Saturday 25 February 2017

Cuba: Driving back in time

The winds of change are sweeping across Cuba, but Karen McCartney, from Belfast, hopes one of its relics will always be around

Karen McCartney

HAVANA, CUBA: Picture taken 06 May 2004 downtown Havana of the facades built in Cuba's brief
HAVANA, CUBA: Picture taken 06 May 2004 downtown Havana of the facades built in Cuba's brief "Belle Epoque" of colonial affluence. AFP PHOTO GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

'Gently does it, gently, g-e-n-t-l-y. Perfect. That's just the way I like it." Then, with a satisfied smile, he reaches for the volume and I'm blasted with salsa. No surprise that he loves Los Van Van, the kings of double entendre in Cuba.

He's my driver and he's only talking about closing the car door. But even such a mundane request is an opportunity for any red-blooded Cubano to flirt, and flirt with style. I slide into my seat and he flashes me a sidelong look as he shifts gear; I grin to let him know that his innuendo is appreciated.

I'm in a máquina, a collective taxi, along with five other passengers and we've just left La Lisa en route to Central Havana, one of the more downbeat neighbourhoods in the city.

It's stifling and every window in the vehicle is wound down. In fact, the windows are permanently wound down. They've probably been wound down since they broke back in the 1950s.

It's sad that in the half century or so since this car began its journey, not everybody has treated it gently. It's battered and bent, but it has spirit and it's still on the road.

We are purring along in a black Chevrolet that hiccups every now and again when we hit a pothole or burps unceremoniously when the clutch is called into action. But who cares if this old lady shows her age from time to time? This is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of the road and I'm blessed to be one of the last few to luxuriate in her charms before she retires.

I've been living in Havana for almost a year now and I'm still bewitched by these elegant pre-revolution era cars. Each time I hail one I'm filled with glee, suppressing the urge to jump up and down on the spot because I can, with a mere wave of the hand, halt one of these beauties and avail of her charms. I frequently stop and gawk at them because I can't disguise my feelings. It's their aura; they unfailingly exude sophistication and timelessness.

They're forever associated with a bygone era of Hollywood film stars and real-life mafia, a golden era when they were young, happy and forever beautiful.

Roads populated with these vintage cars fuel my daydreams and fantasies. On Calzada del Cerro, a 1938 Packard pulls unexpectedly to a halt in front of me. I stare. It's a sinister manoeuvre and I expect to see half a dozen rain-coated gangsters hastily emerge, wielding violin cases.

Instead, two women wearing fluorescent pink and lime-green lycra leggings step out into the hot sunshine. "Ciao, ciao," they say happily, and their friend waves back to them from the rear window.

The Packard drifts away and, for a few moments, it is the only vehicle on the road, doggedly zig-zagging past potholes, framed against a background of crumbling façades of 19th-century architecture.

Then it's gone, and I'm left alone with my fantasy.

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