time at 6, I threw on a swimsuit and grabbed my cameras and a backpack for an early start. I was heading to Varadero, an islet of white sand jutting out into the ocean between Matanas and Cardenas, about a 3 hour bus ride from deep Havana. I decided to treat myself to a $10 Viazul bus ticket, which was airconditioned and took much less time than public transport. We stopped a couple times for sandwiches and water, and I'll also admit to drinking some rum out of a pineapple on the way back.
To get to the bus station, I had to walk for and hour to southwest Havana at sunrise. I considered riding my bike, but being on my own, I figured it would be less stressful to not have my bike than to swim with it to prevent theft. I brought a bike lock with me, but I didn't think it would fit around the trunk of a palm tree. I really enjoyed this walk; I got to see the REAL Havana, away from the tourists, landmarks, hotels. Instead I saw people living their daily lives. Going to school. Going to work. I even saw chickens pecking around in the early morning sunlight.
The beach in Varadero itself is amazing; beautiful, pristine white sand beach with small turquoise waves lapping up onto the shore. Being a bit burnt already from the casa de cambio line, I went on a hunt for sunscreen. I found one for $20 and decided to risk it, which later I fully regretted. I'm still peeling today from this. Sunburn aside, the day was exactly what I expected. I swam, I beached, I read a book in the shade of coconut palms. I was living my day inside a postcard. I became fully aware of my shoulders and dipped out of the sun to a cool, beachy restaurant I'd walked by earlier. The music was good and I finally got some friend plantains, beans and rice. This is the Cuban food I adore! I wrote my name on the wall and headed back toward the bus to Havana.
There was an option to get off the bus in Old Havana, rather than the location I'd originally gotten on the bus in the morning. I walked back through Old Havana in the moonlight and lamplight. I witnessed a massive dance battle, old men playing checkers in the streets just like they do in Brooklyn, and little kids playing footy in the streets, bedtime not being a thing. I joined the hundred or so people in the wifi park, uploaded pictures to Instagram, and went to bed.
I mentioned my sunburn, right? Yowzas! My lack of sunscreen left a really unfortunate burn line. My skin was on fire. I put on long sleeves and jeans, grabbed my bike, and was off again by 8AM. There was a whole western part of Havana I hadn't explored. I rode up to the Malecón, and headed west on their main rode. Keep in mind that I had no idea where I was going, no map, nada. I also don't know Cuban traffic laws. Not sure where exactly I was riding, but I did pass some zebras, a few monuments, parks, and a necropolis. I was about to make my own road rules when I saw about three police officers staring at me and made an impromptu right turn. I ended up at a tiny beach-like restaurant and had some lemonade in the shade until I could figure out where exactly I had ended up.
A couple friends from NYC were set to arrive in about an hour or so. I had mentioned that I'd meet them in front of Hotel Inglaterra at 5PM, so that we could have dinner and discuss my last night in Cuba on their first. Still, surprisingly, on my first charge of battery, it started to go a bit slower and finally ran out about 50 meters from my Air BnB. I must've at least gotten twenty miles on it, thrashing around at top speeds. I didn't notice any damage, and I wasn't easy on it. I was so impressed with what it had done, what it was capable of, and the places it took me. I collapsed it, got a little grease on my jeans, and packed it up into my suitcase.
I walked to Old Havana and met my friends for some canned peas on toast, awesome live music, and a few beers. We talked about what I'd done, where I'd gone, and what they were hoping to see while they were there. I had bought them an extra wifi voucher so they wouldn't have to wait, which they were pretty grateful for. We called it a night about 10 PM. I walked home and sadly packed up the rest of my stuff.
I was sad to leave Cuba. I'd managed to see a lot while I was there, but really only of Havana; there is the whole rest of the country to explore. I highly recommend a two week trip to anyone who wants to explore more of Cuba. Havana's beauty alone I could've gotten lost in for weeks, but I managed to see a lot more in such a short amount of time thanks to my bike. I had a window seat on the plane, and stared out it for the entire duration of the flight.
Bye Cuba, I'll be back again!
Where does your Genesis take you?
For more photos from Kari's adventure, check out our Tumblir . More pics, polaroids, and video to be added:)
For more information on the Commuter Electric Bike and to purchase click HERE