Havana’s streets are filled with classic American cars. After three weeks of cycling in Cuba, we decided to see Havana from the back of a Buick and received an unexpected lesson on the history of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
‘Thirty five dollars, one hour, best Havana tour,’ said a man, swirling his finger across a tattered and worn out map of what I believed to be Havana.
‘My son is best driver in city. I am very experienced guide. This is beautiful American convertible.’
We only had ninety minutes to spare before it was time to leave for the airport and neither me nor my partner had the energy to haggle. We slithered across a plastic covered white leather bench seat in the back of the Buick in Parque Central.
‘I am Michael Angelo,’ said our guide. There was nothing in his deadpan voice or face to indicate he was joking.
‘The day before 1959,’ he began, while I reached for a non-existent seatbelt. ‘Very important for government.’ I looked up and saw El Capitolio, the glistening granite love child of the Washington DC’s Capitol building and the Paris Panthéon.
The engine roared, as the vintage vehicle shifted gear. Michael’s voice remained flat.
‘The day before 1959, very important building for Americans.’
I’d missed whatever building Michael had swept his arms towards and I didn’t really care. We were cruising through Habana Vieja – Old Havana in a 1950’s classic and I felt like a Hollywood movie star.
We drove past Chinatown’s arch and Michael spiel continued, most sentences starting with the now familiar, ’The day before 1959…’ a date which marked the end of Batista’s dictatorship and a new beginning.
Leonardo, our driver said little except to offer us a cigarette before lighting up his own as we continued past faded facades of neoclassic, colonial and baroque buildings. The architecture a testament to the city’s 500 year history.
‘And the day before 1959, very important casino for American mafia.’ Michael said, pointing at a dilapidated tall building.
On arrival at Revolution Square, Leonardo parked up. At first I thought the tour was over, but it certainly didn’t feel like an hour. ‘Now you walk and take pictures.’
Obediently, we got out, walked around and took pictures of José Martí’s monument and the giant sculpture of Ché Guevara’s face. A few minutes later, Michael joined us. ‘”Hasta la Victoria Siempre,” you know? Ché Guevara? Very important man. We go now.’
What he didn’t tell me was that the Pope had celebrated mass there, or that Fidel Castro, had addressed more than a million Cubans on numerous important occasions, a number equivalent to half the city’s population.
We’d no sooner driven off till we stopped again.
‘You want stop, take pictures?’ Michael asked, as we glimpsed the bench with a seated statue of John Lennon. We declined. I couldn’t see the point when Lennon had never even been to Cuba, let alone that park.
‘You want mojito?’
We did, but didn’t have the time.
After what seemed like a circuit of an enormous ‘very important’ cemetery, we turned onto the five mile long Malecón, a promenade filled with the rhythm of Cuba; lovers, musicians and fishermen all wearing bright coloured clothes. The place to look out to sea and dream.
Near the end of the boulevard, Leonardo pulled up next to a crumbling apartment block and a pile of rubble. Our excursion was over.
Before stepping out, I had one question, ‘When was this car made?’
‘1958,’ said Leonardo. And I thought, indeed, the day before 1959.