Havana By (Classic) Car

I’ve never been much for bucket lists. But if I were, I’d have been able to check off a big one earlier this month. That is to see Havana, Cuba, from the backseat of one of the country’s classic American cars from the 50’s and 60’s, still operating on the streets every day.

The importation of new cars (and lots of other things) has been rare in Cuba, ever since, you know, the revolution.

But there are thousands of classic cars throughout Cuba. If you have a car here you have a job in the country’s thriving tourism/taxi industry. Another cottage industry has sprung up around the cars with what must be dozens of shops that produce otherwise unavailable parts to keep them going.

The cars are practically the first thing tourists notice about Havana. Actually, we are not tourists anymore, we’re told we are travelers. Each of us with a special new “people to people” visa. The application for ours changed two, maybe three times before we got here.  But enough about politics.

Ginny picked out “our” car from a row of classics, a 1952 Pontiac Chieftain, red and white with a ton of chrome. It was our driver and our guide in the front seats, Ginny and me in the back, sitting on what looked like the original red leather.

We’d spent the morning tooling around Old Havana and elsewhere in the city, taking in the sights like Revolution Square, where two guides got into a slight argument as to whether Fidel Castro’s last speech was two hours long or four hours long.

We’d see the U.S. Embassy where the most recent unpleasantness has been some sort of mysterious audio attack on the people who work there. Or rather, who used to work there. The parking lot looked nearly empty.

We drove past the Floridita Hotel and Sloppy Joe’s, two of writer Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite watering holes, unchanged in the least by time. Later, we’d stop for a quick mojito (white rum, club soda, lime juice, sugar, crushed ice and lots of mint leaves) at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, not one of Hemmingway’s favorite watering holes. And at the “most important” of Havana’s four major cemeteries, and one of my favorite stops, we’d see a large monument to Hemmingway’s favorite bartender, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, whose life is celebrated annually by other barkeeps from around the world who come to Cuba each year to remember him. In life, he must have worked very, very hard for Papa Hemmingway.

A very funny older woman showed us around the cemetery. At one stop she told us we were standing, more or less, on the grave of Christopher Columbus, unmarked and covered over by a street. “After all,” she said, “Spain lost the war.”

All in all, it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time–sitting up.

At one point our guide asked me what I thought of Havana “so far.” I said I felt like I was in a movie. Not “watching” a movie, but “in” a movie. I’ll never forget how he threw his head back and laughed, for quite awhile.