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Havana would not be Havana without its American vintage cars that incessantly roam the streets of the city, most of them as taxis. These cars do not only move in space but also in time, stranded in the course of time with no fixed stop between one era and another. Cubans move from one end of the city to the other in these “time machines.” Getting into one of these “máquinas” or “almendrones,” as they are popularly known, is pure time travel into the past.
I believe I should pause here and explain a bit how these taxis work. They travel a set route along the main thoroughfares and charge 10 pesos per person, and having said that, you know that you will not be the only passenger and will share these mostly US-made vehicles with four or five other passengers.
I go out onto the bustling 23rd Ave in the Vedado district in Havana hoping to grab a taxi that will take me down to Old Havana. Fords, Buicks, Chevrolets, Chryslers, Dodges, Cadillacs—in every imaginable color, including lilac or purple—pass by filled with passengers who have been luckier than me.
Another trick one must know taxi-wise is the signs the drivers make. If the taxi driver that is traveling down 23rd Ave takes his arm out of the car and points his hand upwards, this means that he will keep straight ahead down to the Malecón. However, if he points to the right or to the left, then you know that he will take a left or a right on the next main avenue.
I keep on waving down every passing car until one driver—who obviously still has space in his car for one more passenger—takes the famous arm out of the car and points to the sky. This is the ride that I need because all cars that go down to the Malecón turn right and head towards Old Havana.
After several desperate (and vain) attempts to open the door of the car, a kind man opens from within. I get into the car and, of course, being the last passenger, am crammed between two others who have monopolized the two windows. I should be grateful, though, for it could be worse: instead of three passengers, there could be four.
I make myself as “comfortable” as possible hoping for an uneventful trip. By this I mean that the car will make no stops or very few stops on the way. But, alas, I’m not that fortunate. Just a few blocks away, the passenger on my left needs to get off, which means that we have to get off the car to let him get out and get into the car again. Well, now I at least have the window to the left for myself. Am I lucky, or what?
On the way, I expect there will be lively conversations just about anything and everything. It’s hard to imagine six Cubans, including the driver, occupying the same space in silence. The topics may range from the latest soaps on TV, the Olympics, the insufferable heat wave, politics, scarcities, music, politics, and a very long etcetera.
A friend of the owner of the car, who sometimes serves as “assistant,” tells the story of the origin of the car. The 1952 Cadillac that now serves as a taxi was at one time owned by a politician’s wife who prided herself in being part of the jet set of the time. “This car,” says the friend, “has the spirit of a woman.” My mind wanders and I recall something that I read about Flor del Castillo, the rebellious and liberal member of the famous and extremely wealthy Loynaz family (her father was a veteran of the Wars of Independence and author of the battle hymn Himno Invasor; her sister Dulce Maria, the greatest Cuban writer of the 20th century). Flor was the first woman to drive a car in Cuba in a world dominated by men.
The car screeches to a halt bringing me back to earth with a jolt. I suddenly realize that I have reached my destination. I reach out for the handle of the door, but before I can do anything, the taxi driver gives me one last warning: Don’t slam the door!