To quote a lyric from Johnny Cash, Cuba is suddenly “hotter than a pepper sprout” on the world travel stage with U.S. travel to Cuba jumping 39 percent this year. But is this island — frozen in time for more than five decades — a must-see destination? Christopher P. Baker, who helped found the Bay Area Travel Writers (www.batw.org) in the mid-1980s, is the premier authority on tourism to Cuba. “Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba,” is one of six books and dozens of articles Baker has penned on the island nation.
What follows is from a recent interview with Baker.
Q: What led you to undertake your dangerous and illegal motorcycle trip across Cuba in 1996?
A: I was authoring the Lonely Planet Jamaica guidebook at the time of the Soviet collapse in 1991, when Cuba suddenly opened tourism to the world. I immediately visited from Jamaica and was transfixed. I decided to author a guidebook to Cuba, but I was also ready to advance my professional writing career by penning a literary travel book. Hence, I chose to use a motorcycle to research the island to add a twist of adventure to the tale. Although I’d already made several visits, it was in 1996 that I shipped the bike and traveled the island end to end.
Q: With more than 100 visits to Cuba, most of them as the resident expert for National Geographic Expedition, what continues to be the allure for you?
A: Cuba has lost little of the surreal charm that first enchanted me more than two decades ago. Much is due to the amazing physical setting — a time warp that casts visitors back to the 1950s, thanks to the unchanged architecture (much of it in various states of dereliction) and ubiquity of old American cars. But more so, the people. Vivacious, generous, genteel, self-assured, well-educated and profound sums it up.
Q: Your book “Cuba Classics, A Celebration of Vintage American Cars” is still a coffee table favorite. Are these classic pre-revolution cars disappearing from the landscape in dramatic fashion?
A: Quite the opposite. In fact, although their number is fixed, they look better every year! This is because the last few years has seen a liberalization on both the Cuban and U.S. side as to what U.S. products can be sent to Cuba. It’s only with the past few years that Cuban owners of classic cars have gained access to real car paint, spray guns and auto parts.
Q: You’re leading 15 National Geographic expeditions to Cuba through 2016. You meet with everyone from farmers to artists, journalists and students. What are their concerns for the island, going forward?
A: Cubans are enthusiastic about the economic reforms and slimmer political reforms that are happening on the island. They fear the possibility of an entrenchment by bureaucrats and that reforms will stall. Few express concerns about instability and a catastrophic collapse of the government or system, but many do express fears that any eventual U.S. flood may leave them disadvantaged. Others fear losing the marginal benefits everyone enjoys, such as guaranteed free health care and education to university level.
Q: What will American tourists find as the biggest surprises in Cuba?
A: First is that Cubans love Americans and the United States. Surprise! The second is that Cubans are magnificent human beings who wish the world well. (Even, perhaps especially, communist Cubans who believe in their own system.)
Q: What myths do you want to debunk?
A: That Cuba is somehow a wicked communist nation. It is clearly repressive in its lack of freedom of political expression and options, but it is far from the police state portrayed by the extreme right. The vast majority of Cubans are happy, thanks not least to the powerful strength of community in its broadest sense. They point out to us that you don’t gain happiness from being materially wealthy.
Baker will be speaking about Cuba at 4 p.m. July 18, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, go to www.bookpassage.com or call 415-927-0960.