2001-Present > The Gift of Cuba
Havana | Pets | Transportation | Spanish Classes | Tourists and the People They Attract | Money | Economics, Wealth and Poverty | Food, Water and the Hotel | The Arts | Fidel, Che and Jose Marti | Health and Education | Looking Back
A model of Havana shows a large metropolitan area for a city of 2.2 million people planned to grow and able to absorb new inhabitants. The rub is in the transportation system. Again, economics matters. For those who cannot walk or bicycle to their jobs or errands, the cheapest form of mass transit is on one of the huge buses, called camellos or camels, that resemble a semi-truck and trailer and are always packed. Two or three other types of buses are available that cost more and are less crowded. My language teacher lived twenty minutes from school by car, and she said it could take her up to three hours to get there on the buses. She is fortunate to be renting in half of one of the large old houses vacated when the wealthy Cubans left in the 1950’s. She has plenty of space, and feels a measure of long-term security because the owners who fled to Miami have died. Her neighbors fully expect the previous owners of their house to return to claim their houses when Castro is gone. One of the tensions between the US and Cuba is the status of this type of private property that was appropriated by the Cuban government.
Also available in Havana for transportation are the coco taxis, which look like big yellow coconuts on three wheels. And there are biciclos, a bicycle-pulled rickshaw, and horse drawn carriages for the tourists. And, of course, regular taxis, some legitimate and some not. Ferrys move pedestians and bicyclists across the inlets.
Our tour group was shuttled to and fro in the city in our nice tour bus, and a pang of guilt flashed through me when I saw the jam-packed camels or the huge lines at the bus stops. I assuaged that guilt knowing that my money might help out, though the direct consequences were rather vague except for tips I gave.
When we left town for a weekend trip we saw a policeman at the entrance to the main highway. He was there to help the people gathered at that intersection get a ride since it is the law that vehicles on highways be filled to capacity. We were told that tourist buses are exempt. I had mixed feelings about that. Though I rarely felt threatened when I walked the streets, we were told that robberies were increasing although nothing like what we would expect in the US. But having that rule set us apart again, special rules for tourists, making it difficult to even talk with the people of the country not pre-selected to come in contact with us.
The day after we arrived in Havana, we took a tour of the city on thick-tired bikes with usable gears, though the rubber tips on the gearshifts were missing. The fat tires were helpful on the cobblestones and glass we encountered. Traffic was light and it was a pleasure to be pedaling after two days of travel. All major roads have bike lanes that are shared with other very slow traffic. I was thrilled to be outside of our minibus and able to look around. Then, one of the very old Buicks drove by and belched soot into my face. When the Russians pulled out of Cuba in the early 1990’s, parts for cars became difficult to obtain, so the Cubans resurrected all the 1950’s cars imported until the revolution that were more easily repaired with make-do parts, often cannibalized from cars that were beyond repair. Havana is lucky to have frequent trade winds to scour the city air, because so many of the vehicles are followed by thick black clouds. On days when the air is still, breathing becomes difficult and asthma cases increase.