By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
HAVANA — Cliches about Cuba as frozen in time — with vintage cars, prestigious cigars and crumbling antiquities — gloss over that Cubans are educated and ravenous for opportunity.
An urbane nuclear engineer earns a living in Havana renting nicely appointed rooms in his impeccable, fifth-floor casa particular, or private home.
A street vendor with a tiny table rehabilitates disposable lighters. Another rebuilds umbrellas. Yet another performs surgery on cellphones.
And a man with a dirt-floor shop across from a state-owned field of sugar cane re-engineers classic American autos into international hybrids.
“We find a way, always,” promises a Cuban guide, with confidence.
With an easing of Cuba’s internal controls and thawing relations with the United States, the island is stirring with expectation. In July, my wife made her third trip and I visited for the first time.
The blink of a flight from Tampa, Fla., to Havana takes 52 minutes and quickly reveals a country rendered otherworldly by isolation from the U.S. and adherence to socialism.
Shortly after we arrive at Jose Marti airport, an immigration “jefe” with a radio pulls me aside for an interrogation over travel plans. It somewhat unsettles my Spanish-speaking wife, who must explain.
Apparently I stand out at 6 feet 4 inches on a plane of Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Our reception is a Latin version of going into East Berlin back in the Wall days.
Next are women officers in uniforms of tight skirts and black-patterned stockings, and X-ray machines scanning bulging bags brought into the country.
Then we push through doors into the steaming outside. A waiting crowd presses against barricades. It’s clamorous, disorienting and begins the adventure.
A 60-year-old Rambler takes 30 minutes to get us to Havana.
The first thing we notice is mesmerizing and eclectic architecture, heavy on balconies, arches, iron railing and Spanish persuasions. Much of it is melting with disrepair.
Trees and shrubs sprout from cracks in exterior walls above streets, competing with fluttering laundry. Tangled electric wires clutter foyers. Sewage drains to streets.
Yet cocooned within buildings condemnable elsewhere are homes and restaurants of refinement and elegance. Stairways rise from grimy chaos to immaculate calm of a casa particular, with rooms costing about $35 a night.
Unisex bathrooms in La Guarida, royalty among paladares, or private restaurants, glow in purple-blue lighting. Food and service, at $60 for starters through dessert for two, is surrealistic.
You want to pinch yourself: Este es Habana?
Existence of such addresses, with hot water, toilets that flush, air conditioners that cool and artistic portraits of nudes, leaves me amazed over the effort and ingenuity they must have required of workers who often make $1 or $2 a day.
A least one meal should be taken in a government-owned restaurant for perspective on socialist fare, though some do occupy the most venerable settings.
But paladares aren’t hard to find, and a posh one in the embassy section of Havana features an arresting view of ocean and of adjoining resorts that began disintegrating years ago.
Look toward Florida, toast the scenery and kiss your wife. Glance right and observe a Mad Max setting. It’s a romantic combo of love and seaside desolation.
In Cuba, gritty and glamour go hand in hand.
A 1954 Oldsmobile taxi, a gorgeous thing in azure, had its gas-guzzling V-8 replaced with a 1960s-era British diesel. It also was refitted with a Hyundai truck transmission and Mercedes disc brakes. It buzzes along like an agile tractor.
A mechanic converts American classics into Cuban road warriors by fabricating parts and precisely welding engine compartments into new configurations.
A German leans under a hood of one and proclaims with German authority: “This isn’t possible.”
The aging diesels, however, belch thunderheads of exhaust, a noxious reminder Havana is urban in its peculiar, developing-nation ways.
Tap water isn’t drinkable, Cubans say, and groceries aren’t readily available. Street scamming goes on with cheap rum, cigars and something involving salsa and sex. A Bucanero beer costs about $1 but dollars often aren’t taken.
Tourists use the CUC, or “kook,” the peso traded for foreign currency worth a bit more than a buck. Official changers take 10 percent cuts, while the black market for money is sketchy.
