Taking Advantage of the Light

Thousands of Havanans travel through the force of their thumbs or, and it amounts to the same thing, by asking drivers at traffic lights to please take them. Most of these "alternative mode" travelers are young women, since it is easier to get a ride if you're wearing a skirt -- if it's a short one, even better -- than if you are male or an elderly woman. At the intersection of two avenues they can be seen leaning into the windows to ask where the car is going and if they can ride along for a stretch. The drivers often lie because they don't want strangers getting into their cars, so they say they're only going another hundred yards or that they're about to make a U-turn.

A nice catalog could be made of all the excuses regular hitchhikers hear from those who don't want to help them. Through the steering wheel a voice warns that "the tires are almost flat and can't bear the weight of another person," or that they must "pick up the boss who lives a few blocks ahead." There are also those who don dark glasses before coming to the corners where many are waiting for a lift, or they turn up the volume on the radio so as not to hear the pleas from the sidewalk. It's the same whether it's a state or private license plate, the "no" becomes a constant response from the vehicle interiors towards those of us scorching under our "eternal summer" sun.

Also laughable, or terrifying, are the tales of brazenness and innuendo that drivers -- from their position of power -- launch against the grateful women who manage to catch a ride. Ranging from sharp glances to the thighs or adjusting the rearview mirror to reflect the crotch area, up to lascivious touches collected as if they were a toll. Chastened by this practice, many prefer to walk long distances rather than fall into the clutches of those who believe that helping us gives them the right to engage us in their impertinence. What a welcome difference are those drivers who say "yes" and ask for nothing in exchange, not even a phone number. Thanks to them part of this city manages to move every day, with the staccato rhythm defined by chance and the brevity of the red lights.