It was 1995, a sweltering July afternoon. My friend Odalys and I stood at an Old Havana bus stop, not far from Cathedral Square. We wanted to go to Coppelia, a spider-shaped ice-cream parlor. The ice-cream parlor, because it was the only one left.
We waited for a camel. No, this isn’t a Saharan fantasy. Cuban camels are real, though mechanical ones: eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers welded together and joined by two “humps.” They are also dirty, and overcrowded, suffused with a permanent smell of sweat.
The bus stop had been used as a public bathroom by drunks and dogs the previous night. It smelled of old pee (human and animal) and of something unknown, but definitely rotten that occupied a nearby, chock-full garbage container. Only the salty Caribbean breeze that came from El Malecón, the seawall, assuaged the effects of the olfactory assault.
The tropical sunshine that gets so many laudatory remarks from travel writers hurt my eyes. The wool blanket of heat fell over the city, wrapping it in a suffocating embrace.
And, then, mercifully, our camel, the M-2, showed up.
At war-cry “Ahí viene” (Here it comes), we all took positions like pirates ready to attack a galleon laden with gold. Odalys elbowed an old man, kicked a woman and managed to occupy a prime location, by the sidewalk. I was left behind among the less fortunate and agile.
The vehicle came to a screeching halt one block away. This maneuver allowed its passengers to get off, but prevented us from getting in. While Odalys and I, plus twenty more people, were still sprinting toward the camel, the driver closed the doors and away he went. Adding insult to injury, he gave the finger to the crowd.
“Cabrón, I shit on your mother three times over!” an elderly and prim-looking lady dressed in white yelled at the exhaust fumes.
Just then, a CUBALSE bus stopped across the street. The disappointed crowd surveyed it with awe and envy. CUBALSE is the capricious abbreviation that stands for Cuba al Servicio del Extranjero (Cuba at the service of the foreigner.) Which anti-chauvinist genius came up with such a name?
CUBALSE buses are air-conditioned. They also look squeaky clean—externally at least. An urban legend says they have a small bathroom inside, but I never had the opportunity to find out if that was true. They transport only foreign tourists.
A horde of pale-skinned beings got off the CUBALSE bus. They glanced at us as if we were from an alternate reality. A red-faced man snapped a photo of our sweaty, tired mass of humanity. A few smiled shyly and waved at us.
“They are probably going to have lunch at El Floridita,” said the woman who had cursed the driver’s mother.
“And later to Varadero beach,” Odalys added, smacking her lips. “To end the day with a barbecue.”
“Lucky guy,” the woman said, pointing to the tourist guide. “Because all these foreigners leave good tips, hear?”
Tipping was, for many years, considered a bourgeois tradition. Many young revolutionary waiters, when Cuban restaurants accepted only pesos, took offense if a user (client was a “capitalist” term) offered them a tip. But in the 90’s, with dollars circulating consistently in the underground market, hard-currency tips were more than welcome. How much, how quickly things had changed…
The dark clouds of the “special period” had appeared in the horizon in 1990. They came as an aftershock of the Soviet Union’s disappearance, and of the subsidies Cuba used to get from it. Camels replaced buses. Blackouts darkened the Havana nights four or five times a week. Meat became a tasteless concoction known as soy burger.
International tourism was enthusiastically encouraged by the government, for the first time since 1959. Mulattas in bikinis filled the posters that advertised Cuban beaches. Men and women, but mostly men, from capitalist countries came in waves. They stayed in hotels where Cubans weren’t allowed to enter (Meliá, Cohiba, Capri) unless accompanied by a foreigner.
“Are you Cuban?” a security guard would ask those who looked like natives. “What are you doing here? Are you related to a guest? How?”
They claimed they were after jineteras, the hookers who had jumped into the national scene in miniskirts and stilettos as soon as tourism began to flourish. But jineteras bribed the security guards and were often allowed to work in peace. It was the ordinary, law-abiding Cuban who was stopped and questioned in hotel lobbies. But we gradually got used to it. One gets used to everything.
A similar situation happened in the shoppings, stores where the only currency accepted was the American dollar. Until 1993, customers had to show a foreign passport before entering, though they could take Cubans along freely. Many foreigners that had lived in Cuba for years (Chileans who had fought against Pinochet, Russian and Bulgarian technicians that hadn’t yet left, African students on scholarships, etc.) started a profitable business. They would escort dollar-carrying natives to the shoppings and charge them fifteen percent of what they spent.
Restaurants like El Floridita (yes, where Hemingway used to drink daiquiris), La Divina Pastora, and the Italian-style Don Giovanni became dollar-only places too. It seemed as if, true to the CUBALSE slogan, all Cuba were at the service of foreigners—buses, beaches and barbecues…
The CUBALSE tourist guide was Cuban, no doubt, but he spoke with a fake Argentinean accent. Following him, the foreigners, cameras in hand, walked toward Cathedral Square.
“Have you heard the last Pepito joke?” the woman in white asked us. (Pepito is our Dennis the Menace, a big-mouthed, quick-witted child.) Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “His father asks him, ‘Niño, what do you want to be when you grow up? A doctor?’ ‘Nope,’ says Pepito. ‘An engineer?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘An astronaut, like Arnaldo Tamayo!’ ‘No, dad. I just want to be a foreigner.’”
We chuckled dutifully. By then all the tourists were gone. Odalys picked up a small rock and threw it at the CUBALSE bus.
“Hey, don’t do that,” the old guy that she had elbowed a few minutes before warned her. “If a cop sees you, there will be trouble.”
Odalys shrugged. After careful consideration, we left the bus stop. A long walk to Coppelia was ahead of us.
“Wish they run out of gas!” Odalys said when we passed near the CUBALSE bus that now exhibited a dent on the rear bumper.
The driver was sitting inside, with the engine running, reading a Vogue magazine.
When Odalys and I arrived in Coppelia, waiting lines were a block long and the only available flavor happened to be vanilla.
There was one parlor where nobody waited outside. Under the trees, people savored chocolate Sundays and strawberry, pineapple and mint Three Graces. It was, naturally, a dollar-area place.
“Let’s go home,” said Odalys.
I agreed. Waiting in line for forty or fifty minutes, after a one-hour walk, wasn’t an enticing prospect. We passed by another CUBALSE bus that had parked in front of the Tryp Melia Hotel. (It used to be Habana Hilton, later became Habana Libre and turned into Cuban-Spanish Hotel Tryp Melia, in its last metamorphosis.) I noticed that Odalys’ eyes were red.
“What’s going on?” I asked her.
“What are you allergic to?”
That day, though, we got lucky. We caught a camel that took us from Coppelia to Centro Habana, where Odalys and I lived. It was crowded and smelly, but Odalys grabbed a seat in the Infanta Avenue bus stop.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She is the author of A Girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004) and Posesas de La Habana (PurePlay Press, July 2004). Inspired by New Mexican traditions, she wrote the play La hija de La Llorona (The Wailing Woman’s daughter), staged by Aguijon Theater in Chicago in 2006. Her novel Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana) was a finalist for the prestigious Herralde Award and published by Anagrama in Spain in November 2006. Her articles and short stories have appeared in Rosebud, Hispanic Magazine, Latina Style, Latino Today, Puerto del Sol, El Nuevo Herald, Caribe and Revista Baquiana. Her website is http://www.dovalpage.com