The plan was simple: I would give my Bike Friday a year off from the wear-and-tear of another journey in Latin America and instead take an old mountain bike that I would donate to some worthy person when I flew home. I managed that in my final hour at the airport in Mexico–after the bike and two cardboard bike boxes had gone through a series of adventures. So here is my cautionary tale for anyone optimistic enough to contemplate taking a full-size bike out of the country!
I arrived at Portland Airport just after 4 AM on a cold winter’s day for my first experience with a standard boxed bike—compared to my folding Bike Friday, safely tucked away in its standard Samsonite suitcase. I was not in a positive mood to begin my relationship with “Bike-in-Box.” He was overweight, oversize, and never had the right change, but he was destined to become my constant and very annoying companion. (1)
I reluctantly began dragging Mr “B in B” across the lobby to the back of the line of gathering passengers. No matter how much baggage they were carrying, they couldn’t help but feel superior to me, the poor fool with a pack on his back, a document bag in one hand and a cardboard monster dragging behind him! By the time I reached the check-in counter I felt like the 100-pound weakling who has had too much sand licked in his face! (2)
Anyway, the adventure was about to begin–as soon as I paid the $50 “bicycle surcharge,” (3). Cancun, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, really isn’t that far in global terms, but it was 10pm when I landed there, wanting only to find a bed and lay my head on a pillow. The moment I passed though the airport doors, it was clear I was back in the tropics. The heat felt like someone had thrown a hot blanket over me, and Mr B ‘n B felt like he had eaten way too many in-flight snacks. (4)
It was time to take charge of the situation, change linguistic gears and persuade a minibus driver that I was not going to the Hotel Zone, but the Mayan Hostel in the center of the city. Since most tourists have booked into one of the huge “all-inclusive” resorts on the beach, that was where we headed first to drop off the rest of our passengers. At last we reached the end of the Las Vegas-like strip and I recognized the park and main plaza of the city proper. We had arrived at the Mayan Hostel that I had discovered the previous year.
The evening manager remembered me, which made it a bit of a homecoming–all that remained was to lug the bike box up to the dormitory on the second floor. (5) Unfortunately this is reached via one of the narrowest, twistiest staircases in the whole of Mexico, with a turn in it that required I lift the box up over my head and bump it along the spikes that are set into the top of the wall. After this work-out, I gratefully collapsed into the first bunk.
The next morning I awoke to the sight of the native-style thatch roof that characterizes the typical Mexican “palapa” or cabin, in this case built on the concrete roof of the original one-story building. The hostel was already bustling with the activity of a dozen travelers from half a dozen countries preparing for another day in paradise. I parked the bike box at the foot of my bunk for the next couple of days until I was ready to catch a plane to Havana.
Since my first visit, a new airport bus service had begun from the main bus station that was just a block and half away from the hostel. The price was just $1.50 compared to $7 for the minibus, and I was determined to take advantage of this. A Canadian woman who had found a job teaching English offered to help me carry the box and off we set some three hours before the flight. I was grateful for the help, but it was still a huge effort!. (6)
While she watched the box, I bought my ticket and slid the box through the entrance gate. The bus was big, shiny and new. I shoved the box in the cargo hold, had my ticket checked by a young man at the door, and sat down in air-conditioned comfort. Once we reached the coastal highway, the ride was smooth and fast………..and we passed the airport exit at 95 kph heading south!
The passenger next to me was reading an English book so I interrupted him to ask if the bus was indeed going direct to Playa del Carmen, some 40 kms from Cancun. He was, and I was NOT HAPPY! I got up, ignored the sign in Spanish that said “Do NOT Disturb the Driver,” told him I had to get to the airport, and waved my ticket just outside of his view of the road. Unperturbed, he took the ticket from me, examined it, and told me we would soon come to an intermediate stop, a small junction where the road led down to the fishing village of Puerto Morales, adding with true Mexican style that this “no es una problema.”
I was not so sure when the bus roared away, leaving me by the dusty roadside with my trusted sidekick. We struggled across the four-lane road to the bus stop on the other side. (7) There was a bored young attendant in a ticket booth here, who assured me there would be a bus in an hour. I told her something like “thanks but no thanks” and proceeded back towards the junction where I could see a cluster of taxis waiting for their next victim.
I was breathless, sweaty, and in a poor position to bargain when I approached the driver with a station wagon who told me the fare to the airport was $20. I tried $15, but he just smiled the smile of one who knows he holds all the cards. Determined to recoup something from this misfortune, I responded by saying that I had already paid $2, so how about $18? He seemed to be amused by my audacity and agreed to this–so we stuffed the box into the back and off we went–back north.
At the airport, I found my second wind to get the bike box back into the lobby and on its way out to the tarmac.(8) No surcharge this time. Three hours later, outside the Jose Marti International Airport, I followed my plan, dumped the hated box in a dumpster, and pedaled away into the evening in Communist Cuba!
Thirty days later I had ENOUGH of Cuban socialism and was back at the airport. Since I still had four weeks of vacation left, I had decided to hang on to the bike, and riding back to my starting point was a very satisfying close to the journey. There was just one problem–no bike boxes on the entire island. (9)
At 8 AM on a Sunday morning, I circled the warehouse area looking for anything that resembled a bike box. (If I failed, I was prepared to roll the bike up to the ticket counter and see what happened.) Around another corner, I came across a warehouse with a nice pile of boxes along a fence. I explained to the guard that I only wanted a box for the bike, and luckily he allowed me through the gate. I was on a roll–now all I needed was a very big narrow box. The odds were pretty slim–but within a minute I had found one. It was very solid and had a separate lid. I had no idea what it had been used for.
I looped a piece of string around it for a handle, mounted my bike, and tried to push off. The box weighed so much it pulled my steering over and I had to stop. I braced myself against the load and set off again with the string biting into my hand. At the end of the block, I wrapped a rag around my hand and turned onto the main approach road. I was struggling to stop from wandering across the road, although since it was a sleepy Sunday morning I barely saw a single car.
Then I was back where I began on the sidewalk to one side of the entrance doors, with my tools in hand. I had half an hour to break the bike down and get it packed. The box turned out to be a little short, and it was heavily stapled together, so I had to use a screwdriver tip to open up one end; I had saved the original string and was able to truss the box up securely. Feeling very competent, I trundled the box inside and was soon on my way back to Cancun.
The same couldn’t be said of the bike, which didn’t arrive for another two days! (11) I sat reading and watching satellite TV and had the hostel manager call the airport for me each day. We finally realized there was no delivery service–I would have to go out there and retrieve it myself. This time I made sure I was on the right bus–my new rule is to ask after you get on as well as before. Two 20-kilometer bus rides, another “street drag” to the hostel, (12) and I had my wheels–I was back in business!