A two-week magical mystery tour

Though thousands of foreigners visit Cuba every week, for most Americans the island remains a mysterious corner of the family attic where, for the past fifty years, they have been told not to go. They may have heard some reasons why–something about Communism, missiles, bearded revolutionaries and terrorists–but it’s been such a long time it’s hard to recall most of them. 

Halfway through our recent two-week visit to the island, Stew and I ran into a couple from Los Angeles, in their mid-seventies and mild-mannered and cheery as archetypal grandparents. They had just flown into Cuba through Cancun a few days before for a do-it-yourself, what-the-hell tour of the island and planned to use local buses and taxis to get around. They were just curious and tired of waiting, they said, and Stew and I nodded in agreement.

Later it occurred to me: When the trade and travel ban to island was first imposed, these now elderly folks were in their twenties, maybe newlywed. That’s how long the blood feud between Cuba and the U.S. has been going on.

We were curious also, though I had cousins and high school classmates to visit whom I hadn’t seen for decades, and a plastic bag with my mother’s ashes that I had promised myself to place in the family plot in the southern town of Cienfuegos after she died in Chicago ten years ago.

Cuba doesn’t disappoint. As soon as we left the airport and headed for Havana–in our case aboard a throaty, barebones 1986 Russian-made Muskovitch four-door sedan, painted a spray-can shade of green–the puzzles and surprises of Cuba today began and never ceased, even as I write this.

For a driver we had the son of a high school classmate of mine who never left Cuba. The driver, alternately chatty and glum, trained in telecommunications at a Cuban college but found out that driving a taxi is far more profitable.

Hot wheels: Our Russian-made car during our two weeks in Cuba. 
No seat belts? No problema. No air bags? No problema. No a/c in the 
95+ degree weather? Definitely a big problema. 

Indeed, in its politics, economics and general appearance the country seems to be stalled at the corner of magical realism and science fiction. Previous enthusiasms, excesses, ideals and even its significant accomplishments notwithstanding, Cuba’s revolution today struggles just to keep going let alone remain relevant.

Often you’re left scratching your head by the contradictions of everyday life in Cuba and clamoring for a fuller explanation to some question. Complete or even logical answers sometimes never come.

At the entrance of the airport a neatly repainted cement sign in the shape of a chubby prop airplane welcomes you to Rancho Boyeros Airport, a name that was changed to José Martí shortly after dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown–on New Year’s Day, 1959. The sign has an endearing naive-art crudeness to it; maybe that’s why no one has bothered to update it.

The cars, though, are the most obvious clue of the country’s unreality. Most of them are not just old but ancient. Bullet-shaped Chevies and Plymouths from the 1940s, along with nameplates that no longer exist–Packards, Edsels, Ramblers–share the road with beat-up Soviet trucks and the clouds of black fumes they all generate.

In the interior of the country horse-drawn buggies mimic urban transit: These are not quaint touristy contrivances but what the locals actually use daily to get around.

It’s safe to say that two-thirds of Havana’s buildings haven’t been painted, not once, since Castro took over. That gives the otherwise majestic city a derelict, moldy appearance particularly noticeable on a clear day against the brilliant tropical blue sky and green vegetation, and despite an impressive effort to restore parts of the colonial center. Even relatively new schools and other public buildings succumb to the epidemic shabbiness, for lack of a coat of paint and other basic maintenance.

For all the signs that the revolution long ran out of steam, however, Cubans somehow retain an amazing openness and joie de vivre. In no way is this some grim remnant of the former Soviet bloc, with dowdy  babushkas wrapped up in frayed woolen coats trudging through the snow, looking distrustfully at strangers.

Cubans seem to have countered most every daily travail and ridiculous government policy with a joke, a double-entendre or a wild gesture or facial expression that mocks some public figure.

It would be a mistake though to take cynicism and forbearance as signs of acceptance of the status quo. Most Cubans that we talked to, particularly those born after the revolution, sounded deeply frustrated with the stagnation in which the country is mired.

“There’s no future here,” or a variation on that phrase, soon became a litany.

In our travels we did not find one sign of hostility toward americanos–and blond Stew is certainly a prime specimen of the species–or Cuban exiles returning for a visit.

On the contrary, we were repeatedly told how great it would be if more Americans would come visit, a strange attitude in a place where people have been raised on a daily diet of anti-American propaganda.

Getting the chatty Cubans, even complete strangers, to wrap up a story was a far bigger problem than getting them to open up. This is the land of yadda-yadda-yadda. Their unbridled tales helped us get glimpses and snapshots of how the country works today.

For those interested, I’ll be publishing a series of blogs and photographs about our experiences in Cuba. They are mostly stories covering a variety of topics, from visits to the home my family left fifty years ago, to how to overhaul a diesel engine in a 1959 Cadillac–right on the street–to a primer on Cuban monetary policy and economics.

Don’t expect to get answers to all your questions. One relative in Havana, at whose house we stayed for four days, kept warning me as he patiently answered my questions: “You would have to live here for fifty years to understand what’s gone on in Cuba under the revolution and how this country works.”

Memories: In Cuba you’re never more than a 

hundred feet away from a fading or peeling 

picture of Ché Guevara. 

Dig those wheels: A late 1940s Chevy, complete with whitewall 
gangster tires. I could not pin down the exact year or model. 

Art deco glam: Lobby of the restored
headquarters of the Bacardi Rum Company,
now a rental office building.

Under new management: Art deco grille work on

the windows of the Bacardi building. 

       Change that tune: Russian grand piano in the
       Hall of Mirrors of the former Presidential Palace,
       now the Museum of the Revolution. 

Old times: One of dozens of recently, and
beautifully, restored buildings in colonial


Stupid (communist) pet tricks: This dachshund was

trained to yip approvingly at Cuban peso notes and 

snarl when someone waved an American dollar bill
in front of his nose. (True.) 
  Street art: One of the few graffiti pieces we
  saw in Havana. It features an old car, of course. 

Your suite is ready, Mr. Lansky: The time-warped
reception desk of the Riviera Hotel built in 1957 by
Mafioso Meyer Lansky. A year and a few months 

later the revolution won and confiscated it. 

Strike up the band: Tuba player at a military
ceremony at the Colón Cemetery in Havana. 

© 2012 Alfredo S. Lanier

8 thoughts on “A two-week magical mystery tour

  1. Anonymous

    Loved hearing about Cuba. I would love to go there.Loved the picture of the dog. At first I thought the sign underneath was “Cub”, as in Chicago Cubs. With the dog dressed in Cubby colors, it could be a baseball fan. Joan


  2. Thank you all for the kind comments, but so far we don't have anyone who could identify the exact model year and model of that black Chevy… It was a beauty. Pretty sure it's a 1947 or 48, right about the time I was born. al


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