Cuba is a trip in a time machine, and cars are the gateway. As Jack furiously snaps shots of meticulously maintained vintage Chevies, Fords, Studebakers, Packards, Pontiacs, Plymouths and Buicks from the 40s, 50s and 60s, his camera seems another appendage.
I’ve seen these cars on TV specials, but sharing the streets with them exceeds expectations, especially for Jack, who can identify them all. “There’s a ’44 Mercury,” he exclaims, his Lumix on continuous snap. “Look at the fins on that ’57 Caddy!” Quick, look- there goes a ‘48 Chrysler Limo.” Silver swans and other graceful birds perch on the hoods of the gaily-painted fleets that encircle the city and preen around the periphery of every city park.
We look out for new models as we stand in the shade after touring the Museo de Belas Artes, in front of the Museo de la Revolutión, a silent testimonial to the machinery of war. This museum in a park features tanks, WWII propeller-driven planes, trains and transports used in the revolution. We’re not exactly sure where we are, or where we want to go. Jack wants to record all he spies, and I want to get out of the sun. Despite our Lonely Planet Guide, borrowed at the last minute, neither of us is a planner.
We turn the map this way and that, regretting our lack of direction. Ivan, a stocky blue-eyed blond in his forties, approaches us and asks, in the manner of all who’ve spoken to us on the streets, “Where are you from?” I love responding, in Spanish, “Vivimos in Costa Rica.” We live in Costa Rica. I roll the R, of course. Hardly anyone believes me, once I have to reply to a follow-up question in Spanish, and stumble over it, in my halting Spanish. “In one hour, I show you all of old Havana,” says Ivan. “Thirty pesos, eighty sights.” Tired of hopping from one spot of shade to another, we agree.
Ivan explains how his company labors towards restoring the graceful old buildings to their former majesty. “This one re-opened in 2009,” he informs us, pointing to a gorgeous hotel, facade freshly tiled in pastels. “Closed since the revolution. See that building over there? That one is bigger than the Capitol building in America. And that statue is second in size only to the Lincoln Memorial.”
I ponder the number of businesses closed, courtesy of the revolution. “That cigar factory on the right was closed during the revolution, and now it has re-opened, restored by my company. Want to buy cigars?” We do. Inside the shop, we note the august company we’ll join when we light up our carefully selected smokes. On the wall are Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplain, Alfred Hitchcock and, of course Ché and Fidel.
We’re quickly off again. See the trains over there? They’re 18th century models. All restored my company.” I begin to wonder about this company of his.
Ivan has the history of renovation in Havana in his head. “That printing shop, closed during the revolution, has now reopened as a restaurant.” We make a note of its location and return the following day for a long and leisurely lunch. He knows the names of all the gangsters who built lavish homes and hotels. He ticks off some of the infamous names: Myer Lansky, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegal. He seems as proud of them as he is of Hemingway. I wonder why, since the mob was there at the invitation of Batista, whom Ivan hates. In fact, the only obscenities I hear him utter are for Batista.
Hemingway is a national treasure here. On our tour, Ivan points out hotels he frequented, but warns us that these establishments with ties to Hemmingway, no matter how tenuous, get to charge more than twice as much for drinks.. In one establishment, there’s a life-size statue of the great writer and boozer hugging the bar. The estate where he once lived is now a museum. We pass on the Hemmingway tour, content to view his haunts from the comfort of our carriage.
Ivan drives us to a restaurant when we get hungry. He says, “Every time I take people to this place, they give me a ticket, and when I collect ten tickets, I take my wife and son there to eat.”
“How much can we expect to spend on lunch? I ask.
“No more than seventeen dollars,” he says, and we assent, and follow him up a stairway so dark that we have to feel our way along, gripping the banister, and begin to wonder if we’re being sold into the slave trade. Once we’re seated, Ivan tells us he’ll be outside with his horse, and takes off.
Inside the restaurant, shapely young girls in white cowboy hats, short white skirts and cowboy boots greet us. The motif is US Western. We wonder what the choices will be. We order mojitos, and settle down to peruse the extensive menu. My Lonely Planet guide warns about restaurants where most of the items on the menu are unavailable, so I’m not surprised when I order the fish Carpaccio, and the waitress says, “We don’t have that today.” But they do have all of the rest of our seafood choices, and the selections are good. So are the prices. Our mojitos cost two and a half pesos each, and our seafood appetizers are under five pesos.
As the food arrives, so do the musicians. We sit in the breeze and watch them arrange themselves in a semi-circle facing the audience. There are drums and guitars, singers and a flamenco dancer. He’s beanpole thin, and just over five feet tall, but a mean dancer, and a sexy little guy. We enjoy another round of mojitos while we watch.
When we’re ready to climb back in the carriage, Ivan is waiting. He drops us off far from our hotel, at St Francis of Assisi Square. We pay him for the ride, and he asks, ”Anything for the horse?” We find our way back to the hotel, always searching for the next shady spot.