Divas and Snakes Don’t Mix: Crust Bikes in Puerto Rico
Words by Angelica Casaverde, photos by Matt Whitehead
I am the tiniest diva on two wheels. When I say I’m a diva, I’m not trying to be cute, I am all capitals, in bold DIVA. I’m the one who gets someone to carry the heavy stuff and do all the physical work because I can’t be bothered. I love my lavender candle, my bed, and my Netflix chill time. I prioritize looking good and feeling 100. With all that being said you can see how bikes and bike touring don’t exactly fit into my idea of a good time. I didn’t choose a life of bikes, I fell in love with Matt and consequently married into this crazy shit. The morning we exchanged vows I inherited Crust Bikes as the loosest, most flamboyant adopted child I never anticipated having. Matt and bikes until I die.
Before I met Matt, I had never been on a bike as an adult. I was drinking mezcal and salsa dancing my way around Latin America. On those first dates, I would sit on the front rack of his bike, ride around town, heckle at people while simultaneously making out. It was cute. Eventually, I decided to independently search for a bike of my own, so I hit up my local Walmart. What a mistake. It was fucked straight out of the box. I returned it and learned Matt’s favorite lesson, “ buy cheap, buy twice”. Finding a bike for my petite frame, 4 feet 10 inches, was difficult. It’s a reason I stayed away from bikes. I didn’t want to be an adult woman on a kids bike and anything bigger was just too uncomfortable. Since that Walmart bike, I’ve had a second-hand Trek, a custom Crust mini Evasion step through, and now my very own Crust namesake, the “Cheecho”. I am a lucky lady.
Crust settled its headquarters in my home state of New Jersey. It is where we’ve been living for the past 8 months. Matt hasn’t stayed put for that long since he was 18 and I didn’t want to ride out another dreadful Northeast winter. We needed a tropical escape, a US domestic tropical escape. Matt needed waves and I was craving the Spanish language and reggeaton. If you don’t get it by now, it’s Puerto Rico. We went to Puerto Rico. In talks, Matt suggested we do my favorite thing and just “chill” in paradise. Chill meant him surfing and me baking my skin with a drink in my hand. I on the other hand surprisingly insisted on taking the bikes and riding. Trust me, this was a huge internal battle. I normally looked for ways to get out of bike riding. Despite these custom bikes, a fun little four-day bike ride in Australia and short commutes to and from work I still didn’t like being on my bike. These bikes gave my partner so much happiness and I wanted to share that with him. I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and give bikes a fair chance.
I created the perfect formula for an enjoyable bike tour. Warm tropical climate, small island, supportive partner, world-class bikes and Melissa. Melissa like myself is not a bike rider. She simply thought riding a bike around Puerto Rico sounded like a good time. Her presence gave ease that my misery would have company. I will openly admit I do not like riding with anyone other than Matt. I don’t like riding in groups because I am slow, very slow. Riding in groups exposes how truly unfit I am and no one likes to feel like they’re the slob holding the group back. It is nothing personal towards others, it’s simply an insecurity on my part and I’m okay with that.
We had a plan, to ride east to San Juan from Rincon. We weren’t sure what to expect. Nothing about bike touring in Puerto Rico had come up on my internet research and we definitely had no idea what the situation was like post-hurricane Maria. I will tell you that it only took me pushing that bike box through the airport to start regretting my decision. So much sweating. Matt packed, unpacked, and built three bikes. Did I mention how lucky I am? He was on his Nor’easter, I was on the only bike in the world that fits me, the Cheecho, and Melissa was on a trashed out Bridgestone with a Cargo fork. Throw in a nice little unicorn vomit surfboard for good measure and we were ready to partay.
We landed in San Juan and found a chauffeured van that took us and our bikes to Rincon to start our ride. 83 miles via automobile. We were dropped off in front of a gate on someone’s private property, not far from the center of town. The driver left and the three of us situated ourselves in front of the said gate taking turns using a bathroom nearby. An older woman came out and started speaking Spanish to Melissa. Melissa doesn’t speak Spanish. I interjected. “Estan bien, necistan ayuda? Are you guys okay, do you need help?” she asked. I told her our plan to ride to San Juan and her face dropped “QUE? Ten cuidado”. Be careful. People cannot fathom riding a bicycle for such a long distance just for kicks. She seemed genuinely worried and gave us her blessings. These conversations became common. Locals would stop to ask about our bikes, where we came from and shared advice.
The bike ride began and within five minutes we made our first beach stop. These beaches are places straight out of desktop screensavers. (Who knew, screensavers come from reality?) Fine white sand, lush palm trees, and lucent blue water. You get it. We wanted to move slow and enjoy the unexpected. Relish that we weren’t in the clutches of New Jersey’s horrid winter. Bask in the emptiness of the shores, tan my boobs and butt cheeks without getting arrested or harassed. We aimed to stay beachside but when those routes dead ended we followed steep twisted roads up into the cliffs, made the first left, bombed down a fun hill into a colorful beach town and back onto a coastal course. My legs are far from the powerful horse thighs of experienced riders, so off the saddle it was. Melissa was right there with me, pushing and cursing up those hills. I would stop halfway up, have a swig of water, and listen to the little screams coming from my tiny body. “What the hell you doing out there girl? Help! I’m tired!” I couldn’t get frustrated, I was in paradise, feeling the burn from my gluteus Maximus while singeing my skin to the most perfect crispy brown. “No shame in pushing” quickly became my motto for this trip. We followed our zig-zag routine of small coastal town roads and inland climbs. Beach, climb inland, route 2, back down to the beach, climb back inland. Our ride varied from narrow and paved to rarely visited dirt roads. We would steer off a paved road at the top of a hill, carry our bikes over a cement barricade, descend into what looked like Jurrasic Park, and continue riding onto an almost nonexistent single track tangled in tropical bush. Every day was different, but beach time and mofongo were always on the day’s agenda. If you don’t know what mofongo is, ya beat.
