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Luis Enrique Gonzalez tells us how he became interested in motorcycles in Cuba. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Havana Harleys

Two flags hang in the garage: Cuba on the left, America on the right.

In the middle of our group stands Luis Enrique González, dressed in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, his hair wrapped in a black bandana.

Oversized motorcycles from yesteryear stand parked in a row—some red, one bright turquoise.

“This one’s from 1938,” explains Luis. “And it still runs!” His eyes sparkle with pride as our group gasps with surprise.

We are Americans, and we are used to things being new. In our world, a 1999 Subaru is both ancient and unsustainable. But here in Cuba, engineers like Luis take pride in keeping even the most anachronistic machines alive.

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“I was training to be a doctor,” Luis answers a question from one of our travelers. “But I didn’t like it. When somebody died, I felt like such a failure—there was no solution. But with motorcycles, I can always find a way to make it run.”

And this he does with aplomb. One by one, he talks us through his hodgepodge family of Harley Davidson motorcycles, dating back to before and during World War II. He shows us their quirks and the little improvisations he’s had to make using Soviet or Japanese parts.

So far, our schedule of People-to-People meetings has brought us face to face with such a wide variety of Cuban society—teachers, professors, economists, historians, architects, dancers, singers, artists, schoolchildren, community leaders, and even a horse whisperer—but now, on our last day in Havana, our group is entirely enchanted by this engineer.

Perhaps it’s because Luis speaks English, and perhaps it’s because he’s in love with something as American as Harley Davidson motorcycles.

“They’re the best bikes in the world,” he states without any hyperbole. Luis knows how well these bikes ride because he’s driven some of these 70- and 80-year old motorcycles all over Cuba.

“Yeah, they break down,” he answers another man. “The hardest thing to get is new tires, so we just fix the old ones. You know, we could never get the patches or glue to fix a flat tire, so we just use condoms stuffed into the hole. You can ride 500 miles on a tire like that.”

All of us are amazed by this ingenuity and optimism—it’s something that definitely sets Cuba apart from the rest of the world.

“We find solutions everyday. It’s the Cuban way of life,” adds Luis, and then goes on to explain how it all works.

“In Cuba, everyone helps everyone else out. We all chip in. Say you wanna go fishing—well, I know someone who has a boat and another friend has a motor. I’ll bring some fishing poles, somebody else will bring bait, and then we can all go fishing.”

It sounds so rational, which makes me wonder how America is any different. Luis is reading my thoughts.

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In the garage with Luis. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“In America, you wanna go fishing—you go to the store and buy all the stuff to go fishing, then you go fishing by yourself.” He makes a solid point—our own independence versus their interdependence—and I can tell, that everyone in our group is pondering the ramifications of this. That perhaps we Americans can learn something rather vital from the Cubans.

Our group continues firing questions at Luis—of all our People To People encounters, he seems to be the biggest hit. Though we are standing in a garage that smells of diesel, and a dog is clamoring on the roof overhead, none of us feels that we are dealing with a mere mechanic. Luis is a passionate man, a fellow traveler, an intellectual, and a mechanical genius.

In the midst of answering each of our questions, a young boy enters the garage and rushes up to Luis, then hugs him tightly.

“This is my son,” says Luis, and smiles. The boy wears a tank top painted with the stars and stripes. He asks if there are any more questions and I raise my hand.

“Was Motorcycle Diaries a popular movie in Cuba?” I wonder out loud.

“Well, Che Guevara actually rode a Norton, which is a British bike. But Che’s son, Ernesto Guevara, lives here in Havana and he loves to ride with some of our motorcycle groups. He really likes Harley-Davidsons.”

Back in 1989, Luis applied to the government for official registration of his motorcycle club. Now, in 2014, he is still waiting for a response.

“They don’t want any more civil associations,” he explains.

It’s time to move on—next up is a meeting with Cuban artist Fuster—but none of us want to leave. We exit the garage and walk out into the street where Luis has parked his old Buick.

The car dates back to the 1950’s, with a rectangle sunroof cut into the metal and a glass window duct-taped into place. Luis opens the hood, then starts the engine. The belts start turning, the fan spins, and engine putters away, shaking like a dancer at the cabaret.

All of us gather around, in awe. Luis explains how he travels around Cuba with a backseat filled with tools he uses to keep his car running. Some of us begin to say goodbye, but the rest of us stick around, uneager to rush off.

This is a work of art, I think—a real work of art, built from whatever Luis could find, and running on nothing more than Diesel and hope. That we can travel here and see this for ourselves is a sign of the times.

I thank Luis, grateful for his time. His son nuzzles into his side again, shy, but the two of them wave goodbye as our bus careens down the street, and out of sight.

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Luis shows us his old Buick, dating back to the 1950’s, which he keeps running using old Soviet and Japanese car parts. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.