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So I passed the written – a test my friend Pilar called “easy” but which took me a couple of tries (while my ego took a beating) to master. In the end, I’d triumphed. I’d passed; the hard part was over. I had my Cuban driving permit. I wasn’t a bit worried about the road test – I’d been driving for years before my US license expired, including in Havana. It was just a formality.
Famous last words, as Mom would say.
Countdown: 16 Days to Go
Our friend Camilo stopped by for a visita on the eve of the road test. This was serendipitous. Camilo is a professional taxi driver and an old hand at Cuban rules of the road.
“You’ll be fine – just be careful how and where you park. They like to get tricky with that.”
This gave me pause.
“How about the car I’m using? Does it matter that I’m taking it in kind of a clunker?” It wasn’t one of those Meyer Lansky-era jobs mind you, but a car with sus problemitas nonetheless.
“As long as it’s manual – you can’t take it in an automatic. And make sure the emergency brake works. They won’t let you test if it doesn’t.”
The emergency brake, of course, was the car’s major problemita. It was totally flojo, flaccid. Stopping that car with the emergency brake was like trying to shoot pool with a piece of rope.
Sleep was elusive that night. I could blame the refurbished mattress, but my tossing and turning and anxious sighs were caused by images of loose emergency brakes and personal failure followed by financial ruin.
We arrived bright and early the next morning at the police precinct parking lot where the road test began. My stomach was in knots and my eyes had the itch and irritation of insomnia – allegories for my mental and emotional state. It wasn’t yet 8:00 am and already three were three testees, plus their representantes – those folks who drove us to the test and would perform the car inspection before setting out. I took el último. We chatted to pass the time. My hyperkinetic, chain smoking husband did little to allay my nerves.
My heart was beating faster than is normal or healthy when Oswaldo, our examiner (or inquisitor, depending on how you look at it) strode up. He gathered us around and explained the exam. He reviewed common mistakes and what skills he’d be looking for.
“If we fail today, how soon can we come back to retake the test?” I asked. My clock was ticking faster than a childless 40-year-old with maternal tendencies and I needed to know exactly where I stood.
“You have to wait a week and can only take it three times. If you fail all three times, you have to wait a year before taking it again and then you start from zero, with the written.”
He asked for all the candidates to step forward with their documents. I was the lone foreigner. There were some younger folks with their bling and blasé attitude, plus an army guy (see note 1), a truck driver, and a tall dreadlocked dude with an extranjera girlfriend so butt ugly she could have cracked a mirror (see note 2).
Oswaldo asked each representante to take the wheel of the cars we’d be testing in to verify that the blinkers, brake lights, and emergency brake were in working order. My husband tossed his smoking cigarette aside and got in the car.
“Accelerate and pull the break,” he was instructed.
He did so. Oswaldo looked at me.
“Back up and do it again. Without stepping on the brakes this time.”
The love of my life did as he was told and coasted to a stop too many yards away.
Oswaldo shook his head. “You can’t take the test in this car. Can you find another?” I told him we would.
My husband called his office and they sent over an even older car that rattled when it rolled. Now I had sweaty palms to go with my irregular heartbeat. This car, not surprisingly, also failed the pre-test inspection. I was starting to get seriously worried. My Plan B – tossing a buddy of mine a “Benjamin” every week for use of his jalopy truck during my assignment abroad – was tenuous at best and I there was no Plan C. I walked home steamed.
After raging against my husband’s shitty work vehicles to our empty living room, I gave my good friend Angela (she of the Cuban Thanksgiving) a call. She had a nearly new Korean jobbie – small and simple – that I was sure she would lend me. She’s solidaria like that. Not only did she agree, she came over later that afternoon so I could give it a test drive.
“Does your car have a name?” I asked her once I was behind the wheel.
She looked at me as if I’d asked her to join me on a stroll of the Malecón with an ‘abajo el socialismo‘ sign.
“It’s just that I know a lot of people who name their cars: Bruce, Chico, Rocinante. That way you can talk to them – maybe cajole them into behaving better. Kind of like plants or kids.”
I took Angela’s no name car for a spin and it felt like I always did behind the wheel: like an experienced driver. We agreed to meet the next morning in the police lot.
Stay tuned for Part III of Conner’s Adventures at the DMV.
1. I steered clear of any chit chat with this fellow for his sake: all members of the Cuban armed forces who come in contact with a foreigner – even inadvertently – must file some ridiculous paperwork about the encounter. I learned this one day as I sat on my friend’s couch when her nephew dropped by. He was in uniform and tried to hightail it out of there before he was compromised, but too late. This regulation of contact with foreigners is why folks in uniform looking for a botella (hitchhiking – common throughout Cuba) won’t get in your car if you offer them a ride.
2. It’s not my style to notice – much less comment – on someone’s physical appearance (beauty is on the inside after all) but this woman was extraordinarily, exceptionally ugly making me think other factors were likely at play in this Cuban-foreigner hook up.