I clutched the paper in my hand like a young girl on her first solo bus trip. I had read the instructions three times already: take the P1 or P5 to Calle G and then the 174 to General Lafiette y Mayui. In my pocket was the 1 Cuban peso (equivalent of about 5 cents) I would need to traverse Havana from Natalia’s house in Vedado to the hilly neighborhood of Santo Suarez where my friends Carlos and Jorge live. A taxi would have cost $15 and besides I wanted to get over my anxiety about taking the bus.
When I lived in Havana in 1996, I had three means of transportation—my feet, my bright red Chinese-made Flying Pigeon bicycle, or the bus. The bus was always the last resort because they ran so irregularly and were always packed. Fuel was scarce, and to move people efficiently, Cuba invented a bus-truck combo called a “camello” or camel—a diesel truck pulling two buses (no seats, standing room only) connected by a “hump” in the middle, hence the nickname. This provided the worst possible transportation experience—hot, sweaty bodies packed against each other, holding on for dear life as the camello lumbered over pot-holed streets to its destination. The camellos are gone now, as are the thousands of bikes that appeared in the streets overnite during that time of scarcity called the “Special Period.”
The buses are better now —newer, more modern, less crowded, running on some kind of schedule. So I felt ready to try. I arrived at the stop a few blocks from the house and asked the customary question: Quien es el ultimo? Who is the last to arrive at the stop? But there was no line really and a woman answered that at this stop there was no ultimo. I waited with a few other people for the bus. All kinds of transport passed us by—machinas or almendrones (old American cars from the 40’s or 50’s, that drive along a certain main thorofare discharging and picking up passengers), buses (called guaguas in Cuba) of all types, regular tourist taxis, Taxi Ruteros (I have no idea how those work—they might be like the dollar vans in Queens).
After about 15 minutes (a short wait on a Sunday afternoon in Havana) my bus showed up and I climbed aboard, handing over my 1 peso coin and asking the driver to please let me know when we got to my stop. I sat on a handicapped seat, ready to vacate if necessary, observing the comings and goings on the bus. People gave up seats willingly to older passengers, mothers with kids and people with lots of packages. Viejitas held onto small children, not their own, or helped them climb up into their laps. Curious but friendly glances came my way. And the bus bumped along the streets of Vedado, past the crumbling facades of Centro Habana, past the houses and store fronts stripped of paint down to their grey cement –where people sat and smoked or chatted with neighbors—into the hills of Santo Suarez.
“Please let me know when we get to my stop,” I reminded the bus driver. “Si, Si. No hay problema. Don’t worry.” The trip was turning out to be longer than I thought, longer than Carlos had estimated it would be. The bus was almost empty when it turned into a narrow street. Ahead was the bus terminal of Lawton and it appeared that’s where the driver was headed. Maybe they turn around here or something I thought, hoping for the best. But no, the bus pulled to a stop inside a parking lot full of buses.
A women in a military looking olive green uniform stepped into the bus. “Chofe,” she said to the driver. “You have a clienta still in the bus. That would be me. “Ay dios mio,” the driver said, clapping his hand to his forehead. “So sorry. We passed your stop. I forgot.” “What do I do now?” Luckily I bought a cellphone to use while I am here. I called Carlos who was waiting for me at the stop I was supposed to get off at. “I’ll have to take another bus back, I guess. Here comes one—the 174.” “Take that one. Take that one. Get of at Lacre. Tell the bus driver to let you off at Lacre. I’ll wait for you there.” Up I go. Another peso. A new driver. “Can you please let me know when we get to Lacre?” “Sit right there.” He pointed to the seat directly opposite his. “I’ll let you know.”
And he did. We had gone FAR past the original stop—it took 15-20 minutes to get back there. But there they were—Carlos and Jorge—both more grey-haired than last year, Carlos thinner. “I’ve been going to the gym,” he said, proudly patting his midsection. The familiar house, the lively daschunds, the hijocotea (turtle) in her tank. She has grown from the size of a quarter to the size of a dinner plate in the 20 years that I’ve known Carlos. (Hijocotea is another of my famous mistakes in Spanish. I’ve been known to refer to a turtle as a hijocoteca, a word that doesn’t exist but suggests a turtle at a discoteque). I love this family—Carlos, who I first met at the AIDS Sanitarium working with GPSIDA, the AIDS Prevention Group, Jorge his partner of many years and Mama, the matriarch of the family, 85 years old who plays word games on a Samsung tablet after dinner.
I will spend the night, take a hot shower in the morning (yay!) and make my way back to the bus stop. I think I know where to get off.* *This morning I caught the bus exactly as my instructions indicated, but when it came time to get off I couldn’t make my way fast enough through the crowded bus to the door and we passed my stop—which meant we went under a tunnel to a different neighborhood, which meant I had to cross the street and wait again for a bus to take me back. Oh well.