They say “Don’t mix business with pleasure”, but our personal hobbies and leisure activities are often the inspiration for our Cuba travel product lineup. Our latest project was inspired by my husband Abel’s initiation into the world of antique Harley Davidsons in Cuba a few years ago. My Dad, an incessant entreprenueur, had a Kawasaki dealership for awhile when we were young and I’d been initiated into the Harley world with the parents of a childhood friend. While in university I’d also spent some late nights at the local Charlottetown Harley Club, where a roommate of mine was a member, and had always found the Harley crowd to be down to earth and adventurous. After we sold our sailboat, Abel was looking for a new hobby. In 2007 he bought a 1947 Flathead and spent almost a year restoring it with the invaluable expertise of a local mechanic (a.k.a. genius) in Cuba. Since there is no dealership in Cuba, maintaining these bikes is somewhat of an art form. The film Cuban Harlistas http://www.cubanharlistas.com/main/?PHPSESSID=nh6m4kv2gqns7726iedp3g31q0h0on5p features a great collection of material from riders around Cuba who have mastered the art of keeping these machines on the road.
Abel was desperate to be riding the bike and almost gave up on his mechanic Eladio coming on the end of the 1-year restoration. Eladio, a machinist by trade, tends to priorize a lot of the smaller jobs that present themselves at his workshop on a daily basis since they’re what keep him solvent. But Eladio assured Abel that the bike would be ready within the month, they hugged & made up and sure enough, a month later Abel got his first taste of the wind blowing through his military-short hair. We got to participate in our first group activity, escorting the members of the antique car club on a ride from the Piragua (just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional) all through the city to the Macumba, where there were eats/drinks and activities by the pool for the afternoon. It was a rush to say the least. Abel wasn’t that confident on the bike with me along perched on the back of the springy seat, so we didn’t make any stops (as the more experienced riders did) along the way to block the traffic from interrupting our parade. But we made it there in one piece without stalling the machine and everything was rosy.
But his happiness was short-lived. Not long afterwards he was driving along on the highway to take the bike to the mechanic for some tweaking. I was driving behind in the car with our niece and her boyfriend since we were all going to return to the city together after dropping off the bike. Abel was cruising along at 80 or 90 kms/hour and all of a sudden there was a loud noise and the bike came to a sudden stop. He’d blown a piston, the only part which wasn’t replaced as part of the restoration. So off I went to the mechanic’s house (after a year of going there at least once a week with Abel, I just had to follow my nose) to see what we were going to do. When I got there his 80-something mother said they were all at a venue nearby celebrating his birthday party. We thought the party was the day before and that we’d missed it since we had to work. On my merry way again, I found the party and once I there, recruited some help to tow the bike. We made it back in one piece and spent the rest of the afternoon socializing with the diverse group of new friends we were just getting to know. We were already familiar with one of them since he worked in another travel agency here in Cuba. The crowd included everyone from hairdressers to accountants, machinists, artesans and chemists plus their children, parents and even grandparents. You name it, but the one thing they all had in common was a passion for adventures on their motorcycles. The mechanic’s wife got thrown in the pool, clothes and all.
After it was fixed (again) Abel rode the Flattop for awhile, but soon after also acquired a 1948 Panhead which is his favorite ride. The previous owner had spent a lot of time restoring it and most of its motor was new. Abel joined a local motorcycle club called Habana Harley, a collection of about a dozen riders here in the capital. We get together every once in awhile, usually for shorter rides or activities around the city on weekends. The members’ families also participate in the events organized by the club. The men usually sit around and talk about their bikes and the women sit around and talk about the men. He joined another international club called LAMA (Latin American Motorcycle Association), founded by Puerto Rican Mario Nieves, which has chapters in many provinces in Cuba. In Havana alone the club has around 80 members right now. The club has no borders, no preferences for race, color, religion, or political beliefs. It’s just a collection of people who like to ride their motorcycles together. We participated in the first-ever national LAMA rally in Cuba last August. Riders from all over Cuba converged for four days in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba. It was an exhilarating adventure. I acquired a new nickname on that trip. It’s “La Sirena”. In Spanish La Sirena can mean The Mermaid or The Siren. I’m the latter of the two. Quite a few people in the group have sirens on their bikes but I do a perfect imitation of the sound, intermittently bursting out with the piercing scream whenever the moment strikes me. If you’ve been to Cuba before you may have noticed that quite a few cars have funny horn sounds (songs, whistles) which their owners often barp when they see an especially attractive female in the vicinity. David from our office in Canada once bought one of the horns that makes a catcall sound here to have secretly installed on one of his PEI-friends’ vehicles when he returned home, unbeknownst to the owner. Great fun!
The LAMA club’s president in Cuba, Adolfo Prieto, approached us since he had been working for several years already delivering motorcycle tours of Cuba with a Danish company. Since there was no independent motorcycle rental in Cuba, they had been sending a container of personally-owned bikes for temporary importation for their tour members, and re-exporting them upon the conclusion of their tour. Adolfo said that with Canada being the # 1 emissor of tourism to Cuba, and the Canadian shipping route being so much shorter (and direct), he couldn’t understand why noone was doing this from Canada yet. He figured that with our connections in the travel industry in Cuba, plus our geographical proximity to the Halifax port from our home base in PEI, Canada, we would be the ideal candidates to promote this kind of activity. We didn’t have to think too hard about it – we agreed that the project was exciting. We’d already had plenty of experience using container ships from Halifax to send merchandise to Cuba for our longstanding bicycle tour operation so knew this would be possible. The shipping time is usually only around 5 days and the boats depart for Havana every 2 weeks.
So with Adolfo’s assistance, we began to research all of the requirements for temporary importation in Cuba, contacted the shipping and insurance companies, plus a friend of ours who managed the local Harley dealership in Charlottetown PEI for exact dimensions of the shipping crates and other miscellaneous information, and began to put together our packages for a 2-week and a 3-week winter program. I spent some time last summer promoting the tours at the Red Island Run and the Wharf Rat Rallies in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia and while interest was high and we had several riders committed to participate, we haven’t yet rounded up the required minimum of 8-10 riders to confirm a tour date. It seems that everyone wants to try this out, but only after the first tour has gone out! The stumbling block appears to be perhaps some reluctance or hesitation on using the container ship. Which we know perfectly well is the most economical way to run this kind of program. So hopefully we can soon figure out a way to get past that barrier.
A couple of months ago another Danish company did a temporary importation of 12 new Harley Davidsons intended for use as part of their escorted tour programs. We’re currently putting together a program together with them designed for the Canadian marketplace using the 2010-11 Harley Davidsons they already have in place in Cuba. While it is sure to be slightly more expensive than the group maritime shipping option, we’re plan on making both options available as we continue to explore this new marketplace.
With a personal passion for this activity, all the personal and professional connections we could hope for to be able to pull this off, all we need now are some committed riders of a similar pioneering nature to turn this dream into a reality. If you know of any, be sure to put them in contact with us. This is Abel’s pet project and his email is email@example.com.