It’s not all sunshine and cigars when photographers Kevin Bennett and Brig White ride WWII-era motorcycles across Cuba.
WORDS & IMAGES Kevin Bennett & Brig White
Kevin: The best advice we have for traveling to Cuba? Don’t. Don’t waste your time.
Brig: Kevin best described this overhyped, underwhelming island best: “It’s like Orlando, but with more fat people.” You know what city you should check out? Cancún. Cancún is dope. Or Chicago. The Windy City. You can get deep dish pizza there. Definitely hit up Chicago and don’t worry about Cuba.
Kevin: Hopefully 90% of you stopped reading right there. We’re hesitant to write this article because we really don’t want any more dumb Americans going to Cuba and ruining an untapped magical island that feels like a perfectly preserved Wes Anderson movie set. It’s a tiny, living, breathing time capsule from a more beautiful era; every road, building, bus, forklift, tow truck, car, and motorcycle looks just as it did 60 years ago.
Brig: A little history (copied from Wikipedia): In the roaring ’20s, Cuba was a rebellious teenager. The U.S. was her asshole stepdad, who would let Cuba do what she wanted unless it bugged him. Some of the country did very well — they bought awesome cars, planes, boats, motorcycles, and those sweet fedoras that Justin Timberlake tried to bring back — but most of the country lived in hunger, hatless and mad.
Kevin: Enter Fidel. He gives 80 of his friends hats that weren’t fedoras, but were still pretty cool, with big red stars on them. They land their yacht on the beach and take over the whole government. Fidel makes the entire country communist and executes hundreds of government officials. He gives poor people houses, education, and jobs. An embargo stops anything from entering or leaving the country, freezing Cuba in a perpetual state of ’50s charm. Cubans adore him for it. Basically, Cubans are in love with a guy that has kept them poor for the past 60 years.
Brig: What does any of this have to do with motorcycles?
Kevin: Cubans owned some amazing motorcycles when the trade embargo started in 1960: beautiful ’20s Harley-Davidson Flatheads, WWII Knuckleheads, and ’50s Panheads. Soviet Urals. Vintage BSAs and Triumphs. All are haphazardly preserved and maintained and ridden, rather than sitting in museums or private showrooms.
Brig: When Cubans need a new part, they don’t order it; they make it. Seeing a bike on the side of the road with two guys banging on it is almost as common as seeing a bike at all. The sheer creativity it takes to keep the cars and bikes on the road is an art form all on its own. Every day these old machines are willed back to life by a fanatical kind of Cuban love, and we made it our mission to ride these time machines all over Cuba.
Kevin: To ride them, you have to find them. Lucky for us, we didn’t know anyone in Cuba or speak any Spanish.
Brig: And since Cuba doesn’t really know about the Internet yet, we couldn’t do any kind of pre-trip planning. So we started talking to people as soon as we landed, walking up to strangers with Harleys and asking if we could ride them.
Kevin: But Cubans don’t want to be seen talking with Americans. Talk to one too long, especially about a Harley-Davidson, and you’ll get written up by a government official. And you really, really don’t want to get written up. Anyone who owns a Harley is already on a list carefully watched by the government, given that Harley is an American company that produces bikes used by rebellious gangs. One guy told us that when he was younger, he spoke out against Fidel and they broke both his arms and legs and put him in prison for 10 years.
Brig: Enter Fernando, whom we affectionately call “Nanders.” He speaks a little English but regularly forgets who we are and yells at us in Spanish. A Batista-supporting, cigar-smoking, 70-year-old, crazy-as-an-outhouse-rat lunatic, Nanders don’t give a fuck, and he’s got a huge garage full of pre-1950 Harleys, BSAs, and Triumphs — like 15 of ’em in various states of repair. I can’t tell you how we found Nanders, but let’s just say Kevin now walks with a limp and doesn’t like to talk about it.
Kevin: I don’t wanna talk about it.
Brig: Nanders let us run wild on every one of them. Every couple of days we would go back to the garage, get a fresh “new” model, and set off across Cuba.
Kevin: His bikes had so much soul. They were wobbly, unbalanced, coughing and spitting, with clutch pedals beneath your left foot, brake levers where clutch levers should be, and engines as unpredictable as Trump’s tweets. We were in love. One of us would take off in some direction, the other would follow, and we’d end up in the weirdest situations. Like, we met the Cuban Britney Spears. Next thing we knew, we were in a music video shoot with a gold ’36 Jaguar.
Brig: Cuba is so wonderfully dysfunctional that planning anything would be a total waste. We never could have planned to stumble into a midnight boxing match in one of the more seedy neighborhoods in Havana. Kevin lost $200 betting on the guy with the hair. You never bet on the hair. Everyone knows that.
Kevin: At least I didn’t get robbed.
Brig: And why didn’t you get robbed, Kevo? Was it maybe because you bailed on me when I was stranded in the rain in the middle of Cuba at 4 a.m.?
Kevin: Here’s the deal: On day six, we were riding back from Vinales on a ’41 Knucklehead and a ’50 Panhead when we hear this huge pop. My Panhead loses all power, and Brig comes within an inch of nailing me in the ass. A blown motor, 80 miles from any city. We went two-up until Brig’s throttle gave out, and then we did what any responsible adults would do: abandoned a couple of classic bikes worth 15 Cubans’ annual salaries.
Brig: But first, we cover them in grass. We start to walk, and it starts to rain. We flag down a passing motorcycle and explain our plight, and the rider agrees to let one of us catch a ride to a phone to call Nanders and tell him the bad news. Kevin says he’s not going to sit by himself on the road at night in the rain. So there I am, alone, when this little pickup pulls up. It’s an adorable truck. The six muchachos in its bed? Less so. I’m standing in the headlights and thinking to myself that these guys aren’t driving around at four in the morning to sell us Chiclets. They yell, “Spanish words, Spanish words, Spanish words! Dinero! More Spanish words!” “No. Gracias, but no,” I call out cheerfully. They climb out of the truck, and I jump back into the bushes — only to find out the bushes are a marsh. So now I’m knee deep in muddy water trying to hide the lump of my camera under my jacket. I sigh and reluctantly use my years of taekwondo to judo those commies back to the Bay of Pigs.
Kevin: Good thing you know all that taekwondo.
Brig: I’ll say. Anyway, I must’ve somehow dropped all of our cash in the marsh, so Kevin paid for the tow truck to haul our bikes. And that is why — friends who made it this far into the article — you should never, ever, under any circumstances, go to Cuba.
Kevin: Chicago. You should go to Chicago.
Originally featured in Iron & Air Magazine Issue 029.