Cuba's digital destination
by Margaret Atkins. Photos by Ana Lorena, Alex Mene, Yadira del Monte
Transportation in Havana can be a real torture for common mortals. In the mornings, the city’s main thoroughfares show sidewalks filled with people. Some are impatiently waiting for the bus while others, perhaps more impatiently still and positioned two or there meters from each other, lift their arms now and then trying to wave down one of the many American classic cars that function as taxis, “almendrones,” in Havana.
Traveling in one of these taxis requires some basic knowledge. Fore instance, almendrones go down a fixed route for a fixed price, usually 10 Cuban pesos (approximately 50 cents), which is the same whether you ride from one end to the other of their itinerary or just a few blocks. Some longer routes cost 20 pesos (still less than one dollar), like going from Vedado all the way down to the airport.
Another important detail is that prospective passengers and drivers have established a system of non-verbal communication that, for those who are newcomers to a certain route or just new in town, may pretty well end up on the other side of the city. So, on my many journeys along Diez de Octubre Avenue, I have learned that when you hail a taxi, you have to watch carefully for the sign the driver will make: If his hand shoots up in the air and motions (with a hard-to-see finger) to the left, that means he’s heading for El Vedado; if he motions to the right, that means he’s headed for Havana. And that brings us yet to another detail that only habaneros know. While Havana, or La Habana, is the name of the entire city with its 14 districts, “la Habana” for the locals means Central Havana and Old Havana.
Most taxis are old American cars, although recently, some Soviet-era Ladas and Moskvitchs have joined the club. Some almendrones have been transformed in order to carry more passengers (owners have done away with the trunk and added seats, for instance). Needless to say, this contraption is not all too comfortable. And riding in the front seat, usually too narrow for three passengers, is misery, especially if you have to sit in the middle beside the gear-shifting driver. Also, be ready to have your clothes smelling of gasoline, petrol or whatnot when you get off.
Having said that, the almendrón taxi is an economical, safer, faster and less unpleasant way of getting around in Havana than a bus). They have become part of the scenery and I have yet to find a Cuban who doesn’t have a kind word for these relics of the past which are helping to solve the present-day problem of transportation in Havana.