The driver of the almendrón (old American car) I boarded in the Parque de la Fraternidad wanted to talk. He began by referring to the irresponsible and suicidal behaviour of passers-by who cross the street without looking, brazenly challenging the traffic laws and the safety of their lives, but then he later passed on to other subjects during the trip.
The automobile, a creature with the bodywork of a Dodge from the 1950s and a Japanese motor, was advancing through the Calzada de Monte honking its horn to warn passers-by who, while they were crossing the street, were chatting as if they were on the Paseo del Prado, or speaking on their cell phones in the middle of this always busy avenue of the capital.
According to the taxi driver, those bad habits went so far that in some places of Old Havana tables were placed on the streets to play dominoes, and he commented that driving in this city was very difficult, in addition, because of the deplorable state of the roads.
Nothing truer than this: the road system of the Cuban capital, in addition to being totally behind the times, whose urban structure is one and even two centuries old, presents marked deterioration, except for some streets. And let’s not mention the streets in the city districts, which are impassable; and meanwhile the bad habits in the public spaces form part of a network of social indiscipline that affects society as a whole.
When the vehicle entered the Calzada de Luyanó our driver left behind the road subject and went on to being, together with his car, the protagonist. The car, he said, was something so precious for him that “it pleased him” more than a woman because everyone lived off it. And he argued: “With this car I maintain my mother, my wife and my three children, who live in two separate houses where the only one who works is me.”
To back the aforementioned, he reproduced a picture of home customs. “If I get home right now I find them all in the living room watching TV series and soap operas, waiting for me to take food home. But well, it’s my family, what am I supposed to do, I have to continue in the struggle with my car.”
The man, who was around 40 years old, in just 10 minutes gave us access to the particular world of a sector of society that, while it doesn’t represent it, has to be taken into account because it is part of it. But, how is this sector?
Almendrones and bicycle taxis repeatedly appear in the Havana landscape in the images of travellers and foreign journalists, who, when capturing them, think they are taking with them an essential piece of the city, when what they are taking is barely a small layer of the visible surface.
The diverse complexity existing in current Cuban society leads to constant mistakes in the vision of visitors, but that doesn’t just happen to them because that diversity is perhaps unattractive, elusive, extremely difficult to capture.
Ever since the 1990s, when the crises got here and the buses became almost extinct, using your car as a taxi became an attractive emerging profession which many engineers, teachers, former military, former athletes and even doctors joined. A great many of them did not return to their professions and have continued working as private taxi drivers.
Since the transport crisis in Havana has been prolonged indefinitely, during the following years the mass of taxis continued increasing, but with other generational and age contributions in a motley social composition; now we see many young people at the wheel of the almendrones, but the driver frequently is not the owner of the car, but rather a lessee who has to pay no less than 500 pesos (20 CUC) a day to the owner, which is why the lessee has to make an effort to also benefit.
There are persons who get paid by several lessees since they own several automobiles under that condition. The lessor is in a superior economic condition than the lessee, who is the former’s subordinate. The driver who exploits his own car would be located between one and the other.
For a long time the private taxi drivers established a standard rate of 10 pesos for the majority of their routes, but when they are places far away from the centre of the city (Alamar, Guanabacoa, El Cotorro, Playa, La Lisa, Santiago de las Vegas, San Francisco) it can cost 15 or 20 pesos. The low or high demand of the fare can be determined depending on the time or the weather for the price.
There is a parallel world in this universe: the pirate taxi drivers, who carry out their runs at night in the established routes, or who work outside the routes, fundamentally in commercial establishments and airports.
And there is still another category: those who only accept requests and never go out as private taxi drivers because, like the pirates, they don’t have a license for this type of work. Their most frequent runs are the airports and the hospitals.
We have only referred to private cars, but floating in an inaccessible and evasive limbo the once state-run taxis circulate through the city charging in national currency. They do not have established routes, no one ever knows where they are going or from where they are coming, or why they do not obey the stop signs. They only stop when they feel like it.
The taxis that charge in hard currency belong to another galaxy and the population only resorts to them in extremely urgent cases. Those who take them must know that their taxi metres are hardly ever activated by the driver and the trip must be arranged before taking off.
The proverbial sense of solidarity of Cubans has been rather affected in terms of the so-called auto-stop, a practice that has been limited to young women because each automobile – private or state-owned – is a virtual taxi and stops because – almost always – they are involved in picking up persons to make money.
There’s nothing closer to the daily life of Cubans than having to travel on an almendrón, but being close to this doesn’t mean knowledge. Between travellers and taxi drivers there is a universe that has its laws, codes, language and structure. And that cannot be captured in an image. (2015)
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