Cuba’s Love Affair

The following is a short essay written by Joyce Stauffer, one of of our fellow travelers from the Road Scholar trip to Cuba.  We enjoyed sharing a Casa Particular with Joyce and her husband John who reside in California.
 
Cuba, January 2017
Cuba’s Love Affair
 
We returned from our visit to Cuba with stories of the dance music, the cocktails, the rum, the cigars and the fabulous old Fifties American cars. It’s true what they say about the cars in Havana.  There are hundreds of stunning, 1950’s-era American cars – Fords, Chevys, Dodges, Buicks, Cadillacs, we even saw an Edsel and a Studebaker. It is estimated there are 60,000 retrofitted metal relics clunking around the streets of this stagnant island nation. In 1955, Cuba was the top importer of North American-manufactured cars.  The area around Havana, which had assembly plants for Ford and General Motors, was nicknamed Little Detroit.  That all changed in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries took over the country. He said the Cadillac does not increase the wealth of the country, it diminishes it. From that moment on, Castro halted all American car imports. Replacement parts were also banned, forcing car owners to bandage their cars with mismatched Russian and Czechoslovakian parts. Little did the Cubans know that that this ban would last for almost 60 years and that these abandoned Americans cars would become so important to their economy and everyday lives.
 
Now these cars, that have been roaming the island for decades, are showing their age. At first glance, they look to be meticulously preserved by their owners. They are painted bright colors: torch red, sky blue, turquoise green; with new, shiny, tuck and roll upholstery in colors to match the car. But a closer look by someone who knows cars, will reveal that that Buick has VW taillights, or the headlights don’t match, or the hood ornament came from another make of car. Considering the bad roads, poor gas quality and complete absence of correct spare parts, you begin to appreciate just how ingenious the Cuban people are. We were told they use shampoo for brake fluid, iron pipes for piston rings, CocaCola to loosen bolts and toothpaste to buff the paint. Many of these cars are convertibles and are used to provide crucial income for the locals serving as taxis. The best-looking chromed-up convertibles and coupes are on full-time tourist duty. Drivers park their cars outside the government-run hotels in order to entice tourists to cruise along the coastal avenue, Malecon, of Old Havana, night and day.  Outside the touristy areas of Old Havana, we saw many more American classics, but in much rougher condition. These cars are the backbone of Cuba’s personal transportation. The original V8 engines have been replaced by diesel engines.  Gas is very expensive in Cuba while diesel cost only about half as much. Although, for us, it was great fun to see these cars and reminisce about the cars we drove or had in the family at one time, I bet that given the chance, the Cubans would buy a new car in a heartbeat. But probably an unreal dream for the average Cuban, who earns the equivalent of about $25 a month.
 
The day we were scheduled to tour Havana in one of these cars, it rained.  We went anyway, top up and viewed the sights through the rain spattered windows. It gave our pictures a surreal feeling. We rode in a 1940 Chevy convertible. Our driver was once a college professor but now made more money showing tourists the sights in a car owned by his brother. The wind shield wipers didn’t work, nor did the defroster, but, no problem for our ingenious Cuban driver, his hand worked just fine at clearing the fog off the windows and if he leaned far enough over the steering wheel, which was covered with bicycle tire, he had a perfect view through the rain drops.  Several parts on the interior of this old car were replaced with wood, which had been sanded, stained and varnished to a high sheen. As I exited the car, the driver asked that I not step on the floor of the car but put my weight on the running board, that was now made of wood.  He gently closed the door behind me, as if he were trying not to wake a baby.  Their love of these old cars was evident.
 
Hemingway and his car
 
Ernest Hemingway is an integral part of Havana. He first fell in love with Cuba on a fishing trip in 1932. In 1940, he and his new wife, Martha, purchased a home outside of Havana, Cuba – naming the site “Finca Vigia,” or “lookout house.”  He would live there for the next 20 years during which time he created two of his most famous works, The Old Man and The Sea and For Whom  the Bell Tolls. One afternoon, we took a yellow cab to the home, ten miles east of Havana. Our bus driver, Ernesto, negotiated a round-trip rate and asked the driver to wait for us. The house has been carefully staged and preserved as if Hemingway just left for a day of fishing. While you can’t go into the house, the doors and windows are open, giving a good view inside and allowing you to experience details of Hemingway’s life, kinda like a peeping tom. His Royal typewriter is still proudly  sitting on his desk, his hunting trophies have been hung on the walls, and his fishing cap lays on his bed. After peaking in all the windows and doors of the house, we walked through the grounds, past the large swimming pool, now empty of water, past his pet cemetery, where three of his much-loved dogs lay at rest, ending up at his boat. The fishing boat, that inspired The Old Man and the Sea, named Pilar, after his first wife, is in a covered shed with scaffolding built around, allowing you to see it from every side. My imagination ran wild, picturing Hemingway at sea, sitting in the big chair, hauling in a big bonito or marlin.
 
In 1955, he purchased a two-toned Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible in Navajo Orange and Desert Sand for $3,924. When he fled the country, in 1960, after the revolution, he instructed his driver to hide the car. Hemingway never returned to his beloved Cuba. The New Yorker’s whereabouts remained a mystery until 2011, when it was found. It is now undergoing total restoration in Cuba and will be put on display at his look-out house turned museum. 
 
