The Road Test: Adventures at the DMV Part II

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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.

“Any questions?”

“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.



Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Living Abroad

9 responses to “The Road Test: Adventures at the DMV Part II

  1. Jay

    I drove an 88 Izusu Trooper in Guatemala – I am intimately familiar with a car with “sus problemitas.” It is fair to say that “Don Trooper” would have been a poor candidate to test with as the handle to the Emergency brake was actually removable. A funny site- I’m sure you can imagine my Guatemalan roommates sometimes using it as an oversized pistol to shoot at cars that did not drive as recklessly as we mostly did.

    Dig the Rocinante reference as that journey of a man and his dog continues to be a favorite of mine. Or maybe it was an Errant Knight’s horse… I’ll finally get around to that book someday.

    Thanks for the good read

    • I am quite sure I wouldn’t want to run into you and your emergency-brake-pistol gang….driving crazierr than yourr average guatemalan?! That IS a feat!

      Thanks for reading and writing in. Keep on truckin’…

  2. Johnabbotsford

    Thanks for the entertaining read Conner and a reminder of how proud I was of my Cuban wife who passed the written drivers test (which she chose to take in English even though Spanish was an option) here in Oz first go and then ditto for the video simulation perception test AND ditto the actual driving test! She had never driven in Cuba.

  3. Oh gosh, I need to know is passed!!!

  4. I am wishing you well! I remember taking driving lessons in Ghana, West Africa. I could not drive at all at the time. I had paid for for a course of 10 lessons.

    After two lessons the instructor asked if I wanted to go get my license. I was flabbergasted. I said, no, I wanted to learn how to drive first.

    He was vey surprised. “Don’t you want your license?” he asked.

    I suggested he first teach me how to drive. Which was a bit of a problem because he didn’t know a whole lot, but I made him give me 10 lessons and he wasn’t happy about it. Clearly he was sharing the fee with the license guy, and had not expected to have to actually do any teaching.

    I did, however, pass, but mostly because my husband really taught me how to drive.

    This was a long time ago and hopefully the system has improved in Ghana. Many things have, fortunately 😉

  5. Hey Conner,
    I just found your site when I read your story on the “Celebrating Latin America…” ebook. The story I wrote is called “Child’s Play.”

    I’d like to tell you I feel your pain going for a driver’s licence in a Latin Country, but I can’t. When I went for mine on the Island of Roatan, Honduras, nobody even cared if I knew how to drive. An eye test (read the chart), a physical (check my blood-pressure), and fill out some forms in Spanish (friend did that for me.) That was it they laminated the card, hand trimmed it and I was on my way. I wonder if I could use this driver’s license when I visit Cuba?

  6. Good luck!! It’s not easy going through the testing process in another country / language / culture. I failed my first written test in Chile (3 strikes & you’re out). The clincher was what to do if a spark plug was corroded. My answer, “take it to a mechanic” wasn’t on the list! Fortunately the driving part was a breeze… Hope it was for you too!

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