In the shadow of an “almendrón”

“Going to Havana?” the driver shouts as me, as if the corner of Boyeros and Tulipán where I am standing is not part of the city where I was born and live. I respond with a gesture of the finger to the left and confirm: “Yes, going to the Fraternity*,” because I like to make my daily homage at the park of the Ceiba* — under which, we are told, is a “pledge” buried by Machado which has condemned us to an eternal national unhappiness.

I get into the almendrón* and make myself comfortable between the other passengers who look back at the bus stop we left behind and appear relieved to be “here” and not “there.” The ten pesos throb in my pocket, but the thought of the new articulated bus with small windows convinces me I’ve done the right thing. The car has been licensed and has room for eight passengers, two next to the driver, three in the middle and the other three back where the trunk used to be. The seat that must be folded back touches me every time someone reaches their destination. It doesn’t matter, nothing is worse than the “groping” in the camel.*

We turn in front of a police checkpoint, where they make their packet from the private carriers alone. We are lucky, they don’t stop us. The driver then has his last encounter with the cops which costs him ten chavitos.* The passengers opine, tell horror stories, and little by little we get to the subject about which everyone has something to say, that is an encounter with “anonymous neurotics” explaining the causes of their unbalanced minds.

The complicity has been created. The magical space in this 40-year-old Chevrolet has succeeded in making us speak of our discontent. The topics follow one another, passing through potholes, the stifling of private production, the excessive repetition of certain themes on national television, and ending with a phrase a fellow rider throws in my face, “Yes! But nobody does a thing!”

We arrive at the side of the Capitol and our shared ride ends. The car returns to the taxi stand and I hear the driver shouting, “Twenty, to Santiago de las Vegas!” The lady beside me completely ignores me and takes off in another direction. I look out at the Ceiba tree, encircled by railings, that once was sown in earth from all the republics on this continent and murmur between my teeth, “And for all the good you did us.”

Translator’s notes:

Almendrón = Pre-Revolution American cars in use as private, shared, semi-fixed route taxis.

Parque de la Fraternidad = A park alongside the old capitol building (which now houses a museum).

Ceiba = In the center of the park is a Ceiba tree, planted in 1928. Delegates to the sixth Pan-American conference, representing every country in the Americas, each brought dirt from home. The tree was planted in the combined earth as a symbol of pan-American friendship.

Camel = A type of Cuban bus that is a long double-humped ‘container’ with a capacity of 300 people, pulled by a truck tractor. Googling for images using the words “camello” and “cuba” will yield many photos.

Chavitos = A slang term for Cuban Convertible Pesos; the word is a diminutive of “Chavez,” the name of the Venezuelan president.

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