Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cultural Reflections about Catching the Bus in Cuba

Sometimes the littlest things can say a lot about a culture.  One of the most interesting everyday cultural customs that made a large impression on me in Cuba was how lines for buses worked in the bustling capital city of Havana.  As a student in Washington DC, I'm no stranger to waiting in line, and at first the lines in Havana seemed similar to what I'm familiar with, though usually longer.  In particular, on one of the major avenues near the house we were staying in, there was always a large, quasi-linear-but-mostly-disorderly mass of people waiting on a stretch of sidewalk that went on for at least a whole city block.  My first week in Havana, I assumed that this was just  a popular location to catch the bus, and that this large conglomeration of people would swarm toward the bus, vying for the limited number of spaces like outbound workers in downtown Washington DC at the end of the day.  But later on in my stay in Havana, I learned that this wasn't the case, for two reasons.

                The first reason is that that's not how lines for the bus work in Havana.  I was made aware of this fact by a new friend who had been studying in Havana for a semester, as we were running late to catch the historical cannon-firing ceremony at the fort in Old Havana.  When we approached the bus stop, he said "el ultimo?" to the seemingly chaotic, dispersed group of fifteen or so people waiting.  A woman raised her hand, and he explained that the purpose of his inquiry was to find out who was the last in line, the person who had arrived most recently to the stop before us.  So I learned that what looked like a disorganized crowd waiting to board the bus was actually an orderly, fair, and respectful system.  I thought back to times in the United States when I was late for something, or exiting a stadium after a crowded sporting event, and thus tried to dart around others and push to the front of the crowd and in general hold my own in the survival-of-the-fittest struggle that is too many people trying to compete for limited spaces.  In Havana, even if I were running late for an important meeting, I would still be bound by the cultural custom of "el ultimo?" in the bus line.

                To me, this was a simple example of how Cuba's governing philosophies of socialism and solidarity manifest themselves in some of the most basic, uncomplicated daily events.  Another man approached the stop, said those same two words, and this time I raised my hand.  As the bus pulled up, an orderly, single-file line emerged from the apparent chaos.  Even if they were late, or were really tired and wanted to be guaranteed a seat instead of having to stand, nobody complained, nobody pulled the cut-the-line move that I sometimes seethe at yet sometimes perform myself.  Everyone simply remained calm, knowing that they would get to their destination.  There were no thank yous; passively and patiently falling in line for the bus according to the order you arrived is not something polite, it's something normal.  

                ... And the second reason that the bus line near our house was not as I had initially perceived it?  The giant mass of people that always seemed to be waiting on that one block wasn't for a bus... as I later learned, the people were waiting for Coppelia, famous Cuban ice cream (which was featured in the famous Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate).  Though I never found time to try that ice cream, I was still left with something sweet - the knowledge that eventually, everyone in line would get a taste.

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