Along for the ride in Cuba's collective taxis.
Yuca and his “business partner,” Carlitos, were younger than the usual maquina drivers. Their 1950s Chevy was nicer, too, than the average maquina: shiny lavender exterior, smooth cream-colored, faux-leather seat in the front, a stereo that flashed red and blue lights. Something like what James Dean might drive if he were a young Cuban today. They hadn’t reupholstered the back seat yet, and it was still a dirty, greenish hue, the vinyl roping along the edges broken and scratchy. It snagged on girls’ skirts and grocery bags. They had their music turned up high when I hopped in; they listened to a mixed CD of reggaeton interspersed with Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Skinny Carlitos collected the money from passengers while chubby Yuca took care of driving. Carlos spied someone trying to wave them down and Yuca eased the car to soft stops without interrupting his soft, tone-deaf whistling. They seemed like a taxi-driving dream team, ready for anything.
I like taking maquinas, Cuban collective taxis. They’re cheap — fare is 10 pesos (about 40 cents) pretty much anywhere within the city — and predictable, since drivers lumber down a number of pre-established routes from one end of the city to the other. Maquinas exist somewhere between hitchhiking (still common in Cuba, where crime rates are absurdly low) and the city bus. They sail down the streets with home-painted “TAXI” signs in the front windshield, in colors that look six paint jobs removed from their original tones. The huge Chevies and Fords and even Studebakers, a patchwork of different parts that attest to Cuban ingenuity and ability to turn anything into something valuable, continue to run against all logic. And what happens inside of them, too, often reveals the clever solutions to daily problems in Havana.
I relish riding in maquinas because of the things that I hear in them: which of the city’s grocery stores stocks chicken at any given moment, where the rap concert is on any given evening, the phone number of one of the women who brings clothes from Panama to sell in Havana. Whatever I learn is enriched by the thought that it is all based on chance: hopping into the right taxi or striking up a conversation with the right person.
The car was nearly empty when I got in that afternoon just outside my room in Centro Habana on my way to a friend’s house, so I slid into the front seat. The three of us wound up talking for half the ride, and I decided to spend the afternoon circling the city with Carlos and Yuca. I was a writer, I told them, hoping that explained my interest. Yuca thought I was hitting on him; Carlos shrugged.
“It’ll cost you more than 10 pesos,” he warned me.
“That’s OK. I’ll pay for however many loops we do until I get out,” I said.
“Cool,” said Yuca, trying to discreetly check me out across Carlos’ lap.
Yuca was 23 and Caros 21. They were neighbors; they’d grown up together in La Lisa, a neighborhood that was once an upper-middle-class suburb of Havana. The car was not actually theirs; they rented it from another neighbor and gave him a portion of their daily earnings, which sometimes totaled $50 a day. They’d worked out a deal with the car’s owner: They took care of the Chevy, kept it running and in good shape, and they only had to fork over a small percentage of their earnings.
“The motor is Russian. The transmission is from a Toyota, the wiring is from a Nissan, so, basically, it’s not really a Chevrolet anymore,” Carlos told me. “Just the shell.”
The stereo was a recent investment, Yuca said, grinning. Totally worth it.
“So, you wanna go dancing sometime?” he asked me as we pulled out of the area of Havana that I knew. Their loop ran from Centro Habana out to La Lisa in the west of the city and back along one of two main east-west avenues. Wherever it looked like people were heading.
I told him that I didn’t much care for dancing. We dropped off the last passenger in La Lisa and circled a block to head back toward downtown. Soon, the maquina was full again, and Carlos asked me to squeeze in so we could fit one last passenger in the front seat. It was tight, with my knees pressing up against the dashboard, and would have been awkward were this not a daily thing — being packed like a sardine in a car with a bunch of Cubans was not a novel scenario for me. After a few minutes, this new passenger asked me where I was from. The U.S., I told him.
He nodded. He had family there. Two of his four siblings lived in Miami. His parents were packing up; they’d go in three days and he didn’t know when he’d see them again. He, too, would get a visa at the end of 2010. He had a year to decide whether he would stay or go, and it was weighing on him.
“What would you do if you were me?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, really. It’s such a hard decision. I don’t envy you,” I swerved around the request.
“But if you had to do something… you’ve lived there and here both, what would you do?” he looked at me earnestly, pressing me to say something that would stick out in his mind as an unambiguous piece of advice, something that would belie the nuances of the actual situation.
I asked him what factors were at stake. He told me he had been married for more than 25 years and was still in love with his wife, and she thought that they should go. He wasn’t sure; his son was keeping him back. He didn’t want to leave Cuba. If his 26-year-old son told him that he preferred Havana, he said, and he himself wasn’t crazy about packing up and making a new life in the middle of a shitty economy, what alternative did he have? He couldn’t very well leave one of his children behind. He didn’t want to force his son to leave his home; they’d stay.
I nodded at his comments and asked a few questions. This was not a new story, but it saddened me every time; how to make that definitive choice between home, with all of its known challenges, and a future in a new, expansive, exhausting place? We talked through a dozen pick-ups and drop-offs for the 20 minutes from La Lisa nearly into downtown. When the man looked around, he saw that his stop was on the next block and told Yuca to let him off. As we pulled up to the corner, I told him that I wished him the best, whatever decision he made and wherever it took him. I repeated it to myself again, in a low voice, as if by saying it twice I could give him another vote of confidence for a smoother road.
