A story about bicycles may not seem automatically interesting, especially to someone traveling by modern means such as an airplane, and at such heights, but the story of my bicycles may just end up being the kind of tale that you find difficult to put down until, at the very least, you discover what could be so special about each of them, and what makes them special to me.

My first bicycles came in childhood and I don’t remember much about them. The first, or one of the first, was actually my father’s, of course. (There were several bikes in my childhood; I was famous for forgetting them or leaving them out for waiting thieves, so my memory is of a prototype rather than any specific bike.) We lived in Güines —once part of Havana, now Mayabeque, Cuba— and as a little boy, I always rode on the rack over the back wheel of my father’s bike as he pedaled the well-worn path between our house and my grandmother’s. This is where my first bicycle memory comes from, as well as my first memories of my father and my childhood. The moment smells like the starched cotton shirt my mother had him wear to show off her skills as a seamstress. He must have left it open because I remember disappearing inside it, burning from embarrassment as he belted out: “Life is worth nothing, life is worth nothing!” like Pedro Infante on his way from Sierra Santa Rosa in Guanajuato, Mexico, a place I have only visited once and Copa Airlines has yet to fly.

The other bicycle story of my youth took place at university. The bike was a Minerva and I acquired it as a “socialist incentive” after sweating it out at a summer camp.  It was so crude it looked like a tractor. I took my trophy home and never rode it. One day when I got home after class, my mother and aunt informed me that they had sold it, convinced that, more than any vehicle, what I really needed was a bookshelf.

It was years later, in Bloomington, Indiana in the United States —a place every bit as exotic as Güines— that Walter, who was like a second father to me, gave me a 1988 Trek 6061-T6 that he christened “Bossy,” straight out of his basement. I welcomed the gift as you would an unexpected inheritance and I still remember riding around Bloomington in search of a shop that would diagnose her, get her back in shape, and pack her up to be flown from Indianapolis to Mexico City, where I rode her around the Reforma neighborhood on Sundays, until twice I was nearly killed –on weekdays– and the romance was over.

Later, I spent a three-month holiday in Berlin, where I played the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pet ant. In this city, yet another jewel awaited, a bike most likely rescued from some oil-less netherworld. Only this photo remains, but these are the wheels on which I cruised one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities. I’d ride the six miles from Karl Marx Street in Neukölln to Mitte, where I spent my summer days going from one cafe to another in search of places where I could concentrate and enjoy free wi-fi. My bike freed me from the tourist routes and, day-by-day, the city unfolded before me. I learned to respect the basic German rules of the road and changed routes daily, losing myself in beer festivals, concerts, parks, and islands of museums. 

Later, when I returned to Mexico, I discovered Mexico City’s “ecobicis,” which really came in handy when I lived in La Roma; taking Bossy out seemed far more complicated than going to the movies, the supermarket, or to visit a friend on a rented bike. Later, while on vacation in Livingston Manor in New York State, I bought another bike for fifteen dollars at a Sunday market, but this proved to be just a summer fling and disappeared in a storage room clean-up.

Most recently, Bossy and I took a Copa flight to Panama and, in a city still hostile to cyclists, “Recreovía” Sundays became my refuge from cars and Covid-19. Weather permitting, I ride the 18 paved miles along the Cinta Costera to the Isla Flamingo marina. I did suffer one rough landing while gazing at the city skyline as I pedaled along, and sometimes I have to admit that people are right when they say that tropical Panama is not Amsterdam. The truth is, though, I’m saving up the best moments of my life here to take along when I go somewhere else, to add to a story that I hope will never stop rolling.

Dear Traveler: We love your stories, anecdotes, and travelogs so send them along to us, like Israel Oliva did for this issue, to redacció


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