Cubans queue up for `camel' ride

SUN JOURNAL

Transportation: The fall of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of Cuba's bus system. Enter the two-humped vehicle that can hold hundreds of passengers -- often uncomfortably.

May 27, 1999|By JUSTIN PRITCHARD | JUSTIN PRITCHARD,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HAVANA -- It is a stifling Sunday morning, and thousands of city dwellers are scrambling to get to the public beach 10 miles east of downtown.

Because private cars are rare, most Cubans rely on public transportation. But, in this capital of 2 million, buses can seem as infrequent as oases in the desert. And so the government's unique solution: mechanical camels.

And here one comes, its hulking, 35-foot frame a menace among Old Havana's bicycle taxis and classic land-shark American cars. This camel's humps are faded pink steel, its snort a sooty black exhaust, its innards a mangle of passengers, its head a Ford L-9000 tractor-trailer rig. It is hip-to-hip humanity on wheels, packed so tightly that conductors at times must shove newcomers aboard.

And for the equivalent of a penny, it is a ride to the beach.

"A Cuban solution to a Cuban problem," says a smiling Luis Guintin, director of the government-sponsored Center for the Investigation and Development of Transportation.

The problem was the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Fuel subsidies were among the billions in aid that stopped flowing from the socialist island's patron state. In 1989, Cuba was able to import 13.1 million tons of oil, according to United Nations economic data. By 1993, that amount decreased to 5.3 million tons. The Cuban economy contracted by 40 percent, an event the government delicately calls the "special period in a time of peace." Current oil output will cover just 22 percent of national needs.

Havana's bus system was ruined. "Roughly half of the 2,200 buses in Havana are now out of circulation, and many bus routes have been eliminated, consolidated or cut back, making lengthy waits at crowded bus stops a multi-hour endeavor," writes Joseph Scarpaci, a professor at Virginia Tech University.

The government sought new ways to mobilize its citizens. The solution would have to be self-sustainable; Cuba could afford to import $609 million of transportation equipment in 1989, but just $88 million five years later, according to U.N. figures.

One response was the bicycle. The number of bikes in Havana's streets increased from 70,000 to 1 million between 1990 and 1995, according to Scarpaci's book, "Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis." While some of the bikes were imported Chinese "Flying Pigeons," many were made at a converted bus factory in Havana.

Transportation planners in Havana downgraded plans for a subway system and looked to develop a warehouse on wheels called the "supertrenbus." But that technocratic name never stuck. To conserve metal, Guintin says, designers lowered the roof in the middle of the cavernous passenger cabin. That design gave the behemoths their unmistakable likeness to the two-humped camel.

By 1995, the first caravan of "camellos" hit Havana's streets.

If form follows function, camels symbolize how dysfunctional Cuba's public transport has become. In 1989, Havaneros took 4 million trips each day, according to Guintin. This year, the daily total is 1 million trips, with 40 percent of passengers taking the camels that rumble through the city on seven routes, each about 15 miles and an hour long.

No one can agree on a camel's capacity. Guintin asserts that each can carry no more than 220 riders. One driver scoffs at that guess, offering an estimate of 300. Tour guides joke that people are so hopelessly packed in, no technology could ever untangle the true count.

On this particular Sunday, it seems the whole city is vying for a spot on the M1 line from Old Havana to the beach near Alamar. After collecting its downtown passengers, the camel speeds into the tunnel at Havana harbor, thick exhaust choking the cabin. Minutes later at a stop in East Havana, the conductor jumps off and cows more passengers into the suffocating compartment.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go," he demands. "Slowly, slowly," appeals a doddering man whose lunch appears to be the stumpy cigar dangling from his mouth. But there is no room for him and barely enough for a thin man who, as the bus grinds away, refuses to let go of it. No one gawks; it's just not that unusual a sight.

The return trip from the beach is no less brutal. Those waiting seek small patches of shade beneath the gray 12-story apartment blocks in Alamar that residents unsentimentally call "Siberia" in tribute to their Soviet workmanship. By mid-afternoon, the crowd is several hundred deep.

Cubans are so accustomed to waiting in line that they have turned the chore into an art. Upon arriving at any queue -- and camel stops are typically teeming -- a person asks for "el ultimo," the last in line. The sequence spreads out in no apparent order, but everyone seems to know his place. How quickly they forget once a camel gallops to its stop.

Sun-baked passengers in Alamar hop up in unison and crush toward the three doors on the camel's right side. Three policemen try to regulate the flow, but would-be riders get around the outside of the human barrier.

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