The trick to getting somewhere in Cuba
I often make a mistake when traveling, and did it again when I was in Cuba: Never assume after a couple of days that you’ve got things figured out. This is an especially bad move if you’re using those assumptions to try to catch a bus.
After two days of staying in Central Havana, we thought that getting a taxi was as simple as existing on a street corner. Over the previous two days, we had been offered rides regularly, and when we did want one, I didn’t raise my hand so much as think about it (the way leaning into a turn on a bike is more mental than physical) and one would appear.
But because we had somewhere to be on our third day in Cuba — the bus station, where we’d take a 12 CUC (equivalent to $12 US), 3-hour ride to the relaxed mountain town of Viñales — and needed a taxi at a specific time (as in, right at that moment), none could be found. Every taxi that rolled by that crisp Cuban morning was filled, working in “collectivo” mode — they traveled straight on the city’s thoroughfares and let people on and off for a few CUP (that’s the “local” currency, which is a fraction of a single CUC, the “tourist” currency).
Finally, a man pulled up in his car and offered to drive us. Perhaps sensing we were not enthused by the concept of a ride from “some guy,” he whipped out a placard that read TAXI from under his seat. He placed it on his windshield. We’d found a taxi, or more accurately, it had found us.
After some brief haggling (the man suggested an exorbitant price and I said, okay, but how about a little less than that, knowing my leverage was about zero since we were already late — but to my surprise and relief, he agreed), we were off.
Let’s take a second to recognize something: That dude drove by, saw a couple of tourists who needed a ride, pulled out a piece of plastic that said “TAXI”, and then he was a taxi. His genius was rewarded: For the cost of driving us, a ride that would take about 20 minutes, he made about half of an average Cuban’s monthly salary.
First of all, I have to extend my respect to this gentleman, who capitalized on a situation where there was demand and he was able to supply. In fact, we have a word for that. It’s called capitalism.
As we all know, Cuba isn’t a capitalist country. It’s socialism or death there, or so they say. But there is great tension between the system the government espouses (or, forces on its people) and the ways in which lots of people appear to live (constantly hustling for the next CUC, or even CUP, to supplement their meager state-provided salary and benefits).
Here’s the point of this digression: I was talking to a friend a few weeks after my trip, and he said that he “didn’t like” socialism. I love to argue, so I told him I thought it was pretty cool, mostly because it didn’t result in total abject poverty on a grand scale like capitalism did. His reply:
“When people have something to work for, they work harder.”
That does seem to be the main argument against socialism and communism: Why work hard when you’ll get the same amount as everyone else? I hadn’t thought about it like that for some time. Then I thought back to our trip to the bus station.
We took off with our “taxi driver,” moving west through Havana. The center of the city showcases Cuba’s struggle between its difficult past and its difficult present and its hopeful (but likely still difficult) future. Most streets were dirty and dusty — choked with people, classic cars that turned like boats, and overloaded produce carts. Other streets were lined by charming buildings that maintained their pastel greens, blues, yellows and pinks; others still were torn up by construction crews forming deep grooves in the pavement.
Our little car, groaning under the weight of its own tired existence, rumbled and buzzed past the University of Havana and Colon Cemetery — both of which, the driver pointed out, were very big and important, the latter to the extent that a place where a bunch of dead people lay around without doing much except for being dug up after awhile is important (yeah, apparently space in Colon is in high demand, so they’ll put people out after awhile like the bodies forgot to pay rent). The driver became a tour guide, pointing out buildings he liked and streets that held some sort of meaning, to him anyway. As we approached the bus station, he offered to drive us to the airport when we returned from Viñales and gave me his number. I typed random digits into my phone and thanked him.
The ride, as mentioned, took about 20 minutes — we’d planned on 10 or 15. So we rushed into the station and found ourselves in the midst of a clusterfuck. Travelers rushed around and formed colorful barriers as they stood next to each other with their bulging backpacks, and bus station employees spoke and pointed in various directions without, seemingly, hearing the questions posed to them. We stood in one line for a minute, then changed our minds and went to another. In the end, having arrived only 30 minutes early (we had been advised to get there an hour before the bus was scheduled to leave, at 9:00), we were told by an employee who approached us seemingly at random that the bus was sold out. The next one left in six hours.
We were dumbfounded, but it was hard to separate our anxiety and confusion about the bus from the sudden realization that we had to deal with this shit even though we had not eaten or had coffee yet. I could feel last night’s rum laying like a brick on top of my head. I tried to follow a train of thought as it traveled through my brain and instead watched it keel over and die. We debated whether finding coffee, before we did anything else, was the answer to our problems.
Forcing myself to focus, albeit briefly, I said, No, the answer is to get the fuck out of here. A breathless woman from New Jersey had begun talking our ears off about her experience at Sloppy Joe’s; the sickly off-white and bus-seat-blue decor of the station was unsettling; bus station employees appeared to have entered avoidance mode and now moved from one side of the room to the other with faraway stares. A sense of resigned ambivalence pervaded the room, like the Titanic was going down and we were all tired, hungover captains.
