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On the road with an Irish woman in Cuba

On the road with an Irish woman in Cuba

Extract from Living Inside the Revolution – An Irish woman in Cuba
Chapter 4: On the Road

Gently does it, gently, g-e-n-t-l-y. Perfect. That’s just the way I like it. Then with a satisfied smile he reaches for the volume and I’m blasted with salsa. No surprise that he loves Los Van Van, the kings of double entendre in Cuba.

He’s my driver and he’s only talking about closing the car door, of course. But even such a mundane request is an opportunity for any red-blooded cubano to flirt, and to flirt with style. I slide into my seat and he flashes me a sidelong look as he shifts gear, I grin to let him know that his innuendo is appreciated. I’m in a máquina, a collective taxi, along with five other passengers and we’ve just left Central Havana en route to La Lisa, one of the more downbeat neighbourhoods in the city.

It’s stifling and every window in the vehicle is wound down. In fact, the windows are permanently wound down. They’ve probably been wound down since they broke some time back in the 1950s. It’s sad that in the half century or so since this car began its journey, not everybody has treated it gently.

It’s battered and bent but it has spirit and it’s still on the road. We are purring along in a black Chevrolet that hiccups every now and again when we hit a pothole, or burps unceremoniously when the clutch is called into action. But who cares if this old lady shows her age from time to time? This is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of the road and I know I’m blessed to be one of the last few to luxuriate in her charms before she retires.

I’ve been living in Havana for almost a year now and I’m still bewitched by these elegant pre-revolution era cars. Each time I hail one I am glee-filled and have to suppress the desire to jump up and down on the spot that I can, with a mere wave of the hand, halt one of these beauties and avail of her charms. I frequently stop and gawk at them, giving myself away as a foreigner in the process. But I can’t disguise my feelings. It’s their aura; they unfailingly exude sophistication and timelessness. They are forever associated with a bygone era of Hollywood film stars and real-life mafia, a golden era when they were young, happy, and forever beautiful.

Roads populated with these vintage cars fuel my day-dreams and fantasies. On Calzada del Cerro a 1938 Packard pulls to a halt unexpectedly in front of me. I stare. It’s a sinister manoeuvre and I expect to see half a dozen rain-coated gangsters hastily emerge wielding violin cases. Instead, two women wearing fluorescent pink and lime green lycra leggings step out into the hot sunshine. Ciao, Ciao, they smile happily and their friend waves back to them from the rear window. The Packard drifts away and for a few moments it is the only vehicle on the road. I see it doggedly zigzagging past potholes, framed against a background of crumbling façades of 19th century architecture. Then it is gone, and I’m left alone with my fantasy.

This is a route I take when visiting friends in La Lisa. When I’m in a hurry I take a máquina, it’s comfortable but self-indulgent because, at 10 pesos, it often feels like an unnecessary extravagance. The máquina is twenty five times the cost of a bus ride or fifty times the price of a camello ticket.

If the Chevrolet is Zsa Zsa Gabor then the camello, a camel bus, is the Medusa of the road. They are something of a monster designed to transport around 250 people, or more. Camellos, officially called Metro buses, first appeared in Cuba in the early nineties, at the start of the Special Period, when fuel shortages were critical and spare parts almost non-existent. At the time they were a practical and necessary response to the need to move tens of thousands of commuters around the capital as economically as possible. People could only get so far on their Chinese bicycles.

You hear the camello before you catch sight of it. You can often smell it too. Camellos belch thick black diesel fumes from an exhaust pipe in the roof, to the accompaniment of much rumbling and wheezing. “I guess they’re not big on smog control here,” an American tourist said to me one morning, coughing violently, when we were caught behind a camello on our bicycle tour of Havana.
Boarding one of these monsters is an act of bravery, foolishness, or both. But it’s a challenge I can’t resist, particularly when I am tempted to test myself, to see if I can withstand the hardships that Cubans face daily, day in, day out. It’s like dipping my toe into deep and dangerous waters, momentarily deluding myself that I can swim these currents just like everybody else. But I doubt whether I have the stamina. It’s a fantasy, just like the Packard. The camello could break me.

Tonight I’ve just left my good friend Elisa’s home. I don’t feel like indulging in the luxury of a ten peso máquina ride so I pause at the nearby bus stop on Calzada de Cerro. My heart sinks when I see that there are already about forty people hovering around. My nerve weakens when nobody responds to my call for the last person in the “queue.” I feel foolish but I continue walking meekly from cluster to cluster until I finally locate the man in front of me. He’s wearing blue jeans and a red baseball shirt. When the throng moves forward I have to fall into line behind this man, behind these colours. Suddenly, he’s hailed a máquina and vanished into its interior. There’s a void left behind in the queue. This has happened to me before and I should have learned the lesson. It’s not enough to locate the last person, the one before him has to be identified too, as a contingency.

It’s de rigueur and I forgot. Now I’m stranded. I’ll be mortified if the next person to join the queue asks who is in front of me. Replying “dunno” is embarrassing, especially if you have taken pride – as I have – in being as adroit as any habanero on this battlefront. Just then I hear the camello approach. It is climbing the hill and will soon appear around the bend. The throng stiffens to attention and musters closer to the stop. A couple of passers-by step hastily out of the way and into the road, taking a detour rather than get caught up in the impending scrum; it’s not unknown for “innocents” to be sucked into a camello by the sheer force of pushing and shoving. I feel the adrenaline surge, look for a vantage point, and silently vow to take a máquina next time.

Checking that my purse is wedged into the bottom of my bag and that the zip is fully closed, I step forward. The camel shudders to a halt, the doors open and the passengers don’t exactly alight: they are spewed forth into the night. Meanwhile the tight scrum has divided, like a swarm of angry bees, into two, each mustering around a different entrance and launching the offensive even before the last passenger, a woman, has emerged. She sees the deluge and looks frightened, fearful that she may not make it down the steps onto the street, but she does, although almost without her skirt. She grabs the folds, which had been momentarily swept back into the camello with the rush, and tugs hard, hastily rearranging the flowing garment around her before stomping off.

Living Inside the Revolution – An Irish woman in Cuba

The author spent six years (1999-2005) living and working in Havana, first as translator for the English edition of the Communist Party newspaper Granma International and then later as a freelance journalist and tour guide. She recounts her experiences over those years with humour and with despair. This book opens a window on to a society immersed in the complex dynamics of revolution, socialism and poverty. Living Inside the Revolution is a portrait of day-to-day life in Cuba in the final years of Fidel Castro’s rule as president and will be of particular interest to anyone who wishes to develop a deeper acquaintance with Cuba, one that goes beyond the façades of Old Havana and the beaches of the Caribbean.

About Karen McCartney

I am Irish through and through but I have lived in Spain, Cuba, England and Italy for a short time. I worked as a freelance foreign correspondent for Basque media from 1990 to 1999, covering developments in the Irish peace process. I have also worked as a travel writer in Havana and I have written a book about my experiences over the six years I spent in Cuba. I have won prizes from two national newspapers for my writing. If you would like to read about my recent experiences in Spain/Catalonia, please check out my blog: Fortunes of a not-so-famous travel writer at This year I am back home in Belfast, writing about my experiences here May 2012

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