When I entered the bank at the upscale Havana hotel, there were dozens of people waiting for three tellers. There was no discernible queue, only locals clustered around, chatting amongst themselves - they clearly knew they had a long time to wait.
I asked around in my heavily accented Spanish to see where I should stand in order to exchange my Canadian currency, until finally a short stocky man in a blue baseball cap stepped out from behind the crowd and said to me, "I'm the last one in line. I'm el ultimo."
If you've ever been to Havana - or anywhere in Cuba, really - then you may know that Cubans have endless patience for waiting in line. This likely developed out of necessity: In Cuba it's not unheard of to wait several hours to get to the front of the line at the bank, a supermarket or even an ice-cream parlour.
I'd imagine the system has its frustrations, especially if you're standing in line somewhere like Coppelia - Havana's famous ice-cream parlour, located in a park in the newer area of the city called Vedado. The line goes all the way around the park, and you can stand there all day if you're a local - but if you're a tourist and paying in convertible pesos (as opposed to the less-valued Cuban pesos) then you can butt right in front.
But Cubans are nothing if not inventive, and they've developed a system. It goes something like this: Walk into a shop/bank/pizza place and make your presence known by calling out the question, " El ultimo?" Meaning, Who is the last one in line? Remember to scream it out loudly so everyone can hear. Someone will then respond " Yo" or " Yo soy el ultimo." ("Me," or "I'm the last one in line.") Play the reverse role when the next person walks in, make a mental note of who's in front of you and behind you. Then leave.
Here's the tricky part: If you leave, you have to estimate how long it'll take and be sure to get back before your turn comes up. If you miss it, there are no take-backs. Cubans have it down to an art, perhaps because the system has been around for eternity - or at least as far as many locals remember.
One man in his 30s told me it's an idiosyncrasy that developed some time after the revolution, when things became scarce and queues became long. It makes perfect sense: If you want to hit the bank, supermarket and grab an ice cream all in one day, then you'd better multitask.
I, on the other hand, was not as adept at playing the system. At the bank where I was trying to exchange my Canadian currency, I went to take a breather and came back. But upon my return, I couldn't find the man who was in front of me. I was panic-stricken. I didn't know if he'd left, or worse, taken off the blue baseball cap that I had identified him by.
Fortunately, the woman behind me remembered the two people ahead of her in line, both me and the man in front of me - who, indeed, had simply taken off his hat. Was it luck, or is it standard procedure to memorize two people ahead of you? More likely, she just realized I was a clueless turista.
Special to The Globe and Mail