25 February 2010

Another Chapter - The Cooking School of Life

A Ride to the Beach in Cuba
by Ken Hulick © 2009

Sweat droplets make little splotches on the pavement, then slowly dry in the hot, humid air. Beer helps a bit, and it’s only a buck a can. One walks slowly, on the shady side of the street. We pause to appreciate – admire is too strong a word in this car’s case – a blue 1959 Chevrolet Impala. Scott asks the two men seated nearby if the car is theirs and if he can take pictures. The owner is quiet, almost shy, but nods his head OK.

“Do you want to go to the beach?” asks the other man. The car owner doesn’t seem to speak any English, but his agent speaks passably well. Scott speaks some Spanish but doesn’t always understand the usually rapid responses; while I understand quite a bit but my speaking is so rusty that I’m not good at stringing sentences together. Most of the time, if we’re together, Scott talks and I listen and translate. It’s kinda funny, in a way, until much later in the trip when a beautiful woman in Mexico mistakenly thinks Scott and I are a gay couple.

So for five dollars each, they’ll drive us to the beach about 10 kilometers away. We think it might just be a tiny bit cooler, plus we can swim and maybe get a little breeze.

The car isn’t particularly pristine, either on the inside or the outside. And very, very far from original. The bright red dash looks good, but seats, floorboards, headliner, and maybe even the steering wheel have been replaced sometime over the previous 40-some years. The glove compartment door opens into empty space. The sky blue exterior appears to have been painted with house paint. And, from the sounds coming from the engine, wheels, and drivetrain, the mechanical parts aren’t in any better shape.

Within a few minutes we’re out of Trinidad’s town limits. A few minutes later we’re on the side of the road. Sputtering, stalling sounds, then a dead engine, and we coast to a stop. There’s not much need to pull very far over, as there’s little traffic.

“Out of gas,” the agent explains. We all get out of the car to assist – isn’t that what males do everywhere in the world? Even two Americans and two Cubans in a ’59 Chevy? If we’ve guessed right about the car’s age and heritage, it would be one of the last American road warriors imported before the revolution.

The driver goes to the back, opens the trunk, and takes out a gallon plastic milk carton of gasoline. He walks to the front, opens the hood, and pours the gas into a small tank inside the engine compartment. We’re witnessing another example of no-spare-parts innovation.

All the Cubans who own classic old American cars think that when relations between America and their country normalize, that wealthy American car collectors will be flocking to the island to purchase their relics and make them rich. We really didn’t have the heart to tell any of them that American car collectors want cars in pristine, original condition. We silently wonder if even the engine in our taxi is from Detroit, or instead was pulled out of a Russian Lada and grafted onto this big, blue Chevy.

Back in the car, we go no more than five minutes, and we have to pull over again. “Engine oil light is on.”

This time the driver reappears from the bowels of the trunk with a quart plastic bottle of motor oil that looks like it’s already been used several times. Again, we wonder. Did he drain it from a dead Lada’s engine? Is the oil something semi-bootleg, like the cigar seconds that workers bring home from the cigar factories? Those questions and their answers are beyond the language skills of any of us.

Back on the road, almost beginning to smell the sea breezes, we hear rattling from the back. Outside the car. First it was low gas, then low oil, now it’s low lug nuts. The three lug nuts on the left rear tire are all loose (there should be five). They’re tightened quickly, but Scott gives me a look that clearly says: “Will we be walking back?”

A stretch of Caribbean white sand begins just steps from the car. On the north shore of the island, the coast bears the brunt of the powerful Atlantic. Here, on the southern Caribbean side, we could have been in Cozumel. “We’ll wait for you.” Not a question, but a statement. We said we didn’t know how long we’d be. We silently thought that maybe we really didn’t want to get back in the Chevy. “That OK. We wait.”

Scott hauled his pale body to the water, while I spread my pale body on the beach and read, and later walked down the beach a ways. A young family was sitting in the shade of a palm tree, their car parked right on the beach. The car was in much better condition than our taxi, and I stopped to admire it. “Es tu coche?” “Si. Would you like a drink?” as he handed me a bottle of Havana Club rum.

Havana Club is rum in Cuba – not brown but clear, and about $3 a bottle, although we guessed the locals didn’t pay even that tourist price. You can’t make a decent Mojito in Cuba without Havana Club, and every bar and restaurant claims the best Mojito on the island, some willing to guarantee that they do. We just drank them, not worrying how we’d make good on the “guarantee” if we didn’t like their mix. Although Daiquiris are allegedly as traditional as Mojitos (especially in the mystique of Hemingway’s Havana), the latter were consumed 10 to 1 by everyone we encountered – Cubans and tourists alike.

Scott walked up and mildly berated me for drinking out of a stranger’s bottle. Yet never an adverse thought crossed my mind as I enjoyed a smooth mouthful of my new friend’s gift. Scott, always working, took several photos of the car for possible use in his planned book.

The guys were waiting for us back by the car. We bought everyone Cristal beers and chatted with several of their friends who’d joined the table. The agent appeared to be quite a lady’s man, and had a good-looking chica on each arm. We returned to Trinidad with one girl in the front seat with our driver and agent, and another two girls comfortably close to us in the backseat. It appeared to be just a ride back to town for the girls, not a set-up for us. Anyway, Scott claimed to have given up on women after a recent bad relationship, and our host at the Casa Particular where we were staying made it very clear that “guests” weren’t acceptable in his establishment. Besides, the whole phenomena of Cuban-women-and-foreign-men seemed a little too much like prostitution to me, so we said farewell to all our new friends as we left the car.

A British friend of Scott’s who we ran into in Trinidad has been visiting the island for several months a year over the course of many years. Keith was always dreaming of dating Cuban women, but despite many visits he could barely speak a dozen words of Spanish. Keith was the perfect example of the peripatetic travelling Brit who just doesn’t assimilate but always stays a “tourist,” even though he had spent years in China, Thailand, Africa, and other far-flung destinations.

Keith told us a story about being in Havana on one of his first trips, and trying to understand “the women thing” on the island. He asked his taxi driver, “How do you tell which ones are the prostitutes?” The Cuban driver, calm and worldly, replied, “They’re all prostitutes.”

Keith and Scott would sit on the patio of our casa, smoking cigars and exchanging photographer war stories. Tobacco smoke in the states would cause me to cough and cringe, but Cuban tobacco smelled sweet and natural, as natural as mangoes or papaya or a bowl of limes and oranges.

Julio, our casa host, was also a photographer, and he organizes photo workshops in Trinidad. He loved showing his work, and I was happy to see his collection. Julio had two guest rooms, and the other was occupied by a Canadian man and his stunning South African girlfriend. They were sweet people, interested in Julio’s work, but somehow just didn’t seem to fit into the fabric of Cuba. The Canadian always wore a Guayabera, the prototypical Cuban man’s shirt. Scott hated Guayaberas, saying, “Why would I want to go around looking like a dentist?”

Finally, it was time to move on to another destination on our trip, so we found a driver who would take us back to Havana – cheaper, hotter, and much more Cuban than the sterile, air-conditioned Viazul tourist bus we’d arrived on. Keith, Scott, and I crammed into a middle-aged Russian Lada which never so much as hiccupped on the entire five-hour drive. The driver spoke no English; Scott asked questions; I translated; and Keith kept talking about the women at the Casa de la Trova (music venue) the night before who he should have asked to dance.