Travel by night

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We exit the bus depot in Santa Clara into an onslaught of card-carrying, middle-aged women. They´re all hawking their casas or (for the few men) taxi service, and disperse only reluctantly. But our arranged driver, Hermes ("gordo y grande" -- fat and big) and his green car are nowhere. Well, actually there is a beat-up green Lada across the street, but no gigante Hermes.
Ten minutes pass. The dregs of the bus drift off--even most of the casa women are gone. Twenty minutes. I wander to the other entrance a few times.

Finally a big guy leaning against a wall says ¨Mahkol¨, but when I turn he´s not making eye contact. ¨¿Como se llama?¨produces an admission that he is in fact Hermes, but after waiting for him to move or something for a few minutes, I say ¨¿Remedios?¨
Non-plussed, I return to Julie. Yes, it´s the right guy, but he´s the least demonstrative person I´ve ever met.

After another five minutes, Hermes saunters across the street, looks in the green car´s trunk, props the lid for a moment, looks around, and briefly nods at me. He gestures us across.

Julie´s worst fears are realized: no seatbelts and the doors are so old we practically require the Jaws Of Life to get in, but we really have no choice. We again dump Lucy on the floor in the back (will the floor hold her?), strap Jonathan to me in the baby carrier, and we´re off.

Hermes explains the mystery jovially. It´s prohibido for private cars to carry foreigners. The cop planted by the door of the station required discretion. Lots of things are prohibido in Cuba. As far as I can tell, it stops absolutely no one from doing any of them; things just take a little longer, become more oddly Cuban.

After eating prawns at dinner for many times the last two weeks -- often at our request -- I discover they´re prohibited for casas particulares. All lobster, prawns and, I suspect, fresh dairy products (they rarely occur at the table) are designated for export. But of course they´re readily available, even listed on the menu at our first casa, as is prohibited beef at most of the paladares (private restaurants).

If there are any regulations for the use of unilluminated bicycles and horsedrawn carts, these are also ignored. Motorcycles without headlights burst out of the gathering twilight. Despite the lack of seatbelts, I never feel more than slight alarm during our drive into the Cuban night. This is thanks exclusively to Hermes who is a cautious and considerate driver. I suspect his English is better than he lets on, or else the concern in Julie´s voice comes across well without translation. Either way, his speed is moderate, he honks at anything remotely likely to dodge, gallop, sway or weave into our trajectory, and he even discretely discourages a few cars from passing us on corners or rising hills.

Hermes can do nothing about the ghost-like carts and bicycles hidden like cloaked Romulans until seconds before we are upon them. On top of this, the car is clearly taking in its own exhaust. We get the windows rolled down to get what fresh air is mixed in with the exhaust from all the other vehicles (emission levels might be the most flagrantly disregarded regulation, if it exists). But that means the cool night air is drafting through the car, so I have Jonathan´s chilly arms wrapped up, all the time poking him to ensure he hasn't been asphyxiated.

Without the kids, this would be a pretty wacky and amusing ride, but we vow never to get in anything but a modern taxi with seatbelts and AC for the rest of the trip--and just hope Hermes´driving skill is the rule, not exception.
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