In the previous post I said that on our last day in Cuba we ticked off all the remaining “to do’s” on our list. That is not entirely true… We, or rather Rufus, had one more left and it was the most tricky so far.
Rufus LOVES motorbikes. I like them too but I usually leave him to enjoy his motocross with his guy friends on the farm (when we are in South Africa). In Cuba there are quite a few vintage WW2 style motorbikes on the streets but what caught his eye were the sidecars. They are mostly vintage Soviet Union made and all privately owned. When we booked our trip to Vinales we asked the woman at the bus/car rental company if we could rent one and she insisted there was no possible way to do so in Cuba (hopefully that changes for our next visit?).
On the last day we found a sweet old man standing next to his baby blue sidecar in Old Havana, opposite the National Capitol Building. He had a “taxi” sign taped to the windscreen of the passenger side and his helmet firmly strapped to his head, ready to go. He spoke almost no English but we were able to exchange details and schedule a ride to the airport the next morning!
He arrived 10min before our agreed time (we intentionally gave him an earlier time than necessary in case of delays, clearly not necessary) and he was so excited to see us again, as if he was worried we might have played a joke on him and now he was relieved that we really did want to take a ride with him.
He was very thorough with packing our bags into the surprisingly large and numerous storage areas inside the bike. He tucked me in so securely I felt like a pupa in a (slightly rusted) steel cocoon. Rufus was so excited he almost forgot to chew his breakfast pastry and if he smiled any wider his face might have split in two.
We eventually got on the road, still munching our breakfast. Rufus sat behind our friendly driver with me still stuffed in the side car seat. Our driver took on the role of tour guide and in his best broken English (mostly Spanish) pointed out and described all the sights along the Malecon and on our way out of the city. It very quickly became clear however that this would not be a normal ride to the airport, and not just because we usually drive in motor cars… I kid you not when I say that we honestly didn’t think we would make it to our destination that day. We have a suspicion that the vehicle was held together only with duct tape and a lot of prayer, and it was a miracle that the engine was still inside the bike, never mind still working – because it sounded like the entire thing was going to fall apart if the engine didn’t fall out first…
Being at that lower level, in the passenger seat, is an interesting experience, especially in Cuba. Keep in mind that about 90% of the vehicles on the road are from the mid 1900’s and they all spew copious amounts of thick black dirty disgustingness (there is no such thing as “eco-friendly” or “minimising your carbon footprint” in Havana yet). I was practically eye level with every vehicle’s exhaust pipe which is basically like all the cars on the road were farting soot in my face. Continuously. I think Rufus nearly fell off his seat from laughter when he saw my face literally covered in car & truck (fart) fumes .
Then, just as we started to get further out of the city, closer to the airport, finally beginning to relax and trust that the sidecar wouldn’t fall apart beneath us just yet, our driver pulled over to the side of the highway and switched of the engine. My heart froze. This was our worst nightmare come true. He was going to demand more money or threaten to abandon us on the side of the road. A bunch of his cronies were preparing to jump out of the bushes and strip us of all our belongings (best case scenario). This was not a good moment for us. We were screwed.
Being a South African those are unfortunately the first things that go through your mind in a lot of situations. I am both relieved and ashamed to say that none of the above took place. It turned out that he was actually not permitted to work as a taxi driver with his sidecar (hence the difficulty finding one to rent. duh.) and had neglected to tell us this before we left, most likely for fear of us cancelling the trip. Because he was operating illegally he could not be seen accepting cash from passengers so he bashfully asked us, in his broken Spanglish, to pay him on the side of the highway before we entered the military police infested airport in order for him not to be thrown in jail. We gladly obliged and soon we were on the road again (in hindsight, him collecting us earlier than necessary was actually necessary in the end!).
We were so glad to eventually arrive at the airport on time, and in once piece without having to walk most of the way, that we gave him a fat tip right there in front of international departures anyway. Luckily there were no cops in sight and the three of us went our separate ways with big smiles and even bigger relief.
That was definitely the most memorable way we can think of to end our Cuba trip. It was honestly the best international travel experience we have had. It is beautiful, it is safe, the people are (mostly) genuinely friendly, the food is good and the portions massive, the coffee is amazing and the culture fascinating. I know I have said it many times before but seriously, GO TO THERE.