Cuba’s Astro Buses, Quite an Experience

Dariela Aquique

dari1 HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s public transportation system – arguably close to the top of that long list of things that work badly or do not work at all in the country – is one of our pending public discussions.

If public transportation within city limits is “terrible”, we would need a particularly harsh adjective, something along the lines of “disastrous”, to capture the experience of those longer journeys, known as “interprovincial trips”, which Cuba’s coach company Astro has been offering for a number of years now.

The company had justified its ticket prices, quite high for Cubans living on measly State salaries, through promotional references to the excellence of its services, which included movie screenings, air-conditioning, a drinking fountain and bathroom, and guaranteed punctual departures and arrivals and…well, “a comfortable journey” through and through.

But Cubans have long ceased to enjoy such “benefits” in these journeys. With the exception of air-conditioning, no other on-board service continues to be offered. The bathrooms have all been locked up, the DVD players have stopped working, the drinking fountains are broken and departures and arrivals are fairly off schedule.

dari2This makes for a rather uncomfortable situation, if we bear in mind that an interprovincial trip of this nature (from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, for instance), can last around 13 or 14 hours – or perhaps 18, even 20, if the bus suffers any kind of mishap. The cost of the tickets, however, remains the same.

My recent return trip to Havana was made possible by an Astro bus. I chose this means of transportation, first of all, because it was cheaper than flying (where you can also meet with all sorts of accidents) and, second of all, because it is supposedly faster than the train (which is also a real mess).

Beyond the discomfort caused by the fact most of the things on the bus aren’t working, my trip over was uneventful. This was simply too good to be true and, on the way back, my co-travellers and I suffered the calamity that was in store for us all along.

A mere 10 kilometers from Havana, one of bus’ rear tires burst. The driver immediately turned off the AC, claiming he could not use up the fuel to keep the bus cool while we waited. Luckily, we were near a bridge. We all got off the bus and went under the bridge, to shield ourselves from the sun.

dari3On more than one occasion, we had to lend one of our mobile phones to the driver so he could call the bus terminal, because, according to him, he had no means of his own to do so. We waited for the repair crew from 1 until 5:30 in the afternoon.

They changed the tire begrudgingly and without the slightest haste, telling us there were no backup buses we could be transferred to. When we finally managed to get out of that place, we were all exhausted and starving, and some had urgent physiological needs to attend to.

Someone asked the driver if the “disturbance” entailed any kind of partial reimbursement of the price of the ticket, to which the driver somewhat sarcastically replied: “we were still in Cuba, last time I checked.”

That’s the way the cookie crumbles: always the same, never different. “We’re in Cuba”, this is the reply you get whenever you complain about something that doesn’t work. Here are some pictures for you to see, to get a sense of my atrocious journey on an Astro bus.

Dariela Aquique

Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.


5 thoughts on “Cuba’s Astro Buses, Quite an Experience

  • June 6, 2013 at 10:01 am
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    Your bus ride is an apt metaphor of life in Castro’s Cuba. A long journey in a broken vehicle nobody will bother to fix, and some casual corruption along the way, while everybody pretends to ignore the rising stink of sh*t around them.

    Perfect.

  • June 5, 2013 at 5:28 am
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    This another reflection of the absolute lack of discipline and ownership. Similar Chinese buses, bought approximately at the same time in other Caribbean islands, are impeccable. Why?

    During my youth, Cuba had many inter-provincial bus lines: La Cubana, Ruta 80, Santiago-Habana, Ruta 34, some offering basic price/service to luxury. Neither one, could ever be seen stopped by the side of the highway, except for an accident, timely departure and arrival was a rule and respect for their clients was a pre-requisite. Why?

    Joint venture seems to be the only way of restoring discipline, values and service.

  • June 4, 2013 at 11:33 pm
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    Transtur and TransGaviota are barely any better. More often than not, the bathrooms are just locked right from the beginning of the trip to try to avert the seemingly inevitable bathroom disaster.

  • June 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm
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    Although the ViAzul buses are far better, even here service has deteriorated appreciably. On the trip back from Baracoa to Santiago in October the toilet in the rear compartment was clogged and the full tank was sloshing around, dangerously close to–and sometimes over–the top. You can imagine the lovely aroma that infiltrated the cabin, even to the front third of the bus, where I was seated. It was enough to make me gag. Instead, since I had once worked in a hospital, I just breathed through my mouth, thus avoiding the worst effects of the aroma. Although there was a “crew” of driver, an assistant, or co-pilot driver, and several other ViAzul on- and off-duty employees occupying the front seats, none would deal with the situation. Luckily, I only had to do #1…don’t know what I’d have done if it were necessary to sit on the “throne” and do #2(perhaps this is too much information for your readers)! As we slowly made our way over the mountains, then along the sea, the bus stopped every few km. so that the driver and crew could purchase bananas, papayas, mangoes, cocoruchos (those cone-shaped sweets), even a string of fish freshly caught in the sea by a boy. No one is begrudging the ViAzul crew for making a bit extra, “on the left,” after all, that is the only way to survive in Cuba nowadays, but how about “tending to business” too! (In this case, literally, in cleaning up the place where the passengers “did their business!” Finally, an older German tourist went into a rant, DEMANDING the crew DO SOMETHING. When we stopped in Guantanamo City the bathroom problem was finally delt with, but by then we only had maybe an hour-and-a-half left on this five hour trip. The previous four hours we had to gag on the aroma of ca-ca!

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