Queues in Cuba

Sometimes I feel I have traveled back 20 years. I remember, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was quite normal to stand in queues in Estonia to get a kilo of sausages or a pack of washing-powder. Over time, I was able to forget those bad experiences, but all these old scars have been torn open again in Cuba. It is common to wait in the queue at a bank, telephone operator, or ice cream parlor for two hours in Cuba.

I joke that Cubans speak fast because they want to make up the time loste standing in queues. During my first weeks in Cuba, I refused to stand in queues as it was so unreasonable to me. Once I realized that I did’t have any other option, the queues became a form of entertainment to me. As a positive, I meet different and fascinating people in queues and at the same time practice my Spanish skills. At least, there is something useful for me. Cubans (and now I) socialize in queues and they become one big and happy family 🙂 .
My first experience with the reality ahead of me took place when I went to a bank to buy stamps for the visa. At first, I stood outside the bank door for a half an hour before they let me in. When I entered the bank, I got a small shock. I’m accustomed to taking a number and waiting for my turn. However, here it wasn’t possible to take the number. Approximately 30 people were randomly waiting for their turn in the lobby of the bank. It was impossible for me to identify in what order people should go to the service desk. A man, who looked like a security guard tried to coordinate the activity in the lobby, but the mass of customers had grown too large. At this time, my Spanish skills and knowledge about rules of queues were very limited. Luckily for me, a man whom I had met outside helped me in the bank, so I wouldn’t get completely lost. I learned that after entering the bank, you need to say in a loud voice “the last” (in Spanish “el último”). To be on the safe side, it would be wise to ask who is ahead in the queue in case “the last” person gives up on staying in the queue. After knowing who stands in front of you in the queue, you need to keep an eye on her or him and go to the service desk after that person. To say the least, I was very exhausted after two hours at the bank.
The rule to ask who is the last person in the queue applies to all queues (in a bank, in a bus station etc.). Usually, the queue doesn’t look like an orderly queue where people stand in one line. People stand chaotically, but principally they know where is their place in the queue. When it takes a long time to stay in the queue, some of the people have an habit to leave for awhile to run some other errands (for example to go to another store). They inform people ahead and behind themselves and return to the queue later on. For me, the most complicated queues are at Coppelia, an ice cream cafeteria. Here people come out of the bushes and other places, where they have been in a shadow, when it’s their turn to order. To the first timer, it looks as if the queue will be short, but experienced ice cream fans are able to identify the other people in the queue who are out of place.
A huge headache is when I have to buy a pass for internet usage at the ETECSA (Cuban state owned telecom operator). Here the crowd behind the door forms two or three different queues for different services. It is essential to make sure that you stand in the right queue, so you don’t waste your time in the wrong queue based on your own mistake.
I have spent the most time in the queues at Coppelia. Ice cream this delicious is worth the wait. It is very good, if I’m able to get to through cafeteria in half an hour, but often I need wait around an hour. Now I’m able to estimate how much time it takes to get in by the length of the line. If it looks like more than one hour, I refuse simply refuse and move on.

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