I found another photo on DeviantArt, and decided to write it. Before you start, it’s about 1,700 words (10-12 minutes), so beware.
The photo is a bit of a giveaway so rather than pasting it at the top, I’ve tagged it onto the bottom of the piece.
This is it, thought Tom, as he boarded the airplane. Pretty small, he judged, but the traffic down to Havana must be a fraction of the more popular destinations, and with just one flight per week from JFK, the cabin heaved.
“It’s kinda a bachelor party, in reverse”, explained the dark haired forty-something to his neighbour, a recent widow, flying “home” to see her nieces and nephews. “My buddy and I are heading out for a few week’s cycling, to celebrate my divorce”.
He and Henry had been acquaintances, rather than friends, for years, but had inexplicably grown closer during the divorce. There were still many unknowns about him, but he seemed to be a solid shoulder to cry on. He too was wedded to his bike, however, and was Tom’s first-choice companion for the trip, and it hadn’t taken much arm-twisting to bring him on board. When Tom saw the ad in Cycling Monthly, just a week after the papers came through, it seemed like fate. Especially with all the hassle Melissa used to give him, precisely about his dearest hobby. “How much did that cost?”, she’d scold, spotting his latest must-have accessory and ferreting through last month’s statements. And the classic, “You’re always out on that bike. You’re never here for us.” Did she never realise that, especially as the children grew more independent, she was the reason he was never around?
Ciclismo Paraíso Cuba. Even the name had a charm to it. A guided tour of Cuba, from one end of the island to the other. Not least it promised much-needed respite from the distinctly chilly springtime in Queens.
Paradise, indeed, reflected Tom, as he vowed to shut his ex-wife from his thoughts, at least for the duration of the trip. And, as if reading his mind, Tom felt a strong hand tap his shoulder from behind. From the next row, the six-feet-four, bespectacled frame of the dependable Henry.
“This was a great idea, buddy. I so need this break. A fortnight in the sun? Bring it on! Fuck the bank, fuck the City”. Then, more sombre. “Seriously, man, you’ve been through a lot these last months, so try and forget it and let’s just have ourselves a good time, yeah?” Tom simply smiled back at the man, as he allowed his eyes to close.
In the Arrivals lounge at José Martí, the men easily spotted the prominent Paraíso rep, a young man, one of the pros, they later discovered, named Juan, who doubled as today’s driver. There were to be twelve vacationers in total; eight had arrived on that same flight, although none knew it, and when the group finally assembled, Juan led them out to an ageing, fifteen-seat minibus, which itself was to double as backup transport should any of them suffer an emergency, and would follow the tourists with their luggage. “Ees beeg business”, explained Juan as he weaved across the lanes. Mostly, Americans wanting to catch early (or late) sunshine, but increasingly, too, Europeans. They had even had a Taiwanese couple this season.
They struggled to escape the grip of Havana, “traffic around the city ees always bad”, explained Juan, but they found open road as they drove west through mostly rural terrain to their first base, Paraíso’s HQ, on the coast near the town of Sandino. And Juan’s words were true – the further they distanced from the capital, the more pastoral the countryside became, and the more Tom enjoyed the carpet of green, still lush from the winter rains, which unfolded before him. As they arrived at their destination, Tom saw the sand sprinkled with palm trees, and might well have arrived in his paradise.
“An easy ride, to settle you in”, explained another professional, Jim, the next morning. An apple-pie American, they later discovered that he hailed from only twenty miles outside of “Chicaga”, and growing tired of the freezing winters by the lake, had finally upped and settled here. “Six years come fall. And I tell yas”, he grinned, “place sure beats the Sout’ Side at Christmas”.
Tom had never seen anybody so lanky. With his frizz of sun-bleached blond curls, he stood a good half-a-head taller than any of the party, Tom calculated he must be nearing seven feet tall! And with zero body fat, too, envied Tom. This had been his own bête noire as he’d gotten older.
Jeez, I don’t know about bikes, this guy should be in the NBA!
As Jim promised, the first ride was easy. To acclimatise. To the heat, to the poorly-maintained roads and to the rented bikes. Carbon fibre was the absolute baseline for any of these operators nowadays, but on top of that, the bikes carried parts that were distinctly… average. Both riders had left better bikes at home, “but hey”, remarked Henry, “we’re not out to break world records”.
