At this very moment, March 1, 2018, the 21st century, there are more than 50 thousand cars circulating the Cuban streets, most of them are more than 60 years old.
Primarily American brands like Chevrolet, Cadillac, Ford, Dodge, as well as a few classics from the socialist camp like Lada and Moskvitch, these old cars travel hundreds of kilometers every day the cities and countryside of Cuba, ferrying thousands of Cubans and foreigners on their journey to work, school, the beach, or wherever. Many have driven so many kilometers in their lifetime that could have gone to the moon and back.
These almendrones, as they are known in Cuba due to their resemblance with a rusty, metalic almond, are today, next to tobacco and rum, one of the main attractions for tourism in the island. So much so that the producers of the Fast and Furious saga decided to film the opening of several of their eighth movie in the boulevards and streets of Havana.
Although Cubans aren’t always dancing reggaeton on the street corners, or waiting on the Malecon for Vin Diesel to pass by, so they can hug and congratulate him for winning his race against a local "villain", known as “El Cubano” (seriously?) who wanted to win the almendrón off his cousin, it is true that we have developed a deep affection for the almendrones. They’ve lived with us for the last 60 years, and seen as much as we have. More, even.
The truth is that Cuban almendrones help mitigate one of the most critical situations in Cuba today: Transportation. They’re what many of us rely on to get around the city–to work and school, even. But this mode of transportation operates unlike any other. There are some things that can only happen in an almendrón. Here are some of the most surreal (and least offensive):
The almendrón tells you to go where it’s going
Surely Cuba is the only country the world where taxi drivers tell the passenger where they are going. It’s pointless to try and change their route–the paths of the almendrones have been set for years and only change course if a street is closed, there’s heavy traffic or police are stopping everyone who walks without papers.
Mobile group therapy
Have you seen those movies where people get upset because someone got in his taxi without permission? Well, in Cuba that’s standard. Here you have to fit anyone else who wants a ride in your direction, like a little bus. Be they a bartender, businessman, bricklayer, a Jehovah’s Witness or a follower of Satan. And as you can imagine, the conversations that follow can be quite interesting.
All the strange hugs
If you're a fan of privacy and try to avoid contact with strangers, best skip the ride on the almendrón. To make more room in the back, a stranger may lay their arm over your shoulders like they’ve known you their entire life. An when we say a hug we mean also ask you to take his/her bag or put his/her child on your lap.
No one gives you the window
The window seat is the Holy Grail of almendrones in Cuba. We’re not exaggerating: people would rather give up a kidney than their spot at the window
There’s only one exit
In almendrones, the left rear door is closed so people don’t accidentally step out into traffic or, worse, open their door into the path of an oncoming car. So if you're sitting on the left side of the car, the other passengers in the backseat with you have to get out to let you leave. To a passerby, it may look like the car caught fire everyone’s evacuating–which, has probably happened.
There’s are just a few of the little details that make an almendrón experience unique. Though they might not be the most relaxing modes on transportation in the world, they’re certainly unique!