Sunday, January 8, 2017

First, let's talk about the cars

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, the first thing that most people were interested in was the old cars, so here we go. The following is in no particular chronological or logical order, as is fitting for our entire Cuban experience.  Cuban cars come from three basic generations:

1) American cars left over from the Victory of the Revolution at the end of the 50's. These include a lot of late 1940's and early 50's cars along with the more famous mid-50's American cars. 

2) Russian cars from up until the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The most common single car in Cuba is the Lada 1600, which is a Soviet version of the Fiat 124. If you are trying to get economical taxi cabs on the street in Havana, this is the most likely thing you will be riding in. Here is what they looked like when they were new:

3) While Cuba is generally unable to import cars for economic and political reasons, there is still an influx of cars due to rental car agencies, embassies, multinational companies and, apparently, sailors who are able to import cars after serving the fleet for some number of years. I got this information from a taxi driver whose Spanish I could mostly understand. 

Our first taxi was from the airport and it was a generic modern-ish thrashed car, probably from the around 2000. There are several of these in the larger tourist cities, and they generally serve the airports. They have functional A/C and have no historic or aesthetic value. 

Here is our second taxi. This is what Cuba is famous for: late 40's and early-to-mid 50's American cars. You will only find these in Havana and in the other big tourist area, Varadero. By now, the majority have had their engines replaced several times over and are Franken-cars. Toyota brakes, Lada engines, whatever parts can be scrounged. This one had A/C which was taken from a mini-van and you can see the unit behind the driver's head. The suspension on all of these cars died an agonizing death some time in the 90's. They are cool looking, fun to be in, and suited for speeds under 40 mph on smooth roads. Perfect for Havana. 

You can find rows of these classics in various places around Havana. With some bargaining, a drive across town costs about $6. If the cruise ship is in port, the price will be higher. 

Here is the other side of the Cuban taxi experience. A generic steering wheel attached to a late 40's American car with the mechanic riding shotgun. When was the last time you rode in a car with a 2-piece flat glass windshield? Most of these cars have no suspension of any kind, and are little more than a shell surrounding just enough machinery to move forward. Seat belts? What are those? 

Here is Sherry posing with a first-generation Corvair. We saw a few of these rolling around.

 Another classic American 50's car in Havana

 This is what you are more likely to see - an early 50's car without much historic value, pained a flat color. These function as "collecivo" taxis - they run the same basic route and pick up anyone who flags them down. You just pack in with whoever is already in the cab. We never really figured this system out, and ended up just getting a cab for the two of us. These old cars will also just take two people to their destination if the price is right (generally $5).

 More classics hanging out in front of a large tourist hotel.

 Another older 2-window car that we took. Original steering wheel this time.

What is missing from the tour books that we read, and the nostalgic image of Cuban cars is the fact that these are really old cars and they pollute at impressive rates. Between the old busses, the ancient cars, and the complete lack of any kind of emissions controls, the streets of Havana are just filled with smoke, burning oil and clouds of diesel. London in the 90's has nothing on Havana. According to one of our hosts, Cuba imports wrecked European cars, especially diesels, and parts them out in order to keep the old cars going. Quite a few of these cars are running on old Peugeot or Mercedes diesel engines with huge numbers of miles on them. Remember those old diesels in the 80's that spewed black clouds? Now run them for another 25 years and you can start to imagine the situation. Thankfully, Havan is right on the ocean, and the breeze blows the smoke away overnight and, by morning, the air is clear again.

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