By: Samuel Wylie
In Cuba, there is a line (la cola) for everything. There’s una cola for the lunch counter, for the bars, and for the nightclubs. There’s una cola to buy any ticket. There’s una cola to use the bathroom and to buy eggs and to get ice cream. There’s una cola to buy a coke and there’s even una cola at the bus station to put your name on the waiting list for a bus ticket. I refer to these last two as las colas para las colas. In short, everyone in Cuba is waiting for something.
While in line, though, people don’t actually wait in line. The standard procedure is to approach the cluster and yell “¿Quién es el último?” The last person will raise their hand or give a growling “yo.” It is my job to remember this person and, when the next person arrives, to respond to their call with my own “yo!” Once order is established, people can come and go as they please, so long as they are present when their turn comes. If I get thirsty, I leave to buy a soda. If the ice cream vendor comes by, I step away to get a scoop. If the sun shifts far enough that the shade is now 10 feet to the left, I go stand in it.
This is obviously different than American lines. When I wait for something in the US, I fear for my life. I sense anxiety all around me. When I step forward a couple inches, I feel the breath of the lady behind me as she steps in unison. If someone steps out of line to make a phone call, everyone behind eyes the vacant piece of ground hungrily. As a result of the anxiety and irritability, I become anxious and irritable.
Adjusting to the Cuban colas was a challenge. The first few times, I became panicked at the informality of them: Is this group of people waiting for the same thing I am? Do I need to check in somewhere? Does the guy who just left think he can come back to the same spot? Why is the line not actually in the shape of a line? The Cubans could tell I was lost, but seemed to enjoy watching me struggle inside my own head until I would give up or ask for help. Their expressions seemed to say, look at that cute little yuma trying to get his lunch. Do you think he knows his turn was 4 people ago? After looking dumb in several lunch lines, I found the courage to ask people what to do.
Learning the routine was only half the work, however. In a country where everything is centralized and accessible to every citizen, the lines tend to be lengthy. I am privileged because I don’t have to endure ration lines for food, but when I go to many state-run establishments (the national ice cream emporium, the bus station), it’s not a quick trip. My longest wait to date was for a bus ticket to Camagüey, which took over two hours. It was a day without rain in Havana and the screaming babies did their best to drown out the charming voice of Alex Turner that came through my headphones. I cannot say it was a fun experience. It was, however, the beginning of a breakthrough.
One of the many things Fidel Castro has tried to spread across Cuba is the awareness and dedication to revolutionary causes, or Consciencia. With widespread Consciencia, he preached that Cuba could achieve anything. I don’t believe Cuba has the Consciencia for which Fidel hoped, but the Cuban Revolution has successfully implemented a different characteristic among its citizens: paciencia.
In the bus ticket waiting room, unable to focus on music and not wanting to focus on how hot it was, I began to notice those around me. Nobody was breathing down my neck. The ladies ahead of me gossiped about a relative and the man next to me was grading papers. Mostly, people just waited. Nobody’s expressions were so contorted with frustration that it looked like they were trying to gnaw off their own tongue. Even with the heat and infants and ridiculous wait time, the room was equable.
The rest of my breakthrough came this past week during a solo trip to el oriente, the eastern part of Cuba. I dedicated two days and one night to a low-budget side excursion along the southern coast of the Sierra Maestra. The goal was to arrive at a campground early enough to swim in the shallow cove where the US Navy sank the Spanish warship Cristobal Colon, which guidebooks told me I could see from the surface with a snorkel mask. The fulfillment of this goal was complicated by 120 kilometers of remote and poorly maintained coastal road between the city of Santiago and the campground. My transportation options were limited to a 75 CUC taxi ride or to hacer botella (hitchhike). I chose the latter.
In Cuba, hitchhiking has a fraction of the stigma it does in the US. Hardly anyone has the money for private transportation and many people depend on the kindness of large trucks and busses. Many privately owned vehicles drive between two cities with the sole purpose of picking up travelers for a small fare of 10-20 MN. Because of this, there is an unwritten schedule for many private vehicles and hitchhiking is more a show of support for private enterprise than a dangerous last resort.
I caught my first camion (truck) outside the Santiago de Cuba bus station at 5 a.m. It took me all the way to Chivirico, a coastal town 80km from Santiago. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and asked around about a truck to Ocujal, the town just west of where the campground and ship were located. I was told that a semi-busted old bus usually ran between the two points and would be passing through Chivirico’s at 3:30. I was two-thirds of the way there but had seven hours to wait.
In that moment, Chivirico seemed quaint but not worth seven hours of my time. It had a small square and a couple cafeterias on the main strip. The bus station flanked one end and a dilapidated movie theatre flanked the other. The Sierra Maestra and the Caribbean Sea smashed the town thin and long. It was a purgatorial meat patty in a sandwich of isolation.