One day the map showed us a five-mile stretch of road along the beach, but when we reached it, it had been washed away by the hurricane. Roadblocks, road maintenance, (attempted) electrical work, abandoned hotels, and restaurants were constant reminders. Reminders that Puerto Rico, in all its natural beauty, had been devastated only a few months ago. A small island full of culture, history, and charisma is caught in an internal identity limbo between country and state. Leaving its citizens living under a flawed system that has neglected their needs. Since our bikes and surfboard attracted attention it was common to get into conversations with just about anyone. These conversations gave me some loose perspective on the situation. We rode into a town one morning looking for a shop with breakfast and water. When we got there the shop had no power and the water coming out of the faucet was discolored, but the store owner did not hesitate to gift us his own personal gallon of filtered water. Another woman we met along the way shared that her town had not had electrical power since the hurricane but was hoping to get it back that day. That’s five months. Five months without the most basic needs for children, elderly, handicapped and others who live on U.S. territory. In the aftermath of such turmoil, Puerto Rican’s proved to be kind, generous and patient.
Our fifth day of riding we encountered the most backtracking from road work and misinformation. It was a long day and the sun was setting. We needed to find a place to set camp for the night, which wasn’t easy on the coast. Matt led us past a fence, through a high grass field, and to a secluded rocky beach. Hidden among the palms, and out of sight. It was perfect and then Melissa found a snake in the rocks. Fucking Melissa. Fucking thick brown nasty ass snake. I was out. Divas and snakes don’t mix. Especially when sleeping in an open bottom tent. We packed up and rode into the creeping night. No hidden camp spots for our two-story mansion size tent in sight, no open motels, we even offered money to camp in someone’s yard but nothing. The advice and warnings of violence and robberies from the people we conversed with along our ride replayed in my head and added panic to my exhaustion.
The dark of the night had set in when we reached the small town of Vega Baja. I was the only one of us who could speak Spanish. With the help of Matt, I had to suck in all my feelings, attempt to act normal and get help from someone at the bar in town. Help in the form of a lift to the nearest motel or a yard to camp on in exchange for cash, something. I approached an older woman sitting at the bar enjoying a rum pouch, it’s like a Capri Sun but with alcohol. I told her our story, how we biked from Rincon and how tired I was. The bartender joined in the conversation and as I was talking, I felt my eyes start to burn and the tears roll down my face. I just let go and started full crying in front of these two strangers. I was so tired. My Capri Sun rum angel, Maria, pulled me into her full bosom and gave me a big mami hug. She did not live in the area and was waiting for a lift from her niece but assured me she would find someone to help. Three dirtbags with fully loaded bikes hanging outside the bar. We were waiting for Maria’s lead from the bartender’s cousin who would maybe let us camp on his patio. I chased down a guy with long dreads who seemed like he would be of some help. He wasn’t. We were sure we’d have to camp on the beach, in plain sight, along a busy road.
I went back to the bar and found Maria chatting with Evelisse, a younger woman maybe in her late 30s but who knows. Latina skin is very deceiving. The three of us talked, threw around suggestions, Evelisse decided nowhere in the area was safe enough to camp. “Esperame” she stepped away to go to talk to her husband, who was in the middle of a card game. The two came back and told me that we could stay at their place. Oh my god! I was relieved and shocked. I offered to pay to camp in their yard and they absolutely refused. They lived 5 mins from the bar, she hopped in her car with vodka soda in hand and told us to follow her. Evelisse and Frank had in every way opened the doors to their house to us with complete trust. They let us shower (Evelisse insisted), sleep on their couches and hammock, and even made us coffee the next morning. The back room of their house was lined with racks full of surf/ beach clothing. Frank used to own a surf shop that was looted in the aftermath of the hurricane. He lost his business and they went without power for months. Despite the shitty hand, they had been dealt they were still so giving to complete strangers. Sitting around the patio, the five of us talking and laughing, they didn’t feel like strangers anymore.
I don’t know if it’s working as a waitress, Trump, racism, sexism or the USA in general but I was losing my faith in mankind. Self-serving, impatient humans fixated on machines that create fake worlds through posed images on a screen. Living in the comfort of your box whether it be your house, apartment or car. I am guilty of all this, maybe even more then most, I am most certainly not without fault and these little experiences helped me see that. The way I see it is we have two choices in life: 1) to live in ignorance and follow the mundane comfortable routine that society has created or 2) get out there and get uncomfortable. Have moments of fear, dig yourself out, feel vulnerable, cry in front of strangers, make new friends and cherish those moments because that is living. When given two options, take the one that makes you cringe in discomfort. I promise it will be the most fun.
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