Time Capsule Cuba
Havana is the one place on earth where people who speak English are asked automatically what part of Canada they’re from. But all that is about to change and we considered ourselves part of the first wave of what will become a flood of American tourism as things improve between America and Cuba. Glen and I had just flown into Havana on a charter flight from Miami as part of a two week ‘people to people’ visa intended to allow us to authentically experience the ‘real Cuba’. This first Sunday afternoon we were on our own and we walked to the park across from our renovated, government run Hotel Saratoga; one of Old Havana’s two newish five-star hotels, rising above the crumbling ruins of this architecturally rich city.
Glen and I clearly had different ideas about what to do with this rare free time – our upcoming itinerary spanned much of the island during the next two weeks. I wanted authentic encounters with Cubans. Besides limbering up my Spanish for the coming weeks, I was curious how the Cubans regarded Americans, having seen revolutionary propaganda billboards on the way from the airport. As for Glen, he wanted to look at old cars and see the engines of vintage automobiles. He lost interest in cultural exchange the minute he walked out of the Havana airport into the parking lot. We knew that there were a lot of old cars in Cuba, but weren’t prepared for the quantity and quality of 40s and 50s car gems so soon after landing.
As our Cuban guide introduced herself, Glen was studying cars. As our modern, Chinese transport bus pulled away from the curb Glen was studying cars. There were so many old cars that it seemed like one in every three was a vintage model from the 1940s and 1950s. Glen, a car buff who has restored two vintage cars and two vintage airplanes, kept identifying various years, makes and models. “That one there is a 1950 Oldsmobile sedan, I wish I could see the engine.” Taking the highway into Havana was like a candy store full of old cars. ‘Here comes a 1947 Hudson, look at that Cadillac…..’ Our guide was basically talking to herself as most everyone was watching the vintage Chevrolets, Fords, and Plymouths as they passed on the other side of the road.
As Glen and I walked across the boulevard in front of the hotel we talked about a compromise of activities for these free hours. I would greet and meet Cubans for awhile and then he would get to talk cars with the locals. I turned around and greeted the first person I saw; a middle aged woman rolling a round, white, 5 gallon container that someone had craftily mounted on wheels which contained bits and pieces of a slaughtered pig. “We are visiting from the United States, I told her in classroom Spanish. Do you have family there?”. Her response was immediate and excited. She gave a big smile with a couple of gaps in her teeth and gave us her full attention, speaking rapidly with sweeping arm gestures. Yes, she did have family in the United States, but really wanted to talk about what sounded like ‘turtles’. She spoke so fast it was hard to follow. But we smiled and tried to figure out what she was so excited about. Testigo, testigo,……Yovah turtles…. maybe that isn’t turtles. Yep, here is my dictionary….turtles are tortuga…. testigos are ….. WITNESS. We had just stopped a Jehovah’s Witness on the streets of Havana carting part of a pig that a friend had slaughtered and given her.
Glen, who had to turn toward the street to keep from laughing, assisted my exit from this Cuban Jehovah’s Witness and then pointed us toward a line of rare convertibles from the 1950s for hire. Included is a blue and white 1957 Ford, a bright pink 1951 Chevrolet, and a very rare and desirable red 1958 Cadillac convertible. All these cars are essentially taxis. Ours for the renting.
It is estimated there are over 60,000 vintage American cars still running in Cuba. Thousands of American cars were brought into Cuba up until 1960, the year that the United States government declared a trade embargo that stopped all imports. This was a year after Fidel Castro seized power in the January, 1959 revolution that forever changed the face of this island nation into the new Socialist Republic of Cuba.
Ever since the embargo, resourceful Cubans found innovative ways to keep their beloved and prized American cars in operation. They could no longer import parts from the U.S. so, sad for car purists, the majority of these cars have been repowered with diesel engines, either from Russia or Japan.
There is no such thing as a junkyard in Cuba. Everything that would have been junk in America has been repurposed on the old cars. I never knew how much Glen knows about old cars until he spotted and pointed out substitute parts from one model car used for a different make of car. This ‘cut and paste’ engineering results in some ingenious workarounds. A mid-’50s Chevrolet drives by sporting parts that look they came from an old refrigerator. A 1957 Chevy became a convertible after someone cut the roof off. Glen and I walk up to the line of cars and without a word the owner pops the hood. He has seen that look before and he and Glen speak the same language – the international language of cars. The driver explains that he painted the car with house paint and sponges, and shows off his fuel tank – a large plastic water bottle w a complicated feeder system leading to the carburetor. Further down the line the owner of another topless 1957 Chevrolet proudly lifts the hood to show a Russian-built diesel engine providing the power.
Our tour takes us up and down and all around the island of Cuba and everywhere we see amazingly well preserved American carts from the 40s and 50s. On the Caribbean side of the island in the 500-year-old city of Trinidad and in the university town of Cienfuegos we see vintage American cars. But in the farming areas we mostly see horse and ox drawn carts carrying people and crops. As our two weeks in Cuba come to a close our final destination is a fancy suburb of Havana where luxury hotels line a crumbling concrete seawall. There are classic car taxis for hire. The last night our entire group exits from a fancy, privately owned ‘paladar’ in an old mansion and step into waiting taxi convertibles – ours a 1955 Dodge convertible. A perfect ending for our 2 weeks of time travel. For classic car fans, there is no place on earth like Cuba.