Taxi Rides and Phone Calls

Excerpt from my journal:

July 2, 2012

I woke up at 8:45am and sat in bed reading until 9:30. I made it to breakfast by 9:45 and was out the door and walking by 10:15.  I ran around the city trying to find a telephone, first starting in my room—dialing and only getting the busy signal–, then moving downstairs and asking at the front desk. There they told me they couldn’t spare the line since there was only one. I ran out my hotel, crossed the Prado, walked three blocks, entered into the Hotel Sevilla and they confirmed my suspicions: they had no way to help me, no phones were working. I hustled over to Hotel Inglaterra, where they ushered me outside and told me that phones were only privileged to guests. Outside,  I paid one pesos worth of money for a five cent call and then lost the 95 cents altogether. The call never went through, but my money was taken and no phone lines were available, anywhere.  I was stuck. I would have to go to the Instituto de Literatura y Linguistica without knowing if they had approved me as a researcher worthy of using their collection.

Outside, by the telephone, a bici taxista (bike taxi) stood and motioned me over to his bike. I was already exhausted and sweating from the telephone debacle.  I asked him how much a ride to the instituto would cost and he told me 5 CUC. I wanted to stay under 10 CUC a day and  thought there was no way to do that by paying that much on one taxi ride. 5 CUC to ride only 2 miles? As I walked away, he yelled, “3 koo!” which means 3 CUC and I gave in. I gasped out my exhaustion, while the heat enveloped me. If someone else could help me find relief from the swelter of the air, I was willing to pay.  He started “driving” and we headed over towards the road that splits Habana in half. The division lets one know they are entering into the outskirts of Habana Central and leads into the more suburban area of Vedado. At this divide, there is a third area, Cerro, that exists south of Habana, a neighborhood that is never-outrightly-admitted- as-such, but most definitely an all-black neighborhood, whose main road is named Belascoain. Today, we weren’t going to Cerro, we were just going to look at it. Raul, the taxista, was going to huff and puff his way through it. He was going to murmur to himself about the sluggish movement of the people around him, “actuan como si no estuvistes ahi, tratando trabajar. Que se mueven! Cono! Que? Que no tienen algo mas que hacer? Que no trabajan?”

He turned at Teatro Tacon, biking alongside the outside of the building. I pointed out a large plot that looked to have once been the foundations of a building; parts of the building’s skeleton hung from above, while other sections randomly dangled underneath the massive tomb of some old home. I yelled at the taxista, “Que es eso? Parte del edificio (What is that? Part of the building?)?” He responded with a shrug, “si, todo se esta derrumbiendo… lo vas a ver (yes, everything is crumbling, you will see).” And from that point on, he would bike and show me anything that was falling— buildings, birds, refrigerators (yes, I saw a refrigerator— staircases are often too thin to lower large appliances through them), peso pizzas (being lowered to customers in a box on a string), soapy water, hanging laundry, dogs’ hallowed barking, gum from children’s mouths, dead flowers and leaves swaying to the ground. He pointed to everything and nothing, and I would actively follow his fingers in an attempt to take in my environment.  On the Calle Reina, he pointed off to his sides, the right side mostly (he seemed to favor holding the bike with his left), places that were falling in and around people. He told me a story about how two months earlier, a building on Calle Infanta, had completely imploded into itself. The building collapse killed six people, “mato a seis personas, nenes y todo.” With a shushing of his voice, he quietly turned back, looked at me (while entering into the traffic of a busy streets), pressed his pointer finger over his lips and signaled a “shhhhhhhhh”. He paid attention to the road once again, cursed slow moving passersby, and once we crossed the intersection, he hushed at me, “pero no se publica nada de eso aqui. Solo se sabe.”  Almost immediately, he hailed the bike taxi to a rude stop. We were almost hit by a teal chevy.

