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Countdown: 15 Days to Departure
I got all my mojo working the morning of the road test. I donned my lucky Argentinean underwear, wore my St Christopher’s medal tight around my neck (see note 1), and insisted my beloved husband not accompany me. That’s all I needed. It had taken me two tries to pass the written and the aborted attempt at the road test the day before had pushed my panic button. My time was running out; I needed this driver license.
My friend Angela arrived in her car and we stood around chatting with the other would-be drivers while we waited for Oswaldo The Road Test Cop. He sauntered up late and nonplussed. I looked him in the eye and smiled.
‘Remember me?’ that smile said. Today’s the day.
I knew the drill but gathered in close with the others to listen to his pre-test spiel. I wanted to show him I was respectful and ready. That I meant business. I waited my turn and handed over the required documents: my Cuban ID card, plus Angela’s license and registration. Oswaldo looked them over, plucking Angela’s license from the fan of laminated cards in his hand.
“She can’t be your representante. You need someone with a Cuban license” (see note 2).
I had asked my husband precisely this the night before.
“You’re worrying too much. She can be your representante and you’re going to pass,” he had assured me.
Turns out Mr. Know-it-All was wrong on both counts. Angela couldn’t represent me and the Po Po Cubano didn’t take kindly to me asking the gathered crowd if anyone was willing to stand in for Angela. In the end, a co-worker of my husband’s came to my rescue, but by then my nerves were shot; I didn’t make turns at a true 90° angle, I parked incorrectly, and even confused third gear with first when pulling away from a stop light. It was a disaster and Oswaldo flunked me.
“Practice your turns, pay better attention to how and where you park, and come back next week to try again.”
I was disconsolate and walked home choking back tears. I finally let them pour once I was safely inside. The stress was killing me. Worse, I felt really, really dumb. After all, I’d been driving for years.
Countdown: 8 Days to Departure
I practiced all week. I re-conned the route, memorized the one- and two-way streets so I’d know where to park (see note 3) and familiarized myself with Angela’s Kia. I enlisted my friend Camilo the taxi driver to be my representante.
To be honest, I was a complete mess. My work depended on this license, my backup plan had totally backfired (the jalopy of a truck I was going to “rent” from a friend had blown a fuel pump), and I had no Plan C. I stayed awake at night or woke in the middle fretting about the license, my job, and our financial future. I was nasty that week, fighting with my husband and myself. My stomach permanently ached.
I did breathing exercises. I visualized myself on the tropical balcony of the Cuban DMV receiving my newly-minted driver’s license. I did everything short of pray (and even considered it).
All for naught.
I hesitated when I had the right of way and was snookered anew by the tricky parking question. Oswaldo could have passed me had he wanted but he didn’t. Was he looking for a bribe, or did he just have it out for foreigners I wondered? Either way, I was really up that proverbial creek; my departure was in eight short days and I had only one more chance to pass the road test.
“You’re right: we need to name the car,” Angela said to me when I told her I’d failed. Last week I’d asked her if her car had a name – I felt the need to talk to it, commune and communicate with the mechanical beast.
We agreed the car was male since it was presenting so many difficulties.
“It has to be a good name, a powerful name,” she said to me. “I know! Eleggua!” (see note 4).
I quit practicing the exam route – You’ve been driving for years! I told myself. You have real life experience; you don’t need practice! Still, I slipped a 50 CUC note in my pocket just in case wheels needed greasing (see note 5) and I switched up my representante. This time I took my own weapon: Eliseo, a retired top cop and dear friend. Aside from being an all around great guy – what Cubans call un pan – maybe Eliseo could give Oswaldo some special cop handshake or eyebrow wiggle or something. Couldn’t hurt I figured.
Countdown: 1 Day to Departure
On my last try, I showed up more resigned than nervous. The world wouldn’t stop turning if I didn’t pass the test. I was healthy, I was loved, so whatever. ‘It is what is,’ as Mom would say.
Eliseo and I waited for Oswaldo with yet another group of wannabe drivers. Seems a lot of drivers fail this road test: I recognized the trucker from the week before and a kid with his jeans slung so low I could see his bad Job Boxer knock off underwear.
‘When I was practicing for the test, my uncle set a tiny cup of coffee on the dash and said ‘Drive. And don’t spill any!'” one guy said.
“I screwed up on the parking the first two times I took it,” said his friend.
I looked at Eliseo.
“Don’t worry muchacha. You’ll be fine,” he reassured me.
“Here he comes,” someone said and we all looked over to watch our examiner approach. To my horror, it wasn’t my old buddy Oswaldo. My stomach knotted. My palms grew slick.
Our new examiner took us through the same orientation song and dance as Oswaldo, asked if we had any questions and proceeded to inspect the cars – checking that the blinkers and brakes were in good working order. He then told us we could have our representante in the car if we were nervous.
Eliseo hopped in the back seat. I gave Oswaldo’s substitute my winningest smile. I drove Eleggua down and around the block, pulling over and parking at the curb when told to do so. I looked over at my examiner.
“You drive beautifully,” he said. “Congratulations.”
Within 20 minutes I had my brand spanking new Cuban license. Tomorrow: Hawaii (see note 6).
1. I’m more superstitious than religious, but he is the patron saint of travelers.
2. Angela has been based in Cuba for nearly two decades, but never switched over to a Cuban license, preferring to maintain her US license. Smart lady.
3. This is one of the tricks these driving cops use to fail folks: they take you down a one-way street with cars parked every which way on both sides and ask you: ‘which side of the street will you park on?’ Of course it’s the left, but it gets tricky with Havana’s poor signage and cars parked facing forward and back on both sides of the street. “They can park illegally,” Oswaldo told me as I hesitated. “They have their license. You don’t.”
4. In the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, Eleggua is the trickster god, but also the god who opens pathways, broadening horizons so to speak. Coincidentally (or not), a babalawo once told me that Eleggua was my guardian god.
5. I’m terrible at this kind of thing and offering a bribe in Cuba always carries the risk of backfiring. See other readers’ comments and ideas on bribing Cuban officials here.
6. Those of you following this saga may have been wondering – where is she off to and on what assignment? I’m currently on the Big Island of Hawaii updating the Lonely Planet guide to that wild and wonderful place. And check it out: you can both rent and drive a car in the United States with a Cuban driver’s license (well, in this state anyway).