For Cathy, in celebration of our much less dangerous road trip.
Today’s (audio)post is brought to you by Empowerment Personal Training, aka Damir Mulalic. I hobbled into his gym four years ago, on two canes and all the painkillers and placebos (un)known to science, and said, “If you give me back my mobility, I will find a way to work through the pain.” And, well. There be no pain anymore, I can do things with my body I barely dreamt of when I was an indestructible 18 year old, and I got these carved arms and back in the process. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Damir.
I asked Damir & Empowerment PT to sponsor this post because it is also about gratitude… for being alive. Listen:
The cab driver is 75, and the car is a Soviet piece of shit from 1975 never meant to last the 40 years that it’s been trolling Havana’s streets.
Cinder: “I don’t think it’s going to make it.”
I’m not sure we’re going to live, but we’re in the cab and it’s moving—well, coasting down the hill—the driver doesn’t turn on the engine under we’re about to plateau—when he does, there is a sputter and then a deafening rumble…
Flora: “Is it supposed to make that noise?”
Jane: “Don’t think about it.”
The car—a Lada—doesn’t seem to be able to go faster than 40 km/hour—or maybe the driver can’t see farther out than 40 km/hour, he seems to be leaning forward and peering through the windshield way too intently. Its slow speed is, initially, somehow reassuring. If its brakes don’t work—and frankly, judging by the interior, the noise of the engine and… there it is, that’s the squeak of old, worn-out brakes, the brakes probably don’t work—most of the time we’re going slowly enough that I could probably brake Flinstone style.
Cinder: “And if we rear-end anything, we probably won’t cause too much damage.”
Flora: “But the car will completely fall apart. Into tiny little pieces.”
Cinder: “It’s already in tiny little pieces. See that voodoo doll hanging from the rearview mirror? That’s what’s holding this car together.”
Flora: “At least there’s a rearview mirror. Have you noticed there’s only one side mirror?”
Jane: “At least it’s on the driver’s side.”
Ender: “If something rear-ends us, we will all die.”
Jane: “Don’t think about that. Think ‘We will survive’ thoughts.”
Cinder: “I hope you know, Mom, if we die in a horrific car crash in Cuba, Daddy will never forgive you.”
Jane: “Don’t think about that. Think ‘We will survive’ thoughts.”
It’s really not that bad.
Until we go through the tunnel under the Havana harbor… and out onto the freeway where everyone else is allowed to go 80 km / hour and those that can are zipping along at 100… and we’re still going at 40.
And taking up two lanes, because our driver can’t seem to see the center line.
Flora: “This is definitely the most dangerous thing we have done in Cuba so far.”
Um… yeah. Probably.
Worst thing: when I was negotiating on price… I negotiated for the return trip too. We’re going from Havana to the Playas del Estes, and that’s 20 km away from Havana proper and 10 more from our digs, and I don’t know if there are buses, or how easy it is to find a taxi, so I thought I was being prudent. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
That’s fine. I will bail. I’ll give him an extra $5 CUC—thanks for your trouble, we’ll find a different way back—and oh-my-fucking-god… no, it’s good, it’s all good, we’re fine.
Jane: “So I’m thinking we won’t take this cab back.”
Cinder: “Ya’ think? I think it will be a miracle if this cab makes it there.”
We finally wind off the highway—thank every god I don’t believe in—and onto the sleepy road along the playas.
Flora: “I don’t know, Mom. This town is dead. I haven’t seen a single other car. Maybe it’s good to have a ride back confirmed.”
Flora’s my anti-risk taker. But what’s a bigger risk? No ride back, or this ride back?
We’re driving along the 9 km stretch of beaches— such beautiful names—Tarará, El Mégano, Santa María del Mar, Boca Ciega.. I wanted to go to Megano or Santa Maria, which are supposed to be the best stretches of beach for swimming—he misses both turn-offs—goes to the end of the road. “It’s very beautiful and tranquil here,” he assures me.
Cinder: “Let’s just get the hell out of this car!”
As I’m trying to figure out how to not go back to Havana in the Soviet piece of shit that I know plans to kill us before it finally dies itself—I can see the intention in its beady, evil little lamp lights—the ancient driver unloads my children and our beach bag.