We turned on Galiano towards the Calle Carlos III and, as we turned, a huge pile of garbage stood in the middle of the street. The pile contained old cascaras of fruit, shit, rubble, flies feasting, slush, dirt, dirty clothes, towels and soot. Raul pointed as he biked, and did so long enough that he twisted his arm awkwardly into a backwards position to make sure his opinion and focus were noticed by his client (me).  He then yelled at someone in front of him. Someone who he seemed to know, but who he might not have known given the custom in Cuba to talk to strangers as you would close friends. Since we were in an alley, and not in open view of a public street, he felt comfortable. He stopped the bike suddenly and told the man, “le esta ensenando la miseracordia de todo aqui. Ves (I am showing her all the misery here, see?) ?” The man nodded in acknowledgement and continued to walk, stepping past the smelly pile of shit, soot, dirt, flies and fruit. Raul looked back at me, once again, shrugged his shoulders and thrust the bike back and forth, attempting to gain enough momentum to get us away from the trash.

As he sweat and grimaced, he spoke to me as if I were a counselor. He told me, what I believed were, his thoughts stated out loud. While I wanted to hear his voice, I felt like an intruder: slinking against a closed door, listening to the quiet sounds of two intimates speaking. I was not sure that I was supposed to hear his words. I was not sure I was supposed to speak and understand spanish as well as I did (in his mind). I was not even sure he was speaking to me.

“Uno se tiene que trabajar bien duro para sobrevivir aqui…. para comer cada dia.Y que paso con lo que te da el gobierno? Bueno, te digo, es para muy poco, muy poco, eh? Se tiene que salir y hacer los trabajos. Se tiene que hacer algo para no temor por el hambre. Se tiene que inventar, siempre.” (One has to work hard to survive here….. to eat every day. And what about the money from the government? Well, I will tell you, it is very little, very little, eh? You have to leave and make work. You have to do something to not feel hunger. You have to invent something, always.)

I interrupted his talk: “Cuanto necesitas para sobrevivir normal aqui?” (How much do you need to survive an average life here?)

“2000 pesos nacionales para comer normal, sin gusto pero normal.” (2000 national dollars to eat like normal, without flourishes, but average.) 24 pesos equals 1 dollar or CUC.

“Cuanto te dan cada mes?” (How much do they give you every month?)

“Depende, pero 250 hasta 500 (about 25 CUC or 25 dollars US), depende de persona y de trabajo.” (Depends, but 250 to 500 national dollars, but it depends on the person and the job).

“Entonces, que haces si no trabajas con CUC?” (So what do you do if you don’t work in an area where you can get CUC?)

“Te lo mandan o uno se pone a coquetear, inventar.” (Well, you are called upon or you decide to flirt or invent something.)

“De verdad? Se puede hacer sin CUC o personas afuera? Que hacen los viejos?” (Really? Can you make it without CUC or people sending remittances? What do the elderly do?)

“Se ponen en las calles, pidiendo favores. Ponen tienditas enfrente sus casas, piden los vecinos o la familia. Bien dificil, de verdad, duroooooooooo (his finger pointing up in the air while saying this and maneuvering the bike) sin el dinero del CUC o de la familia de otro lugar.”  (They go out into the streets, asking for favors, begging. They make stores in front of their houses, they ask neighbors or family. It is very difficult, to be honest. Harrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd, without the money of tourists or without family abroad.)

Raul was sweating by the end of our two mile trip. I decided to give him the 5 CUC. He had five daughters and three were very young. His clothes were torn, I noticed his shoes had holes and he had tried very hard to keep me happy on our trip. He smiled for a picture. You can find that picture below.

I entered coral facade building of the Instituto de Literatura y Linguistica, and asked to speak to the main librarian. Yolani came out of her office and let me know that confirmation about my ability to access the library would be late. She was not sure when she would receive news and suggested I call them. I told her my issues with making phone calls and she assured me that surely I could find a phone, somewhere, in the city. I asked if I could make a phone call from her office and she told me all phone lines were down in her building. I was dumbfounded by the irony. How can I make a phone call to the building, if phone lines are down in it?  As we did our despididas, she reminded me to call either the following day or wait three days and return. I turned around, 10 minutes after my bici ride, and walked 2 miles back to my home. Image

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