Tom further comforted himself, on arrival at their first overnight stop, a delightful old colonial guest house in Santa Maria, to see Paraíso’s bus waiting in the car park, and to find his oversized orange rucksack waiting in his room. These guys were at least vaguely organised, he thought, and settled into a relaxed evening, strolling around the town, it too a relic from the Spanish era, and admiring the minaret church tower. Despite his earlier promise, he couldn’t help chuckling to Henry over dinner: “Melissa would’ve hated this place. No shops!”
Day #2 was harder, and they covered 100 miles. Tom didn’t catch the name of the town, but there was no mistaking that telltale salty smell of the beach as they checked into their frugal accommodation. Family-run, although it called itself a hotel, Tom thought the description… ambitious, but it was cosy enough, and he couldn’t fault its location. His bonus after a long day in the saddle? An end-of-day paddle in the soothingly warm waters of the Caribbean. But, try as he might to forget her, there she was again, as Tom remembered the last time he’d gone into that sea, on their honeymoon in St Lucia, fourteen years ago. So much time with that woman, wasted save for their two wonderful children.
The third day, Tom’s legs still felt good. Maybe that saltwater massage the night before made the difference? And afterwards, he couldn’t put his finger on it. Was it because they had only just started the day? That his mind hadn’t fully switched on yet? But, just as the town became countryside, they reached a mild descent, and, enjoying the cool wind blowing into his helmet, Tom powered ahead, ignoring Jim’s calls.
Making the most of the breeze, the approaching twist in the road didn’t register. His world switched to slow motion as he realised that he was far too fast. Braking made no difference. An experienced rider, Tom knew he was going to hit the deck. He even had time to make his decision.
Do I follow the road? But at that speed, a tyre couldn’t grip. No way could he steer through the bend. He would skid and come down. Straight onto the asphalt. Possibly, into traffic.
No, he’d have to leave the roadway, take his chances. Decision made, and a second later, Tom deliberately sped off the exhausted tarmac, braking as hard as he dared, bracing to lessen the inevitable impact. With any luck, his still-soft surroundings might cushion his fall.
He spotted the ominous earth bank approaching at speed. Instinctively, he removed his hand from the handlebar, preparing to shield his torso from the collision.
The initial shock soon subsided, to be replaced by the dull ache from his wrist. He stared at his painful hand, then incredulously at the crumpled bike lying beside him, its front wheel still spinning freely, as the surprised pack caught up.
Panicked, the pros contacted the bus.
“Are you okay, buddy”, demanded Henry, as he helped Tom stagger unsteadily to his feet.
It was clear that Tom needed a doctor, and as the most bilingual pro, Jim was the obvious candidate to escort him. Henry, aware that his friend was about to face the onslaught of foreign bureaucracy, abandoned his ride, too, and stoically insisted on accompanying his buddy.
Six hours later, the three emerged from the Hospital Docente, Tom’s wrist clad in a light cast.
“I suppose that’s it?”, Tom looked up at the guide.
Jim understood at once.
“Ain’t never been no guy yet managed to ride on a busted wrist”, quickly adding, “Look, while you were getting fixed up, I made some calls. The folks at the Mimosa…”
“The where?”, Tom interrupted.
“Place we stayed last night, in Playa Majana…” His mind slowed by the crash, the unfamiliar names took Tom by surprise, though Henry followed. “It’s quiet season, they have rooms free. Yous guys can stay there the week while we carry on. Tuesday” – the penultimate day – “I can swing back, pick yas up, and we’ll meet back up with the other guys for the last night in Havana. And yas can fly back home next day, as planned”.
Visibly disappointed, Tom conferred with Henry.
Henry stared at Tom’s cast. “You have a choice?”
Tom reluctantly agreed. “You can carry on though”, he addressed his friend, assuming that Henry would want to continue the tour, though glum at the prospect of spending the next week alone. Henry, however, would not hear of it.
“Look at you”, he pointed to the hand, “you can’t even stay out of trouble for a few days, let alone for another week!” And Tom understood that his protests were futile.
The men spent much of the next day in their rooms. The still-shellshocked Tom, feeling sorry for himself, nursed his broken hand, but after dinner, Henry finally persuaded him to stroll into town, and only three blocks away, they discovered a pleasant beach-side bar. Shunning the gaudy, over-decorated interior, the men enjoyed the sparser deck to themselves.
“You know”, consoled Henry, raising his cool beer to the vista before him, “this coulda worked out a whole lot worse”. Tom considered his friend, the guy who just sacrificed his vacation, and he too raised his glass. It sure could.
Beautiful photo, isn’t it? I wrote the location as the Caribbean, but in real life, this is western Australia.