HAVANA TIMES – If there’s one thing I hate it’s an afternoon trip on the P11 from Vedado-Alamar that begins at the bus stop that’s right in front of Havana’s Capitolio building.
The conductor turns off the motor to indicate that he’s “not in any hurry” while the desperate crowd fights to get into the vehicle, amid shoves and protests.
With the eternal pronouncement “it’s empty in the back!” they demand of space a non-existent elasticity, and of the human body an impossible degree of compression – even more impossible for the quantity of daypacks, bags and packages that block the pathway up and down the narrow aisle.
Inevitably, conflict arises between someone trying to push further in and someone who refuses to move; as always, very few cooperate to smooth the operation and help it go more rapidly. Those of us who are on foot on the right hand side face a direct sun that beats on us mercilessly.
I can’t help thinking how old and oft-repeated this scene is in my memory; and in an effort to avoid the effects of the heat and the near claustrophobia, I gaze outside. I observe the dome of the Capitol building, now bristling with walkways and veiled in mesh. Then, I hear someone behind me say:
“Who knows how much time that’s going to take.”
“Ooof – yeah, there’ve already been six who’ve fallen off.”
The second voice is feminine. The first voice immediately responds:
“What! – Fallen?? From where?
“From the scaffolding”
“Not all dead, but the last one is in critical condition”
“Son of a b—“
There’s a long pause and I take advantage of it to get a sideways look at them. They’re two young people. She has short hair and dark, lively eyes. Of the one asking the questions, I can barely glimpse a moderately muscular arm.
“Ah!”, she says suddenly lowering her voice. “Two young guys found gold buried under the floor – three pure gold bars with the seal of Batista on them!”
(An interjection of surprise)
“What did they do?”
“They took them to a jeweler and the guy ratted on them – imagine, now they’re in jail!”
“But what a bunch of bimbos! If that was me, the first thing I’d do would be melt off the seal., Then I’d go and sell it, but little piece by little piece…”
“Everybody knows that all the jewelers in Old Havana work for the MININT (Cuban state security). That business is full of squealers.”
Another pause. From the rest of the dialogue, I gather that the girl is a trained restoration specialist working on that legendary structure. Later, the guy inquires about a mutual acquaintance, and she responds:
“He’s in Spain.”
What follows is a kind of quick panorama of emigrated friends (those they’ve had news of and those they haven’t). The thought flashes into my mind how each Cuban generation claims exile as its own personal hurt.
Did the exoduses of Camarioca, of Mariel, of 1994 – that year when the sea filled with hope and horror – exist at all for these young people? After all “They dwell in the house of tomorrow” as the poet Khalil Gibran says: “That we cannot visit, not even in our dreams.”
Fighting a terrible anxiety to have that bus get started, I look at the people around me. They move, trying to avoid touching. They don’t want to feel someone else’s sweat on them, but eventually they give up. The rough faces with bags under their eyes, their hands clenched under the weight of their packages, the looks of disgust.
Finally, the driver closes the doors and turns on the motor. We move, and I take a last glance at the emblematic Capitol building, symbol of a city that seems to me ever more grotesque and inhospitable.