Between locals and tourists

By June Fernandez (from the blog Mari Kazetari)

Line to enter a Cadeca money exchange in Old Havana.
Line to enter a Cadeca money exchange in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — For two days in a row I went to a Cadeca (a money exchange center) in Havana, and on both of those days I witnessed the same conflicts between tourists and Cubans.

Foreigners came to the plaza looking for the Cadeca, and when they see one or more people standing in a line in front of the door waiting to get in, they would get in it and form an orderly line.

Cuban’s don’t act like that. They’ll come to the same plaza and ask, “Who’s last in line?” Once they locate the person in front of them, they’ll wander off to some other pleasant spot in the square, a shaded bench for example.

The first day I went to that plaza, I got in the line that had already formed. A Cuban told me that I was actually behind a lady who was sitting next to a kind of obelisk. I told him OK, with no complaints.

But then some Australians came and got in line behind me. This was when another Cuban came up to them trying to explain that were actually behind four or five other people who had wandered off somewhere in the plaza. The Cuban didn’t speak any English and the Australians didn’t understand Spanish.

I tried to interpret, but it wasn’t just a linguistic disagreement. The English-speakers said they didn’t know what the problem was (“What’s the big deal?” is what they said). They were all queued up in the row but they said it wouldn’t be a problem if someone else was supposed to go ahead in front of them.

The Cuban responded saying that the problem was that if other foreigners arrived, they were going to assume that the line was working properly. They would go to the end, unaware of the fact that lines in Cuba are formed differently.

By doing this, they would be creating two different lines, one for Cubans and another one for tourists.

To me, all of this seemed like a lesson against the rigid mindset of those who believe themselves to be from societies that are more civilized and efficient.

After five or six attempts to get the Australians to understand, the Cuban (a tall, white, older man in his seventies…and stubborn) gave up. Instead of arguing, he walked over and began discussing the new immigration reforms with me and another Cuban who was bragging about how he was going to Ecuador whenever he wanted (but not the US, because he didn’t want to go there).

The next day something similar happened with some young women. This time, though, I didn’t try to interpret, which might have been better because the discussion didn’t drag out. A Cuban came up and asked the women, “Quien es el ultimo?” (Who’s last in line?), and they replied in English: “Well, we don’t see anyone behind us.” This Cuban, less stubborn, wrote them off as clueless and found himself a spot in the shade.

Lines are an institution in Cuba. Cubans spend all day in lines. You can spend an hour or more waiting for the bus to come by, or waiting to get eggs or meat, or standing around to pay your phone bill.

To them it’s absurd to form a straight line where people can’t move for any reason, where you would get sunburnt or your legs would fall asleep.

In Havana you have to ask not only who’s last in line, but also who’s next to the last. That way, if the person in front of you gives up and goes home, you won’t be disoriented. With all that information, one can relax and spend their long wait somewhere that’s more comfortable, or they can have a chat with whoever wants to talk.

To me, all of this seemed like a lesson against the rigid mindset of those who believe themselves to be from societies that are more civilized and efficient.


13 thoughts on “Waiting in Lines in Cuba Causes Conflicts

  • Can… be happy you are in Canada, many of the cheap visitors take the Cuba people from Canada as their servant on the cheap, not me, wake up it is a total new enviroment and I am glad that we had this discussion to show how different service is rendered!! You did not make it to the US stay in Canada!!

  • A cola is an invisible waiting line. Invisible because it’s hardly ever a straight or orderly line. People may be sitting, standing, or missing all together with someone being paid to hold their place. Proper etiquette, in Cuba, dictates that you find out who is last in line by asking aloud “Ultimo?” (Who’s last?), when you arrive to a place that obviously has people waiting. You then simply have to remember whom you’re following, and when someone new arrives, you’ll indicate that you’re the one to follow.

  • Very simple solution – all major hotels have a Change desk, and the Cubans can’t go into those hotels. Never a wait unless you’re with a travel partner you have to wait for one another.

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