Old Havana Town: A Tale of Two Cabbies

Old Havana Town: A Tale of Two Cabbies

Taking two journeys through Havana in almendrones — the pre-1959 imported American gas-guzzlers that survived the Revolution — I found two very different pictures of Cuba painted by my drivers…

 

The problem is that we live in a crazy system, dreamt up by a crazy dead man and run by the crazy dead man’s just-as crazy brother.” Our driver, Homero, can’t spit as, although we are in an almendrón — the name given to the big pre-Revolution American gas-guzzlers synonymous with Havana and so named because of their almond-like curves — this one is not a convertible. It is, however, majestic — an aquamarine 1952 Buick with cream roof and trim.
 
A classic Havana Almendrón
Were it not for that, though, spit he surely would, to judge by the downward turn of his mouth that forms a grimace consistent with having just tasted something really bad.
 
It’s a beautiful sunny day in Havana, with temperatures hitting 30°C, and I have agreed a price of 15 CUCs (pronounced "cooks", the "convertible peso" that tourists are obliged to use, and about £15) for the trip from my hotel in the relatively upmarket suburb of Miramar along the sweeping seafront esplanade, the famous Malecón, all the way to Plaza de San Francisco. This attractive square with a church serves as a handy side entrance to the Old Town on the eastern side of Havana. So it can’t be the weather that is upsetting his mood. Nor the price — 15 quid for a 15-minute drive seems pretty good in this neck of the woods.
 
So what’s eating Gilbert Grape?
 
A lot, it turns out.
 
For one thing, Homero resents driving a cab — even if it is a devilishly handsome almendrón.
 
“I spent six years learning to be a chemical engineer, and I met my wife in university. She also spent six years studying the same subject as me, and now she works in a shop. What is the point?”
 
I sympathise but say surely it is the same anywhere in the world? In the UK, for instance, we have a wealth of graduates leaving university to take up “McJobs” — working as "baristas" (not barristers, I am obliged to clarify) in posh coffee shops that pay no tax in the UK, or taking unpaid ‘internships’ (or ‘slavery’ as we used to call it). It’s not exclusive to socialist countries, I venture.
 
Gilbert — sorry, I mean, Homero— looks distinctly unimpressed.
“Yes, but in the UK you are not forced to drive a taxi if you are educated.”
 
Russian Embassy, Miramar district, Havana
I realise Homero and I are not going to see eye to eye so I settle back to enjoy the ride in his beautiful old almendrón instead. I sneak a look over my shoulder through the rear window at the Havana landmark that is the Russian Embassy — it is a brutalist (technically, constructivist) monument, a concrete neolithic structure that rises up above the low-lying district of Miramar where it is sited. Completed in 1987, it is many storeys high, and dwarfs the neighbourhood. Alarmingly, it is in the middle of a compound with flats for the embassy staff that is surrounded by walls topped with broken glass and barbed wire.
To change the subject, I joke about it to Homero, saying that with its position on the north coast of Cuba, looking across the Gulf of Mexico to Key West in the States, just 90 miles by boat, I like to think of it as a great big concrete middle finger to America. 
 
Homero gives me a sideways look
 
“Really?” he says. “I think of it as a great dagger plunged into the very heart of the Cuban people…”
 
Cheery sort of chap, old Homero…
 
(To be fair to the old curmudgeon, I find out later that locals nickname the loveable monstrosity la espada de Rusia — the Russian sword — so grudgingly concede he might not be in a minority of one, but then again even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and all that…)
 
So what’s so bad about being a taxi driver in a beautiful city with a never-ending supply of tourists and hence fares? Another scowl. “El puta gobernimiento robs me 600 CUCs [about £600] per month, plus I have to pay for petrol and insurance.”
 
Ah! So sort of like… em, being a self-employed taxi driver then? At 15-20 quid a pop, I should have thought, if anything, the government was missing a trick. By now, I think Homero had twigged that I was not jumping on his anti-government float wrapped in a star-spangled banner, clutching a can of Coca-Cola, Dixie rock blaring…
 
Luckily, we were by now on to the huge sweep of the Malecón that comes into play when you see the impressive Hotel Nacional to your right on a small hill, an art-deco extravaganza with twin towers that might have been pinched from the old Wembley Stadium (but weren’t – bbviously… I think). Here the Malecón is as broad as a motorway with six to eight lanes in places, and just a few minutes later — to our evident mutual satisfaction — Mr Grumpy dropped me at Plaza de San Francisco on the far side of town, from where I set about a day pootling around the streets of Old Havana…
 
Classic cars on the Malecón
Classic cars on the Malecón
Later that afternoon, it was time to return to Miramar to collect my suitcase before heading to the airport. I flagged down another almendrón — this time, a baby-blue convertible ’55 with cream seats of cracked leather. A thing of beauty. My driver is wearing a gauchero-style hat and is grinning broadly as we head back down the Malecón, this time with the sea on our right — and the sun creating silvery flecks on the dancing waves of the Caribbean — and his relaxed disposition is catching; to quote Damon Albarn of Blur, “it gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing”.
 
I am struck by the difference in his disposition to that of Homero, and so I ask him why he’s so happy.
 
He looks at me in mock amazement, and says in more-than-passable English: “Why I am so happy? You must be joking me, my friend. Why I should not be happy? I have a great job, I am my own boss and I work my own hours!
 
“Look”, he says, gesturing towards the sea; “I drive in the most beautiful city in the world! If I don’t want to work, if I want to hang out with my family or have a barbecue on the beach, who is gonna tell me no? That is freedom!”
 
I tell him about Homero earlier, and his litany of grudges and complaints. Miguel gives a throaty chuckle: “My friend, this is nothing to do with the system. Some people are unhappy whatever the world gives them! Me, I see the bright side, if that is how you say it. This car belonged to my uncle and I treasure it because it gives me a good life.”
 
I tell him that one of Homero’s gripes is the 600 CUCs he has to give the government each month for his licence. “Yes, but really what is that? That is like 20 CUCs a day — I will make that money just driving you to Miramar now!” (Crafty old bugger; I was pretty sure we’d agreed 15, but choose not to press the point.)
 
“So one 15-minute job and I am paid up for the day — after that, it is all profit or I can take the day off. It is my choice. Now that’s pretty good, isn’t it?” he says with a laugh as we pull up at my hotel.
 
Yes, Miguel — that is pretty good. He gives me a toot and a wave and accelerates away; at the entrance to the road, he stops, sees me looking after him in his rear-view mirror and gives a final toot and a wave before speeding back towards town, leaving me rather envious of his lifestyle.
 
So two similar lots in the lottery of life but two very different attitudes to them. It seems Hamlet was right — there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so…
 © Eugene Costello 2018