Category Archives: bureacracy

The Gift of Aché Part I

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Folks who know me (or who are paying close enough attention) are aware of my recent rough go of it. Illness, death and dying – that up close and personal, at-the-bedside type of illness and dying – have defined my past 12 months. To put it bluntly, this past year has been a bitch, with moments, days worth of long moments, when my surrender seemed certain.

One of the harshest blows was the death of my friend Angela (known in these parts for her inimitable Cuban Thanksgiving). It was cancer, she was too young, and too loved. To boot, hospice was what hospice always is: well-intentioned and the best compromise given the situation, but sad and painful and a little bit cruel for everyone involved.

I loved Angela and the loss I felt when she finally died – peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the closest approximation of agape I’ve so far seen – was profound. The grief was shared amongst many and in that there is some solace, but I wasn’t sure that would suffice to carry me through the next steps: I was asked to help clean out her house in Havana and distribute her worldly goods.

The task was entrusted to a five-person team of her nearest and dearest on this side of the Straits and we undertook the task as Angela would have: with a weighty combination of duty and respect, love and courage. She was meticulous in her wishes and armed with a detailed list of who got what, we tackled the job with sorrow-tinged stoicism.

The work went quickly because this is the way of Cubans with a task before them; her computer equipment and kitchenware, jewelry and electronics were distributed as per her written instructions, her love letters and professional correspondence kept confidential. But one wish remained problematic to honor: she asked that Triunfo de Yemayá be transferred to her older brother in South Florida.     

This intricately carved and painted headboard was homage to the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea and motherhood; surrounded by the magical elements of her domain and influence, the piece was made especially for Angela because she was muse to many, inspiring love and dedication and creativity. Anyone who had been invited into her home over the decades will remember that big, beautiful work of art, stirring memories of good food and friends and the positive energy so engendered.

My problem was Triunfo de Yemayá was as bulky as it was heavy, with fragile protruding bits, and the practical challenges inherent in delivering it to her brother in Miami were many. And my responsibility alone. Not surprisingly, the piece leaned against my office wall for months while I grieved and tried to figure out how to get it across the Straits.    

Triunfo de Yemaya, sitting in my office

The first stumbling block was the crate. This can be a challenge anywhere, but especially in Cuba where resources are scarce and fudging on details, craftsmanship, and follow-through rife. I talked to artist friends and curators to try and find someone to do a proper job of it (see note 1) with little luck. For months no wood was available and the expertise to build a proper crate apparently lacking. To make matters worse, prices carried a Yuma tax, which still rankles, even after 10 years in residence. Triunfo de Yemayá remained an emotional and psychological brick, shoring up my office wall.

And then I met Adam.

(ACHÉ #1)

A babalawo from Centro Habana, Adam is one of those Cubans who can find, fix or resolve anything. In retrospect, it was entirely fitting that a babalawo should step into the picture given the tenor and title of the piece. Within two days, Adam built a beautiful, close-to-MOMA quality crate cheap which would protect Yemayá on her trip across the Straits. Procuring the necessary export papers (see note 2) was the next step and so seamless it felt positively First World.

Packed nicely and with the paperwork squared away, I felt lighter and brighter – I was finally seeing through Angela’s last wishes.

Then I got to the airport.

For those who have never been here, taking big luggage out of Cuba is an anomaly and just a little bit crazy, if you ask me. Even so, lowering the crate from the roof of the Lada felt good and approaching final. How misplaced our feelings can sometimes be.

Yemaya: pre-crate, en route to get export papers

“I know you from somewhere, but can’t place your face,” I remarked to a guy standing nearby as I angled Yemayá on to a luggage cart.

“I processed your export papers at the patrimony office. Let me call ahead to our transport specialist so he can smooth your way; he’s on the tarmac now.”

(ACHÉ #2)

As he made the call, I made my way into line, eliciting murmurs and stares as I wheeled my unwieldy luggage towards check-in.

“Are you exporting a TV?” a tourist entirely unclear on the Cuba concept asked.

I laughed. “No. TVs come in to Cuba, they don’t get taken out,” I said, before explaining the story behind the voyage of Yemayá.

As I checked in, the charter representative told me I was 60 pounds over my weight limit and the crate, while lovely, would not fit through the X-ray. Somehow I hadn’t accounted for these factors.

“How can we resolve this, mi amor?” (see note 3) I asked with a smile, taking the opportunity to explain the favor and duty I was doing and the duty I felt to transport the piece.

