Stories of Havana told in a Classic Car

Stories of Havana told in a Classic Car

Life and Lies in the New Cuba

Cover (detail) of “Havana Taxi. Life and Lies in the New Cuba’ (2022), by Ståle Wig / Photo: Via

By Ricardo Acostarana (El Estornudo)

HAVANA TIMES – The Norwegian was the first one to go out and look for wood in La Cazuela, in the middle of Canasi, Mayabeque province. We told him: “Take the machete, Ståle”. But the white guy was already going up the hill and was back two minutes later with the driest and fattest trunk on the entire mountain over one of his shoulders. It was Ståle’s idea to put a pig leg on it that day. Almost eight hours of roasting on the wood and a downpour, guava and banana leaves to decorate the meat.

That viking, almost two meters tall, with a PhD on his back that his friends from Vedado had no idea about, would wear us out with all of his questions. Despite understanding cubaneo quite well, the Norwegian would lift his finger every time one of us threw out some typical jargon, an indecent remark from the barracks, our corner-of-the-block hieroglyphics.

He would join us into everywhere: the Rolling Stones concert, the 16th Street beach, the staircase at the Chaplin movie theater, in any dead-beat bar…  At the end of the day, we learned from each other. Oslo wasn’t our new enemy (a joke he understood immediately because he knew Les Luthiers), much less because of a cultural barrier. We shared the same Havana horizon for many years when he drove a taxi, a mint green Buick Roadmaster, from 1952, marinated in rum,” the last story of an entire country.

On December 17, 2014, Cuba and the US reestablished diplomatic relations. The following 2,397 days, or 324 weeks, or 78 months, were condensed into Havana Taxi. Life and Lies in the New Cuba: “a literary documentary with 50-something chapters about the betrayal of the hope that came with the Cuban-US thaw,” as the author Ståle Wig says. The book climaxes with the social uprising on July 11, 2021 (11-J), and other key events such as the death of Fidel, Hurricane Irma, Trump entering the White House, the San Isidro Movement and November 27, 2020 (27N). 

Havana Taxi… was presented on March 16, 2022 at the Storgata 26 Club in the Norwegian capital. Kagge Publishers took the reins of publishing this subversive and overwhelming chronicle. Only someone like Ståle Wig, who had traveled to the island time and time again over eight years, staying in Vedado, Central Havana and Old Havana for long periods of time, would have felt like they could translate the most underground of Cuban society into Norwegian, in just over 350 pages.

In September 2022, the book was selected by the Norwegian Literature Abroad foundation (NORLA) as a  “focus title“ to present it at literary festivals across the world. Literary agency Northern Stories is working on the English translation. “Presenting it in Havana one day will be the “unpublished” chapter of Havana Taxi…,” the Norwegian author jokes in a WhatsApp call that disconnects at times. 

With 34 years and a PhD in Social Anthropology from Oslo University on his back, Ståle Wig is that kid US anthropologist and poet Margaret Mead once spoke about. The kid that when pushed into deep water and with no other instruction but to come home, returns an expert swimmer after a year or two.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time,” he told me during his last visit to Havana, a month after he presented the book in Norway. “South Africa was my destination, to research international aid, but it didn’t happen. Obama and Raul began to whittle, and I landed in Havana three weeks later.”

Ståle Wig had been awarded a university grant for his research, and he used it in the best possible way. “I sat on the edge of my bed with all of my grant money in my hand, 12,800 USD,” he tells me from Oslo. He would soon buy an almendron (a classic car that is repaired with all kinds of spare parts and a bit of ingenuity) to tell the real stories in a fictitious country from its inside. “I now understand that owning a car in Cuba is like being the owner of a horse. It’s madness.”

“The idea was for the car and me to go to an unknown land,” he writes in the chapter entitled “I”, like a breadcrumb in an anthill. 

Ståle Wig’s life/study/work-rifle became tangled in a Gordian knot. That’s how his characters – leading and secondary – were to be dragged into a socio-political orgy, of corruption – in some cases-, exile and voluntary displacement.

“Four life cycles were about to change because of what was happening…,” Ståle Wig writes.

Cover of “Havana Taxi. Life and Lies in the New Cuba’ (2022), by Ståle Wig / Photo: Via

The frost

Linet is currently living in Denmark. She is a happy, married woman with a beautiful little girl. But that wasn’t always the case. “Fidel (didn’t) keep his promises, just like many other men in her life.” The Comandante was the highest star in the sky, the High Priest of an earthly hell.

In Havana Taxi’s Cuba, Linet, a mulatta woman from Santiago de Cuba, comes to Havana to make a life. She is a victim of sexual harrassment. She meets a Russian man on social media who she then marries, and she goes to the South Siberian forest steppe… a story that has quite a radioactive ending. 

Back in the Cuban capital, she ends up in another violent love story. Pressure from her family about her political stance on social media forces her to become even more isolated from the world. She’d return to Europe years later; not without frustrating herself with several business projects in a city that seemed to flourish with new economic measures after the opening was promised. 

Ståle Wig would always ask us what we thought about Cuba’s new relationship with the US? If we always drank cheap rum, the bad kind? If we had any other aspirations in life, other than sitting and talking about art and literature late into the night? Why do we call the police “fiana”, or why we say “agua” to warn others they’re coming? Why did street sellers on Monte Street – where he would go every day for some time as part of his job, and where he even helped on a stall-, whisper between themselves that “the foreigner doesn’t look like a foreigner at all, but like a DeTeI agent”? 

