Dancing with the Devil……Cuban Style
My trip to Havana Cuba during January 2000, was both for the pleasure of seeing this great city which I have heard so much about and to deliver much needed school and medical supplies donated by generous fellow Canadians. The highlight of my trip was the invition to dinner at a Cuban family’s home in the Santos Suavez section of the city. Unknown to me was the fact that it took all morning on buses, walking and waiting in lines to purchase the food necessary to make the meal. In Canada we take for granted that a fully stocked store is only minutes away. In Cuba, it is an all day struggle to survive. The day was almost a disaster before it really began and cost me a real good pair of underwear.
I flagged down one of the many bicycle cabs, which scurry around the city like three wheeled cockroaches. After a bit of haggling we agreed on $4.00 US which seemed high to me as the average Cuban worker exists on about $10.00 a month. Little did I realize just how far Cubans have to travel just for work. The trip down the Malecon was beautiful with the ocean waves crashing over the seawall in tremendous sprays of white foam. There was of course the customary stop for license and identification for the driver by the ever- present police but this is normal for Havana. A quick wink back at me by the driver accompanied by the customary “ No Problemo” and we were on the way again. By the time we hit the city center the roads became very hilly with my driver weaving in and out dodging cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, and even the occasional ratty haired dog of questionable genetic composition. How these guys are not killed of a regular basis is an act of several saints and God himself. Slowly working up one hill and screaming down the next at break neck speeds we made our way across the different sections of the city. As we tore down a particularly long and steep stretch of hill at full speed, the light at the bottom suddenly changed. In Cuba, there are no yellow lights. They just change from red to green apparently at random, which is normal for everything in Havana. The driver immediately back peddled to apply the brakes when disaster struck. There was a funny loud “WHAG” sound followed by a tremendous rattle. One glance down told the story of a broken chain with the accompanying realization that we had NO BRAKES!!!The intersection immediately filled with cars, trucks, and a uniquely Cuban invention, the Camelo, an International 18 wheeler grafted to a 60 foot passenger compartment. I was going to jump for it, preferring death on the roadway to being splattered like a bug on the side of a camel bus. As I went to leap off to salvation, I discovered my pack straps were hooked onto the rear railing of this death machine so like it or not…. I was committed for the duration of the ride. I had no thought of God or flashbacks of my life. The only thing in my mind other than was shear terror was “Oh SHIT!!! I’m F#@%ED!!! A second shriek erupted from the front of the bike. The driver had engaged a crude form of emergency (and if there ever was one…now was the time!!!) brake consisting of 2 pieces of rubber garden hose and a caliper brake. This was great news except the brake was only at the front and now the back end was engaging in a Kamikaze race with the front to see who would hit the bus first. I closed my eyes and prayed HARD!!! After what seemed to be an eternity the suicidal contraption slid to a stop but only after Chico dragged both of his feet and crushed the brake in what can only be described as a death grip. He was hunched over the handlebars and I know….I KNOW his eyes were closed too. The bus missed us by less than two inches!. Horns blaring, fists shaking and a row of disbelieving Cuban faces inside the bus greeted us from our deliverance from the devil. In an incredible display of machismo, which Cubans men are famous for, Chico straightened up in his seat, looked back at me and said “No Problemo…Si? By this point I was spitting mad having come within fractions of a second of being returned to Canada in a shoebox. “YOU MOTHER F@#$%#R !!!” I screamed at him. “Si Senor…De Mother” he answered and pulled down a small Virgin Mary medallion from the roof area, kissed it and put it away again. A quickie five minute chain repair which Chico had to do by himself as I was incapacitated at the time, being leaned up against a building reviewing last weeks lunch. Lets see now… there was a ham sandwich, and apple, two pieces of toast……well you get the idea…!
My host’s home was only a couple of minutes away which was a good thing as my bowels turned to water every time we came near another intersection. Miguel was outside waiting for us wondering what was taking so long. Being the ever- polite host he shook my hand and enquired about my health. The only answer I could think of was “Si … No Problemo, just another day at the office in Cuba”.
If you ever want the experience of a life time…come to Cuba. The people, not the government, are the heart and soul of this great nation. Just remember to take out insurance……LOTS OF INSURANCE!!! Viva Cuba