A $40 “tip” took care of the weight limit issue and the chief cargo officer was summoned to escort Yemayá to that area of the airport where there was an extra grande X-ray machine for oversized luggage. But there was just an hour until the flight and a truck couldn’t be located to get the piece over to cargo. Just then, the aforementioned transport specialist from the National Registry appeared at my side.

(ACHÉ #3)

They decided to go to Plan B.

Wielding the hammer I’d brought for the purpose, the crate was opened and inspected by the Registry’s transport specialist, the chief cargo officer, a customs agent and a couple other rubberneckers.

“My saint is also Yemayá,” someone said, their proclamation hanging in the tiny, crowded office as a final word of sorts.

Working together, we got her repacked right for the next leg of her trip.

“Now what?” I asked, looking at the clock and wondering if 35 minutes would be enough to complete this part of my mission.

“We’re done here. Now we wheel it on to the tarmac and put it on the plane.”

(ACHÉ #4).

As I bid my crew adieu with a hug and the customary right cheek kiss, I heard someone say: “now let’s see what happens in Miami.”

Stay tuned to learn the fate of Triunfo de Yemayá!

(For those wondering, aché means “«the force», not in the sense of violence, but as a vital energy which creates a multiplicity of process and determines everything from physical and moral integrity to luck.”)

Notes

1. In this I have some experience since I lived with an art handler/installer my last four years in the States and precisely how fine art should be transported and handled.

2. To export patrimony +/o art of a certain caliber from cuba requires easy to procure paperwork and 10 CUC; my experience at the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Vedado was one of the most efficient and friendly I’ve ever experienced here.

3. While compañero and compañera may be waning as preferred terms of address, mi amor never will.

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How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”

Notes

1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.

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Driving Eleggua: Adventures at the DMV, Finale

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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).

Notes
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).

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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.

Notes

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.

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Cubans Do it Better: Adventures at the DMV Part I

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I’ve never been a fan of the DMV. There’s the bureaucracy of course – a paradigm of grouchy inefficiency with which I’m sure you’re familiar – but it’s more than that. It’s too many hoops to jump through and rules and the petty (but potent) power wielded by the cogs in the department of motor vehicles machine that chap my ass.

So when my US driver’s license expired, my gut seized up and more hairs grayed as I imagined the horror of the Cuban DMV (see note 1). The adventure started when I tried to get a copy of Ley #60 – Cuban rules of the road – to study up. The DMV didn’t have any and after a brief consultation, the nice lady cop suggested I check across town at the driving school.

I hoofed it over there in a McCarthy-era Dodge and walked a dozen long, hot blocks under a blazing Cuban summer sun only to have the dark, heavy-lidded compañera at the reception desk inform me that they didn’t have any. After almost nine years in Cuba, I know not to ask ‘why?’ But my disappointment must have showed, for the desultory lady livened up to say: “the new regulations are being implemented. The books are being printed up now.”

“and they’ll be ready?…”

The somnolent curtain descended again and she shrugged. After a moment she offered to transfer a digital version of the old road rules book onto a memory stick if I had one.

I didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board, which meant I’d have to go about things ‘a lo cubano‘ or ‘por la izquierda‘ (see note 2). An Internet search brought up Ley #60 (all 67 pages of it) and friends supplied the same classes and practice quizzes given at the fancy, hard-currency driving school.

I set to studying.

Some of the Spanish tripped me up (I had never had cause to use the word contén and can anyone explain to me in plain English the difference between a remolque and semi remolque?!) but luckily, Cuba is a signatory to the 1949 UN Convention on Road Traffic, so most of the US road rules with which I’m familiar applied. I skimmed the rural transit section – surely I don’t need to know the tare weight of a tractor trailer or speed limits for horse carriages. I took the quizzes, did OK, and readied myself for the written exam (see note 3).

I arrived bright and early – a bit nervous, but excited. For no reason, it turns out: the computers were down. I’d have to come back the next day. “Or better yet in two,” said the cop with the boyish good looks and tender smile. He was easy on the eyes even as he delivered the bad news.

My time was running out you see and this unforeseen delay was deeply troubling. I was due to leave soon on assignment and I would have to cover a lot of ground, in a context where a car is compulsory – think LA or the French Riviera. I needed this gig. We needed the money. The debt I imported from my life “before” in the US continued to grow (see note 4) and my income wasn’t keeping pace. This was our money for most of 2011. I couldn’t blow it. I had to get that Cuban license.

Countdown: Four Weeks

I returned two days later to take the written. The system was still down. I asked the comely cop for a phone number (no, not his – faithful readers of Here is Havana know I’m hopelessly devoted to my husband) to call before trudging over again. I phoned the next day to see if thee system was up and running.

