Can A Girl Get A (Bathroom) Break?

prlr_havanabanos

As you already know, Parlour isn’t confined to just the US, we have a group of women all over the world, dedicated to telling you’re their stories from their global perspectives. While some are regular contributors, some—like Dorada—prefer to just drop in once in a while. She is our Cuban connection and sent us this true story of how a little “cop a squat” almost turned into “catch a case” one night in Havana….

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Havana, March 2008
There is a popular Cuban saying that says: “Happiness can’t be complete”.  The night started out wonderfully, filled with close friends and good vibes. However, in one instant it changed completely. We (my friend and I) had been at what we call a “fiestecita” (small party in someone’s home), the type of party that is born and forms in five minutes…and after some dancing and some drinking, we decided to end the night with a stroll home.

Depending on one’s wants and necessities, walking along Havana’s streets can be a difficult affair. We were on a street in Central Havana, and found ourselves trying to fulfill an elemental necessity: to pee. In Havana, you almost never find public bathrooms when you need them. They are pretty much only located in hotels but using them is not easy (although its better since Cubans are now allowed to stay in hotels) because they are normally reserved for “guests only.” With that, most of us are forced to find someplace outside to pee. Minutes earlier we had seen a police car one block away, but it had then turned the corner and disappeared. Or at least that is what I had assumed. I was wrong. Just as I was squatting down and peeing, they returned and shined their lights right on us.

Of course: lights, breaks screeching, papers, the usual. I explain to my compañero (comrade) that “keeps the public order” that I was trying to do something natural, that nobody was around, that at 3:00 in the morning there are no bathrooms and that my house is far away. But according to Decree No. 141, article 1, paragraph b): contravene the public order, and impose the fine and measures appropriate for each case which: offend good manners with indecent exposures.

Or in other words, I indecently exposed myself. Here is where the real story begins. To both of us he says “Documents!” I tell my police compañero that my friend doesn’t have identification, because she is not Cuban. He entertains himself for a minute with me and my identification card, as if I am a criminal, and begins to write something down. When I ask him what he’s writing, he tells me he is giving me a fine for exposure. Next up: my friend. The police officer tells me that I can leave but they have to take my friend to the police station because she doesn’t have any identification. Hmmm, now this upsets me. It’s not the first time I have walked down Havana’s streets with a friend that isn’t Cuban.  Many times the police have stopped me and asked to see my identification card, whether I am indecently exposing myself or not, but they have never bothered to ask for the documents of my foreign friends.  Almost always my friends from abroad have been white. But this time: my friend is not white, she is as black as I am, and thus, they don’t believe what I say. Instead my compañero, the protector of public order, debated with me over the obvious reasons why a foreigner in this particular country (and perhaps not in others), doesn’t carry their passport on the street.

Trying to simplify things, I ask my friend if she has a photocopy of her passport and she does. She shows it and just like that, they stop bothering her. An old copy of a passport, folded so many times that you can barely make out the features of her face, is sufficient to convince these police officers of her status as a foreigner. In fact, right now I am thinking in making one for myself and thus be able to pee on any street in Havana!

So, In that moment I feel as if all of the injustice in the world is falling on me. There are no bathrooms around, which is not my fault, but I am the one being fined for it; my friend, who they were treating like a vulgar criminal in one moment is deified in the next with a photocopy that I could have made myself and for as much as I try to explain, this human being equal to me, my fellow compañero, does not want to understand the situation. I start to scream.

Of course, I am DISOBEYING, or this is what they call it. As a result, I end up handcuffed beside my friend in the back of a police car. I am being taken to the station to be accused. Before arriving, however, we go on a detour because apparently, my compañero wants to reinforce his charges with evidence that I was drunk.So we go to the emergency room of a hospital to do a sobriety test. Once there, I tell the doctor that sees me that I was at a party and that OF COURSE, I have alcohol on my breath. He tells me to breath in his direction (please don’t laugh). I did this, but I guess I did it wrong. I have to repeat the procedure, which consists of breathing in through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth, while the doctor sniffs the air, and voila, I now have a certificate that says I had alcohol breath. I was speechless and there wasn’t time for anything else.

Returning to our cruiser, what we call “la yaboo de la felpa azul” (Yaboo – the white clothes of santeros; la felpa – a hair elastic; azul – blue – in other words, white car with a blue light on its head) they drive us to the police station. I am herded to “classification” at the police station, as if I’m some species of cow. My friend cannot come. Remember, she is not Cuban and they don’t want our friends from abroad to see things as they are or perhaps this is normal procedure!

Imagine this: a cell full of men, two women outside that I guess are there because they don’t want to mix them with the men, a table, a police officer behind it, another officer standing that yells at someone from outside what I assume to be a bathroom. From inside this completely dark “bathroom,” a woman (who appears to be a transvestite) finally emerges from doing her natural necessities. She moves around the place with confidence; she knows everyone, the policemen make fun of her, and they order her to go find water for the bathroom. She asks where the bucket for the water is; by the way they treat her it seems that this woman is here every week. Finally, she leaves to complete the task but she takes a long time. While she’s gone I hear the police officers asking where she is, if she has slipped out; it all seems like a dream to me. I could also leave, only they have my identification documents and I don’t want to leave them. It surprises me that these police officers are such bad workers as they stand around asking each other if the transvestite has left. At this point, the world seems crazy.

They take me out of “classification” and bring me to the front. My friend is still there and this calms me. My compañero who arrested me tells my story to another man and I cannot hear what they are saying because the place has an echo. I want to give my own version of the story, because we all know what stories the police sometimes tell! One of the men there says that he is the man in charge. What I have to say, I should say to him. I tell him what happened and of course, he responds in the same way as his compañero: I cannot be indecently exposing myself on the street. I go back to telling him the reasons why I did it and I ask him if he has never done it in his life. His response: neither yes or no. I understand that in this moment he is having an internal conflict over whether to say what he should or to confess to doing what each Cuban has to do when they leave their homes and are faced with the reality of the lack of public bathrooms. Finally he says that I have to be accused because I don’t want to admit my wrongdoing. I try to explain what happened once again, and tell him that if I have to be accused then they should go ahead with it.

This process has taken over an hour now, so I ask one of them if they are going to take a long time processing me because I want to go to sleep. To my surprise, they tell me that I’m going to have to spend the night there. I ask them if “I can make a call to someone who could help me in a situation like this.” I still don’t know how, but after I make the phone call, they come to tell me that I can now return to “classification.” Why? I ask. The response they give me is: so that you can go.

-What? Now I really don’t understand.

Finally back in “classification” they make me sign underneath another fine. The “boss” is there and since he was the man I talked to before, I ask him if I have to pay two fines now. With a face that says “I don’t know what your talking about,” he proceeds to ask me the question that I saw in his face (lol). I’m even more speechless than he is. I have no idea what to say. I just sign the paper and leave.
After telling the story to some friends, they tell me that there are laws like this everywhere in the world. I just want to ask if we will eventually be more specific about what things truly fall under the category of “indecent exposure” or if this law is so convenient for those “on top” that it will be in place forever. Equally, the subject of foreigners in this country comes into my head. I have many friends who are not Cuban and I don’t want to offend them. On the contrary, I love them all very much but I think that this has to do with both of us. When will I stop to be treated like any old thing in my own country and when will non-Cubans stop being treated like different beings? I’m not saying that in some moments it would be quite advantageous (remember the photocopy that I will make) but will it always be like this?

From Havana with love,
Dorada

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