An Odyssey That Begins in La Coubre / Eliécer Ávila

Railroad Terminal, Camagüey. (GUSTAVO MIRANDA)

La Coubre — the name that comes from a ship involved in a tragic eventthat killed many Cubans — is now a symbol of contemporary sadness: The National Railway Terminal, baptized with the same name.

Its back patio consists of a large roofed space divided into several offices in the form of ships, which serve as the Last Minute Ticket Office. The main part is dedicated to interprovincial buses.

The fact is that in Cuba it is almost impossible to buy a bus ticket at the time you need it, particularly for unplanned travel, causes thousands of people to converge on this site to be added to the infinite waiting lists for every possible destination.

Which is how I ended up there on a Friday afternoon, accompanied by a friend and legendary companion of difficult journeys. Climbing the outside stairs and crossing the wide doorways, a bad smell welcomes us.

Once inside it’s hard to walk. A crowd was standing there, forming wide lines to get on the lists. Others waited sitting down or lying down in some corner, always clutching their luggage which could disappear at the slightest inattention. (As happened to some very young Russian girls who lost their enormous suitcases as they were entertaining themselves taking pictures, and later the police didn’t understand why they were crying.

It was hard to even move in the middle of it all. Finally, after exploring the whole site, we found a little corner temporarily abandoned and made our camp there. We agreed to take turns guarding the suitcases and standing in line.

After three and a half hours standing, I managed to get the window I needed, but the clerk said I could only get on the waiting lists for two destinations. I chose Las Tunas and Puerto Padre. I asked how many there were ahead of me, and the lady whispered, looking down, “In one there are 411 ahead of you and in the other 280, so you can be sure you’re not going today.”

“And to Holguin,” I tried to ask, as other started to push me and the lady had ended the conversation. So I had no choice but to get out of the way.

The whole situation makes you feel like you’re asking, or rather begging, someone to do you a huge favor. As if the price you pay for one of those tickets wasn’t heavy enough: 138 pesos for Puerto Padre-Havana (that is half the average monthly salary in Cuba, and if you need to make a round trip you need more than one’s month’s pay to do it).

Those who designed the public windows must have been military engineers. Because rather than windows they are walls, and to make sure they can hear you and you can hear them, you have to stoops so your face is at the level of the slit for passing documents back and forth.

With the tsunami of noises and the bodies behind you, the glass looks like the screen of a silent movie, but if you ask them to repeat some explanation, they ask you if you’re deaf or they talk to you through the microphone to embarrass you like you’re a scatterbrained Palestinian* and deserve it.

On communicating the bad news passed through the window to my friend, he uttered what just about all Cubans say in these cases, involving blameless mothers and even God. Then he went through the same process to choose the routes to Holguin and Granma, while I guarded the corner for another four hours.

Dozens of men and women wandered around or slept after staying there several days, increasingly filthy, pest infested, tangled hair and eyes like zombies. This raised the tension and produced different types of stress, but the main feeling of that desperate environment was one of deep pity. Where does that old man live? What is he eating? Will he have any money or shelter? Those were the questions I couldn’t get out of my mind.

After so much time and with the increasing desperation, there had to be some action and there was; a sudden disturbance cleared the center of the room. The jealous husband of a dirty disheveled woman with a neck full of hickeys, had a knife in his hand and threatened to kill her and himself, if she was going away with someone else, who was crying more than she was and hiding, using her as a shield.

Three policemen, who were apparently stationed on the second floor there, surrounded the attacker, threw him to the floor and took his weapon. Already handcuffed, they took him outside and a squad car took him away, quickly ending the rampage.

Not even a quarter of an hour had passes when a new scene caught everyone’s attention: two women pulled each other’s hair with an aggressiveness I’d never seen in my life. Like crazy people they frantically rolled on the floor, while a skinny black guy with gold teeth was yelling at one of them, “F…ing let go of her head, you c…”

This time the police came later, I think they were having a snack break, because they came out of the snack bar. It was never clear what started this brawl, at least to us spectators.

It was already after midnight and without hopes until another day, my friend and I got ready to go eat something — very cheap because we were just about to run out of money. We managed to trade the clerk at the snack bar a new bottle of shampoo for four potato sandwiches, which was our only dinner.

With the late night chill the activity was dying down and we started to hear snores, whispers, people coughing like they had tuberculosis… I wondered of the ideologues and the maximum leaders of this country have ever spent a night in La Coubre.

At this point we understood very well how things worked there. It was all very simple: if you wanted to go you had to pay the employees something extra. If you didn’t have this money you would have to work so hard you’d never forget it.

The extra fee to go to Oriente was 10 CUCs. The way it worked was to pass the money through low profile employees who serve as intermediaries, like the cleaners or simply someone you know who plays the role every day like a professional.

These individuals have a very peculiar aspect. Once you get into the dynamic of continuous travel you learn to recognize them, and you see them all the time, hanging around the waiting rooms, starting conversations, looking at everyone, attentive to any potential client they can scare with “how bad this is,” and advising them to go for the fast track even though you’re going to have to part with something.

You come on like a fighting cock and say, “Ten?! Hell, I’d rather wait,” but they know our psychology, they know nothing is more destructive than one hour following another, and they have all the patience in the world. Our strength, however, is not infinite.

At dawn the body is bruised. The brain has gotten no rest, constantly on the alert, and the stomach is beginning to complain. Again, I run the risk of poor response, and ask at the ticket office about the possibilities. They tell me that if there are any, it will be after 5:00 pm. My lion’s strength begins to fade and the intermediary looks at me, nods.

A cop enters the offices where no words are heard with a jar filled with coffee. Everyone drinks, laughing, and they invite others who are outside to join them for a hot sip that, with its aroma, has everyone drooling. You see they are all very friendly with each other. Those who work in these places are very united, all cooperating in the work with the same objective.

And my friend and I don’t talk, we only gesture. We don’t know what smells worse, our mouths, feet or underarms. And the truth is, we can’t get used to it, like others we observe, who don’t seem to have a problem with any of this nonsense…

A new day advances and with the sun at its critical point a door opens unexpectedly. A fat man in a hat announces with a certain discretion that there’s a heavy truck parked a few blocks away going to Santiago and charging 120 pesos per person. It just takes a minute to decide: Let’s go! Surely if we stayed we would spend another night like the last and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Soon we would pay dearly for our imprudence. Traveling 400 miles lying in a steel truck bed, under sun, rain and calm, intermediate breaks, delayed by the driver’s lovers, and two near accidents that left us waiting for hours, I will describe on another occasion.

From Diario de Cuba

20 July 2012

*Translator’s note:
Palestinian: People in Havana often refer to “people from Eastern Cuba as Palestinians” — a reference to their “stateless” status; Cubans must have a residency permit to live in Havana. Those caught without one (in the routine sidewalk checks of everyone’s ID) are immediately sent back to their home provinces.