By Veronica Vega
HAVANA TIMES – In the face of current COVID-19 restrictions that stop people from leaving their municipalities, I was able to hire a taxi and visit my sister who lives in Cotorro, who had managed to get me some rice.
I was getting ready for a long trip that involves taking three buses. The only enjoyable part is looking out the window at the green outside. The worst part is it takes me a whole day practically to get there, stay a while and come back.
I was really surprised to discover that the trip only took us 15 minutes! Of course, 20 CUC paid for the privilege of a direct journey, my husband and I were the only passengers.
Heading back, I couldn’t help but feel a bitter pang of being scammed. I thought about all those years when my mother was still alive, and the many times I would have liked to travel this same distance from Alamar to Cotorro, just to give her a kiss. I could sense she wouldn’t be around in this world much longer. However, I didn’t do it because of this real distance, which is in fact false. All because I never had a car to travel the exact distance on a map and travel freely.
A freedom unknown by the vast majority of Cubans, who jam into broken-down buses that travel across the capital. Many of us had to turn to the “camello”, this macabre invention that transformed huge trucks, crammed with people, into the only affordable option for traveling across the city.
It’s as if I have just woken up from a long dream right now, I look at my neighbors who have a car. And I think, with envy, about just how fast they can do everything in their lives.
I remember that my maternal grandfather had a car. My mother would tell us that she would go with her parents and siblings for a “picnic” on Sundays. I’ll never forget the downheartedness she used to say: “It makes me sad that you (my daughters) haven’t seen anything.”
Henry Ford’s dream last century, of every regular worker having their own car, isn’t a reality in 2020 Cuba. It’s impossible to pay for one in cash, and you can’t even buy one on credit.
To top things off, we don’t have a subway system in cities, or trams, much less Uber. Or public bikes for rent in any square, like you see in the civilized world. Nor can you buy a bike for an affordable price at state-led stores.
But now I’m remembering this feeling of living in a split country, which I first felt nearly three decades ago.
One night in ‘92, I was in Vedado, desperate to get back home to Alamar. The crowd, fed up of waiting for a bus for over an hour, had spilled onto G street. Many ended up lying down on the grass. I don’t know whether it was to look at the stars. I don’t know whether their minds were stuck on “giving up”.
All I remember was feeling panic. This claustrophobic feeling that my destiny was being governed by external forces (not a God, but a government) who didn’t care about my insignificant existence.
I instinctively walked towards 23rd Street. I stopped on a corner. Then, without thinking, put out my hand to flag down a car stopped at the traffic light. The driver gestured for me to get in.
I got in, the traffic light changed and he started driving the car, which belonged to the tourism sector. The driver was friendly and chatty like most Cubans, telling me he had just come from the Comodoro hotel. I could sense this other country in his words, plus the fact I had just left a paralyzed world behind. A parallel universe to packed bus stops and repeated tastes every day. The bitter grimaces and the almost colorless tones with which depression shows us reality.
There was another Cuba, where “waiting” and “sacrifice” wasn’t the only permanent experience. A country where existing doesn’t mean wearing yourself out to the point your dreams become dimmed, in this disagreeable substance that is survival. A Cuba with options, solutions. A country in movement.
This difference is even clearer today, with transport options for tourists, both in the state and private sectors.
The other island natives can only get to know once they give up on it and return as dual citizens. Others walk down mysterious roads, involving shady silence and loyalties. Cuba’s widespread dysfunctionality and even paralysis is only justified and upheld by this group of society.
We, the overwhelming majority, who have no idea what a direct trip is, only have the present crisis (pandemic and second lockdown) to console us. It makes us even miss packed buses because now there is no public transport and even a curfew. We miss the slight autonomy we had to leave our municipalities and return, even if it took the entire day.