Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Classic Cars of Cuba

Go to Cuba and you will think you have walked into an all encompassing car museum. Today one of Cuba's biggest tourism draw cards is the classic cars filling the streets. They are an example of something born of hardship and necessity eventually becoming a unique and precious asset.   The 60,000, mainly American, classic cars thronging the streets range from beautifully restored and gleaming, to dented, rusty and 'I-hope-I-can-make-it'. They are a sight to behold.

A normal street scene in Havana
 Although now a major and proud feature of the country the Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges etc, mostly dating from the 1940s and 50s, have remained on the roads as a result of the trade embargo placed on Cuba by the US government in 1962 which forbade US companies from doing business with Cuba. Then Fidel Castro decided that in his socialist model Cubans would not be permitted to buy cars, that they would only be given to them by the government if a car was a necessity, and it was usually deemed that they weren't. During Cuba's soviet era some Ladas came into the country and while you can still see a few on the roads they didn't last the way the solid American cars have. The old American cars have mostly been in the same family since purchase and have been proudly handed down from father to son.

Under the hood
Mind you, it has taken incredible ingenuity to keep them on the roads plus a dose of good luck.  Many have parts missing, some have boat engines installed under the hood and I was told some are even powered by motor mower engines. In poverty stricken Cuba many have been converted to run on the much cheaper diesel fuel.  Don't be surprised if the classic car taxi you hire has string for a door handle or a steering wheel worn right down to the metal and the glove box held together with duct tape.  

On a long bus trip along an intercity highway we passed many of these old cars broken down by the side of the road however all were being worked on and would, no doubt, be up and running again before long. It is not uncommon to see  relatives visiting from other countries arrive at the airport, their luggage bulging with  spare car parts eagerly awaited by the locals. 

 Our guide told us that Raoul Castro  now permits Cubans to buy foreign cars but that the costs are so prohibitive no one can afford them.  A car dealership opened in Havana a year or two back but soon closed down through lack of sales.

A car repairer on a Havana street

My friend, Hilary, and I hired a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible with gleaming white upholstery, complete with driver, for a tour of Havana. ($40US) It was marvelous fun touring the city with the wind in our hair reliving our teenage years, well, not really, more how we wish our teenage years had been! 

Reliving my teenage years?  I wish!

Some people are concerned that with the opening up of Cuba to tourists these cars will disappear from the streets.  I have read that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.  Apparently the cars have been so altered and tampered with, just to keep them running, that they are no longer desirable to collectors.  Secondly, they are a proud symbol of the Cubans independence and survival and a nose thumb to a world that cut them off.  Cubans who own these cars are also immensely proud of them, as not only part of their heritage, but for providing them with work as taxis and helping draw in the tourist dollars.  I am so pleased to have seen these cars, a definite highlight of the trip.   I wonder how long Cuba can hold on to them before they really are beyond repair?

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Cuba - You've stolen my heart

Cuba!  It is near impossible to aptly describe  the atmosphere of this amazing country.  Picture a place where sunlight shafts down into narrow streets lined with colourful but crumbling plaster buildings, where you dodge huge 1950's Chevrolets  competing for space with horse drawn carts and cycle taxis.  Imagine then suddenly bursting out into a magnificent square edged with elegant and gracious colonial buildings.  Reply to the many calls of 'Hola' as you pass by and envy the locals who sit on their doorsteps at the end of the day gossiping and calling up and down the street to one another.  Let yourself go and get into the music and dancing which fills the air from dawn to the next dawn while sampling a few mojitos and daiquiris which flow like, well, like wine. Channel Ernest Hemingway while drawing on a big fat cigar.  Revel in the fact that in Cuba people actually talk to each other, where the only heads you will see bowed over cell phones or tablets will be those of tourists. Admire the proud, independent spirit of the Cubans, who, despite years of economic sanctions, have made their own way in the world against all odds. Cuba is how the world used to be and  a visit is a precious insight into so much of what the modern world has lost. For a people who are economically very poor their good fortune has been to maintain a rich and abiding culture.

Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, Plaza de la Catedral, Havana (Habana is the local spelling)

As Lonely Planet says: ' No one could have invented Havana.  It's too audacious, too contradictory, and ...too damned beautiful. How it does it is anyone's guess' (pg60 Cuba)  From what I saw this quote equally applies to  other parts of Cuba too.

Back home in New Zealand I know for certain that I have left a piece of my soul in Cuba.  As someone who has traveled to close to 50 countries, and has favourites, Cuba has affected me like no other.  It may be just the sheer energy and spirit of the place, or the fact that time has stood still there, or perhaps the music has entered my blood. All I know is that on two particular occasions in Cuba I thought to myself ' I am as happy as it is possible to be'  While in Havana I messaged my family,  that I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Obviously, after just 10 days in Cuba I cannot presume to know or understand what life is truly like for a Cuban.  I did have some lengthy discussions with our local guide who offered lots of interesting information and it would seem life can be pretty tough.   The average income for everyone, university professors down to street cleaners, is 25CUC per month, that is equal to $25US.  On top of that every family is issued with a ration book for a monthly supply of staples such as flour, sugar, oil, salt and beans, but nevertheless the mind boggles as to how they survive on such a low income. Our guide, in his mid forties, was a university lecturer but is now a tour guide finding the generous tips improve his quality of life.  He has never been able to leave Cuba
Outside, always ready for a chat
 Or afford a car so has no passport and no driver's licence. We were constantly asked for soap and shampoo, which are scarce commodities and there are no supermarkets in Cuba.  The country has an excellent free education system and health care is also free but there is, apparently, a thriving black market and now that tourism is opening up there is a myriad of opportunities for locals.  Tourism, while wonderful for the local economy will, no doubt change the very things people go to Cuba to see.  Americans are now permitted to visit Cuba but the Cubans, understandably, have not forgotten their recent history and made no secret of the fact that they were delighted to find we weren't American.

Stand by for many more posts on Cuba.  It will be a pleasure for me to relive my travels!