Christopher P. Baker

Christopher P. Baker

Photo: Izuky Pérez

Cuba´s fiesta de quince

Yusleidy sits atop the back seat of a pink 1953 Plymouth convertible as it cruises down Cienfuegos’ Malecón boulevard, horn blaring and trailing balloons. She’s wearing a fake-diamond tiara, elbow-length white satin gloves, and a strapless green sweetheart ball gown billowing over the car’s rear. She beams like Cinderella on her way to the ball. It’s Yusleidy’s fiesta de quince—a fifteenth birthday celebration for Cuban girls—and the moment she’s dreamed of since she was tiny, and that her mother has craved since a nurse exclaimed “It’s a girl!” I watch, enthralled, as a photographer captures Yusleidy posing demurely outside the exuberantly gauche Palacio del Valle. Then, right there in the parking lot, she strips down into swimwear, slips on six-inch rhinestone heels, and the family and photographers’ entourage troop through the lobby of the Hotel Jagua for a more risqué shoot by the pool. I’m shocked at the overt sexuality as Yusleidy’s ostensibly conservative mom tells her to pop her booty, tug down on her bikini strap, and show more skin. A quinceañera poses in Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: Christopher P Baker “Incredibly, most girls ask to be photographed half-naked!” says photographer Maricel Vázquez Molina. Many mothers, apparently, want their...

El Yunque from Hotel El Castillo, Baracoa, Cuba.

Baracoa’s distinct cuisine

You can’t walk ten yards along any beach from Cabo San Antonio to Punta Maisí without fear of being brained by a falling coconut. So how come coco rarely finds its way into Cuban cooking? Elsewhere in the Caribbean it’s a versatile staple, simmered luxuriously with white rice or adding richness to soups, plus sensual subtlety and body to smoothies. And then there’s spinach-like callaloo, and heavily seasoned mojo marinade, provocatively spicy and hot as Rihanna. Much of the Caribbean’s endlessly lively cuisine gives a nod to its Taíno Amerindian heritage. Many indigenous ingredients—cassava (yucca) and sweet potato, plantains and maize, chilis and peppers—are staples in Cuban cooking. Yet Cuba’s comparatively uniform and bland fare reduced Anthony Bourdain (during his first visit, in 2011) to repeat the famous quip about the “three things the Revolution does worst: breakfast, lunch and dinner.” What a pity the late, great Bourdain didn’t venture to Baracoa, where the unique regional cuisine—infused with Taíno traditions—is the equal of anything the Caribbean can offer. Traditional local cuisine at El Guirito, Baracoa, Cuba. The first signs of Taíno culture, of something unique on the isle, begin to appear as we bounce down a dirt track that leads...

David Soul y Pedro Pino con el Chrysler New Yorker de Hemingway, en diciembre de 2012;. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

(Not) A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway was a hazard on Cuba’s roads. “It was noon and I was cold sober,” he once wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, admitting: “Fourth bad smash in a year.” No wonder, with all that alcohol swilling around in his veins! So no surprise that in March 2011, when I first saw Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler in Havana, it was a bit of a wreck… although, as it turned out, not because of Papa’s predilection for accidents. After receiving his 1954 Nobel Prize, Hemingway rewarded himself with a long, low-slung Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible, made to order in two-tone Navajo Orange and Desert Sand, for $3,924. One of only fifty-nine New Yorkers built for export that year, its 331 cubic inch V-8 FirePower engine with four-barrel carbs produced an impressive 250 ponies. “It was a fast, racy, powerful, macho car for a powerful, racy, macho kind of guy,” says Chrysler aficionado, Chris Paquin. Hemingway Chrysler and tattered original seats, December 2012; copyright Christopher P Baker After Hemingway’s suicide on July 2, 1961, the Castro government seized the property, Finca Vigía—“donated to the people of Cuba” is the euphemism—despite the author having willed it to Mary Welsh, his widow. The...

Photo by Christopher P. Baker

Five quintessential Cuban experiences that most visitors miss (but shouldn’t)

Havana’s unique frozen-in-time stage-set backdrop lends a twilight-zone ambience that Hollywood couldn’t dream up if it tried. But for the visitor, Cuba’s real magic isn’t its one-of-a-kind revolutionary icons, its crumbling architecture, its quaint vintage cars. It’s the seemingly mundane, quintessential experiences a lo cubano that you’ll forever remember as favorite take-aways. Here are five uniquely Cuban slices of life not to miss... I SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM When it comes to religion in Cuba, santería is second to heladería. Cubans worship ice cream (helado). When Havana sizzles, the entire city descends on Parque Coppelia, the world’s biggest ice creamery (taking up an entire block at the top of La Rampa, in Vedado, it averages 30,000 customers a day). Appropriately, Coppelia is known as “la catedral de helado.” Nowhere embodies Cuba’s revolutionary ideals quite like this true “people’s park” offering a for-pennies indulgence for the masses… who wait... and wait... and wait, with feverish anticipation to pig out on as much ice cream as they can stuff into their bellies and handbags. Novels have been written here, music scores conceived (this being Cuba, perhaps even babies). Photo by Christopher P. Baker Cuba’s rich diversity can be found standing in line...