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My Time as a Bottle

I met a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy.  That’s how things are done in Cuba.  I was visiting Maria la Gorda, the beach at the western tip of Cuba, and looking for transportation east to the historic, architecturally rich city of Trinidad.  The bus seemed too touristy and I had already experienced the adventure of the country’s slow, undependable, and completely lackluster train system.  So it was that I became a botella.  In Spanish, the word “botella” means bottle, but in Cuba, it also means hitchhiker.  And the botellas are everywhere.  They gather under every overpass for shade waiting for a government truck to stop and cram a few more into the stake-racked flatbeds or for a private car with a generous driver.  When too large a crowd of botellas forms, you might see a policeman stopping cars and forcing less generous drivers to fill their empty seats.  In fairness, he may also require the botella to pay the driver a few pesos for his fuel and trouble.  Either way, the driver doesn’t complain.  He knows that the officer could easily ticket him for something;  a missing tail light, expired documents.  There are so many rules that only the rarest of Cuban drivers would be in total compliance, giving officers leverage to ask for just about anything.

Fortunately, my days as a botella came not from standing in the heat, but from sitting at a bar talking to a guy who knew a guy who heard that a guy was driving toward Trinidad the following day.

I met Emanuel early the next morning to begin our journey.  I offered him forty U.S. dollars to take me all the way to Trinidad, just an hour past his planned destination.  He agreed so quickly that I knew a had overbid.  We got on the road and Emanuel began to explain the rules of driving in Cuba.  First, he told me, it is more important that your horn works than to have brakes.  He honked at every car, cow, bike, and chicken to warn of his approach.  Second, you must slow down to 40 kph when approaching an overpass.  It’s for the safety of the botellas.  And you must slow to 20 kph as you pass a Punto de Control; police stations where you can be randomly pulled over, searched, or generally harassed.  I asked why some of these rules were marked with relative clarity and others not.  Emanuel said, we must follow these rules whether or not they are posted.  Many of the signs have been stolen.  The metal is pounded into pots for cooking or used to make car parts.  “Que Pais!” he said.  What a country! 

In Cuba, he told me, the police are not respected.  Often they are “orientales,” from the far eastern provinces of the country.  There are many jokes told about them, he said, that they are not very smart and speak very poor Spanish – mispronouncing their R’s and dropping their S’s.   Some people, he told me, call them “hijos de putas,” – sons of whores.  He assured me that he would never use such language, but other people often do.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked.  “Do you have a similar name?”

“We do have a similar term,” I told him, adding that only occasionally is it aimed at our police officers who we generally respect.  That wasn’t good enough.  He wanted to learn the phrase.  “Son of a bitch,”  I told him. 

“Soonafabeech?

“Son of a bitch.”

“Soonafabeech!” he said smiling. “Soonafabeech!.”

For the next two hours, every officer or Point of Control we passed caused Emanuel to point and blurt out his newfound word which didn’t seem so inappropriate to say in another language.

With tedious attention to his best Spanish and brain-stretching focus on my fledgling vocabulary we talked about everything from politics to cars, seasonal fruit to baseball.  During a lull in the conversation he told me, “your Spanish is very good, but very small.”

Just east of Havana he announced that we would be stopping at his parents house in Matanzas, and spending the night.  He told me this as if confirming that it was part of our previously agreed upon plan.  It wasn’t. 

As we approached Matanzas, Emanuel told me about his parents and their tiny house where he grew up.  “They live next to a policeman,” he told me.  “The soonafabeech is a member of the communist party.  Whenever he smells my mother’s coffee he comes over and expects a cup,” Emanuel complained.   “They give it to him because they want no trouble, and maybe he’ll not look for reasons to cause them any,” he said.  “I hate him,” he added.

When we arrived his mother greeted me warmly before smothering her son with kisses and hugs,  a scene that was repeated a few moments later when his father came in from behind the house.  She put on a pot of coffee and before it was done brewing, the uniformed neighbor showed up, uninvited.  Emanuel courteously introduced the officer to me and then stood behind him scowling as I chatted with him. 

“Where are you from,” he asked in an accent that was new to me. 

“The U.S.”  I told him. 

“Your first time in Cuba?”  he asked? 

“Yes,”  I lied. 

“What about you?’ I asked.  “Did you grow up here in Matanzas?”

I could now see Emanuel’s mother calming him from his anger at the uninvited stranger horning in on the precious time he had to visit his family.

“No,” he said, “I am from Holguin.  It is at the far east of Cuba.” 

“I see.  Do you speak any English?” I asked. 

“No, none.” he said. 

“Not even a little bit?” I persisted. 

“No, None at all.” he said. 

“Well then,” I said switching to English,  “it’s nice to meet you, you son of a bitch!”

The officer smiled and took my outstretched hand as Emanuel blew coffee out his nose and hid his laughing spell with coughing and  choking.

When Cuba Sneezes

When a women sneezes in Cuba, a gentleman will often say, “Salud, porque belleza sobra.”  Loosely, “to your health, because your beauty is already overwhelming.”

Although this simple phrase seems a little over the top to me, it’s a microcosm of the eternal optimism and innate opportunism of the Cuban culture.  A sneezing women could mean a cold, bad allergies or worse. But to a Cuban, it’s an opportunity to remind a lady that she is beautiful.

This attitude is both sad because of the resignation that exists to the brutal communist rule, but also hopeful because of the resilient faith that lives independently in the hearts of so many Cubans.  Many have written that Cuba is a country in waiting.  Some say it is waiting for the end of the US embargo, others say the end of Castro’s rule.  But the Cubans I’ve met aren’t waiting for anything. They’re living their lives as best they can in the political and economic environment that surrounds them. 

 And like a sneezing women, the Cuban economy has symptoms of illness.  When the Soviet Union fell, it abruptly stopped fueling the Cuban economy and no one stepped up to replace them.  Since then, Cuban life has puttered along like a ’56 Ford on a Havana street.  The old Ford has lost its shine, gets no factory made replacement parts, has tires that are patched and mismatched, and is powered by a long line of black-market engines made in Russia, Japan or China.  The engine is known but not seen by the Cuban government, and kept running day to day by the ubiquitous, resourceful, genius, bribe-paying, never-say-can’t mechanic. 

Cuba’s Mercado Negro, its black market, is what keeps cars on the road, food on the table and shoes on feet.  Without it, there’s no Cuba.  The state economy has no street cred and most Cubans don’t have an on ramp to the information highway.

 Other than a carefully controlled tourist industry (fed by cheap or adventurous Canadians, Europeans, and Asians) Cuba is isolated from the “global economy.”  In other words, when the global economy is sick, Cuba keeps puttering along.  And when Cuba sneezes, nobody notices.