“I will wait for you right here,” he says. And my heart sinks. Of course he will. Gasoline in Cuba is at a whopping $1CUC a liter—that’s $1.40 Canadian, and not even when oil was touching $150 a barrel were we paying that much for it in Alberta—and this beast burns… let’s just say, fuel efficient it’s not. Driving me back means he’s making money; driving back empty means he’s paying for gas.
And he’s old. And kind. And clearly, not well off at all, or…
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Cinder: “What’s going on, Mom?”
Jane: “The driver’s going to wait for us.”
Flora: “Good. Because otherwise we’d probably have to walk home, and it would take forever.”
Cinder: “But we would definitely be alive at the end of it.”
Jane: “Think ‘We will survive thoughts.’ In the meantime… enjoy the beach.”
The beach is beautiful, except for all the fat, old, ugly white men with breathtakingly gorgeous young black-and-brown Cuban boys, which couplings make me meditate too much on prostitution—and on the prostitution-like undercoat of much of the tourist experience—and finally have me plunge myself into the warm, turquoise water with a stiff admonition to my brain to shut the fuck up and just swim.
As, four hours later, we trudge back, exhausted and a little sun-burned, to where we left car and driver, I have several hopes:
Hope 1: He got tired of waiting and left. The beach is not abandoned—I have seen plenty of other tourists, seen signs leading to hotels and restaurants, and I will find another set of wheels.
Hope 2: The car will not start. We will have no choice but to seek another set of wheels.
Hope 3: He’s had a heart attack and died, and I will have to call an ambulance and we can probably get a ride to Havana with the corpse.
There he is.
“Good day?” he asks. I nod, resigned. Que sera, sera. We will live, right?
Maybe the car won’t start.
It starts. The cab driver turns it around. Sleepy town. Highway. Center lane. Shoulder.
Cinder: “At least it’s never into on-coming traffic.”
At least there’s that.
I start to think… this would be a good time to start believing in God. All the gods. And make deals with them. “Please let me get back to Havana alive…” No, wait, I need to be more specific—if there’s anything I’ve learned from the world’s mythologies is that wish-granting deities are all nasty bastards and will look for the loophole in any wish. “Please let all of us, here in this car, get back to our home alive, unharmed and happy.”
The car starts to sputter and make noises that sound vaguely familiar… slow down even more…
Shoulder. An intentional stop.
The gods work in mysterious ways. We are out of gas.
Unfortunately, our driver is prepared for this eventuality—the gas gauge in the Lada stopped working a long time ago. He goes to the trunk for a canister.
Fortunately, it’s empty.
Unfortunately, there’s a gas station across the highway. He trudges across the four lines of traffic.
I ponder making a run for it. Turn my head.
Flora and Ender are curled into each other, deep asleep.
All right then.
Think, ‘We will survive’ thoughts.
I think ‘We will survive’ thoughts ardently, passionately, religiously as we rejoin the traffic (sparse, thank you, gods) on the highway. I continue to think them as we maneuver through the tunnel, and all the way along the Malecon, during every torturous left turn and oh-so-slowly made right merge. I pray so intensely and intently I barely notice when we pull up at our destination… and the car sputters, splutters, and stops.
Jane: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
To the driver, to the gods?
To anyone who will receive the gratitude.
The driver’s son—or, as I am affectionately thinking of him, the bastard who convinced me to put my children in this cab of death—is waiting for his father and the car anxiously.
“Hey, my baby made it!” he says joyfully, but also with some surprise.
It’s ok. I won’t be angry.
We are alive.
I pay them.
Cinder: “Let’s never, ever, take that cab again.”
There’s a spluttering noise.
Flora: “I don’t think that will be an issue.”
I turn my head. Father and son are both in the car—son in the driver’ seat now. Keys in ignition, foot—I imagine—on pedal.
LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:
Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.
And if you like what you read/hear/see, please consider expressing your delight by making a contribution:
Jane: Because you’ve always wanted to be a patron of the arts, and you know that artists can’t pay for groceries with exposure.
You: How much?
Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a Cuban cigar.
You: That’s all?
Jane: My avarice is happy to match your affluence. But I get $1 in royalties for each copy my other self sells of a traditionally published book. It is impossible to disappoint me.
If you would like to make a contribution, but have PayPal issues (I get it), please email me at nothingbythebook at gmail.com, and we’ll work something out.
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