There were questions that had no answers, and the Viking would only nod. His friends enjoyed his pragmatic ignorance from the other side of the Malecon wall, while Ståle didn’t like to play the handsome tourist who skirts the periphery. He was so dedicated to his research that he dived into the spaces between this Cuba that we even felt like we didn’t know at times.

I believe I’m God’s daughter

Catalina is a shining light in national sports: the “Chosen One”. The newspaper’s patriotic slogan on her pseudo-militant body: “Get by”. The middle-aged woman past her prime is now an efficient inspector at a hotel chain, although her calling is to be a VIP businesswoman in the foul routine that has afflicted the island ever since it was born. Daughter of the Revolution and devoted to the Comandante, Catalina was born in 1959. 

It was her idea for Ståle to become a “botero” (taxi driver) and “buquenque” of the Buick, in the meantime. “Catalina was going to use the car for her own business: selling hair.” In the outskirts of the capital, she is the protagonist of a generation that the Castros buried in sand like an armless doll. The same doll that is still begging for a feather hat.

Catalina knows how things work: the amount of money you need to corrupt in style, the right time to bribe someone, administrative workings. She thinks she’s living like a queen thanks to her son who tells her, from the old country of Holland, that the future is looking promising with Cuba’s market reforms.


None of Ståle’s friends in Vedado had the (unprecedented) chance to see the Norwegian in shorts and a T-shirt ask his temporary clients on a Saturday night at 11 PM: “Don’t slam the door when you get out, please.” 

“Driving an almendron in Havana was like learning to drive all over again,” Ståle Wig writes.

At the helm of his Buick, the Norwegian felt the adrenaline of Havana taxi drivers as they speed and stop abruptly, on his own journeys along the city’s main streets – 23rd Avenue, Rampa, Infanta, Galiano. Prostitutes offering their bodies to him in the fast lane, partiers going from one bar to another, escaping from the police in a chase… Ståle Wig lives his own urban thriller that would have been impossible to film.

Ståle Wig / Photo: Helman Avelle

Children of the Thaw Process

One night, Norges has a dream: “… the dictatorship had fallen. He ran to the airport in Miami and they landed in Havana in a second. The airplane door suddenly opened and he hurried down the staircase to the track. There were voices shouting and laughing everywhere. The concrete was full of airplanes. People came outside into the sun without suitcases, completely empty-handed. Cuban border control waved their arms and welcomed them. “It’s so great you came back,” they said, hugging Norges. “Brothers and sisters, it’s so good you came back!” When Norges woke up, his eyes were filled with tears.”

Norges Rodriguez and Taylor Escalona are children of the thaw process. The couple also dreamed about this country, but slowly became like many other generations of Cubans – in terms of communication and keeping up with the news -, who, just like them, fled for never, which is different to never going back and forever.

Is this “sliding into exile, full of doubt and self-deception”? “Is leaving losing ground to the regime”? Yaima Pardo, a filmmaker, activist and friend of both the other characters, makes up the digital trinity of Havana,Taxi…

The dinosaur of a State refused to expand Internet access on the island, despite the platonic “opening up to the world.” Norges, Taylor and Yaima got pricked by this spinning wheel, but Internet access in Cuba today is also a result of their demands.

The three of them formed part of more advanced civil society in Cuba during those 2,397 days. The dream of creating a “Human Rights House in Cuba” together hasn’t been cast aside; it’s just been frozen like a giant seed in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. 

Repression was another shadow that followed them: on the street; at their places of work and study; at the Summit of the Americas in 2015, in Panama, where they were invited; in the voice of a State Security agent telling them they could be locked up for 20 years for “Financing Terrorism.” 

Only Yaima Pardo and Norges Rodriguez carry on writing as independent journalists from the US, as well as their activism work. Taylor Escalona works in a chain of stores and has a part-time job at a luxury night club in Las Vegas.

“Norges’ dream was also mine to some extent, as we were one being,” Taylor recalls from Las Vegas. “I guess this dream began to change in him more than it did in me. I still want to go back, but less than I did before. I always get a warm welcome when I go back to Cuba. I always spend my journey from the rental place to Terminal 3 [at Havana airport], when I go back, crying, with a knot in my throat that begins to disappear as soon as I take my first step inside the American Airlines plane. My dream was more for the group before; now it’s a bit more selfish. Cuba was my main dream before. I still dream of it, but my family and closest circle are my main priority right now. I’m saying all this, but I just need a glimmer of hope for the island to become my priority again. Cuba is always present, it’s never in the past. We have a toxic relationship, the most toxic relationship of my life.”

Bonus Track: The Norwegian’s 11-J

“I was in Oslo and saw the same photos. It was night here. I apologized to my friends, who had invited me to dinner, and I went home down the dark streets. It was during the summer holiday, the city was peaceful. I took out my cellphone and began to film, like I’d seen the Cubans do. It was an absurd thing to do, because there wasn’t anyone around, just the tram in the distance, some cars and pedestrians at night. But I recorded the streets, and then I heard my voice shout, with quite a lot of ease: Patria y Vida!“, writes Ståle Wig in Havana Taxi… ”I emptied my lungs. “Patria y Vida in Norway’s streets!”

[Editor’s Note: The book was originally written in Norwegian. There are translations in Spanish and English in the process of seeking an editorial house to publish them.]

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