The cars of Cuba

Walking around Havana feels like stepping back in time or visiting the set of the show, ‘Happy Days,’ with an abundance of cars from the 1950s.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a weekly series of travel columns from a former Titusville resident.

On Dec. 17, 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a the “normalizing” of relations between the two countries.  

When implemented, this would allow for U.S. Citizens to visit Cuba more easily for the first time since January 1961.  

My first thought upon hearing this announcement was that I wanted to visit Cuba. Since relations between our country and Cuba are volatile, I decided the sooner the better. Travel didn’t open until 2016. The Obamas visited Cuba in March 2016.

In May 2016, I traveled to Havana, Cuba, for a taste of the life and the culture of the Cuban people.  

Unlike some trips, I did not read any reviews or other information about Cuba before I traveled there — I wanted to experience it with no preconceived ideas.  

I used a cruise ship to grant access, as it was the easiest way to get the opportunity to visit Cuba.  

I have visited most of the countries in the Caribbean. I thought I had a good idea of what to expect in Havana.  

Havana is a unique stop in this area.  

What does “a Cuban” look like, you might wonder? The people of Havana are as diverse in appearance as any major U.S. city. Cuba has a rich history of many ethnicities.

The very first thing I saw, and I believe anyone who visits also sees, is the abundance of cars from the 1950s. It looks like an episode of Happy Days, and I thought I might see Fonzie leaning against one of the trees.  

I learned later in my visit that boys are taught how to repair cars in secondary school. The talent in automotive and “automotive-ish” devices is very apparent in the streets. Automotive-ish is the best word I can use to describe a “vehicle” made from a motor that isn’t a car motor. I saw vehicles using items such as boat engines and lawn mower engines putting around the streets. The imagination seemed to have no limit, with the ability of some Cubans to construct a vehicle device. The cars are also something the tourists are drawn to. Traveling around the city in one of these cars with a knowledgeable Cuban driver had a lot of appeal to many visitors.

I’m a walker. I like to walk the streets when I visit. 

We walked from the port to the Capitol building. Along the way, we didn’t see any of the places I would see at other island countries.  

From Greece to Jamaica, there are tourist shops, restaurants, and signs of where you may use free internet. 

When our cruise ship docked in Cuba, the ship was instructed to turn off the internet. Its usage is prohibited in Cuba unless you buy an internet card at a shop to use. 

All along the walk to the Capitol, there were none of the open-air restaurants with margarita’s calling at me. It was quietly busy, with people walking here and there. Spending money is a little more of a challenge in Cuba than other countries I have visited. They have two forms of currency: CUP, or Cuban pesos, for their wages and prices. They also have CUC, which is set equal value to the U.S. dollar.

I found it interesting that the Cuban Capitolio Nacional was modeled after the U.S. Capital building, in Washington, D.C. 

We walked up there not to visit the Capitolio but to meet a walking tour guide to help us roam the streets. 

We roamed the streets for more than three hours, focusing on the four plazas of Havana. During this walk, our guide frequently would express how well the Castros take care of their people. It was obvious that they were taught a specific rhetoric to repeat to visitors.  

We finally found where most of the Cubans dined out. We passed many cafeterias that would consist of an open Dutch door (top of door open) and nothing else. No sign, no menu — you walk up, order, and receive your food.

Our guide was quite new and her English was broken. You either understood her or you didn’t, but she tried very hard. I think I understood most of what she said. She was very knowledgeable about the four plazas. The four are named Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plazaa do San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza de la Catedral. 

The Obamas visited each of the plazas during their three-day visit, March 16, 2016. 

Cuba is a country in need of repair. The buildings display interesting architecture, and many are painted in beautiful color. The disrepair is throughout the city.  

One person in our walking group, a Turkish woman, told us that the bathrooms were not useable. I took her word for it, and passed on them while walking. She also told us how she loved that, around 5 p.m., people would begin to play music and dance in the street. 

She said it “just happens.” 

This is a lovely event every day, early evening. The Cuban people are rightly proud of this organic event.

Instead of recounting the history of each of the plazas, I wanted to tell you of some of the things I found most interesting while walking around town.  

Artist Roberto Fabelo created a sculpture that was installed in 2012 in the Plaza Viega. There are many roosters wandering the streets of Havana, but none compare to Fabelo’s “Viaje Fantastico.” No one really knows what it is supposed to mean, though our tour guide gave us her ideas. It is a rooster, with a bald, naked woman riding upon it’s back. She holds a giant fork, and she wears shoes. She looks to the right, and the rooster looks to the left. It is not the kind of art I expected to see in Cuba, which made it even more delightful. Our guide mused that it is a feminist piece, and then told us what she believed to be the meaning of each item.

After the naked woman on a rooster, you might think that the surprises were over. Not so. 

We saw the only street performer we could find in any of the plazas. I do not know Cuba’s policy on street performers, and saw only this one man. He was dressed as a clown (not Pennywise), and he had a small dog with him that performed tricks. There was something about this dog that made his performance, well, remarkable. He was a small dog, with oversized boy parts that moved quite a bit when he did. I tried very hard to keep a straight face, but I couldn’t tell you anything else about the dog. A bouncing dog like this is entertaining, yes, and amusing. I don’t know if the clown knew what it looked like from our perspective or not. I suspect he did. Most street performers I have met are very tuned in to everything going on around them. His PG-13 dog made that plaza even more memorable.

I found a very interesting historical note about Cuba’s economics. When they have a recession, it is called “Special Period in Time of Peace,” which they had in 1989. This sounds much better than “recession.”

Ernest Hemmingway loved Havana, and owned a home there. The Cubans are very proud of their association with the author. The two bars that Hemmingway frequented are still standing today: La Bodeguita and La Floridita. 

We only passed the La Floridita which has a sign boasting that Hemmingway said they made the world’s best daiquiri. There are many reminders of Hemmingway in the city. Cuba partnered with China to build the Hemmingway Hotel. In Havana, they have an annual Hemmingway Fishing Tournament.

After a very long day in the city, we returned to the ship.  

I found one shop, and purchased a T-shirt for my daughter. We located a popular tourist restaurant and bar named Café Fortuna Joe. What is interesting and unique about this restaurant is that they have made seats from a variety of seats you use but not generally in a restaurant dining area. They have seats made of toilet seats, seats from a carriage, and the back half of a car (for privacy). The atmosphere is light and lively, much like the restaurants I mentioned earlier.

If you can travel to Havana, I encourage you to take it in. There is no other city like it — it is like stepping back in time. The people are friendly, the walking easy. 

I experienced the things I wrote about in a long one-day visit.  

Perhaps you will come upon the naked woman riding a rooster with the giant fork, or the clown with the naughty dog, too.

Mishler is a former Titusville resident who wanted to share her travel experiences with Herald readers.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.