By Dmitri Prieto
A few days ago, there I was at around 7:30 p.m. in Peñas Altas, a community almost on the edge of Havana but still 12 miles from my home (in the town of Santa Cruz del Norte). I had come for a visit in the Cuban capital and figured that I could later find some way back to my place.
Peñas Altas is the nearest place to Santa Cruz I can reach by regular bus on my effort to get home. From Havana, I take the 400 bus line, whose last stop is exactly there: in Peñas Altas.
Theoretically there is a bus route that continues all the way to Santa Cruz (the 669), but its very existence is questionable – kind of like the existence of the magnetic monopole, extraterrestrial civilizations, or the Theory of Everything (TOE). That means that the physicists and philosophers (the bus line administrators and drivers) are trying to agree, the truth remains unknown to us Santa Cruz locals; we are unaware if we can catch a bus that can take us home after visiting the Capital of the Republic.
Under those conditions, it’s better to presume that such a bus exists in the same sense, for example, as the existence of the Soviet Union; that is to say, it exists as a historical fact, but not in today’s reality.
So, here I was at around 7:30 p.m. in Peñas Altas, having gotten there after meeting up with some friends in the capital, but now seemingly stranded as the time began to stretch…and stretch.
There were already some Santa Cruz residents gathered at the (ex) bus stop of the (ex) 669, when suddenly a vintage 1956 Chevrolet passed by and stopped. Several anxious Santa Cruz natives went running toward it in hopes of using a private-sector mode of transportation to reach their homes (while in the meantime the State would continue trying to decide if the 669 existed or not). I was one of those Santa Cruz denizens, and fortunately I was able to cram into the Chevrolet.
That 1956 Chevrolet is part of the large fleet of private taxis that operate at market fares. Some are authorized by the State, others not – but such a detail is trivial when you’re 12 miles from your house and it’s getting dark.
In the meantime, I suppose, the State continues drafting an agreement on how to provide Santa Cruz residents with a bus that takes them to the Capital and returns them home.
The market has established the fare for the Peñas Altas-Santa Cruz trip at about 10 Cuban pesos. According to the rate of our Creole currency in the international market, that’s worth about 50 cents USD.
However, for some reason of the Creole monetary system, the market or Chevrolets (but definitively not because of the State), the price of private transportation in Cuba sometimes spikes by units of 10 in a single instant.
It is as if the fare had some quantum property, with the quantum always in discrete quantities of 10 pesos; that being so, the driver can charge 10 pesos, or 20, or even 30 – but never 12 or 16. Somehow the residents of Santa Cruz suppose that that the invisible hand of the marketplace (again, definitively not the State) set the price of private transportation from Santa Cruz to Peñas Altas and vice versa at 10 Cuban pesos (domestic currency), indistinctly of the mark of the car – regardless of whether it’s a Chevrolet, Dodge, Buick, Ford, Mercedes Benz, or even a Polish Fiat.
So, I got in the Chevrolet – contented – and then realized that I only had 20 pesos bills. Despite this, I rode along looking at the landscape, the sea, the Cuban-Chinese and Cuban-Canadian petroleum derricks, the fishing boats in Boca de Jaruco cove, and the Santa Cruz thermoelectric plant, until finally – Oh thank you God! – I was home.
I took out my 20 peso bill and handed it to the driver and waited for the exact change of 10 pesos. The driver looked at me, surprised, and said: “The fare is 20.” So me, with the face of a decapitated goat, sliding toward the door to get out of the car I mumbled almost tearfully, “Jeeesus Christ, man! You didn’t tell me; I didn’t know it was at 20, brother; you didn’t tell it to me, man; you didn’t tell me.”
I got out of the car, closed the door, and prepared to walk to my building, when I heard a whistle behind me. I looked back and saw the driver extending the 10 pesos bill for me through the window of the ’56 Chevrolet. “Here you go, partner!” he said. I grabbed the bill, thanked him, wished him a good trip and left running for my house.
The strange thing is that suddenly I began to feel something like remorse gnawing at my conscience… instead of being happy for getting the money back or reveling in my ability as a negotiator (or a beggar, as I was later called jokingly by a friend), little by little I began to feel pity on the driver.
I started feeling like I had been a thief, a user, having taken the money that this poor man had earned… This made me think of the Stockholm syndrome, that strange psychological phenomenon that involves the hostage victims of terrorists taking pity on and sympathizing with their captors.
Perhaps my subconscious suggested that to me from its depth, subliminally aware that several months ago new control measures were approved on private taxis. These made it so that taxi drivers could only operate in those provinces in which their licenses are registered and could only travel along routes that are officially authorized.
Many taxis that operate in the capital are from Havana Province (which surrounds the City of Havana, but doesn’t include it, because the two are separate provinces), and because most of these drivers don’t have permission to operate as taxi drivers anyway, a large segment of the supply of private transportation disappeared.
This directly affected Havana-area municipalities such as Santa Cruz, because the drivers who go to Havana City to work and later return to our outlying towns at night often pick up those of us who need a ride to one place or another.
Precisely because of the newly approved (over) regulation, the market reacted with a tendency toward fare increases (in quantum of increments of ten). Thus, traveling by night became increasingly risky in the sense of the probability of having to spend the night sleeping at a bus stop.
When I reflected on all this, I was already at home. There – happy or sad – I could relax for another night. At least I was better off than I was on an occasion the previous week, when I had to walk the 12 miles alone on foot… some three and a half hours, in the middle of the night, under the waxing quarter moon – a stretch that by car or bus takes barely 25 minutes.