Once I heard that satisfying ‘ker-chunk’ of the immigration officer’s stamp and practically got ignored going through customs at the Jose Martí International Airport, I headed for the arrival hall’s exit with my travel pack and my husband. A guy holding a sheet of notebook paper with my name hand-printed in black marker said, “Bienvenido a Cuba.” I shook his hand while taking a deep breath, and filled my lungs with…vehicle exhaust. Pervasive, acrid emissions that sting your eyes and trigger lots of throat clearing. But never mind that, a guy with a big smile on his face just said, “Welcome to Cuba!”
That guy was Ismail, a friend to the owner of the casa particular we’d be staying at for a few days. She had arranged for him to drive us into Havana Vieja. While we waited out a downpour of steamy afternoon Caribbean rain on the sidewalk outside the terminal we exchanged some basic information (I’m a writer, we live in Texas, he has a daughter aged 9 and a son who is 4) then despite neither of us being fluent in the other’s language, Ismail dove right into the recent thaw in 55 years of chilly US-Cuban relations.
“The two presidents, Obama and Castro, now are talking for a good relationship,” Ismail said, giving us a thumbs-up and adding “Cuban people, they like Americans.” Glad to hear it.
During a momentary pause in the rain, Ismail lead us to his Russian-made Lada, clearing his daughter’s school bag from the passenger seat to make room for me while Brian climbed in the back. The boxy, utilitarian Lada’s wipers flailed away making occasional contact with the windshield, clearing a spot now and then to allow our first glimpses of Cuba, a decades-old dream for us. So despite the rain and the exhaust visibly belching from tailpipes, I rolled the window down and started snapping photographs. That’s when I spotted the first classic American car of my trip.
It didn’t take long to realize that, aside from Ismail’s Russian car (which had a pronounced exhaust leak) and scores of buses and trucks, those pre-1960, pre-embargo (or el bloque as the Cubans call it) classic American cars, icons of Cuba on par with images of Che Guevara and Fidel, were partly to blame for our burning eyes and scratchy throats.
Okay, it’s a cliché to visit Cuba and return with an SD card filled with photographs of ’55 Chevys and vintage Chryslers. Try to fight the urge, though. It’s impossible because Cuba has the largest collection of American classic cars anywhere in the world. In the world. Thousands of them. This Caribbean island nation, a Spanish colony for 400 years, symbol of revolutionary fervor, and governed by an authoritarian Communist regime? Cuba loves its American cars something fierce.
A first-time traveler to Cuba, I’d read articles, seen news reports, and was prepared to be faintly charmed by classic cars parked in front of Hotel Inglaterra, flanked on one side by a line of yellow taxis, on the other by horse carriages. Sure, I’d eye them on the streets of Havana, but in the detached manner of a traveler who has come seeking real culture, not 60 year-old transportation.
I arrived predisposed to dismiss an entire slice of culture as fodder for domesticated tourists. To see Europeans and Americans squander 30 times the average daily wage in Cuba to breeze through historic times of transition with the top down: blonde, brunette or redheads cruising along the Malecon snapping selfies while I stayed firmly on my traveler’s feet observing Cuba’s political and social transformation from eye level.
But here’s the thing. Once I landed in Cuba, my perspective adjusted–isn’t that why we travel (in part) to test out our attitudes and opinions?–and I had a revelation: These big American beauties are also very Cuban, a complex fusion of history, politics, pride, and devotion to preserving them. In fact, in the minds of many the sight of a 1956 Cadillac rounding a curve on the Malecon elicits a shout of ¡Viva Cuba libre! rather than a good old American wolf-whistle. And they are just as likely to be occupied by Cuban passengers as by visitors. “Peso taxis” operate routes similar to buses for locals.
These vintage automobiles, patched and repaired and passed on from one generation to the next, symbolize an ideal blend of Cuba and the USA.
As I walked the narrow streets of Old Havana, then further afield in Trinidad de Cuba and Cienfuegos, I stopped to speak to drivers as they leaned against a fender or lounged behind the wheel inspecting themselves in a rear-view mirror where a pair of furry dice dangled. I listened to the stories of Jorgito’s black 1955 Chevy Bel Air, with which he supports his wife and father, and Norberto’s ancient Studebaker, whose convertible top disintegrated long ago to be replaced by a sea-blue rubberized tarp that his passengers help hold steady while hurtling down the Bay of Pigs coastal road.
The cars and their stories were everywhere I travel.
There was the perfect white Dodge droptop on calle Habana beneath our casa’s window just waiting for the perfect woman to slide in.
Across from the whitewashed Greek Orthodox church by the old docks, I found a Chevy the color of fresh limes squeezed in a minty mojito.
A big yellow taxi waited before one of the prettiest homes on la Punta, the skinny point of land squeezing into the bay of Cienfuegos on Cuba’s south coast.
I took a lot of car photos.
In the faces of guys driving these American-Cuban cars, I began to see people I know and love. There was my uncle Kermit in the guy driving along the coast, his arm resting in the open window.
That taped and freshly painted blue marvel on calle Morro might have been sprayed in my grandfather Bud’s garage on Minnehaha avenue in St. Paul.
Every Cuban car owner who has fabricated parts to keep his family’s prize on the road for another year is my husband, Brian, cussing in frustration at not having the right tool.
While exploring this sliver of Cuban culture, I recognized an obvious but ignored truth. Cubans and Americans share more than a hemisphere. We share a barrio, we’re neighbors with just 90 miles of water and a generations-old obstacle between us. Recent attitude changes give me hope to say: Let’s get together some time soon. Maybe we’ll drink a pitcher of mojitos and a few beers, grill some burgers with a side of black beans and rice. We can work on the car together while we talk.
Was my reaction to those classic cars purely nostalgia? I don’t believe that. More likely it was the pride and ingenuity I witnessed. When you see the care taken to maintain them despite the difficulties, you forgive these cars and their owners for contributing perhaps more than their share of environmental damage through tailpipes. When you get past the gleaming chrome and shining paint jobs and begin to notice the corrosion and jury-rigged convertible tops and tail lights, you forgive them that too.
You see, these old automobiles are also a metaphor for how Cubans deal with their world. They keep them running in the face of roadblocks that governments and life throw in the way. They do that with humor, wisdom earned from experience, and appreciation for what they have. Every Cuban car owner is a mechanic with mad improvising skills that any jazz artist would envy. No parts available because of the embargo? Fashion them yourself. Fuel prices rising? Pack more people into one car to save money. No brake fluid? Blend liquid soap and oil. Leather interior lining deteriorated? Replace it with vinyl. Years down the road replace that with pressboard. Sea water and acid rain corroding the body? Sand it down, give it a shiny coat of paint in a color Chrysler never dreamed of and drive on…
What will happen to these Cuban-American beauties when tougher emissions standards are enacted? They may fade from our consciousness as old beauties often do. Or be scrapped and compacted, recycled into something entirely ordinary. Perhaps seized by American collectors only to lose their value as a cultural linchpin. My hope is that Cubans will call on their ingenuity and pride to solve the stinking problem, Americans will reach out a hand to help, and together we can save our shared heritage and be good neighbors.