Cuba's digital destination
Before 1959 Cuba was the hottest spot in the Caribbean, notorious for its glittering casinos, smooth rum, fabulous beaches, beautiful women, and a caliente nightlife compared to which all others seemed fainthearted efforts. Everything that made this marvelous island, 90 miles off the Florida coast, America’s dream playground 40 years ago is still intact, albeit threadbare in places. The erstwhile sultry seductress of the Caribbean is a stage set, once glamorous, now pained by age, recalling the days when Havana was, in Somerset Maughan?s piquant phrase, ?a sunny place for shady people.? Cuba is still touched by the louch? of a temps perd?.
The visitors? first reaction is of being caught in an eerie 1950s time warp. Fading signs advertising Hotpoint, Singer and Coca Cola conjure up the decadent decades when Cuba was a virtual colony of America. High-finned, voluptuous dowagers from the heyday of Detroit are everywhere: chrome-laden DeSotos, corpulent Buicks, stylish Plymouth Furies and other relics of ’50s ostentation, when American cars reflected the Hollywood Zeitgeist for excessive wealth, fantasy, gaudiness and sex with which Havana was at that time synonymous. The tail fins of chrome-polished ’57 Packards glint beneath the floodlit mango trees of nightclubs such as the Tropicana, the open-air extravaganza – girls! girls! girls! – now in its sixth decade of stiletto-heeled paganism. Nearby, perhaps, sits a 1958 Studebaker Silver Hawk, ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, or an Oldsmobile 88 Golden Rocket from the same year inviting foreigners to admire the dashboard or run their fingers along a tail fin. Even the humble station wagons are there: the Chevy Nomads and Pontiac Safaris, and the woodie wagons. “Was this a movie set or a real city?? wrote Tom Miller, in his book Trading With The Enemy, ?Cars missing from American highways for decades lined every block.”
American cars had flooded Cuba for fifty years culminating in the Batista era, when no other country in the world imported as many Chryslers and Studebakers and DeSotos. Then Castro & Co. made a beautiful revolution but spun off into Soviet orbit, invoking the U.S. trade embargo that in terms of American automobiles has cast a time-warp spell over Cuba. There is no more singularly Cuban image than a voluptuous yank-tank of yesteryear basking in the tropical sunlight, shaded perhaps by a tall and tousled Royal palm.
Cuba is by far the largest American car museum in the world. And what settings these cacharros enjoy! Diamond-dust beaches and bathtub-warm seas the colors of peacock feathers; bottle-green mountains and jade valleys full of dramatic formations; and ancient cities containing perhaps the finest collection of Spanish colonial buildings in all the Americas. Their names may have been changed, but balmy city streets with walls in faded tropical pastels still smolder gold in the waxing sun. Sunlight still filters through stained-glass mediopuntos to dance on cool marble floors. And baroque churches, convents, and castles that could have been transposed from Madrid or C?diz still reign majestically over squares embraced by the former palaces of Cuba’s ruling gentry and over cobbled streets still haunted by Ernest Hemingway’s ghost.
A more inspirational stage set could hardly be conceived… not least because the beguiling, caught-in-the-fifties setting is made more poignant by Cuba? own lamentable decay. Silently eloquent, the Detroit dowagers are a metaphor for the island?s pain. Much of Havana, the sultry seductress of prerevolutionary days, is corroded and crumbling. It needs a million gallons of paint. Political humorist P.J. O’Rourke thought: “Half an hour in Havana is enough to cure you of a taste for that distressed look so popular in Crate & Barrel stores.” Like the battered American relics – kept running by all manner of impromptu support – many timeworn edifices are saved from the ignominy of total collapse only by makeshift wooden braces. Habaneros cling tenaciously to family life behind crumbling fa?ades that look ready at any moment to collapse onto the rusting ?55 Ford Crown Victoria or derelict wreck of a ?50 Mercury Monterey sure to be parked outside.
Today, Cuba possesses about 250,000 cars, of which about one-third are pre-revolutionary American autos dating back to the ?20s and ?30s. Almost all of them are still on the road. In certain areas, one rarely sees a vehicle that is not a venerable, usual decrepit, cacharro. Most are Fifties yanqui classics evoking nostalgia like Elvis Presley songs of the same era. In Driving Through Cuba, author Carlo G?bler drives around the island in quest of a ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham; a super-deluxe pillarless sedan with a brushed aluminum roof, two front-end protuberances known as ?Dagmar? bumpers (which Cadillac unashamedly advertised as ?bosoms?), and “a rear end that would’ve received an X-rating had it been a movie.” Alas, the most sumptuous American car ever made proved elusive. Not surprisingly, for only 704 Broughams were produced. But you can bet there?s at least one to be found on the island. After all, in the mid-50s, Havana bought more Cadillacs than any other city in the world. Reason enough to visit.
“Chris’ award-winning coffee-table book, ‘Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles’ is available by direct order from Christopher Baker as an autographed hardback.”
Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert
email@example.com | www.christopherpbaker.com
Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year
In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.
Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever
“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph Octuber 2008