Narrow streets in the capital’s old section may suggest “Ghetto: danger!” It’s false alarm.
Cubans in the city live open lives, lacking air conditioning, and you may glance into windows and see Mom, Dad and the kids as if you were in their homes.
They aren’t muggers but may ask where you are from: “De que pais son?”
You kind of don’t want to fess up because they can get animated over Americans.
Hundreds of them in Havana line up each day to apply for a U.S. visa despite little chance of getting one.
They will want to tell you about their sister who lives in Miami, a “balsero” father who rafted to Florida and lives in California, and a cousin in Georgia.
Then they will press for why the United States won’t take its foot off Cuban necks, especially given their fondness for their northern neighbor.
Perhaps best of all in Cuba is how easy it is to connect with Cubans, which was prohibited not many years ago, and hear their take on U.S.-Cuba relations.
“We loooooove you,” an amazed driver of a three-wheeled, bicycle taxi, or bicitaxi, proclaims when he realizes his passengers are American. Another bicitaxi labors by, an American flag clipped to its handlebar.
Americans are rare among the Canadians, Europeans and Russians who come, say taxi drivers, for beer, rum and hot chicks at Varadero, Cuba’s version of Cancun.
We encounter few free-ranging Americans and mostly tour groups such as underwater archaeologists and religious somebodies.
It’s startling anybody loves Americans enough to proclaim it so loudly. Yet many Cubans aren’t shy about complaining the U.S. is punishing Cuba with its embargo.
“Why?” implores a charismatic waiter serving a whole snapper at an elegant paladare filled with older Mexicans and young lovers.
He points out that 50,000 young Americans were killed in communist Vietnam. “You made friends with Vietnam,” he stresses. “It is one of your most important trading partners in Asia.”
In fact, no Cubans suggest the embargo stresses Cuban leaders. Many, possibly dozens, told us it stresses them personally.
“I’m 44 years old already,” the waiter says. “Why do we have to suffer?”
It’s not obvious if he is angry or acting. He has a Russian name, as do many Cubans. Looking at my snapper, I consider a safe answer.
Otra cerveza, por favor.
Many Cubans are well-traveled and talkative — to the point of pontificating — but are nervous about politics, even when knocking back Bucaneros. They imply negativity about Fidel Castro but won’t articulate a culpable point.
You learn quickly Fidel is, or was, a demigod not to be messed with. Cubans revere and revile the bearded one.
He introduced water, electricity, free housing, free health care and free education. Literacy, life expectancy and infant mortality rival or better those in the U.S.
About medical care, a guy in Playa Larga at the Bay of Pigs suggests “sometimes it’s better to pay.”
A guy in Havana makes a big show of appreciation that Fidel’s brother, Raul, now in charge, has made ownership of cars and homes possible.
“Thank you, thank you, after 56 years,” he pronounces in faux prayer. It’s theatrical and hard to say if sarcasm or sincerity.
A lot of Cubans have been jailed for political expression and everywhere is propaganda printed or painted on walls such as “Patria o Muerte (Country or Death)!”
After sunset, however, politics and polemics soften along the photogenic Malecon sea wall, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Cubans in the fresh breeze that brushes across the Florida Strait from the direction of Florida.
Horns of swanky convertibles that roll at night don’t honk; they toot or trumpet. The moment is transcendent.
If you are not drawn to the understandable anger of Cuban-Americans of a certain age, who were terrorized, run out of the country and lost a way of life, you may want to admire and cheer for Cubans.
Their nation is adrenalized and vibrating in transition between the Castros and a country anxious to erupt. More affluence. More modernity. More Americans. More good and more bad.
After it happens, and Marriotts and McDonald’s brand an island within reach of a ferry ride, history surely will ask of the last decades: “What was that about?”
(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: An early foray by Cuba into tourism is this state-owned resort in southern Cuba near the Bay of Pigs, site of the ill-fated U.S.-backed paramilitary invasion of 1961. (Kevin Spear/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)