Changing Cuba: Monster buses vanish from Havana streets

Monday, April 21, 2008

HAVANA -- First comes the stink of diesel, then a metallic roar, and finally a tower of black smoke that tells you the "camello" -- the camel -- has reached your stop.

These hulking 18-wheeled beasts, iron mutants made of Soviet-era buses welded together on a flatbed and pulled by a separate cab, have long been Havana's public transport nightmare -- bumpy, hot and jammed with up to 400 passengers at a time.

But their gradual disappearance is a telling sign of change in the twilight of the Fidel Castro age. The last "camello" is expected to go out of service in Havana on Sunday night.

The camello, so named for its humped front and rear sections, is being eclipsed by thousands of new city buses from China as the government under Castro's brother, Raul, resuscitates a public transportation system on the brink of collapse.

Route M-6, running from the capital's southern outskirts uptown to the University of Havana, is the city's last remaining camello route, and municipal authorities say they have been told to pull all camellos off it this weekend.

The camello is a definer of Cuba on wheels, but without the fun of a San Francisco cable car ride or the clean efficiency of the Washington, D.C. Metro.

What it lacks in glamor, it makes up for in sheer mass that dwarfs its Chinese successors.

"We can carry up to 400 people. The bus cannot," lamented conductor Estela Doira. "I'm happy, also sad, because the camello handles a lot more than the bus."

Cubans joke that camellos are racier than a Saturday night at the movies -- full of sex and crime, pickpockets and gropers. Overheard conversations between passengers feed the onboard rumor mill: Fidel Castro is dead. No, wait, he's healthy again; he spent last weekend at the beach.

The camello was born in response to fuel shortages in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its annual $6 billion in subsidies. The economy has since recovered thanks to heavy borrowing from China and nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela.

Cuba is spending $2 billion to upgrade public transportation and has imported 3,000 modern buses just for the capital. The Yutongs are less sturdy than the camellos and crews are repaving streets to spare them wear and tear.

Fares are double the camello's but offer far more seats and a dramatically smoother ride. Riders can climb on and off easily, ensuring faster trips.

Carmen Lopez, waiting for a Chinese bus to whisk her to her janitor's job, said she's glad to be rid of the camellos but doesn't believe she's seen the last of them.

"When the new buses break down," she said, "they will bring the camellos back again."

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