Friday, April 29, 2011

Auto Adventures

Last week my tire exploded. Well, ok maybe not quite 'exploded,' but it sounded like it. And the hole in my tire was pretty epic if I do say so myself. Luckily I was not on the highway, luckily I could pull over onto a side street pretty easily to assess the damage, and most importantly, luckily, a random guy stopped on his way to class, talked me down from the minor panic attack I was having, and put my spare on for me, refusing to allow me to call AAA. In the rain.

I was amazed. In a city, and especially a city not known for its good temperament, he put off getting his coffee and instead stopped to help. I’m still in awe of that, as well as the fact that he wouldn’t even let me buy his coffee afterwards as thanks. Very Pay it Forward (from what I’ve heard; my movie watching abilities tend to leave a lot to be desired). I guess as mornings go, it could have been worse. Tire: RIP; Faith in humanity: Alive and well. Overall win.

As I was thinking about car misadventures, mostly while standing in the rain trying to look helpful, I couldn’t help but think about Cuba.

Cuba is known for its old cars. Picture Cuba, picture a snapshot of the 1950s, when cars were big, colourful, and had some solid cojones. Times have, of course, changed, and while the cars still have the attitude, the mechanics are not quite what they used to be. And they are primarily used as taxis, so I got to experience this first hand. My favourite car was a giant yellow boat driven by a no-nonsense woman who could totally have single handedly taken down the resident machismo. I was seated up front and watched as the gear shift jumped wildly about in an ever expanding hole through which I could actually see pavement. We kept a solid racing pace of about 30 mph, but the speedometer was flipping between 70 and 80. It took twice as long as usual to get to the beach, but the trip was easily the best part of the day.

Another day, we found a man willing to take six of us in a five seat car – one seat of which he was already occupying. This is, of course, illegal in any country, but especially in Cuba when on top of the grossly overpacked vehicle, he wasn’t even a registered cab driver. He said this would be fine so long as we pretended to be family in case a police officer stopped us. We looked around. Not one of us looked remotely alike in any way – except maybe in that we were all easily identified as tourists. But the price was right, the man was friendly, and so familia we decided to be and we piled into the car.

As we were driving (after the first time we were pulled over by the police, but before the second time. Whatever.), we noticed a car waving frantically at us, motioning that we should stop. Our driver rolled down the window and called across to ask why. The response came that it was something about a tire.

We pulled over. The driver got out. The familia followed. As the car was relieved of its seven person weight, one of the front tires just popped off, rolled a few feet and then tipped over as we all watched in some combination of confusion, intrigue, and horror. Our weight was all that had been holding the tire on. We were driving on a tire without bolts. What?!

Our driver, however, was unfazed. No matter, this tire may have lost its bolts, but there were still three other tires that bolts could be borrowed from. So in the most unusually appropriate demonstration of the political practice of the country, he redistributed the bolts from the remaining three tires so that the fourth tire could be bolted back on. Vive la revolucion indeed.

Except who knows for how long. The Cuban cars are, if you want to be overly symbolic and slightly cheesy, a good representation of Cuba itself: A snapshot of a previous time, with only a shadow of the grandeur, but with an immense pride and captivating presence despite the tragic beauty of the signs of decline. Confusing? Yes. If there’s one thing I learned in Cuba, it’s don’t bother to try for simple classifications: contradictions abound. Last week was the 6th Communist Party conference in which Raul announced that things are going to change, and while he stressed that this was not a move towards capitalism, the facts don’t make that clear. There are talks of governmental cuts in service, privatization of business, and shorter terms for officials, all of which have been met with a combination of intrigue, skepticism, and most importantly, hope.

As various news reports have stressed, it’s too soon to tell what will happen. But Cuba is strong, resilient, and resourceful. Throughout Cuba’s history the government has been inconsistent and volatile and political decisions, both within Cuba, and regarding Cuba, have been intricate, delicate, and occasionally just absurd. And yet the people cheerfully persevere, so regardless of how Raul’s changes affect the country, I know the people will cope and flourish.

Another win for ‘faith in humanity.’ Not a bad week overall.