Christopher Baker is the 2008 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and has visited Cuba more than 30 times. He’s personally met with Fidel Castro, as well as leading members of the Cuban government and is personally acquainted with key figures within Cuba as well as key industry figures outside Cuba. Baker is not only a Cuba fanatic who is intensely interested in Castro’s family life and lovers, Cuban cigars, Che Guevara, and classic American cars, he happens to know a great deal about other parts of Central America, too. Baker has appeared on ABC, CNN, NBC, and NPR Public Radio.
I had the privilege of corresponding with Baker about his contributions to his Moon Cuba handbook (for which he keeps a very informative blog) as well as his future endeavor in Colombia. As my Cuba Libre posts come to a close, I feel it may be most poignant for Gadling readers to get some perspective from Baker, whose insight on Cuba is not only enlightening, but also educational and inspiring.
BY: How many times have you been to Cuba, and how much time did you spend them collectively?
CB: More than 30. I shall be there for three months total this year over three trips. Most visits I fill my days and evenings researching for my guidebooks and magazine stories. I’m always looking for what’s new.
BY: What is your favorite place in Cuba — and why?
CB: No doubt about it. I have two. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) simply astounds with its wealth of historic buildings, and its heady atmosphere and endless this to see and do. But I am never happier than when simply rocking in a rocking chair, with a rum and cigar, watching the pretty Cubanas go by. Meanwhile, I always long for Trinidad, another UNESCO World Heritage site, for its intact colonial charm and sleepy pace of life.
BY: What is one of your fondest memories in Cuba?
CB: After 15 years of traveling to and reporting on Cuba, I never cease to be amazed by its surrealism tinged with sensuality. I often regale the tale of having gone to pick up my girlfriend Mercedes (a showgirl dancer at the Tropicana nightclub) after work. This night she had shaved her head entirely and was dressed all in white, from turban to white high-heeled shoes and bobby-socks. She wore many colorful collares (necklaces) and bangles. She had just been initiated as a santera, in the Afro-Cuban santeria religions and for a year henceforth would wear only white and follow specific proscriptions. We hailed a 1950s taxi and settled into the back seat. Passing through a narrow dark street in Centro Habana, a policeman jumped out and stopped the taxi. A man lay at the side of the road, bleeding profusely. The policeman was commandeering the taxi to take the man to the hospital. Mercedes wound down the rear window and poked her turbaned head out.
“You can’t do that!” she said in Spanish. “I”m Santa Teresa!”
The black policeman looked aghast, fingered his own collares, and shouted at the taxi driver to go. He waved us on and ran off to look for another vehicle.
“What on earth did you tell him?” I asked her.
“I told him I’m Santa Teresa, the patron saint of the dead. If he’d put that man in the car I might have killed him!”
BY: Why did you pursue Cuba and not some other place in the world? What did Cuba have that piqued your interest more than any other country?
CB: Cuba pursued me! When asked to author a guidebook in 1991, I instantly knew that this would be a unique adventure. Cuba seeped into my soul. More so back then, but still today. Its unique combination of socialism and sensuality, its unique history, combined with its Hollywood time-warp settings, twine to produce a haunting realm of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma.
BY: You wrote a book about motorcycling through Cuba. What was that like?
CB: Well, it was one of my greatest adventures. The bike opened me up to the people, made me more accessible as well as more of a curiosity. It permitted me to go places I could never go in a car — the bike was a BMW GS adventure tourer. There was never room for males, but somehow I did managed to squeeze a few slender females behind, although not all at the same time (alas).
BY: What is your take on the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo? How could a lift of the embargo affect Cuban life?
Possibility hangs in the air like intoxicating aromas of añejo rum. After more than a decade of traveling to and reporting on Cuba, I’m suddenly feeling quite giddy.
What this means for Cuba is another matter. An invasion of U.S. tourists should prove a godsend for the impoverished Cubans. Then again, as American influence spreads more, the isle may be spoiled. It doesn’t take great imagination to envision how Cuba could again become, in Somerset Maughan’s piquant phrase, “a sunny place for shady people.” The country’s demimonde bubbling beneath the surface is just waiting for someone to marshal it.
That’s my biggest fear. That the yanks will ruin Cuba. But it’s a risk I’m prepared to accept in order to advance the long-overdue right of all U.S. citizens to smoke the finest cigars in the world, and hire a 1950s Caddy to explore this wonderful realm.
BY: What is next for you? Will you return to Cuba, or do you have your heart set on another destination?
CB: See my website for my travel schedule. Colombia is calling… but this year my time will be filled with Cuba!