I think it is all the pictures you see of old cars that did it.
With that image in my head, I was convinced that Cuba is a country frozen in time. In my imagination, all the clocks stopped when we imposed our embargo in 1960. I really thought the trip to Cuba would feel like time travel.
But the world doesn’t work that way, especially not these days, when information travels through the air at the speed of light. Cubans have flat-screen TVs and cellphones and are pretty tuned in to U.S. culture. Our guide’s favorite shows were “House of Cards” and “Big Bang Theory,” not “Happy Days.”
In shutting off most U.S. communication with the country, we didn’t isolate Cuba from the world. We just isolated ourselves from knowing much about Cuba.
I was clueless about the country I was visiting. What I didn’t know about Cuba could have filled a guidebook (had I thought to buy and read one). And I think we are as much victims of propaganda as they are. What I did know was mostly wrong.
For example, about those cars.
When we finally reclaimed our bags (which took more than twice as long as the flight itself) and emerged from the unbelievably inefficient Havana airport, we were a bit frazzled. But things started looking up when we discovered that our band of eight merry culture-seekers was going to spend the week with two vintage cars as our transportation: a gleaming yellow and white Chevy sedan and a blue metallic Chrysler station wagon.
They were gorgeous and immediately evoked an “American Graffiti” desire to cruise up and down the main drag checking out guys before heading to the malt shop.
But my image of car-deprived Cubans keeping them running by hook or by crook was a bit off.
It’s true that Fidel Castro responded to our embargo by prohibiting U.S. imports, including cars and replacement parts, so Cubans have had to use ingenuity to keep these beauties on the road all these years. However, the cars we rode in weren’t held together with chewing gum and duct tape.
Their body shop workers must be geniuses. These cars were immaculate. The upholstery was new and perfect. They had state-of-the-art air conditioning. Our driver’s music came from a flash drive that he plugged into the dash next to the radio.
True, they might have had trouble passing a California smog test, and lacked seat belts and airbags. But Cubans aren’t sticklers for authenticity. Where it mattered, the cars’ antiquity was largely an illusion. Under their perfectly restored hoods, these babies were sporting new 5-speed Mercedes diesel engines.
Because, let’s face it, Cubans live in the real world, not the 1950s, and they are not at all stupid. (In fact, they are very well-educated, with a literacy rate that puts ours to shame.) They understand that these old cars have become a symbol of their country. Now that Raul Castro has liberalized the rules on private enterprise, those lucky enough to get their hands on one and able to scrape together the funds needed to restore it to a level of modern comfort and reliability can make a better-than-average income catering to us visitors as taxi drivers.
Before I left for Cuba, I joked that I wanted to get there before the car dealerships open and the place is overrun with Ford Fiestas. Now that I’ve been there, I’m not worried. New cars are prohibitively expensive and Cubans aren’t going to be rushing to buy them. Even if they were, I think the old cars are there to stay. They’re too valuable as a tourist attraction for us pretend time travelers.
And they’ll be in even greater demand as the country gears up for a huge influx of American tourists when commercial flights resume this fall.
But speaking of tourism, I do have a few suggestions for improving the visitor experience.
They really have to do something about their airport baggage handling. Standing around for two hours watching one bag at a time arrive on the carousel is not a great introduction to an otherwise delightful island.
Also, it gets pretty hot there. Havana could really use more places to get ice cream. I think they should embrace the ‘50s theme. Someone could make a killing opening up a Dairy Queen.
And while they’re at it, enough with the Che! T-shirts at every souvenir stand. They’re so last year.
What they really need to sell is poodle skirts.
A Real Deal Daiquiri
I’m under no illusion that I experienced the “real Cuba” during my trip. Our guided tour sheltered us from seeing the day-to-day life of the average José, whose monthly income is likely in the two- to three-digit range. Restaurants and bars that looked incredibly cheap to us are budget busters for them.
So we didn’t run into many Cubans heading out for drinks after work. But for us tourists, it was happy hour all day long, with $2 beers and $3 cocktails. I particularly enjoyed the adult slushies called daiquiris, which were delightfully tart and refreshing after a long, hard day of sightseeing.
I didn’t bring back the Havana Club rum and Cuban maraschino liqueur needed to make a truly authentic daiquiri at home, but even with substitutions, mixing up a batch of these in the blender takes my taste buds back on vacation.
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
2 heaping tsp. sugar
1-1/2 ounces white rum
A dash (about 1/2 tsp.) Luxardo or other maraschino liqueur
Put all the ingredients in a blender. (To measure out how much ice you will need, take the glass you will be using for the drink and fill it with ice.)
Blend until all the ice has been ground up. Pour into a cocktail glass, heaping it up in the middle, insert a straw, and enjoy.