Friday, March 27, 2009

Traveling in Cuba by Bus and Private Car

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We wanted to see the Cuban countryside, so we decided to take a bus from Havana to Cien Fuegos. We'd been strongly advised to buy our tickets in advance. As usual the bus station was in a little-frequented area of town, well away from the centre. But after about an hour’s walk we found it – a surprisingly modern cement and glass building, which even had a sign out front saying what it was.

Inside, on the left, were two glass-fronted wickets – one marked “Venta de Pasages” (tickets) and the other marked “Informacion.” As we wanted to travel the next day, I figured we could just buy the tickets: we didn't really need 'informacion.'

As usual, there was a queue. The guy ahead of me seemed to be buying tickets for an army. The officious fellow behind the counter handled the transaction painfully slowly. He wrote the date and time of the bus on each ticket, carefully forming each number, pausing to rest in between the filling out of each ticket. It was an arduous task. Once the writing was done, he searched below his counter and came up with an old wooden ruler which he used as a guide to help him each ticket neatly from its stub. One by one. It was an exhausting procedure.

Then it was my turn. In my best and most polite Spanish, I asked for two tickets on the bus to Cien Fuegos tomorrow. Wicket-man gave me a withering look: “You have to go to the other wicket – informacion – and make a reservation.”

Taken aback, I made the unforgivable mistake, in Cuba, of questioning an official: “do you mean I can’t buy a ticket?” His look went from withering to outright hostile: “I didn’t say you couldn’t buy a ticket. I said you have to make a reservation at the other wicket.”

The other wicket was just one step away, behind the same counter. The woman at this wicket was a little more pleasant, but equally officious. I asked for a reservation. “No problema,” she replied, reaching for a huge ledger book. I wrote our names out for her, and she copied them carefully, checking each letter as she wrote, into the big book. Then she told me to come back tomorrow, an hour before the bus, to buy the tickets. Not having learned my lesson, I asked “Can I buy the tickets now?” Her response was much more positive than her co-worker's – indifferent rather than hostile. “You can if you want to.”

With that she passed the heavy reservation book over the token divider that separated the two wickets to our officious friend. But by that time there was someone else there buying a ticket, so I had to wait again. Finally I bought the tickets, and witnessed again the tedious procedure of filling them out and tearing them from their stubs. Wicket-man ticked off our names in the book, and handed it back over the divide to the woman with a triumphant flourish. Now things had been done correctly.

The next morning we arrived an hour early and sat in a cavernous waiting room with a few Cubans and a number of foreign tourists. On one side of the room was a glass counter displaying approved tourist souvenirs – postcards and t-shirts of Che, a few boxes of cigars and a few bottles of rum. On the other side was a rack of books. Almost all of them were about Cuba. A few were picture books with wonderful photos. But most were political and historical treatises, all from a distinctly Cuban (paranoid and militant) perspective.

Like most tourist buses, and in stark contrast to the assorted wrecks used to transport Cubans, our bus was fairly new, with proper plush seats, curtains, air-conditioning, a sound system and a tv. Unfortunately the air-conditioning was either off or on high, so we were alternately sweltering or freezing throughout the long ride. The sound system or the tv were on the entire time, and always at full volume. Fortunately we had ear plugs.

As we left Havana, our bus kept switching from one side of the divided highway to the other, depending on which side had the fewest potholes and the most continuous pavement. The median over which we crossed was covered with de- rather than con- struction rubble. Throughout the entire trip we were seldom able to travel at a reasonable speed for any longer than a few minutes before the driver would slam on the brakes to creep over or through another pot-hole, another break in the pavement.

Fortunately we had a series of massive propaganda billboards to entertain us as we went. There was Fidel's bearded puss glaring defiantly: “socialismo o muerte!” (socialism or death). We often wondered if the 'or' ought not to read 'and'... . And there was George Bush, with the one word “terrorismo” written under his image. Cuban propaganda is anything but subtle. It hammers its point home, over and over again.

We stopped for a snack and a bathroom break in a fairly major town about half-way to our destination. The washrooms were the most disgusting I have ever come across, in any country in the world. The women’s toilets had no door on the outside, and no doors on the stalls. There were pieces of old plywood propped up in the openings where the doors should have been. None of the toilets had seats, and none flushed. The floor was awash in urine. The sinks were mostly broken, but it hardly mattered: there was no running water.

As we carried on through the Cuban countryside I found the experience more and more surreal. Here I was riding in a relatively luxurious bus watching an American war film while travelling through some of the poorest, most decomposed villages I have ever seen. Many of the houses and apartment buildings were in an advanced state of decay: crumbling foundations and walls, missing or broken windows and doors, exposed and broken water pipes and wiring, and the usual piles of litter and garbage everywhere. It was particularly heart-breaking to see the many ragged children playing amidst the garbage and decay. What kind of life was this?

When we reached our destination we were met by a Cuban friend who had arranged with another friend to pick us up and take us to the small town where they both lived, about 40 minutes’ drive away. Cubans are not permitted to give foreign tourists rides in their private cars. If they do, and they're caught, they may be fined, or have their car impounded on the spot. But there was no bus service to the town we were going to, and a taxi would have set us back almost $100. We'd agreed to pay our friends $50 – for them a bonanza that was worth the risk.

Right from the get-go our driver was very nervous. There were several policemen around the bus station. He suggested we meet him around the corner. We walked in opposite directions as he and his friend took our bags to the car and we walked around the corner. When he picked us up we saw he'd put all of our bags out of sight. They were stowed in the trunk. He asked us to get in the back seat, slouch down and hide our faces under our hats and scarves.

His paranoia was evident as he wove his way through the back-streets of the city, avoiding main thoroughfares where the police might be stationed. Once we were on the road out of town, he relaxed a bit. We passed through a couple of check-points, but they were unmanned, and we weren't stopped. But then we came to a road block, where two policemen were standing in the middle of the road. One of them held up his hand, motioning for us to stop. The driver stopped well back of the policemen. We could feel his anxiety.

He jumped quickly out of the car. We watched as he shuffled, head bowed, towards the policemen – a picture of humble subservience. We slouched further down in our seats, pretending to be asleep. Our other Cuban friend smiled and waved at the policemen. “This is what it's like in this country,” he said to us. “They have nothing better to do than harrass us, try to catch us. And then they just want money.” The policemen gazed in the direction of the car, but didn't come over to inspect it. Either our driver gave them a 'propina' (bribe), or they were just too lazy to bother.

Our driver came back and in a low stage-voice said: “I told them you were my parents, and that I'd just picked my mother up from the hospital. Keep your heads down.” The driver and our friend chatted animatedly, laughing and joking loudly as they passed by the policemen. Everyone smiled and waved. We slept through it all.

The rest of the drive, mostly in the country, was fairly relaxed, but as we neared our destination, the driver once again became more vigilant, scanning the streets and side-streets for police. We took one pass down the road that our casa particular (bed and breakfast) was on, but there were too many police there, so our driver said he'd stop around the corner: we could walk to the casa from there. He and our friend would bring our bags later.

It was all so cloak and dagger, so paranoid, and yet necessarily so. For us it’s impossible to imagine the fear that Cubans live with day by day by day. But this is the Castros' Cuba, where fear is a fact of life, and stealth and lying have become universal and accepted ways of coping.

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