After the four nights in Havana, we moved south down the coast to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad. Trinidad was built on the back of the 19th-century sugar and slave trade. At its peak, in 1827, one of the 56 sugar mills in the region harvested the biggest cane haul in the world — just under a million kilos of white, pressed crystals. This enormous, conspicuous wealth shaped the town and no expense was spared in fashioning the finest Spanish colonial mansions, plazas and churches, which still stand today. Trinidad is still pretty much as it was in 1850. It’s a delightful living museum of cobbled streets, painted houses, and, of course, warm Cuban people.
 
Good Morning, Trinidad
 
It’s 6 AM, the sun is just beginning to peak over the roof tops, a rooster is crowing somewhere nearby and the neighborhood, where our Bed and Breakfast or Casa Particular is located, is beginning to wake-up.  We are staying at the brightly painted yellow home of Odalis and Ramundo on Cienfuegos Street.  Our ensuite room on the second floor is comfortable with both a double and a single bed, an air conditioner, as well as a large, rotating fan. The bathroom has a shower with hot water some of the time, a small bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap, a toilet and sink. The shower curtain is a soft, sky blue, with an open umbrella artistically placed on the silky fabric. There is a similar second ensuite bedroom on the same floor occupied by a couple from our Road Scholar group, Betsy and Jim Wilson. The two suites are separated by a small kitchen with a refrigerator well stocked with soft drinks, water and the local beer.  Our breakfast and evening meals are served in a dining area located in an adjoining rooftop room. The walls are painted in bright, cheerful colors: yellow, blue, aqua and are decorated with oil paintings done by Odalis or house mother, a name we gave her, which was much easier for us to remember. A beautiful girl with blond wavy hair; a whimsical land creature; a little girl sitting on a round, blue plastic pot that was her own small toilet with her dolly sitting on the floor next to her, are examples of the art work hanging throughout the casa.  The family lives on the first floor and in rooms at the back of the second floor.  It was hard to figure out the floor plan, it seemed like rooms were added as needed. The family speaks very little English and we speak even less Spanish so it’s hard to communicate with words. It’s amazing how well hand gestures work for the necessities, but not so well for meaningful conversation. As a result, we were not able to find out much about the family.  A teenage daughter pops in and out occasionally and grandma lives downstairs, is about all we learned.
 
But the best part was the balcony overlooking the street in front of the house. From this vantage point, we could watch everything that went on in this little neighborhood. The front of the houses reach all the way to the sidewalk and have doors and windows behind wrought-iron grillwork.  The windows have no glass. Bugs don’t seem to be a problem. People stand at their window and talk to passers-by as they make their way to school or work.  Life in Trinidad happens on the streets, probably because their houses are small and the weather hot and humid. 
 
The local Starbucks was at the house across the street.  People, men mostly, walk up to the open window, and order a coffee through the bars. An elderly man pours the coffee into a glass from a blue thermos.  When they finish, he rinses the glass out in a bucket of water he keeps under the table, now he’s ready for the next customer. His work counter is a very old, beat up table that might’ve had a coat of white paint at one time but was long since worn off.  John crosses the street to talk to him and he happily tells him all about his business. But, of course, it’s all in Spanish so very little information is obtained. Instead, there is a lot of smiling, laughing, arm waving, and picture taking. He even hands John one of the glasses to hold for pictures. 
 
We watch a cart drawn by a horse deliver a dead pig to the butcher shop on our side of the street about five doors away.  Four men each grabbed a leg of the pig, hoist it out the back of the cart, haul it into a room, and, not so gently, place it on a table. Pork for dinner. It was not unusual to see the head of a pig, ears standing up, eyes open, with protruding snout, hanging in an open doorway advertising a butcher shop.
 
About 7:45 in the morning, the children set-off for school.  Some walking, some riding with a parent on a bicycle, some in horse drawn carts, some on motor scooters, and some riding in pedicabs. A pedicab is a three wheeled bicycle with a passenger cab behind the driver, similar to a rickshaw.  The children are dressed in school uniforms and carrying backpacks, the moms are wearing colorful tops. Although it was very inexpensive to take a pedicab, I suspect these children were from more affluent families, probably dad and mom both work two jobs.  Then there’s the families riding on motor scooters.  Dad steering with one child perched in front of him, and one, two, and sometimes three children between him and mom, who was last holding on tight. A couple goes by with a large dog snuggled between them, another with a person wrapped in a blanket. 
 
Here comes the bread man on his bicycle, with a whistle resting between his lips. On the back of his bike is a cardboard box, holding long loaves of bread, similar to French bread.  A toot on his whistle was a signal to come buy a loaf of his freshly baked bread.  Then there was the man selling tomatoes from a wheel barrow.  He walked down the street loudly yelling tomatoes in Spanish.  An interesting man to watch was the one with garlic and onions strung on cords and slung around his neck. I wondered what he smelled like at the end of the day. A woman walked by clutching a bunch of bright orange carrots by the their green tops.  Large transport trucks pass-by filled with people on their way to work.  The men and women are standing shoulder to shoulder, being jostled back-and-forth as the truck bumps over the pot-holed street. We wave to them from our second story balcony, they wave back.  Three doors down is a repair stop for bicycles and pedicabs. The repair work was done right in the street.  The resourcefulness of the Cuban people is amazing.  They’ve had their ups and downs, most recently in the ’90’s with the break-up of the Soviet Union. They went through a time of near starvation when they lost the support of Russia and had to re-establish ties with other countries.  Through all of this, they have maintained their dignity, and have become even more self-reliant and resourceful.
 
And so, another day in Trinidad de Cuba has begun.