On a Bicycle Built for Cuba
An Aussie lady bikes around an island
From late 1999 to early 2000, Lynette Chiang traveled by folding bicycle through Cuba. An Australian, Chiang wasn’t subject to the restrictions on visiting Cuba that Americans are, giving readers a detailed look at the forbidden land. Her memoir, The Handsomest Man in Cuba, published in 2007, details her solo travels around the island in a quirky first-person account, taken from Chiang’s diary. The Alibi caught up with Chiang in advance of her rolling through Albuquerque for a slide show presentation and talk.
What do you find so appealing about bicycle travel?
You actually feel connected to your environment. In a car you feel like you’re in a tin can moving along. When you're traveling on a bike, the whole surface of your body is basically open to the air and the environment. If you think about that, it's like jumping in a pool. When you jump into the water you get that incredible sense of immersion, that shock. I think it's like that on a bike. Suddenly, you're whishing through air and feeling the sun or the rain or whatever is going on in every pore of your body, and that makes you feel alive—and free.
Do you think people treat you differently when you travel by bike than they would if you took a more traditional form of travel?
Of course. I think the folding bike has been a factor. I don't think I would have gotten quite the same amount of attention if I'd been on a regular bike. The folding bike is a little unusual, people talk to you. If you've got a strange little contraption, like my folding bike was, it sends a signal out to people that this is someone they should talk to or try to help or something.
You're a woman traveling alone. What advice do you have for women riding solo?
“I'm a champion and a cheerleader for the solo woman traveler. Especially the older woman traveler.”
Some people say to me things like, Oh, I could never be able to do what you did. I don't think it's got anything to do with not being able to, it's all about desire. Whatever you desire to do, there's a very good chance that you'll do it. As far as being a woman goes, you probably get treated a little differently. ... I'm a champion and a cheerleader for the solo woman traveler. Especially the older woman traveler. To step out of a comfortable existence or whatever you had before and just go out on your own. I know what that's like; it's scary, but you just have to go out and do it.
I think people imagine you're in more danger as a woman, but it seemed like the reverse was true in your book; that you had more people looking out for you.
You can pull the helpless maiden card whenever you want. I think whatever works, whatever card you want to pull that helps you survive, you pull that card. Yes, I have absolutely had people help me and invite me to their home and so forth and look after me. What guys might have in strength and the ability to look a little more imposing, women get chivalry. People want to help them.
Your Cuba trip was more than 10 years ago. Where have you gone since then?
I’ve ridden through the Yucatán in Mexico, made a documentary in Peru. I've made a couple of full-length adventure movies just using a digital camera. Route 66. I've biked in the Baja, in Japan, last year Singapore. Quite a few places, actually.
Why did you choose to write about Cuba and not your other travels?
I’ve written about other travels online. With Cuba, the country is sufficiently intriguing that I felt compelled to write about it. I just made bullet points every day. I actually published an article that's the chapter “La Casa de Lolita” in the Tico Times. I didn’t think much of it, but I got an e-mail from the editor, who’d gotten an e-mail from someone in New York. He read my story and asked if he could be put in touch with me. He made the journey all the way from New York to Costa Rica and loaned me this little laptop—the lucky Toshiba—and said, “Finish the story.” I was flattered because I hadn’t thought much of it, so I just sat down and started to write it down.
It doesn’t read like you set out to write a book.
It’s like a blog, but it’s been printed. I’ve never been that into travel books because I’m always looking for some different kind of thing. I like the way the mind just meanders. Cuba was like that—every turn or corner was very different ... it’s got a different time-feel to it. There’s no real beginning or end, you’re just kind of moseying and meandering. That’s what travel is kind of about.
Lynette Chiang, The Handsomest Man in Cuba
Sunday, June 6, 3 p.m.
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