The first step was denial. I could not and would not wait for seven hours when I was a mere 40km away from my final destination. Certainly another truck would run through the town sooner. I stood on the side of the road and awaited the diesel-fueled roar of my chariot to salvation. Two hours later, I moved on to rage, depression, and regret: How could I have let myself get into this situation? Certainly I could have planned better. This town blows! I should have stayed in Santiago. At 10:45, I finally accepted my fate. I bought some fried chicken from a street cart and meandered to the town beach. I ate my chicken with gusto, as I had foregone breakfast to catch the first truck. I felt the heat of the sun increasing, so I peeled off my shoes, rolled my shorts, and waded into the perfectly cool sea. A hundred yards down, a boy fished from the shore sans pole, using the weight of his bait to cast out and reeling the line back with his hands. In five minutes, he had a fish. A breeze began to blow and my body temperature became comfortable.
And then, I just was. I was not worried or hot or angry or excited. The environment enveloped me soundlessly, rebalanced itself with my presence and in doing so it balanced me. It was elemental, a moment unable to be reduced to anything less or recreated by the clumsiness of human desire. I’m not much for Zen philosophy. My mother tried to impart her yogi-mediation wisdom on me during my teenage years to little avail. Flowy clothing doesn’t look good on my body type and eucalyptus-sandalwood isn’t my favorite scent. But there on the beach, I felt the forces of clarity, of peace within myself, and of infinite patience. The result was a feeling of immanent satisfaction, internal assurance that everything would turn out all right.
I endured. The day didn’t pass me by, I moved with it. I had more chicken, a longer swim, and a chat with some local youths. The bus came at 3:30 and I hopped on gratefully. The last 40km was spectacular—the road was rough and even absent at points as we wove through coves and hills, perched between the mountains and sea. The Sierra ranged from brilliant greens to smoky blues. It was entirely proud of its stature. Only the clouds that obscured the mountains’ faces hindered their arrogance, interdicting their view of humanity’s awed expressions far below. At the shore, the tide ticked softly up and down the sand—a reminder that even the remote Caribbean coast cannot escape time.
I arrived at the long-awaited campground late in the afternoon. I checked in to my cabin hastily and headed toward the beach. On my way down, I ran into one of the campground hosts. He gave me harrowing news: there were indeed sharks in this region (I had heard that previously), but also a lot of barracuda. He gave me directions on how to find the infamous Spanish war ship, but recommended I didn’t swim. I walked to the point he described and considered my options. I had been patient and I had made the most of a poor situation. Getting chomped by a shark should not be the reward for patient people. I also had a decent tan, so maybe I wouldn’t be white and shiny enough to attract barracuda. And the ship was only a little ways offshore, not that far of a swim.
I went in. Fear is too small of a word for what I felt. At several points I almost turned around but decided I was too close not to try and see the ship. I also decided that if I felt anything, I would swim like hell for shore. I thanked my Czechoslovakian farmer genes for my powerful legs and my parents for the swimming lessons as a kid. Once I thought I was a sufficient distance from the shore, I prepared myself, inhaled, and dove under. And there, just 15m below me, I saw…
There was only the darkness of an ocean that could kill me a thousand different ways. Thankfully, there were neither sharks nor barracuda in sight, but also no cruiser from the Spanish-American War. Perhaps light was too limited in the late afternoon to see clearly. Perhaps my directions were wrong. I didn’t take too much time to ponder. I swam back to shore. Quickly.
Once on solid ground, I lamented briefly but then realized what I had just done. I had successfully hitchhiked 120km in remote Cuba alone and swam somewhere above a casualty from T-Roo’s Splendid Little War. I was lying on a completely empty beach and looking up at the mountains where, only a few peaks back, Fidel and Che established their guerilla headquarters during the Revolution. Everything about it was magnificent. I’m not one to celebrate myself, but I was proud. I wish I had seen the ship, but I was willing to settle. The wait had been worth it.
Back at the campground, I realized I was the only guest for the night. There was a huge outdoor dining room with 120 empty chairs, an untouched volleyball court, and dozens of vacant casitas. It was slightly creepy, but the hosts were good guys. As the cook prepared dinner, I asked the other host about his work:
-Do you live around here?
-About 4km up the hill.
-So you go home during the day when no one is here?
-No, I stay here. I’m working.
-What do you do? Fish? Or is there other stuff to do?
-I fish sometimes, but we’re supposed to stay on the grounds.
-When was the last time you had a guest before me?
-A week or two ago, I think.
-So you don’t do anything in between guests?
-No, we do. We wait.
-And what if no one comes?
-Someone shows up eventually. You did.
The next morning, I climbed to the road while the stars still shone. Before dawn’s shaky light could even creep across the water, a truck rounded the corner and pulled me into the day.
Samuel Wylie is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles.