Cuban Character Depicted in a Taxi Ride
The trip from my aunt’s house to Havana’s Central Park takes about 15 minutes in a cab. I hailed the blue Chevy sedan coming around the curve in the road ahead and clambered into the backseat. There were three other people in the taxi and we were all headed to essentially the same place. These collective Cuban cabs travel the same route the entire day, and will drop passengers off anywhere along that route for 10 Cuban Pesos (40 cents USD).
The car was dressed in bare-bones fashion with the leather seats acting as a loincloth to preserve its deteriorating dignity. Every now and again, its rusty gears would grind and propel it forward a few yards toward the next stoplight. The chauffeur drove with his chest close to the steering wheel and was complaining about the state of his car to the two women sitting next to him in the front seat.
“This shit just doesn’t work,” he said to the two ladies. They both shook their heads in a what-can-you-do sort of way, but the cab driver continued, “You got these old-ass cars that break down every two kilometers and the parts just keep getting more expensive. Pretty soon I’m gonna have to put a goddamn mechanic in the trunk!”
Everybody in the cab laughed with their heads turned toward the closest window. This was the reaction the cab driver wanted to provoke. It gave him energy to keep complaining. He pulled over for a man motioning for a ride. The guy put his hands on the window next to the two ladies and looked at the driver before saying, “5 pesos for Old Havana?” trying his best to cut a deal for the standard 10.
“You want me to eat tonight, buddy? The price is 10 pesos,” the driver replied.
The guy smiled and slid in next to me. He was amused by the driver’s attitude, but it’s also normal to him. At this point, he knows he’s free to speak in the Cuban dialect of humorous pessimism. This is at the heart of Cuban character. After decades of national economic insolvency, it’s natural to assume the people you interact with daily face hardships similar to yours. It’s the same pessimism you’re familiar with, the one reminding you that the raise you’re about to ask for is simply out of the question. For you, these insecurities are topics you try to avoid, especially with people you don’t know. Nothing wrong with protecting your pride, right? In Cuba, people are unified through scarcity. The uncertainty has made them masters in the arts of self-deprecation and cynicism.
The car pulled off the curb, leaving a pleasant black cloud of exhaust fumes after shifting into second gear. An older woman dressed in all white asked the driver a question: “This car yours or do you rent it, chofe*?”
“No, I rent it. I’d have to work from the grave to afford a car. My brother-in-law bought a ’74 Fiat for $12,000 yesterday. It’s an outrage the price of — “
The new passenger interjected, “It’s impossible to do anything here. I just got out of urgent care and they wrote me some prescriptions, but you can’t even find a damn aspirin in any of the pharmacies.”
“Forget about it. I’ve been getting my medicine on the left** for years,” said the driver.
There’s a black market for everything in Cuba which totally undermines the price controls set by the government. If you can’t find toilet paper at the real market, you can bet someone has a relative selling it. When you can’t find the yogurt you like at the grocery store, you can bet the yogurt lady — yes, there’s a yogurt lady in most neighborhoods — will be making the rounds that afternoon with loaded water bottles of strawberry yogurt. The demand for these underground markets has produced a resourcefulness which characterizes the average Cuban. It’s that uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. How else do you think those rickety old cars get back on the road every day?
This creative ability to make ends meet makes the organic pessimism harmless and inspiring. It’s a mechanism for disarming your circumstances in order to attack them with initiative and perseverance. Let it be a lesson for all of us who spend too much time complaining while waiting for someone to solve our problems. Clearly, no society is perfect and we should always strive for progress. But in the struggle for societal improvement, we should also seek to make something of ourselves, to produce in innovative ways when nothing works and the right tools are nowhere in sight.
Ten minutes into the ride and every passenger has shared one intimate detail or another about their daily struggle except for me. I’m a silent observer, a fly on the wall, watching this social mosaic arrange itself in a confused, but rhythmic pattern that needs no explanation. I pull my wallet out, anticipating an early arrival to Old Havana, but the driver interrupts me with a question: “Where you from, buddy?”
“Well, from Havana, but I live in the states,” I start to explain, “Ever heard of Nebraska?”
“It’s colder than fuck there, isn’t it?” asked the passenger who had tried to bargain.
“Sometimes. Right now it is, but it’s hot in the summer.”
One of the ladies in the front jumps back into the mix and asked me the question on everybody’s mind: “And what do you think about Trump?”
“We’re almost to the park, I could talk all day about that.”
She ignores me, turns her head around to face the windshield, and makes a general statement, “my sister lives in Miami and she told me he’s trying to take away her healthcare.”
Political opinions aside, this comment made me laugh. It is yet another quality that sums up the Cuban persona: the desire to be in the know. I think we all want to be ahead of the game; know something others don’t, but Cubans are deprived of the free flow of information we sometimes take for granted. Exchange of information between Cubans is often through word of mouth because you can’t trust the press to give you the facts. That’s why this lady was relying on her sister as her source for international news. You can also bet that the same words she used were later relayed to someone else by the people who heard it first-hand in the cab. It’s just another byproduct of the typical resourcefulness. When you can’t trust the news, your opinions will mostly stem from whatever you catch on the street.
As we pulled up to Central Park, everyone registered their pockets for 10 pesos when the lady in all white gasped and said, “Oh my god, how embarrassing, I left my money at home,” with her palms cupping her chin and her fingers around her cheekbones.
The driver smiled and dismissed her comment with a smile and a wave of the hand. He said, “Forget about it, señora. I’m sure I’ll find something to eat tomorrow.”
The man who had originally tried to bargain with the driver heard this interaction as he opened the door to leave and pulled 10 more pesos out of his pocket. “Here you go, brother. For your troubles,” he said in an altruistic farewell.
I couldn’t help but smile with deep pride and satisfaction while thinking, these are my people.
*chofe (is short for chofer, the Spanish word for driver)
**on the left is colloquial Cuban Spanish for purchasing things on the black market.