How Bicycles Build Bridges Between Cubans and Canadians
By: Egle Procuta, Photos: Joan Barrett
The crumbling, half-abandoned building didn't particularly stand out on the industrial strip in suburban Toronto - until you noticed all the bikes piled up in front. Dozens of them, in all shapes and sizes. And not just bikes, but bicycle parts. Spokes. Tires. Pedals.
It was a Saturday morning, overcast and cool for the middle of May. But garage-sale season had already kicked off in the city. And of the stream of cars checking out the furniture warehouses up and down Caledonia Road, many drivers would pull over and ask the people hauling the bikes out from storage: "Are they for sale?" "How much are they going for?"
And each time, a volunteer from Bicycles Crossing Borders would yell back a friendly reply: "Sony, they're not for sale. These bikes are heading to Cuba."
I f any of the motorists had bothered to glance over to the adjacent parking lot, they would have noticed everything was being diligently noted and then loaded into a 40-foot cargo container. Several days later, it would be put onto a ship to set sail for Cuba, carrying 7,000 kilograms of gear donated by Canadians: 151 new and used bikes; 278 boxes of bicycles parts.
Many Canadians who have travelled to Cuba know the two countries enjoy a special relationship that runs much deeper than the fun of a one or two-week all-inclusive beach holiday. The warmth and generosity of the Cuban people inspire Canadians to keep in touch long after their return north. There are all sorts of examples of grass-roots exchanges that have developed over the years. Spirits of Havana, the uplifting 200 I documentary from the National Film Board of Canada, for instance, tells of how jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett established a project to help repair musical instruments in Cuba.
Bicycles Crossing Borders is a non-governmental, not - for-profit organization that's been working with Cuba for over a decade to promote sustainable transportation. Its premise is beautifully simple: cycling and recycling. BCB collects bicycles that individuals and companies in Canada are set to throw out. Instead of going to landfills, the bikes are shipped to Cuba where - with a bit of TLC and that famous repair ingenuity - they're made road-worthy again and sold to locals at affordable prices.
With the help of the Canadian International Development Agency, a bicycle-repair workshop was set up in Old Havana in 2002. Now, BCB is expanding across the island, with new shops and training centres in Sancti Spiritus, Bayamo and Baracoa. The container that was packed that day arrived within two weeks and was unloaded in Sancti Spiritus. The first distribution of 20 bikes was made to a cooperative involved organic farming.
Though many committed volunteers keep BCB running strong, there is one man who embodies its heart and soul. His name is Narayana Reddy, but most everybody knows him as Nani. The 52-year-old lives in Toronto, has a day job working as a library assistant at Ryerson University, and spends many hours as a support staff member at Mountain Equipment Co-op. But his raison d'etre is harnessing the power of the two-wheeler to help improve people's lives both in Canada and abroad.
“I have a passion,” Reddy says, “and when I take something on, I work hard.” The life journey that led to Reddy's attachment to Cuba took him across many continents. He grew up in bitter poverty in India. "My Father was an intellectual who couldn't suppol1 the family," he explains. After a time in Germany, Reddy came to Canada and studied political science at York University. He developed a strong interest in Central America, becoming fascinated by Mayan hi story in Guatemala and travelling to Nicaragua as a volunteer to build wells. But of all the cultures in the region, Cuba stood out for him.
"There was something special in Cuba," he says. "What touched me is the Cuban mentality which is similar to where I grew up. They're very bright, committed, and helpful. I felt at home."
One of his stints living in Cuba was a two-year stretch in the early 1990s, a time of great economic challenge on the island known as the "Special Period." Despite the physical hardships he endured and witnessed, Reddy was more impressed than ever - not only by the Cubans' resilience but by their willingness to help others.
"I am a vegetarian, and I had Cuban friends who would cycle 20 kilometers just to bring me vegetables, like a bunch of watercress."
It was during this visit that Reddy began to formulate his ideas about how Canada's bicycles could help Cubans. Because of fuel shortages and the resulting transportation difficulties, Cuba had imported millions of Chinese bikes. But they were very heavy. Nevertheless, Cubans re lied on these bicycles, carrying entire Families on a single bike and everything from wedding cakes to building materials.
Reddy realized that many of the high-quality bicycles that Canadians were throwing out, in our disposable society, could be put to excellent use in Cuba, especially with strong support from the local government to promote cycling as a viable and healthy means of transportation. And that's how Bicycles Crossing Borders was born.
Of course, the Special Period is long over. But cycling remains a big pm1 of the Cuban landscape and a year-round transpolation alternative. And, with the ever-expanding tourism infrastructure on the island, it's not something that is limited to the locals either.
I can't think of a better way to enjoy the hospitality and scenery off the beaten tourist track than a biking expedition. As with most foreign countries where I don't know the local roads, my choice would be to join up with a bike tour. I've heard great things said about a coup le of Canadian companies that have been doing this for many years: Velo Quebec (www.velo.qc.ca) and MacQueen's Island Tours (www.macqueens.com).
A perfect option is what I would call a combo-pack holiday. One week of cycling. Then one week on the beach. Aie caramba, doesn't that sound fine?