Sunday, May 12, 2013

Life is a highway

The view of the capitol amidst the bustling city streets and early haze of the morning traffic. 
A bicitaxi driver haggles with riders for a price. 
by Arianna Kemis
Havana, Cuba

Sometimes, all it takes is a mile to see a difference.

While we rode the winding streets and highways still within the borders of the city, I saw a vast array of vehicles by which the citizens traveled. There were bicitaxis, all owned by private riders who decked out their bikes to make one more appealing than the competitors’. 

Bicyclists would names their carts, paint them with bright colors and call out to passersby offering them service. One man even put stereo speakers underneath the passenger seat to play catchy music while they rode. 

Tourists enjoy a fifties-style ride through downtown Havana. 
Other tourists took up the offers for privately owned taxi cabs, most of which were old 1950’s cars. There was quite a variety, all colorful and making me feel like I stepped back in time to an era of no seatbelts or headrests. Some cars would shine while others added to the crumbling background of Havana, and motorcycles of many different kinds carried multiple passengers—sometimes entire families—on highways and through alleys alike.

A man secures his motorcycle alongside two others on the streets of Old
Havana. Many motorcycles roam the city streets due to the price of gas. 
Our second day, however, sent us out of the city for the first time. That first trip out of the bustling urban backdrop of the capitol, just the drive itself, was one experience caught my attention the most. As we wound out of Havana into the plateau highways, I was amazed by the difference.

The roads cracked from the heat, and grasses grew from the deep holes or creases in the roadway, dry and brown. Bus stations sat empty or sprinkled with silent groups of Cubans squinting in the sun. A giant baseball stadium sat hot and empty under the beating Caribbean sun, its parking lot of patched and overgrown cement sat empty. 
Spectacular fountains reflected a once prosperous country but sat as extravagant skeletons, rusting and crumbling in the medians and round-a-bouts.

Then, I saw a man leaning forward in his seat, mounted atop a horse-drawn cart, not two miles outside of the city. He was bent into the work of the horse, its lean and shadowy legs trotting briskly, its mouth open under the heat and wear of the old, cracked tackle.

The cart held no fruit.

One family rode on a motorcycle. The father drive with a child on his lap, and his wife, with a child between them, rode with a baby on her hip. They rode much slower than the bus; we passed them as though they were walking. There was no side car, though I had seen several in the city displayed proudly at the doors of homes in their splendor of dusty paint and torn leather.

The same happened with rusty 1950 models that drove at most 40 mph. Out on the commuting highway, a man would be driving his 1957 Chevy, and from the high angle of looking down from the bus window, I would see three faces in the small backseat window, all looking forward. The man had picked up people along the roadside, paid in local goods for stopping to carry them into the city that night.

People stand waiting for rides on the outskirts of the coastal city of Matanzas. 
On our return trips, I witnessed the desperate generosity of those trying to return home. Men and women with children would offer homemade cakes and fruit in handfuls along the side of the road in hopes their goods would buy them a ride back home. One man ever ran across in front of the bus with two tall, worn glass bottles of honey, hoping to stop us for a ride.

We were 24 in a tour bus capable of carrying 60 people. Yet, we could not stop because the bus would have to be registered by the Cuban government with a transit license to transport civilian passengers.

Military personnel and their families stand waiting along the roadside in the evening, waiting for a
ride into Havana for service. There were no smiles or gestures, just an aura of exhausted patience. 
So, we drove on, passing the faces whose hope faded into the distance with their solitary figures, standing in the grass beside the road.

To wrap everything together, as though I was not already brokenhearted at how many people were being left behind on the roads, the single transit bus making its way back on the highway toward Havana could not have been a more telling sight of the deprived public transportation. The bus, about the size of a normal city transit bus, was packed with people as though they were playing Sardines—standing, sitting in others’ laps, leaning next to the driver. But their tired faces held no joy as the bus stopped and opened its front door into one woman already standing inside in an attempt to get one more person aboard.

People wait along a highway outside Havana for rides back home. 
A mile farther, I saw more groups of people as they walked along the transit road. One family walked easily through the grass and debris on the roadway. The mother was playing catch with a beach ball with her daughter as she walked backwards. There were hundreds of people making the trip back into the city suburbs from the outer reaches of Havana, and one thought at the end of the transit road as we drove into the darkness of the tunnel under the Canal de Entrada froze my mind.

By the time that lone transit bus got closer to the city, it would not have enough space to pick up the people who had most likely been walking the longest. 

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