A Bus Station as Metaphor
La Coubre was the name of a ship that exploded in the port of Havana in the first years of the revolution, an incident considered an act of terrorism on the part of the United States government.
I suppose that to remember this event, the name of the sunken French freighter was given to sites as important as the capital city’s inter-provincial transportation terminals (both the Havana railway station and the bus terminal have this same name).
Everyone who needs to travel to one of the country’s provinces turns to La Coubre, a fact that transforms this terminal into a well-known place and one that is undoubtedly interesting.
Since I had to travel occasionally to see my family in the center of the island, there was no other choice than for me to become familiar with this place at a critical moment: summer vacation time.
The first image that the terminal presents you with is an ocean of people. At that moment you estimate that the main hall should be much larger to prevent the accumulation of people and heat. You would also cry for a restricted area for smokers.
Another characteristic of this station is that many people who go there have to put their names on a waiting list. This is for those trying to get one of the few extra seats beyond the regular ones that have to be reserved a full month in advance.
Many people like me don’t know the exact day they’ll have to travel a month ahead of time. We are at the mercy of that infamous list, or we guard the hope that they’ll run an additional bus.
The odyssey begins
I went to La Coubre at 1:00 in the afternoon and began the chore of getting my name on the list. There are only two ticketing offices: one for the country’s central provinces and the other for the eastern provinces. I was able to get on the waiting list by 3:00 in the afternoon (which perhaps gives a better idea of how many of us were waiting for rides).
For some provinces, the cost of transportation ends up being around 200 pesos (about $8 USD). If you keep in mind that the minimum monthly wage here is 225 pesos, you can see that our bus system is actually quite expensive.
But things didn’t end with me getting on the list. No one knows how long they’ll have to wait until finally they’re able to leave. I stayed up until 6:00 a.m. that day (a 17 hour wait), a delay that allowed me to examine every corner of the terminal.
The floor is filthy; yet on it are sitting and laying people overcome with fatigue caused by the long hours of waiting in a far from favorable climate. All are attentive to whatever bus is pulling in. The stress causes argument and even blows to be thrown in the main hall. No one knows where to find water, at least until an old man appears selling a plastic bottle of it for five Cuban pesos each.
Candy, cookie and newspaper sellers abound; many of these vendors are so old that the have difficulty walking, but they have to earn a living somehow.
The sole food stand that sells something to eat in domestic currency closes early. This means that for those who have to wait in bus station the rest of the night, to get anything to eat they have to buy much more expensive food sold in hard currency CUCs.
Who’s at fault?
The blame for this whole unpleasant situation could be placed on the country’s economic problems that prevent it from running more buses, or on its lack of oil, but that would be a lie.
After enduring the miserable conditions of La Coubre, it’s not so difficult to come up with ideas for improvements like making a larger waiting area available so that travelers could at least breathe, or addressing the shortage of seats or seeing that there are appropriate types and amounts of food offered to the public.
But the reality is that the quality of this terminal doesn’t change. People come and people go, and no one can find those who are responsible the poor treatment and inefficiencies. No one has the courage to protest in hope of change.
Those who travel from province to province don’t feel they deserve good service. The conditions demonstrate to these citizens that nothing they say will result in changes to stations like La Coubre.
2 thoughts on “A Bus Station as Metaphor”
Sad… I grew up in a small town in Matanzas Province from which you could take a bus to Havana everyday at 4am, 6am, 8am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm, 8pm and midnight. Now there is ONE bus to Havana every other day. Seems like Cuba has been transformed from one of the most prosperous Latin American nations to something resembling Haiti.
I am not pretending to be a Cuban expert, knowledge of its history, before and after the collapse of USSR, nor am I an expert on developmental issues. In fact, I cannot even point out La Coubre on a map. All I have is some very brief personal observations.
At first, I thought I could change the sub title: “Who’s at fault?” to What’s at fault. Miss Valera wrote: “The blame for this whole unpleasant situation could be placed on the country’s economic problems that prevent it from running more buses, or on its lack of oil, but that would be a lie.” I don’t think it is a lie per se, if everything in Cuba is fine but just the public transport sector is lacking, or La Coubre is a particularly bad station, then I would certainly agree that “someone” is certainly at fault. I actually find the road, highway in Cuba is surprisingly good, and the drivers are generally very well behaved. But considering everything else, what happened at La Coubre is one could and should expect of Cuba. Or should I say, it is just one of those problems.
But something is amiss, Miss Valera’s personal account, vivid description paints a frustrating daily life in Cuba (thank you so much, Miss Valera!), so lets find out. I’d assume people would blame “..ism”. For that I have to say: no.
Sorry, got to go.
Miss Valera, great job, please keep it up.
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