Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can I drive in Havana?

Maybe I should be ashamed of it, maybe not even tell. But there are places I’d like to go, and I haven't done so far, because I’m scared of the thought of having to drive there. It all became clear to me again when I saw a TV show this week that was filmed in Morocco. I’d love to go back there. But Cuba is another destination on my wish list, which suffers from that same maybe unrealistic fear.

I’d love to see and experience Cuba. I know, it is probably a romantic image created by the media – the colourful clothes of the people, the vintage American cars, the music – the Buena Vista Social Club, just try to say that out loud with a Spanish tongue -, the beautiful girls on the beaches, the Hotel Nacional, sipping drinks under the palms, while listening to sounds of the country. Maybe the last Latin American country in the 1950s style way we so like when we watch old movies?

The Bueno Vista Social Club in concert, Amsterdam, 1998.
With amongst other İbrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ry Cooder.
Scene from the Wim Wenders movie with the same name as the band.

But there is a problem here. I’d like my freedom of movement. I hate organized trips where you get in a bus and are transported from one location to the other, having to deal with company you probably do not like, and be dependent on a guide who decides where you will stop to take photos. I know you can book trips to Cuba and go around in a reliable Japanese car. But do I have the guts to do that? I always have visions of corrupt police that will stop you, I even had that when driving in the Czech Republic, so why not in Cuba? And the language – how are you going to communicate when you do not speak Spanish, and you are outside Havana, where chances that you will meet people who do understand English are less likely than in the city? On the other hand, I managed driving in communist Romania in a Citroën Oltcit, that despite being new, gradually started to fall apart during the trip. But getting fuel was problematic, and outside the hotels hardly anyone spoke English, making it difficult to express yourself when you felt you were being cheated.

 Hotel pool in Meknez. Like a fairy tale at twilight.

I thought about this, after seeing a TV show with a Dutch rap artist of Moroccan birth, who visited his country and showed places that suddenly looked so familiar again to me. I visited Morocco in 1984, and it was magic. North African culture, friendly people, vivid colours, great food, excellent service in hotels, the fairytale like scenery and cities combined to an experience that was a joy to the senses. Why have I never been back? Together with a friend from university we had booked an organized trip along the old royal cities like Meknez, Marrakech and Casablanca. Marrakech was the absolute highlight: the famous town square, the casbah, the nightclub with the belly dancer and the acrobats, the evening trip into the desert to a Tuareg camp, where we were treated with a fabulous dinner that just seemed not to end, with traditional dancers and a stunning horse show. Even after all those years I still see it all right before me. I should have gone back, but never did. It is not only a fear of driving in an unknown country, it is also the fear of being on your own – even when you go with a group of friends. To be honest, deep in my heart I want to rely on the help and support of a guide when I think of exotic destinations. Because the guide was the man who kept the platoons of souvenir selling obtrusive boys at a distance. Or tried to do so. He was the man who navigated us through the narrow maze of crowded alleys of the Meknez casbah. And the only time we went there on our own, I came back with silver bracelets I had no use for, and did not want to buy anyway.

Moroccon roads are actually very good, even in the desert.

The guide was also the one who arranged for a doctor when I needed one. Visitors to Mexico call it Montezuma’s Revenge, and I have no idea what its Moroccan equivalent is named – but it does exist. You know how helpless you feel when everything exits your body from both ways as fluids one and the same time – knowing you have to travel the next day. The German doctor the guide called for arrived soon. I still see his silhouette in the dusk room set off against the window, holding a large needle in the air, testing if it was okay. “Holland?" he said. “I know Holland, I’ve been there a long time ago.” And I feared his revenge when the needle came down at a part of my body I will not discuss here, for a war lost, after so many years.


  1. This is something we have in common. I always rent a car when I travel. It allows me the freedom to go where I want and see what I want. There is some risk in this though! If you do not know the area, you could end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I always keep my doors locked! Every country has it areas that can be dangerous. European tourists have been killed in Miami for ending up in the wrong neighborhood. (There are some pretty rough areas right by Miami International Airport.)

    So, let's start here. Cubans do not speak Spanish, they speak Cuban! Living in Miami, I can attest to this. So as for your fear of not speaking Spanish, don't worry about it! They don't either!

    So, I have never been to Cuba although I would like to go. Technically, I am not allowed to go. I know how to get around this little technicality but I still hold out hope of being able to go legally. But I would guess that driving in Cuba is similar to driving in the Dominican Republic. One of the challenges in driving in very poor countries is that basic parts of the infrastructure are usually not functional. In DR, most of the traffic lights do not work. Even in major intersections. Stop signs are stolen and used to repair roofs and cars. And the lines in the road have not been repainted in years! What does this lead to? Chaos! But if you are a local, you understand this chaos. It took me a few days to get used to rolling stops and pushing my way into traffic and learning to trust the other drivers. They can smell fear but if you are confident, you will do fine! Police are usually bought off by very little money by western standards. A few Euros or Dollars will usually get you out of trouble. For me, the challenge is not going there but coming back home! One gets used to these bad habits.

    I also do feel safer in a rental car then a cab. In Nicaragua, it is common for people to be robbed in cabs. Sometimes the drivers are even in on it.

    I guess the key is research. If you are not comfortable driving there, try going on one of the guided tours to get a lay of the land,then rent the car if you feel you are ready for the challenge!

    Happy travels! And if Obama says I can go to Cuba, then Vamonos! I'll drive! ;-)

  2. I personally would not drive in an impoverished country with chaos on the streets. Driving in most of Europe, Canada, or the US has never been a surprise, and quite a pleasure, actually. I think I would stick to a tour bus in Central/South America, Africa, or the Orient, same for some of the larger European cities like Rome. I think Australia/NZ would be a treat to drive in...on the "wrong side" of the road.
    I would love to visit Cuba as well, but once again, tacky as it could be, I would feel much more comfortable taking a tour rather than being responsible for a rental car that could get trashed by a local driver and then deal with corrupt police, if lucky. There are tours available there, through AAA, if one is interested. It is a "cultural study tour" and costs about $2000/pp for a week. At least that is how much it was when I checked into it five or six years ago. I have had some coworkers who are from there originally, and their eyes just gleam when they talk about home. How bad can it really be if they are so delighted to talk about their home country?