Friday, March 27, 2009

Cuban Roads and Vehicles

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Consistent with most of the island's infrastructure, Cuba's transportation system lurches between inadequate and non-existent. There have been few upgrades to roads or modes of transport in the years since the 1959 revolution, and almost none since 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed and all aid to Cuba was suddenly and unceremoniously cut off.

Most of the island's roads are in poor to dreadful states of repair. Many are impassible in the wet season. Even the major highway into Havana is discontinuous and pot-holed. The sidewalks are in the same deplorable and dangerous condition – manholes with no covers, inexplicable gaps in the pavement, loose cobble stones, and litter and excrement of all kinds, including human, everywhere. The expression “watch your step” takes on a whole new meaning here.

Most Cubans either walk or ride bicycles. A few – especially in Havana – have motorbikes. In the cities, if they have longer distances to go, some Cubans may use bicycle or motorcycle rickshaws. Or catch a ride in a 'collectivo' – a wagon pulled by a horse or an old tractor – that follows a standard route, like a bus.

On one occasion we hired a horse and cart instead of a taxi – we thought it might be fun. But it was hard to enjoy the ride. The poor skinny sweating horse had to work hard: the wooden cart was heavy, and its wooden cart wheels made the going tougher. He was sweating profusely and foaming at the mouth by the time we reached our destination. He is given no food or water all day.

The drivers of these carts show no mercy or kindness to their horses. They keep nagging at them with their whips, jerking the reins about, and yelling at them to get up or move over. Although most of the ‘bridles’ mercifully have no bits, the nose bands are almost always just a length of uncovered chain. This bites into the soft tissue of the horse’s nose, causing lacerations that have no time to heal.

A few Cubans do have old cars – and Cuba is famous for its old cars. Most of them were purchased in the 1950's, before the revolution, and have been kept going with a little chewing gum and a lot of Cuban ingenuity.

It's not unusual to see an old Chev or Ford with a Russian diesel engine, with a Czechoslovakian fuel pump, Russian transmission system, Polish brake master cylinders, Toyota steering wheel – whatever they can find and cobble together. The only 'original' thing is the body.

It's also not unusual to see one sitting by the side of the road with it's hood open, a couple of guys fiddling with the engine. Or one in the middle of the road, with three or four guys pushing it in the hopes it may start.

There are a number of Russian Ladas, ugly boxy autos that are at least reliable – most of the time. They are almost uniformly white or black and battered. They're most frequently used as taxis, although in Havana there were a few newer Toyota taxis. Very few Cubans ride in these taxis – they're for the tourists.

By far the most colourful 'taxis' in Cuba were the 'coco-taxis' – little yellow coconut-shaped two-seater bubbles made of fibre-glass and powered by a motorcycle engine. They weren't comfortable or fast, and they certainly weren't safe, but they were fun. And we did see Cubans riding in them once in a while, presumably for a cheaper fare than we were able to negotiate.

When Cubans have to travel a little further than their feet, bicycle or a collectivo can take them – to another town or city – they may try hitching. As we travelled on the main roads between towns we would frequently see large groups or long lines of Cubans with their thumbs out. Some looked like they'd been there a while... .

Sometimes traffic patrol people help the hitchers out by stopping a truck or a car and inviting the driver to give them a lift. Tourist buses, even when half-empty, are not required to stop. And we were never on one, or saw one, that did.

If they can afford it, Cubans will travel between towns by 'Cuban bus.' This is sometimes a real bus, but more often it's a battered old bus body pulled by an even older tractor. Although tourists are not supposed to travel in these buses, we got a friend to buy us tickets on one so we could experience the ride.

The first part of our experience was very Cuban – waiting for two hours for the bus to leave. The bus was there at the station (a derelict parking lot), but either there was no driver, or we were waiting for more passengers. The Cubans all waited patiently – they are accustomed to long waits.

Finally it was time to get on board. The outside of the bus was a battered wreck. Its engine was non-functional, so it was being pulled by an old truck tractor. The inside of the bus was even more dismal. A few broken plastic seats on either side and at the front of the trailer were attached to the floor in the most rudimentary fashion.

