SAMUEL CHENG finds out why Cuba is the Caribbean’s most exciting new destination.
Each time I step off a plane on my travels, I expect to see a different world from the country I left behind. In Cuba’s case, it’s a different era.
Emerging from Jose Marti International Airport, I am greeted by a gleaming parade of classic cars (above), all polished chrome and with radios blasting upbeat Cuban music. They are not cabs but are all passenger-ready. I load my luggage into a yellow 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air (above; about US$25 a ride).
On the way, I spy a spice peddler in a dusty backstreet ringing a small, high-pitched bell. An elderly woman beckons to him for a small pouch of spices from her balcony and then gingerly lowers a basket of money to pay for it.
Later, at the Artisan’s Market near Havana’s main train station, I eye a large raised fist carved from wood – a Communist revolution symbol. The stall owner asks me what I have to trade for it. Seeing my confusion, he asks what is in my backpack and I pull out my football jersey. He fingers its lightweight polyester fabric and, after some negotiation, exchanges his carving for it.
1950s Ford Thunderbirds, money baskets, barter – these are the Old World peculiarities that give Cuba its lost-in-time allure – the same magnetism that drew some of the 20th century’s most razor-minded literati, from Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote Hurricane over Sugar after his visit here in 1960 with his wife Simone de Beauvoir, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway and even Winston Churchill.
Indeed, Cuba – more specifically, Havana – is the stuff of romanticised nostalgia, a place where things that are found nowhere else on Earth still exist as part of daily life.