The backseat was nearly full — three passengers, one of whom held two grocery bags filled with disposable diapers on his lap — when Yuca pulled over for two men in dusty, torn jeans.
“Just one of you,” Carlos shouted over me, out the window.
One of the guys hopped in, waving goodbye to his friend, and the acrid smell of sweat followed him into the maquina. They looked like contractors and had probably spent the afternoon working on someone’s house for an under-the-table paycheck. The man looked to his left and noticed the packs of diapers resting on the woman’s lap.
“Where’d you get those?” he asked. “My daughter has a new baby and we haven’t been able to find any disposables recently, anywhere.”
“I know,” she said. “They’ve still got them at the grocery store out on 70th and at the shopping center that’s just back there. The ones on 70th are cheaper because they sell them in packs of 20, not 12. But hurry, because I haven’t seen them anywhere else, so they’ll fly.”
The contractor nodded and pulled out a phone. Disposable diapers, since they mix convenience with conspicuous consumption, are coveted baby goods in Havana, but they’re liable to disappear from shelves without notice. Mommies who can afford them tend to stock up. He started typing a text message, presumably to his daughter, and was still typing as he shouted at Yuca to drop him at the corner.
I’d been searching for someone to unblock my cell phone for weeks; it was just a matter of finding and entering a code that would make it work with Cuba’s provider rather than just the service provider I’d bought it from. It was a small Sony Ericsson model that would soon be lifted from my purse by a pickpocket, and one guy had already tried and failed to unblock it. I didn't want to buy one: Sometimes they had small, cheap Chinese phones in the Cubacel store, and sometimes they had overpriced Nokias, but not much in between. I’d be in Havana for eight months and I wasn’t prepared to spend them without a mobile phone, a fact that made me slightly sad. I didn’t like the thought that I was dependent on a cell phone.
When the contractor got out, a young man ran up to the side of the car. He asked if we were heading to La Lisa, and Carlos nodded and reached over me to swing the front door open. He slid into the broad seat next to me and he, too, began typing on a flip phone with a Cingular logo on top. He pecked out a text message, elbows sticking out of the window alongside him. When he slid the phone back into the leather holster clipped to his belt, I tapped his shoulder to get his attention.
“Where can I unblock a phone, do you think? Do you know someone who’s really good?” I asked him.
He told me he definitely did. He was a telephone technician, he said, and there were a few really good unblockers in town. His friend Yatisleidy’s boyfriend could do almost any phone, even the new iPhones that everyone said were impossible to crack. He wrote down the number on a scrap of paper.
“Tell them that Hanoi sent you,” he said, and he wrote “Hanoi” in shaky block letters.
An old woman climbed into the maquina, which was blaring a poppy cover of an old Cuban classic. The thumping bass rattled through the car’s looser parts. Yuca and Carlitos kept the car pretty, but underneath its shiny exterior was a mess of parts that threatened to come undone with every pothole. We were heading through Centro Habana again: down Neptuno, past the gym where I lifted weights made of car gears, past the street with the crumbling Art Nouveau buildings, past the shopping center where the bag-check line stretches around the block. The sun was sinking in the sky and catching on all of the dust in the street, transforming it into murky, atmospheric light.
The old woman settled into the front seat, her carefully rollered gray hair bobbing up and down as she bounced at each pothole. She wore a loose blouse over a pair of leggings that had long since lost their elasticity. Wrinkled dark skin sagged off her jawbone. She was skinny but not hunched. She tried to sit tall even in the low front seat.
When the song came to the chorus, she began to sing. She warbled in the operatic voice of someone who was once trained how to sing, maybe someone who sang professionally before her skin became creased and her hips wouldn’t sway in time with the songs anymore. Yuca and Carlos exchanged a glance and Carlos turned the stereo down slightly. Her high-pitched voice skimmed over the music, and the rest of the taxi, packed full of people sitting five-deep in the backseat, rode along in silence.
Just after the sun had set, I got out of the car, thanking Yuca and Carlitos for their time. I tried to hand them 40 pesos for the two complete loops I’d done with them, but Yuca motioned for Carlos not to accept them.
“I’ll let you know if I ever end up writing anything about today,” I told them.
“Sure. You’ve got my number,” said Yuca. “And call me if you want to come out to La Lisa to go dancing. I can come pick you up.”
When I called Yatisleidy’s boyfriend a few days later, he gave me an address in the thick of Habana Vieja. I sat in a doily-festooned living room while he disappeared into the bowels of the house. I waited, listening to a mother shout at her children, to the sound of a faucet running and dishes knocking into each other in a nearby kitchen, to someone blaring hip-hop over the din. Ten minutes later, Yatisleidy’s boyfriend emerged, triumphant, with my phone in his hands. We slipped his sim card in to check that it worked, and indeed, it did. I asked how much I owed him, feeling slightly foolish for not asking before he started unblocking the phone, and he said it’d be $20. “But Hanoi told me it would be 15,” I countered. He shrugged. “Yeah, ok. Fifteen.”
On that same day, a small part in the engine of Yuca and Carlos’ borrowed Chevy broke. They have been waiting for the last six months for a replacement to come from somewhere else, though Yuca still says that if I ever want to go dancing, he can get his hands on a vehicle in which to pick me up. • 1 December 2009
Julia Cooke's stories have appeared in Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com, Monocle, Metropolis, L.A. Weekly, and other publications. She is currently based in Havana.
Photograph by Julia Cooke