The Cuban taxi driver twisted the ignition key and the 1952 Chevy Bel Air engine woke up. He wheeled us onto the endless parade of traffic.
El Centro in Habana Vieja is an automobile time machine. Taxi drivers named Richie, Potsie, Fonzie, Pastel, and Omar constantly dust fenders, hoods, and polish windshields. There’s a candy-apple red 1964 Mustang. A yellow Willys Jeep. Over there, a pearlescent 1959 Cadillac. Next to it, a 1948 Ford delivery van. It’s a showcase of Detroit engineering stamped onto American steel.
We gawk at the city from slippery Naugahyde seats. With the top down, the salty breeze off Havana Bay washes over us. Our elbows rest on the fuchsia paint. The six-cylinder engine purrs. When provoked, it roars. The taxi driver has spliced his cell phone into the car’s speakers and hometown rock and roll is the soundtrack.
Loads of chrome on the dashboard. Through the windshield, the hood goes on forever. I feel like an extra in a ’50s Technicolor hot-rod movie. Born to ride. “I can overhaul this engine with a pocketknife,” the taxi driver says. “With a pair of wings, it could fly.” This isn’t a car. It’s a Hank Williams song.
In answer to my question, the taxi driver says, “Why would I leave paradise?” He waves his arm along El Malecón, the 16-mile promenade of Cuba’s largest city. On this August day, the sun is a ball of butter.
Rolling along, people call out, “Hola, mi cielo. Mi luz. Eres el besto!” My heaven, my light, you are the best! The magic of people getting together is a daily event. They cook, play, dance, and argue on the streets. It is the hustle, bustle, and rustle of a Saturday afternoon. Cubans make intricate gestures with their fingers. These people are hardwired to make human connections. It is infectious. Their relationships help them cope. Life is hard, but life is good, they believe.
We navigate through shaded canyons of hurricane-proof pastel green, pink, and turquoise four-story buildings. Down a friendly alley, Creole queens coo and chirp, offering tokens of our visit.
My son Mike and I flew into José Martí Airport with preconceived notions. Cuba was a dark, mysterious romance. Scarred buccaneers roaming the docks and bars to the thump of three-beat voodoo. Today it is the land of fruit, tobacco, and brown sugar.
Mike has traveled since he could hold his water, stayed buckled through several time zones, and doesn’t com plain when he arrives. We had no agenda, no itinerary. We were itinerant. My son is a Gen-Xer. He cares about climate change, he recycles (sort of), and always buckles up in a vehicle. “No seatbelts!” he said, his hands searching the tuck-and-roll vinyl creases.
Coasting along, we see the edge of the azure sea and a lighthouse guarding a Spanish fortress. A cruise ship steams into the bay. Small fishing boats chug in with the catch of the day. Above us, Cuban damsels lean over rusty terraces, hand over hand pulling a rope tied to a straw basket loaded with papayas, mangoes, and coconuts. In the shadow of a grandly decayed entrance, an old woman puffs on a stogie. At her feet, a cat eats rice from a paper plate. There are chickens, sad dogs, and happy shirtless children. A cardboard table is set up and a marathon game of dominos begins.
Mike and I laugh at foreigners who act like demented mimes, asking for directions from Spanish-speaking waiters. On a corner is La Florida. Down another pot-holed street is La Bodeguita del Medio, the favorite watering hole of El Viejo y El Mar, Ernest Hemingway. Open windows stream bongos, maracas, a keyboard, and a muted trumpet.
At the far end of a clipped lawn stands El Hotel Nacional. When Fidel Castro’s rebels took the city in 1959, they fired potshots at the façade. It symbolized the imperialistic reach of plantation owners and American mobsters who ran the casinos.
We ride by miniature restaurants, La Doña, Chacon 162, and Ballerina Cafeteria, that emit a bewitching aroma of coffee, seafood, and pastries. Almacenes San José, on the wharf, is the largest art market on the Caribbean.
The taxi driver takes us to the outskirts. Peeling billboards promise “Bread, peace, and land!” A faded Che Guevara gives us his thousand-yard stare. An electric acid, tangerine Kool-Aid, 1960 Buick slides in front of us. “Caca pasa,” the sticker on the bumper declares. Shit happens. Cubans are realistic and suspicious of false oaths. “Todo pasa” is their motto. Or, as Mike observed, “It is what it is.”
After the revolution, the government knew what the people wanted to hear. Today Cubans are restless. The taxi driver explained: “When Obama came, church bells rang.” The pope held a mass in Revolutionary Square. Later the Rolling Stones played the same venue. “It feels like the end of a war.”
Cubanos are creative, resourceful, and resilient, having survived a brutal and isolated history. “We know where we came from and we know where we are going,” the driver said. They will no longer be incidental or shackled by propaganda. He squeezes my shoulder, “Be careful, my friend. Cuba, she will steal your heart. She is a demanding mistress and we must always be true.”
He twists us back into the traffic. His heart like a wheel.