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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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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Living Abroad

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
.

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