Cuba can be visually, and viscerally, stunning. One of the most appealing aspects of a visit to the island, particularly for travelers from the States, is to soak up the views of the pristine, reconditioned 1950s American cars dotting its roads. Roof down, the sun setting over the sea, throngs of people lining the Malecón. You’re in a black four-door 1959 Chevy Impala. Or maybe your ride has pink polka-dots atop creamy white, or it’s brightly adorned in purple or yellow. Wind is flowing through your hair, mojitos and daiquiris are flowing through your veins. Life isn’t bad.
Of course, many Cuban residents wouldn’t echo that same sentiment. It’s an island of contradictions. For every shimmering example of the American automobile in its prime, there’s a barely taped together one sputtering along beside you, black clouds of smoke trailing behind. Around the corner from every beautifully maintained building is a full block of ones in decay. Step a few feet off the well-traveled tourist path in Old Havana, and the streets take on an eerie, war-torn appearance: Dirt roads littered with rubble. Half-collapsed buildings still brimming with inhabitants. Piles of uncollected trash and debris.
Yet, don’t just walk past those streets, walk through them and listen closely. The same buildings are still bumping with the festively rhythmic bass lines of rumba and salsa and Caribbean-tinged jazz. Children are playing games. Couples are holding hands. Clearly, life isn’t all bad. Yet, the imminent change that most Americans hear of – i.e., get to Havana before it’s too late and it’s not what it used to be! – isn’t exactly steamrolling ahead into the future. Certainly not now with certain adjustments to travel procedures by the current American administration, but not before those, either.
My driver in that ’59 Chevy is 34-year-old Oscar Hernandez. He’s married to an older woman who has two children of her own, and the couple shares six dogs. He works directly for a company called Nostalgicar and was hired via the Cuba Travel Network to drive me around for a few hours, show some sights, and share some insight.
The sooner and the bigger, the better.
He’s happy with his job, and with progress, he’s seen since Raul Castro came into power. “Things have been easier,” Hernandez tells me. But that Big Change is far off.
Hernandez believes wholesale change on the scale most envision will take many decades. That’s a belief that others share with me as well. But while the tourism refrain is go before the change, the Cuban refrain is wishing for more change, the sooner and the bigger, the better.
In a world with internet access – middling connectivity as it may be, on the island – and other technological advancements, there’s no secrecy anymore. The Cuban people have a sense of what they feel they’re missing, and why they’re missing it. They want more, and not just in terms of material possessions. As another Havana resident tells me, he believes things are being kept from them, and he and his family simply wants to able to more easily meet the most basic of human needs of health and happiness, and to be able to more easily take steps to improve their own well-being – whether it’s starting a local business or moving to a new place.
I’ve been sidetracked from my discussion of cars, but a trip to Cuba is bound to get your mind pulling in myriad opposing directions. If any of this has led you to believe that you shouldn’t go to Cuba, that the contradictions of international tourism and Cuban life are too great while the local benefits too few, think again.
“[Tourism] it’s great,” Hernandez says. It’s another sentiment shared by everyone I speak with. “It is a very important deal for us.” Cuba, after all, is a place where doctors and lawyers and engineers, all government-backed positions, typically earn less direct income than tour guides or bartenders. It’s a place with a newly opened American embassy along the Malecón… a short drive away from the literal Medieval-sword shaped, massive constructivist ’70s era Soviet (now Russian) embassy. It’s an island of contradictions, and one of the best ways to experience it is to immerse yourself straight into it. Hop into a classic car… and cruise.
To take your own classic car tour in Havana, it’s easy enough to find classic car operators in Old Havana, particularly around the large, hotel-lined plaza encompassing Parque Central, adjacent to the famous El Floridita, as well as either Plaza Vieja or Plaza de Armas.
For a more streamlined experience, you can schedule a tour in advance. Services such as Cuba Travel Network will allow you to schedule a ride in advance, coordinate pick up and drop off locations, and you won’t have to worry about street-side haggling or carrying that much more extra cash. You’ll generally also have an English-speaking guide as your driver, who can fill you in on local lore and history while you cruise the Malecón and beyond.