cuba carsmuriel j smith 120Indeed, they really are all there, those classic American-made cars of the 1950s. They’re all over the well paved and not so well paved roads of Cuba, and most of them are taxis.

There are thousands of them, all brightly painted, the sun bouncing off shiny chrome; all with their windows down…pre-air conditioning days, remember…their interiors either plush or vinyl cleverly patched or taped to look good, and who knows what under the hoods to keep them purring, or growling gently as they navigate the streets.  The cars presumably date back to the 1950s when they were new, Cuba and the USA were friends, and Cubans enjoyed a middle class status that enabled them to purchase foreign cars.  For good reason, most chose American rather than Russian vehicles, though some of them were also available during ‘the special period,’ the time in the 1960s when Russia was the alleged friend of Cuba. The vehicles have been handed down from father to son, and with an embargo prohibiting the import of car parts, have been kept in running condition through ingenuity and a strange conglomeration of makeshift and re-made parts.  Cuba is on good terms with Venezuela, so fuel for the vehicles is no problem. Nor do they spend a lot of time or effort on repairing windows that no longer rise or close, given those 90 degree sun-filled days.

But there’s so much more to Havana than cars.

The streets of Havana always seemed filled with happy people walking, biking, or riding in bicyle-driven little cabs.  And on any street, at any time, you’re bound to see a group of guys working on those ‘50s vehicles, either painting and polishing, washing windshields, or tinkering under the hood, parts and tools strewn on the street around them. It seems as much for convenience and prestige, but cars provide a never ending source of recreational hobbyist time in repairs. It appears many of the government vehicles are Russian rather than American, the water trucks used to wash down the streets or put out fires, the dump trucks hauling stone or garbage, the vans carrying a variety of goods.    

It’s also common to see laundry hanging from second or third story windows, a contrast to the ornate wrought iron filigree that adorns most buildings. 

cuba volleyball

While the Red Bank Catholic girls with whom I traveled came to Cuba to introduce American friendship by friendly matches on the volleyball court, the group also took the time to visit a modern, air-conditioned arena where, while seats were empty during the day when the Jamaican men’s team faced Costa Rica’s formidable team, it’s a sure thing they would be filled when the home team took on their opponents later in the evening. In the Jamaican Costa Rican match, the Jamaicans took it in three sets; then the officials of both teams had to referee the next game between Antigua and Dominican Republic, a match the Dominicans won handily. And so it went. Each game started with the playing of the national anthems for both countries, with impressive and moving ceremonies while each nation was individually honored.  

Soccer is the leading sport in Cuba, with volleyball up there among the top five. But it’s chess that comes in second.

cuba chess

As in many countries, notably Russia, chess is considered a sport, not a game, and it’s taken seriously. In Cuba, it’s so serious that there are regional and national competitions for youngsters as young as eight and under.  And the five year old we met can best the average American adult in less than an hour.

Fabio, son of Pavel and Sandra, the couple who kept us united with the girls’ volleyball teams, was the five year old charmer who is heading for national competition this month. He learned chess from his dad, starting with correctly placing the pieces in their proper positions when he was two years old; now, Fabio still competes with his dad as well as his mom, and goes to school a couple of hours a day to continue to improve in the sport.  He won his spot for national competition by placing third in regional matches among 100 youngsters under eight; at the national level, his competition will be up to 10 years of age.  While his parents went about their chores of guiding the girls in street volleyball, Fabio took out his vinyl chessboard, arranged the black and white chess pieces for himself and whatever opponent came along, and patiently waited, sitting on the cracked concrete a few yards from the volleyball court. Within minutes, a 12 year old sat down opposite him, and without a word being spoken, the two engaged in a game; Fabio had him beat in 12 moves within 10 minutes. Next, Fabio took on our traveling American, Dan Curtin. And the game intensified. Dan moved, Fabio countered; Dan considered, Fabio pondered. And so it went for nearly an hour. When it was over, victor and opponent stood up, shook hands, smiled, and Fabio turned to ask me if I wanted to play. I politely declined.

Next: History and art in Cuba