Thursday 2 February 2012

Commuting Havana Style

There’s nothing quite like a trip in a pristine 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air – squeezed in with Cuban locals - for a perfectly surreal start to the day.  This was our daily commute to our Spanish school in Havana – in a collectivo, or group taxi. The taxis, mostly old American cars, ply the main routes of the city. You just flag them down, ask the driver (in broken Spanish) if he’s going your way, and jump in with the locals. It cost the equivalent of US$1:  the cheapest sightseeing trip money can buy, and my favourite part of the day.

Just being in these cars makes you feel cool. They don’t belong on Havana’s decaying roads – these are museum-worthy beauties: 1950s Dodges, Cadillacs, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks and Chevs. But since the 1959 Revolution, Cubans haven’t been allowed to buy, sell or trade vehicles (though this is set to change), meaning there’s been no option but to keep them running. Add a US trade embargo, so no new car parts, and you start to really appreciate the ride. 

The embargo has created a nation of do-it-yourself mechanics who’ve used incredible amounts of care and improvisation to keep these cars on the road.  Most have been converted and fitted with rumbling Soviet diesel engines. Some have small fans fixed beside the driver for air conditioning. Others have reupholstered the car door panels with corrugated plastic.

The most entrepreneurial drivers have taken the boot out of the car, and added an extra seat – sometimes using movie theatre chairs – to increase their capacity. We’d sit hunched in the back, necks bent by the rear windscreen, marvelling at the genius. The best sight was an “official” Cuba taxi stretch limousine:  two Ladas welded together – awesome! 

Amazingly, many are in mint condition: the old dashboard nobs gleaming, the paintwork pristine. Their fastidiously proud drivers would cringe whenever anyone slammed a perfectly polished door. (These are delicate beasts – we almost lost Dan one day when his door flew open as we went round a corner.)

Each collectivo had a personal touch. There’s no advertising in Cuba, except for a zillion billboards proclaiming the joys of Communism, but its taxi drivers have embraced American capitalist bumper stickers – Apple logos abound.  One driver had a Playboy sticker on the bonnet and a cross of Jesus dangling from the windscreen.

In them, I felt like a local. Our fellow passengers, Haberneros who could afford to take collectivos, smiled to everyone as they got in: “Buen dia”. They were all immaculately dressed: the women especially, with neat hair, gold jewellery and manicured nails painted in elaborate patterns or dotted with glitter. Generally we’d sit in comfortable silence unless the driver had a stereo, in which case the soundtrack was anything from Reggaeton (Cuban hip hop) to Rihanna.

There was plenty to marvel at from the window:  a butcher waiting for customers from his hole-in-the-wall shop, a carcass hanging above his head and a pig’s dismembered head sitting beside him.  A group of elderly women practising Tai Chi in slow sweeping movements, ignoring the clouds of pollution from the road beside them. And the queues! Habaneros lined the streets waiting for everything:  for banks to open, for eggs, bread, or the slim chance to make the next local bus - guaguas – where passengers were rammed in so inhumanely I felt guilty for my taxi seat. 

The journey was like changing cities: we’d drive out of crumbling Centro and along the Malecon, Havana’s famous seaside boulevard, and a favourite local hangout spot. We’d pass the Hotel Habana Libre, which was the Hilton until Castro and his revolutionaries commandeered it to rule the country from, then we’d rumble down the wide boulevards of Vedado, with its once palatial colonial mansions. Our Spanish school was in leafy Miramar, a world away from Centro, full of embassies and diplomats’ houses. Here, you’d be forgiven for thinking Havana had no problems.

The only downside to the journey was the pollution. The diesel engines, and lack of modern technology, mean it is out-of-control. It wasn’t unusual for our entire taxi to be swamped with black fumes from a passing bus or car. I always had a dull headache by the time we arrived at school, and after 4 hours of intensive Spanish, it was still there as we hailed a collectivo home…  

(Here’s proof of our eventual Spanish prowess though… )

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