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Once more 'round Habana

Owner Ociel, guide Kenya, and their 1956 Chevrolet 210 private taxi.
   Visitors keen to hit the road in Cuba but reluctant to rent a car have alternatives. There are buses and trains. You could join a bicycle tour.
   But the most comfortable choice is probably one of the private taxis that have become plentiful since Cuba eased restrictions on private businesses.
   You'll find these cabs around hotels. Most are vintage American tourist-pleasers, and most are operated by tourist-reassuring combos of a male driver-owner and a female guide, the latter with a strong command of English and possibly French and German as well.
   We hired this 1956 Chevrolet 210 sedan a year ago to take us into Havana. Its white-over-yellow paint was dull, its body panels rippled. The owner, a man named Ociel, was eager to show us the Chevy's modern diesel powertrain, but what really sold us was the cheerful candour of the guide, Kenya.
   "It doesn't look so good," she admitted of the scarred old 210, "but it keeps going."
   Just like us, we replied, and Kenya laughed.

Mercedes diesel engine probably came to Cuba in a Korean SUV.
   The big Chevy did indeed roll smoothly, its five-cylinder diesel thrumming. Ociel identified the engine as a Mercedes-Benz unit "from a Jeep" – from later research, I concluded it was probably a Mercedes OM662 diesel built under licence by Korea's SsangYong Motor, which sent its Musso sport-utility to Cuba and other markets.
   The automatic transmission slipped mightily, but that just added to the fluidity of a ride that was soft but not wallowing, telling us the car rode on decent shocks and springs. The decades-old body didn't squeak or rattle.
   We relaxed on the great sofa of the rear seat. With cool air flowing back from the air conditioner under the dash, there was no need to roll down the back windows (or power down the electric front windows). Kenya, turning from the front, told us about her training as a teacher, and her hope that a position in a school would open. Until then, she said, she was happy to guide.
   We asked our chauffeurs to drop us in Old Havana, where we were to meet our son and his girlfriend, and collect us later in the day. They seemed surprised with their time off. We'd sort-of assumed they were a couple, but it turned out that theirs was a business partnership, and Kenya announced plans to find her boyfriend in the capital and visit the International Book Fair.
   Hours later, the Chevy was waiting at the rendezvous point. Ociel and Kenya agreed to drop our guests at their casa particular, and as we got underway offered a tour of the city first. Even with six occupants there was plenty of room, and we were pleased to accept.

Original steering wheel, aftermarket air-conditioning.

   We drove along the Malecón, passing the modernist Hotel Riviera where Ociel and his wife had spent their wedding night. After inspecting the mansions of Miramar we swung south, idling through the traffic outside the Tropicana as patrons arrived for the evening show. Then we headed back along the Calzada del Cerro to the old city and our guests' casa. After bidding them farewell, we were on the now-dark highway west to our hotel.
   Tips included, our taxi cost us $90. That's $20 or $30 less than a one-day rental. We avoided parking hassles. We made two friends. And the veteran Chevy, as promised, kept going in all the necessary ways.
   I remember looking over Ociel's shoulder on the highway and seeing that that the needle of the crescent-shaped speedometer pointed at zero.
   So how fast were we really travelling?
   Exactly fast enough.

Ready and waiting at the end of the day.


tonyhavana said…
Sounds like a win-win for everyone.
How may people have ridden in a deisel '56 Chevy?
Caristas said…
Right, tonyh. I see that the OM662 (based on the OM602) is considered the small-block Chevy of diesels -- so it was an appropriate engine swap!

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