Game on.

The waiting room was archetypical Caribbean, sporting coral-colored walls and a phalanx of tropical plants leading to the balcony where new drivers awaited their laminated, holograph-imprinted licenses. That balcony was my goal. Poco a poco.

I waited to be called into the exam room. A nearly life-sized poster of Raúl loomed above me. He wore his poker face and olive greens, but somehow remained avuncular in a way that Fidel can be but isn’t often. The quote emblazoned in red below brother Raúl was new to me: “gossip is a divisive and counterrevolutionary act.” Here was a man after my own heart.

I was summoned into the exam room and let the AC wash over me. A dozen computer terminals occupied by wrinkled grandpas and young studs in bad Hugo Boss knock offs lined the room. This was much more high tech than I expected and more modern than I was used to. All around me I saw furrowed brows punctuated by nervous laughter. Men outnumbered women four to one.

I sat at terminal 3 and began the test. I knew most of the answers but not all. The Spanish was somewhat confusing and I second guessed myself. I got the question about tractor tare weights and failed by one wrong answer – just shy of the required 75 points to pass. Another setback. More stress, which grew when the proctor with a keen eye for cheaters (and there were several) told me I had to wait a week before I could take it again. No exceptions. No overrides of the computer system.

“Study up and come back next Friday at 11am when I start my shift.” Was that a wink or a nudge I saw when she said that? I certainly hoped so and planned to show up next week with a package of high quality, hard currency coffee for the affable cop proctor.

Countdown: Three Weeks

I read every word on each page of the 67-page long law. I highlighted tricky concepts and took copious notes. I checked terms with my husband I didn’t understand. One sign – described, but not pictured anywhere – was a complete mystery to everyone we consulted. It had something to do with railroad crossings, we got that much, but otherwise was a complete puzzlement. The written exam always had a ‘what does this sign mean?’ question, but what were the odds I’d get this one?

I returned the Friday following nervous, but more confident (the coffee weighing down my handbag helped). I hailed Raúl and his sage words for all the revolutionary chismosos and strode into the exam room. The nice proctor was nowhere in sight. I felt stood up and doubted the policewoman with dyed jet black hair and fire engine lipstick would be as kind.

‘Focus, Conner, focus,’ I admonished myself.

Elvira’s Cuban cousin left the room and the kid on my right with a marijuana leaf belt buckle as big as my palm began feeding answers to his socio on my left. Really? Cheating on the DMV permit test? That’s unethical and dangerous; I don’t want to share the road with the idiot that needs to cheat on the written. Should I tell Elvira, I wondered?

‘Focus, Conner, focus.’

Then came question 11. It was a red and white railroad sign with an inverted V below a red X. The mystery sign from the night before. I called Elvira over.

“Hi there. I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen this sign here. Does it even exist in Cuba?”

She laughed and leaned over my shoulder to check out the sign on the screen. “Well, some are international and correspond to the treaty to which Cuba is a signatory, but you don’t necessarily see them around.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

She leaned in again to consult my screen. “Don’t worry. You answered correctly.”

Buoyed, I set to the remaining nine questions. When I’d finished, I started from the beginning, re-reading each question carefully, parsing the Spanish. I went through all 20 again and reviewed my work. I was just about to click ‘Finish and get results,’ when a film crew entered and started shooting. Elvira told the classroom to continue as if they weren’t there. It was the prime time program On the Road where the finer points of Cuban road rules are discussed for a half hour each week (see note 5). Seems yours truly was going to feature.

My hand was sweating. I hovered over ‘Finish and get results.’ I clicked. 95 out of 100, with just one incorrect response: question #11 with the mystery railroad sign. Gracias, Elvira.

Stay tuned for Part II of Cubans Do it Better: The Road Test
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Notes

1. Officially called the Oficina de Licencia de Conducción, conveniently attached to the local police precinct.

2. Note to self: when a problem needs resolving, best to start “Cuban-style,” consulting with informal channels known literally as doing things “via the left.”

3. This process also included supplying $30 in official stamps, an eye exam (performed at my local polyclinic), a medical exam, and a couple of photos.

4. Note to all would-be expats: this is a really bad move. IRS, student loans, family floats – whatever the debt, try to clean it off your plate before moving abroad.

5. If all this attention to Cuban traffic law – new regulations, prime time TV shows, and the like – seems odd, it isn’t when you consider that the #5 cause of death in Cubans as a whole is accidents (it’s the #1 cause of death in Cubans aged 5-19); the overwhelming majority of these are traffic accidents.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, health system, Living Abroad