Of Almendrones and Men
I studied journalism because I was aimlessly wandering, still indecisive between becoming a computer scientist or a graphic designer. Before that I was an accountant. Since obviously there is nothing of congruence in my plans, I continue in journalism.
Osmel Sánchez, covered in grease, thin but sinewy, explains that the almendrones require care, investing in them once in a while. He himself only takes fares to José Martí International Airport when someone is going to travel and prefers paying less than the 25 CUC for the trip, the almost standard rate charged by private taxi drivers for that trip.
If he has to make repairs, Osmel travels to Playa municipality to a workshop in the Mantilla barrio, where he has a connection to bring spare parts from Mexico, and that way he saves having to pay the high prices for other offers on the national black market, the only one that is good for the maintenance of that type of cars.
He has a 1954 Chevrolet, of which what’s only original is the chassis or the bodywork. His name is Regino González and he manages a repair workshop in the municipality of La Lisa, where more than half of the cases he sees to are almendrones.
In the workshops the parts have to be manually adapted to the old bodywork so that they fit. At times they improvise in the workshop making them with parts from different cars. Regino’s Chevrolet, for example, is running thanks to a Toyota engine and a Ford Explorer differential.
“If you have the necessary capital, everything is changed at the same time; on the contrary it is done little by little. I started with springs and afterwards I was able to finance the suspension. There are few cars with the original parts, I believe that 80 percent of those seen in the streets have had to be modified,” he says.
Several Cubans are currently traveling to Panama or Russia and bring back the car parts they can to sell. The drivers have to resort to them or anyone; they are cars that break down rather frequently because of how old they are and especially because of the bad state of the streets. So much welding and innovation cannot withstand much the exploitation and the potholes. Due to the lack of parts you can’t trust their functioning. Every two weeks the owners of almendrones stop and have to revise them.
Plaza de la Revolución is full of almendrones with vacationing tourists. Around here a Cuban 15-year-old girl exhibits herself dressed as a princess on a 1957 Bel Air Convertible Chevrolet. Barely a block away, in the interprovincial bus terminal, vacations take on a different look. Because of a deficit in state-run means Cubans traveling to other provinces at times resort to the taxi drivers and “buquenques.” A taxi driver has a discussion with one of his clients because he or she closed the door too hard. That is really one of the almendrones’ dilemmas. You close with a yank or delicately. You open by pushing the handle upwards or downwards, while pushing or not the door toward the inside or outside. Even with so many years of transportation one never gets to absolutely know the most efficacious method.
During the early morning hours, when public transportation reaches its summit of deficiency, the drivers of almendrones charge whatever they want. You have to watch out to pay a reasonable price, like in many other cities in the world, and if you’re a foreigner even more so. Like it or not, they are the ones who decide on the rate. Or you get in the car or you swallow the mocking cloud of dust from the exhaust pipe. On the streets, the taxi driver is the boss, he is the king; the almendrón is his noble and indomitable steer.
Havana’s Malecón seaside drive, 2018 | Photo: Jorge Luis Borges