Travel, Whatever the Cost / 14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez

The "last minute" terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)
The “last minute” terminal in Havana for the purchase of interprovincial bus and train tickets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 18 July 2016 – “Give me the suitcase, I’m off to the countryside,” says the chorus of a tune that gets more popular during the school holidays. Many families visit their relatives in rural areas, travel to tourist destinations in other provinces, or spend some days camping far from home. Interprovincial transport collapses with the high demand in July and August, while customers’ criticisms also intensify.

Under a roof of metal tiles that converts the place into a free sauna, hundreds of people are waiting this weekend to travel “last minute” or “on the waiting list” from the terminal on Puerto Avenue in Old Havana. Some of them no longer remember when they got there, because the hours have passed one after another, without hearing the good news that their number in line can board the next bus.

The expansive hall is a place where people spend a lot of time. Friendships are created there, some play cards and others take advantage of no one looking to have a sip of alcohol to help them forget the fatigue. The most impatient end up paying a private car to take them to their destination at ten times the price of the official ticket.

Iliana has worked there since they opened the new “last minute” terminal and knows that in these summer months the provinces most in demand are those in the east of the country. A situation that is repeated “at the end and beginning of the year, on some special dates such as Mother’s Day, school holiday weeks and summers.”

Near Iliana a woman dozes on a suitcase, a little boy cries because he’s hot and a furtive peanut seller manages to sell some of his merchandise. All are attentive to the monitors that announce the numbers on the waiting list that can board the next bus, but for several hours no vehicle “has seats.”

A murmur of discontent spreads among the passengers with the first numbers on the list of routes that are longest, to the east of the island. “That’s because the drivers themselves and the conductors resell free spaces before they get here,” complains a father with three kids.

The man asserts that the buses leave from the central Astro terminal, near the Plaza of the Revolution, and between there and the waiting list terminal
“the employees themselves sell the unoccupied seats, arriving at the terminal with only one or two, to be consistent with the formalities.” No other passengers join in the customer’s outraged complaint, some look at the floor and others fan themselves mechanically, their eyes glazed over.

The most prudent travelers are not at this location. They bought their tickets three months ago from the state interprovincial bus system, but such a decision takes a lot of forethought and quite a bit of risk. “I just had to be sure of getting to Morón after my wife confirmed she’d have a vacation from work,” said Raudel, who is from Ciego de Avila but has been living in Havana for the last two decades and this weekend is waiting at the “last minute” station.

Two young men in a corner of the hall decide not to wait any longer. “I’ll buy the ticket outside, because I have to be at my sister’s wedding in Palmarito del Cauto and if I don’t leave now I won’t get there in time,“ one of them tells several customers who are seated nearby. The young man will add to the 169 peso coast of a Santiago de Cuba some 15 convertible pesos – for a total of more than three times the official price – to get there.

“It won’t fail me,” he says, and he notes a connoisseur of the “mechanism” that makes things appear even when the blackboard says they’re out. “I pay and I get on the bus a few blocks from here,” he explains. “No one sees me and it’s just an agreement between the driver and me.”

Some have listened to the call to be careful. “The inspectors are everywhere,” warns a woman heading to Trinidad. There is a lot of surveillance, but it doesn’t fix the problems with transport, what they have to do is import more cars and lower the prices of the tickets which are too high,” she says.

In the recently concluded session of the National Assembly, the deputies criticized the constant violations in the itineraries in urban and interprovincial transport in the country. Also figuring into the debate were the corruption in the sale of tickets at some terminals, irregularities in the vehicle control stations, and the poor maintenance of the roads.

The deputies also mentioned the lack of comfort in the Yutong buses – from China – which operate on the interprovincial routes of the state company Astro, the lack of information for travelers, the disconnect between ticket prices and service, the overuse of the equipment and the poor cleaning standards. But this is only a distant echo for travelers who, lately, suffer firsthand the rigors of getting around the island.

Night begins to fall in the “last minute” terminal and some get comfortable in a corner planning to sleep on their luggage. “I do this twice a month, so this place is like my second home,” says a young woman who studies at the Higher Institute of Art. The rain sounds on the metal tiles and the loudspeaker emits the lucky numbers of those who will take the next bus.