By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — The lines Cubans stand in while waiting to board city buses aren’t like other lines. To begin with, they never start at a fixed location. Those waiting in these lines must have eagle eyes, enough of an athletic disposition to run like hell when needed and knowledge of the laws of ballistics, to calculate where the drivers of these monsters will make their final stop.
Another detail to bear in mind is that there are often actually two lines, one for those who wish to go seated and one for those who don’t mind standing inside the bus. Those who make frequent use of public transportation recommend the city’s “P” lines.
Among some of the best creations of humorists Hector Zumbado and the late Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera were their articles and monologues on our “guaguas,” a word for which the dictionary offers several meanings but not the one it has in Cuba. The late “camels,” long, articulated vehicles with a hump in the middle and a horrific appearance, also once had a place in the country’s comedian history.
Those who make use of Cuba’s city buses employ linguistic codes that those unaccustomed to the lingo may find utterly confusing. Such souls best not ask who the last person standing in line is, because they may receive the following reply: “No one’s the last person here, friend, this stop if for men of mettle.”
If one looks up ‘mettle’ in the dictionary, you will find it is synonymous with spirit, valor and determination. “If you’re standing in line at a bus stop full of spirited goers, you have to have mettle or you’re history. You’ll be left standing on the curb, buddy!”
If standing in line to board these buses is tricky business, squeezing out of a bus full of people (who refuse to move) is even worse. It’s like trying to squeeze Havana into Guanabacoa or push a camel through the eye of a needle.
Drivers are also quite versed in the street lingo of our days.
One hears a passenger say: “Hey, guy, do me a solid and drop me off at the corner. It’s raining.” If he’s in a good mood, the driver may open the door for the fellow.
Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera used to say: “Havana is a marvelous city. It’s the city of lines. Lines to buy bread, bus lines… lines to buy a soda. The city of lines; Havana is unmistakable.”
“Lines of people in Havana follow certain ethical rules. You can ask a friend to stand in line for you, you can rotate, you can save 2 spots in line at once. Stan still for five minutes anywhere you like, and you’ll see how people start standing in line behind you.
“People standing line for a bus in Havana share certain chemistry, a commitment. For instance, you can approach the line and say: “Excuse me, who is the last person waiting in line for the 164?”…and people understand you. Or you can arrive and ask: “64?”…and they also understand what you mean.”
The lines of people one sees at interprovincial bus terminals or stops are the result of vehicle shortages and growing transportation demands stemming from domestic migration, a phenomenon as important as emigration.
Back in the 1980s there were twice the bus trips that there are today. If we combine this situation with the various deficiencies that characterize the management of the sector, from the viewpoints of State control, planning and business administration, we get a sense of the magnitude and complexity of the problem that Cuban authorities face.
The government made large investments in transportation during the early years of the revolution. By the 1980s, Cuba had 15,800 buses, a figure which had gone down to 7,840 vehicles (nearly half) by 2013. All of these problems lead to longer lines, as there aren’t enough vehicles or personnel to address the demand.
As Cubadebate acknowledged in January of 2015, “the stories about how difficult it is to travel to another province or to the other end of the country are endless. Resold tickets, irregular prices, scams, delays in bus and train departures, nights and early mornings spent at terminals, these are some of the things angering those who leave home, frequently or not.”
The situation of trains is the same or worse. Maritime services, employed by those who travel to the Isle of Pines, are cancelled when bad weather is forecast or one of the ferries breaks down.
Planes are more expensive and services more irregular for Cubans, now that international tourism is on the rise. International arrivals increased by 18 percent during the first three quarters of 2015.
In my fourth and final post on the subject of lines in Cuba, I will address the lines of people we see at banks and government offices, as well as the unwritten but binding rules that govern such lines.