Free Riding in Havana, by Anna Laird Barto

Whistles followed me down 23rd Street. Men leaned over rickety balustrades to shout “¡Mamacita!” or “Marry me?” When I first got to Havana, the attention made me feel like a movie star, but soon I just felt like a piece of meat.

I was on my way home from the University of Havana, where I was studying for the semester, one of the last groups of U.S. students to have the opportunity before President George W. Bush enacted new travel restrictions in 2004.

It was about two miles from campus to the hostel where I lived, past concrete high rises peeling peach and aqua paint, and billboards denouncing Yanquí imperialism or extolling the patriotic virtues of dental hygiene. Each month, the billboards changed–probably rotating around the city–to provide the masses with fresh inspiration.

My book bag was heavy and I could feel my bare shoulders turning to chicharrón in the February sun. Buses passed, full as clown cars, limbs flailing from every exit. I shooed away the state-run Panataxis, yellow Peugeots with meters and air-conditioning, and held out for a máquina.

Máquinas are the “classic” cars depicted on postcards, which—like Fidel himself—appear to be held together by nothing but duct tape and Cuban ingenuity. Máquinas are often used as collective taxis, charging a flat fare to drop you anywhere along a designated route. Unlike state-run taxis, which charged in U.S. dollars (until the dollar was banned from the island in 2004), máquinas charged in moneda nacional, the Cuban peso. At that time, one dollar was worth approximately 26 Cuban pesos, and the average Cuban brought home 500 pesos a month—about 20 dollars. The only Cubans with legal access to dollars were those who worked in tourism or received remittances from relatives abroad.

Máquinas were not supposed stop for tourists, no matter how they drooled over the vintage tail fins and hood ornaments. If caught, a driver could be fined or lose his license. Many took the risk anyway, to get their hands on U.S dollars, but they often made us duck down to avoid being spotted by the police.

As a student I was entitled to pay the standard ten peso fare, but it took convincing. I’d strut up to the máquina and lean my arms on the open window—not unlike the prostitutes who worked the same street at night, but not so hard that the door would fall off—and, in my best, consonant-free Cuban Spanish, demand to know the fare. If they quoted me a price in dollars, I’d whip out my government issued student ID.

“¡Coño! ¡No soy turista!” Sometimes this worked. Sometimes I didn’t have the energy to argue and just forked over a dollar. It was still less than a Panataxi.

 

I should have been suspicious when a baby blue máquina coasted to the curb and the driver let me climb aboard without argument. Chugging down 31st street with the wind in my hair, I felt like a pageant queen on a geriatric parade float. The very next stop, all five of my fellow passengers disembarked, and I was alone beside the driver on the long, sagging bench seat of the ’50s Chevy. His eyes left the road and settled on my legs, which the red vinyl showed off to full pasty effect. He started out with the usual questions: “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” and quickly escalated to “Will you marry me?”

I yawned and looked out the window at the palm trees and yaguey roots erupting from the sidewalks. If I had a dollar for ever indecent proposal since I arrived in Havana…

“I have a boyfriend,” I said.

“So?” He patted the seat next him. “I’m not jealous.” I tried to slide toward the window, but my sweaty thighs stuck to the vinyl.

“Oh, so you don’t like black men,” he said, as if there were no other obvious reasons to reject him, such as his advanced age, hairline, or bad manners.

“My boyfriend is black. He’s also big, strong and very jealous.”

“I’m not afraid,” he said, reaching out to touch my leg. I flung his hand away, but this only seemed to further excite him.

“Come on, give me a kiss, just one little kiss?”

“This is my stop,” I said, although I’d have to walk another six blocks home. The máquina shuddered to a stop. I held out a red fifty peso bill at arm’s length.

“How about you give me a kiss instead?”

“NO!”

I watched him take his time fishing for coins in the crocheted change purse dangling from the steering column. After all I’d put up with I wasn’t about to let him stiff me on the change. He dropped forty pesos into my waiting palm, but then, apparently overcome by the proximity of my pale, sweaty hand, he seized it with his meaty fingers.

“Just one kiss?” He puckered his lips.

“No!” I closed my hand around the money and slid across the seat to the door. I got out and slammed the door (to my disappointment it didn’t fall off) and marched away without a backward glance. I’d gone about a block when I opened my fist and found that in addition to forty pesos in change, I was still holding the fifty peso bill with which I’d intended to pay. Not only had he lost out on his fare, but he’d accidentally paid me quadruple for the privilege of riding in his rattletrap del amor.

I laughed so wildly that the guards in front of the Venezuelan embassy turned to stare. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hostel and tell my American roommates how I’d gotten the best of another dirty old man.

But later that night, as we sat on the rocks beside the water, eating overcooked, under-seasoned pork and beans out of cardboard cartons, I couldn’t let the incident go.  I’d gotten away with 90 Cuban pesos—about $3.50. Was that the worth of an American kiss in Havana? The Cuban girls who waited outside the discotheques for foreigners would do the whole deed for $20. Did that make my lips a bargain? Or a luxury item, like the Coca-Colas, imported from Mexico, which sold for $1.00 at the Havana Libre Hotel, where Cubans weren’t allowed past the glass revolving doors to hassle the tourists?

Ahead of us, the Straits of Florida were black under the moon. Just beyond the point, boulders jutted; our Cuban neighbors said the shark were out there. Sometimes, we saw a faint glow on the horizon that might be Miami’s lights, but tonight, water and sky came together in a firm, dark line. For me, fifty Cuban pesos was nothing, a couple of quarters to be flung in a fountain for luck. For the taxi driver, fifty pesos could buy two dozen black market eggs, a month’s ration of rice and beans, a night out at the opera. What was that compared to my twenty-three-year-old ego? In a system where everyone is said to be equal, where property is shared by the pueblo, how is it that everything is for sale, even a kiss?

***

Anna Laird Barto received her MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Newfound Journal, EDGE, Gulf Stream, and The Boiler.

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Anna Laird Barto

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