Anna Husarska,

Anna Husarska,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 8 1998 3:30 AM

Anna Husarska,

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       The French in my group are showing their colors. None of them is red. At the réunion d'orientation, our guide said that we would not need local currency because everything is paid for in U.S. dollars, and they all made snotty remarks about American imperialism and Cuba's so-called communism. We have one old couple, communist nostalgics, who have already managed to buy an English edition of the Cuban Communist Party organ Granma. But otherwise my fellow travelers are not even fellow travelers. Well, one young woman is, but she's a fake: The red scarf around her neck and the black Che Guevara-like beret with a star above the forehead are fashion statements, not political statements.
       So now most of my group--bitching about communism and imperialism--is desperately trying to change French francs into U.S. dollars. Only the three sex hunters brought green currency with them--it looks as though this is not their first lust safari.
       In a gesture worthy of a card-carrying FOF (friend of Fidel), I changed one dollar with a very nice man, Manuel, whom I met on the Prado Boulevard in an ad-hoc house-exchange market. He was trying to change apartments but I had no real estate to offer, only real bucks. Suddenly I was the happy owner of 23 Cuban pesos! I decided to spend them on getting from the Old Town (La Habana Vieja) to my appointment with my old buddy Enrique at the Coppelia ice-cream parlor in the center of town. Getting onto peso-paid transportation turned out to be an ambitious, indeed impossible, project. But I'll get to that.
       After I left Manuel I started toward Malecón, the avenue on the sea. There wasn't much traffic because gas shortages are still severe, and Cuba is still in this so-called "special period in times of peace." Several bicycles towing back seats passed me by. Bicycles--Fidel lovingly called them "the daughters of the special period"--are very popular but also notoriously stolen, so now there are bike parking areas with men watching the bikes (for $1). Those rickshaws are made of sturdy Chinese bicycles, so they are quite slow. Besides, they don't take pesos, only dollars.
       Oh, well. Anyway, my secret dream was to get a ride in a sidecar of a motorbike, but most of those I saw were driven by men in military uniforms, so I decided against hitching a ride with them. I then toyed with the idea of flagging a cab. The Chevys, Oldsmobiles, and Anglias of the 1950s that cruise the Malecón are absolutely stunning. They look bigger than they must have been at birth, probably because of the layers of paint, in decidedly Caribbean colors, that cover them. It looks as if a museum of imperialist cars were making a tour of the city. The rest of the car fleet on Malecón looked like a museum of Eastern European communism, though: Trabants from East Germany, Volgas from the Soviet Union, and Yugos from Yugoslavia. (Of the lot--cars and countries--only Yugo-the-car still exists, and even this is an endangered species.) A Jurassic Park-on-wheels! But they didn't have room for me anyway, so I kept walking down the Malecón.
       The huge crowd at the Habana Vieja bus stop made me realize that even with the skills I've acquired for taking crowded means of transportation in shitholes around the world, I stood no chance of getting on board anything here. I got to my appointment on foot.
       After we had beers (85 cents a can, Cuban Bucanero) and lunch ($25 for two, absolutely delicious and worth the one and a half months' worth of Enrique's salary that it cost--he's a teacher at Havana University), I offered, a little too lightheartedly, to wait with Enrique for his bus. While we waited I had ample opportunity to learn more about city transportation in Havana. There are two types of buses: One is a guagua, and is more expensive because it costs a peso (one twenty-third of a dollar). The buses themselves are familiar, all too familiar, because they are the same as the fleet in Paris (they're still green, with signs that read SORTIE), although others are the same as the fleet in Rome (still orange, with signs that read USCITA). In the hour and a half that I waited with Enrique, two buses passed. They were from the wrong lines. We weren't even waiting for them, we were standing in a long, very orderly line waiting for a camello (a camel). These camellos are entirely idiosyncratic Cuban artifacts. They are wavy (upper-lower-upper) passenger decks pulled by trucks and they look extremely solid and--so says Enrique--are often very crowded. In the time we were waiting one camel came, which allowed us to move forward in the line. But not to get on. Philosophical Enrique assured me that it was good for me to experience the waiting, my experience of Cuba was more authentic that way. I left him and walked back to Habana Vieja. Manuel was still trying to change an apartment or a dollar.

Anna Husarska has been covering wars, civil conflicts, and elections in Central America, Central Europe, and Central Asia for American magazines since 1979. She currently works as a political analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that is monitoring the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. She is visiting Cuba on assignment for the Catholic Church.