I approached the woman behind the desk again to ensure I had the situation straight. (Keep in mind, this conversation proceeded in stilted, ugly Spanish.)
There are no more tickets for the morning bus to Viñales?
There’s only one bus company and one bus that leaves in the morning?
No, there isn’t another bus company?
Is there another way I can get to Viñales?
Can I take a taxi to Viñales?
But, of course, we could, I thought. There’s got to be at least one taxi driver who would be willing to drive us. Even if it cost us 5,000 CUC apiece, I’d rather pay that than spend six hours in this bus station, shitting out Cuban coffee grounds and eating the Trader Joe’s beef jerky I’d brought down in case of emergencies.
So I walked outside and said to a group of men leaning up against their cars, Anyone want to go to Viñales?
It became a free-for-all. I felt like a little kid again, holding out a crust of bread to the geese and suddenly being overwhelmed by snapping beaks. (Side note: Fuck geese.) A man emerged from the pack, saying he would take us for 15 CUC each. Then another man stepped in front of him and said, No, I’ll do it for 20 CUC.
The 15 CUC man seemed to regard this as a better situation for all involved and walked away.
I want to go with him, I said, indicating the vanquished 15 CUC applicant.
The 20 CUC man, who had established himself as the only viable option all of a sudden — the others began to slink away — scoffed at this notion. “His car wouldn’t make it,” he said, pointing to the black, classic but admittedly rusted and beat up, car the cheaper man now leaned against. “You’ll want to go with me. Plus, I’ll take you right now. We won’t wait.” With a flurry of gestures and facial expressions, he lured us away from the bus station towards a lot across the street
“Me,” as it turned out, wasn’t him, but somebody else. A lot of rides in Cuba are coordinated this way: There’s a salesman — the hype man, the one who reels you in — and then there’s the driver. Are drivers, by nature, too solitary and thus too shy to secure their own customers? Can salesmen not drive? More research is needed here.
So “me” was another person, who introduced himself as Gordo. This translates, of course, to Fat. Fat, who was of medium build, got in the driver’s seat, and we got in the back. We headed out of town for 8 extra CUC per person than we had planned, but at least we were going.
The first two hours were spent on the highway, flanked mostly by scrubby green fields and spats of royal palm trees. The road hosted cars like ours, trucks and buses, but also bike riders and men driving carts pulled by sauntering horses. The carts stayed in the right lane.
Despite my best efforts, there was some dozing, and then I was startled awake by the car making its way through the pocked, disintegrating dirt roads that wound their way towards Viñales. We passed perfectly kept white-walled homes, with blue rocking chairs on the front porches. This color combination suited me just fine, unlike in the bus station, when it made me want to die. The fresh air through the open window helped.
As we approached the town, the roads became paved again, and we twisted and turned along mountain bends, each slow roll of the wheel revealing a new sprawling vista of red-brown earth, green-topped mountains, and blue sky.
We arrived and I tipped Fat an extra 5 CUC, which seemed to invigorate him after three hours of driving. The total price came to 45 CUC, though I don’t know how much he would keep and how much he’d give to his salesman back in Havana. He thanked us and got back in his car, where he ostensibly drove another three hours back to Havana, though maybe he died on the way back. I don’t know. I’m not omniscient. I hope not, but it’s possible. People die all the time. You should be prepared for that reality.
I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the those who worked in the bus station and those in the taxi gang. I saw this a few times in Cuba: Nobody busted their ass harder for your CUC than someone who was poised to make more of it if they could. Those who were on a set salary — the bus station employees, the women behind the counter at the airport snack bar — didn’t give more than the minimum number of fucks required.
You hear this a lot in other contexts too. The waiter or waitress that doesn’t work for tips? Maybe they don’t dote on you as heavily as those who do. Is that socialism in a nutshell? Equality is nice in theory, but when people don’t have monetary motivation to do more, they just won’t, because what’s the point?
There’s really a lot to like about Cuba’s brand of socialism, which was at one point described to me as “Fidel-ism.” Like I said, people aren’t pile-driven into the ground by economic forces, as they are in our country and many others. It’s more like they’re gently laid on the ground, and given a thin, uncomfortable pillow while they’re there (meanwhile, they are aware that a select group of others probably sleep on king-sized mattresses). But the human spirit often seems to yearn for “more,” especially when what you are given, or allowed to have, is not very much. That’s what leads to scores of young men to wait en masse for tourists to exit clubs and bus stations, or people to put their extra rooms on Airbnb.
So: If you want to get somewhere on time in Cuba, you’re going to have to pay for it. Or maybe call ahead and get a taxi ahead of time. Just don’t assume you’re going to stroll outside and catch a ride to your next destination. That’s a rookie move. I blame the rum.