There was a metal pipe railing running down the center of the bus for those who were standing to hang onto, or lean against. It was poorly welded to the floor. The floor itself was a patchwork of welded pieces, with gaps through which you could see daylight, and the road below.

The windows were filthy, like the rest of the bus, and were either permanently open or permanently closed. There didn’t appear to be any door on the bus, just an opening where passengers could get on and off.

But the ‘fare,’ for both of us, was 3 Cuban pesos, or about 15 cents (compared to the $30 it had cost us to get here by private taxi). It was worth it just to experience real Cuban transportation – dirty, smelly and uncomfortable.

Many times we saw livestock transport trucks with slatted wooden sides carrying human cargo. Everyone stands on these 'buses' – packed tightly enough together that they hold one another up through the swaying, bouncing ride over rough roads. There are no windows, just small spaces between the wooden slat sides. Almost always these ‘buses’ are packed to the gills, with peoples’ arms hanging out, and many sets of eyes peering out between the slats. Like so many horses, cattle, sheep or pigs being shipped off to the slaughter-house. So dehumanizing, so demeaning. And so very Cuban.

A few (young romantic revolutionary) tourists told us how much fun they had travelling in the open trucks and wagons. This was 'the real Cuba!' Locals, for whom there is no other option, told a different tale – of waiting in long lines for rides in crowded trucks. Of sweltering heat and sweaty bodies. Of choking dust in noses, mouths and eyes. Of hours holding babies and children so they wouldn't be crushed in the press of humanity. Of break-downs in the middle of nowhere, with no help.

Our friend Sylvia told us about her trips to see an obstetrician in a city about 50 kilometres from her village. She had a minor risk in her pregnancy that required her to have monthly check-ups by the obstetrician. For these visits she would get up at 4:30 in the morning, and be at the 'bus station' – the intersection of two streets in her town – by 5:00 am to wait for the 'bus.' No matter how early she arrived, there were always others before her, already waiting.

Sometimes Sylvia was lucky and managed to get on a bus with a few seats. Mostly she was not, and spent the ride standing. She showed us how she held on to the side of the truck, or the person beside her, with one hand, and cradled her belly, trying to protect it from the jarring bumping of the bus, with the other. The ride often took more than two hours. Her visits took ten minutes.

The Castros and their cronies – high-ranking politicians and military types – of course have cars like Mercedes or Toyota Pathfinders to take them whenever and wherever they want to go. Their cars are always black and highly polished, always new, and always guarded by a uniformed driver. When it comes to cars, it seems all communists are not considered equals.

But perhaps worse than the inadequacies and inefficiencies of motorized transport in Cuba is the pollution associated with it. First there's the noise: there are few mufflers, or functional mufflers, in Cuba. With vehicle parts so difficult to get, the focus is on the essential parts, the ones the vehicle needs to run. Transport trucks in particular can be deafening. You can hear and even feel them approaching – a reverberation deep in your chest – long before you see them.

Second, and more serious, is the air pollution created by all of the engines used to propel the various modes of transport. Because petrol and diesel are, relatively speaking, so expensive, Cubans cut their motor fuel with kerosene. Kerosene burns dirty – great plumes of thick black smoke belch from cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles – a noxious cloud that hangs in the air long after the vehicle's gone.

So despite the paucity of motorized vehicles on Cuba's roads, the noise and air pollution created by the few there are make living and walking in Cuban cities much less pleasant – and less healthy – than living and walking in many of the busiest cities in the world.

If you go to Cuba, one of the best things you can take with you is a bicycle. First, you can ride it around, but later, and more importantly, you can leave it with a Cuban. On one of our trips we took a couple of $35 thrift store bikes. When we gave them to our friend Yasser, he was ecstatic. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would own a bicycle like this!” He still talks about it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! A truck or lorry is a motor vehicle designed to transport. Trucks vary greatly in size, power, and configuration, with the smallest being mechanically similar to an automobile.

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