(NOTE RE PHOTOS in this blog: I don’t have a lot of queuing photos. Actually I don’t have any at all. So the ones on this page are a random selection of some of Geoff’s fabulous photos that haven’t fitted into any other blogs so far.)
In my vile imperialist fashion, I used to believe an assumed wisdom that Britain was the supreme country when it came to queuing. In England there seems some sort of idea we probably invented the queue, and then passed it onto the civilised world.
Who knows? Actually, when you look into it, it doesn’t seem clear which race formed the first orderly queue - maybe only the English care enough to write about queuing. However I do know that whoever did it first, it has been refined into a far superior art form by the Cubans.
Of course, Cubans get a lot of practice. The first thing you do when you arrive in the country is join an endless queue to change money. You queue for the bank, to buy internet cards, and for the supermarket. Actually, you queue three times for the supermarket – once to get in through the front door, once for checkout, and lastly to have your purchases checked against your till receipt when you leave. If you are really unlucky you also queue to leave your other bags in the bag storage place outside the store (you can’t take bags in) and to retrieve them afterwards. You queue for buses and endlessly for any form of official business – of which I suspect there is a fair amount for your average Cuban. And much of the queuing is done outside in the street, waiting until the person on the door decides it is quiet enough inside to let a few more people in. Perhaps that stops any rioting in store.
But it’s hot in Cuba. Queuing outside in the sunshine would I suspect kill large swathes of the Cuban population each year - if they hadn’t devised their exemplary system. When you arrive at a bus stop, for example, the first thing you ask is who is the last person in the queue. That person might well not be at the back of the physical line, but could be sitting on a wall in the shade across the street. Or on a bench under a tree. Or chatting to their mate. Once you know who “el ultimo” is, you don’t have to stand in the queue, you can go and sit somewhere in the shade as well, and the next person to come along will find out that you are the “ultimo” and form a virtual queue behind you. It is extremely civilised. Once the bus comes along, the queue reforms, and everyone gets on in their allotted order.
Obviously, it requires you not to forget who you are behind, or that person to not remember an urgent appointment and go off somewhere else. I was a bit worried that the man in the yellow hat, who was the person in front of me in a long virtual queue at a police office when we went to renew our Cuban visas, might take his hat off and I wouldn’t recognise him.
The other noticeable thing about the Cuban queuing system is the good natured tone of the whole thing. No one seems to get grumpy or impatient. In a shop, once you get to the front of the queue, you are free to look at every tea towel in the box, change your mind six times about which chocolate bar to get, or (if you are a hopeless tourist) fumble about in a confused fashion with the various coins and notes for the two local currencies, trying to find the right change. No one tut tuts. It’s your turn, and you can make the most of it.
Us British (and our colonial offshoots) have a lot to learn.