Riquimbili

Transport, Trash, Eat the Street

There is a long line for the bus. That old tractor trailor –called “the Camel”- is always full. Inside, there is no space, no air, not an inch unoccupied by a leg, a cheek, a child. Outside, people literally hang in the warm breeze on their way to work.

Cuba’s poverty and trade embargo have made cars rare, so for the majority of this island population who won’t fit in the bus, old bicycles are the only solution. The resources to furnish every commuter with a bike are limited, but Cuba is rich in creativity and ingenuity; restless artisans, tin magicians, scrap hackers create the most amazing bicycles not from scratch, but from debris: riquimbilis.

The framework of an old Chinese bike is given life and power from an old water pump engine or black-market turbine. A plastic bottle full of gasoline, stunted handlebars, and rusty old exhaust tubes complete the hybrid mechanical “child”, “darling”, “the apple of the eye” of many Cubans. 

The roaring riquimbili, whose name is as untraceable as the parts that compose them, are economic, extracting as much as 50 miles out of every gallon of Venezuelan gasoline. But they are also fast: a riquimbili with all the best salvaged parts can reach up to 100 kilometers per hour. Island police have had to restrict the use of these motorized bikes to keep Cuban youth from deadly drag races.

The clandestine races have already killed more than a few reckless riquimbili drivers, but the ban on their machines now hurts Cuba’s calmer citizens, who once relied on the motorized hybrids as a family vehicle, with Mom and Dad mounted on each end and their children sandwiched in between.

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