We wanted to see some Cuban countryside, so we decided to take a bus from Havana to Santa Clara, a trip of around 6 hours – give or take. We’d been strongly advised to buy our tickets in advance. We found the bus station, inconveniently located, well away from the centre of town (tourists are not encouraged to ‘explore’ the country). It was a surprisingly modern cement and glass building, which though ugly, in terms of design, did have a sign out front saying what it was. This is a novelty in Cuba, where almost all signs are political – “Vive Fidel!”
Inside, on the left, were two glass-fronted wickets – one marked “Venta de Pasages” (tickets) and the other “Informacion.” As we wanted to travel the next day, and there was only one bus, I assumed we could just buy the tickets, so headed for the “Venta de Pasages” wicket.
As usual, there was a queue. And the guy ahead of me was buying tickets for a large group – likely tourists. The middle-aged, balding, and decidedly tired-looking clerk behind the wicket handled the transaction with painful precision. Using a pencil stub topped with a well-worn eraser, he recorded the date, time and number of the bus and the passenger’s full name on every single ticket.
Once the writing was done, the clerk rummaged below the counter, and produced, with a smile and a flourish, an old wooden ruler. Placing it with ponderous exactitude on one end of each ticket, he tore the ticket neatly from its stub. After giving the tickets to the customer – one by one – he carefully placed the stubs in a dog-eared cardboard box on his counter.
Now it was my turn. In my best and most polite Spanish, I asked for two tickets on the bus to Santa Clara tomorrow. The clerk gave me a withering look: “You have to go to the ‘Informacion’ wicket and make a reservation.”
Taken aback, I made the unforgivable mistake, in Cuba, of questioning an official: “do you mean I can’t buy a ticket here?” His look went from withering to hostile: “I didn’t say you couldn’t buy a ticket. I said you have to make a reservation.”
The ‘Informaction’ wicket was right next to the ‘Venta de Passages’ wicket, behind the same counter. One clerk could easily have manned them both. But there was a woman sitting behind the ‘Information’ wicket. She was a little more pleasant, but equally officious. I asked for a reservation.
“No problema,” she replied, reaching for a massive Dickensian ledger book. I wrote our names out for her on a slip of paper, and she copied them carefully, checking each letter as she wrote, into the ledger. Closing the cover, she told me to come back tomorrow, an hour before the bus, to buy the tickets.
When it all gets too much
Not having learned my lesson from the first clerk, I decided to ask: “Can I buy the tickets now?” Her response was decidedly more positive than her co-worker’s – indifferent rather than hostile. “You can if you want to,” she sighed, clearly bored with the whole exchange. With that she passed the ledger book over to the first clerk.
But by this time he was tending to another customer, so I had to wait again. Once he got round to us, again carefully filling out our tickets and tearing them from their stubs, he ticked off our names in the ledger, and handed it back to the woman with a satisfied smile. He had shown us that he, that they, knew how to do things correctly.
The next morning we arrived an hour early and sat in the cavernous waiting hall with a handful Cubans and a few foreign tourists. (Virtually all tourists are foreign – Cubans cannot afford, or are not permitted, to travel in their own country.) On one side of the room was a glass counter displaying approved tourist souvenirs – postcards and t-shirts of Che, a few boxes of cigars and a few bottles of rum. On the other side was a rack of books. Almost all of them were about Cuba. A few were picture books with wonderful photos. But most were political and historical treatises, all from a distinctly Cuban (paranoid and militant) perspective: Fidel’s endless manifestos, Che’s diaries, Communist Party dogma.
Like most tourist buses, and in stark contrast to the assorted wrecks, and open trucks and wagons used to transport Cubans, our bus was fairly new, with proper padded seats, curtains, air-conditioning, a sound system and even a tv. Unfortunately the air-conditioning was either off or on high, so we were alternately sweltering or freezing throughout the long ride. The sound system or the tv were on the entire time, and always at full blast. Cubans like their music LOUD, and are often shouting at one another even in normal discourse. Luckily we travel with ear plugs – a ‘must have’ in Cuba.
As we left Havana, the bus kept switching from one side of the divided highway to the other, seeking out the side with the fewest potholes. The median over which we crossed was covered with rubble from past construction efforts. Throughout the entire trip we were seldom able to travel at more than 25 or 30 miles per hour for any longer than a few minutes before the driver would slam on the brakes to creep over or through another pot-hole, another break in the pavement or a pile of rubble.
Fortunately we had a series of massive propaganda billboards to entertain us as we went. There was Fidel’s bearded puss glaring defiantly: “socialismo o muerte!” (socialism or death). We wondered if the ‘or’ ought not to read ‘and’… . And there was George Bush’s puss, with the word “terrorismo” writ large underneath. Cuban propaganda is anything but subtle. The state hammers its point home, over and over again.
We stopped for a snack and a bathroom break in a fairly major town about half-way to our destination. The washrooms were the most disgusting I have ever come across, in any country in the world. The women’s toilets had no door on the outside, and no doors on the stalls. There were pieces of old plywood propped up in the openings where the doors should have been. None of the toilets had seats, and none flushed. The floor was awash in urine. The sinks were mostly broken, with no taps and drain pipes that dangled well above the floor. But that hardly mattered: there was no running water.
As we carried on through the Cuban countryside I found the experience more and more surreal. Here I was riding in a relatively luxurious bus watching an American war film as we cruised through some of the poorest, most decomposed villages I have ever seen. Many of the houses and apartment buildings were in an advanced state of decay: crumbling foundations and walls, missing or broken windows and doors, exposed and broken water pipes and wiring, and the usual piles of litter and garbage everywhere. It was particularly heart breaking to see the many ragged children playing amidst the garbage and decay. What kind of life was this?
When we reached our destination we were met by a Cuban friend who had arranged with another friend to pick us up and take us to the small town where they both lived, about 40 minutes’ drive away. Cubans are not permitted to give foreign tourists rides in their private cars. If they do, and they’re caught, they may be fined, or have their car impounded on the spot. But there was no bus service to the town where we were going, and a taxi, if one had been available, would have set us back almost $100. We’d agreed to pay our friends $50 – for them a bonanza that was worth the risk.
From the outset our driver was exceedingly anxious: there were several uniformed and plain-clothed policemen around the bus station. He suggested we meet him around the corner. When he picked us up we noticed that he’d stashed our bags out of sight. He asked us to get in the back seat, slouch down and hide our faces under our hats and scarves. We were to remain hidden until we were well out of the city.
Other articles about Cuba by Ruby may be found at www.rubyweldon.blogspot.com and at www.matadortravel.com/traveler/ruby-weldon.
Copyright © 2011 Ruby Weldon