Hitchhiker's Cuba

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On the road outside Havana, where weeds grow through the train tracks, and the crumbling buildings, colors fading into a decorator's dream, alternate with wild trees and shrubs in the most gorgeous, postapocalyptic way, is where it first happened, when we first got an idea of how it all worked.

We had missed a turn (we suspected) and so had stopped to ask directions. We pulled over next to a median strip, on which stood eight or 10 people, half with shopping bags, presumably waiting for a bus. We rolled down the window, smiled sheepishly and directed our confusion to one of the men (tall, black, in a shiny Adidas jersey). With a swift sort of purpose, he nodded and stepped forward from the island and toward us, in a gesture we took as exceptionally friendly and helpful, getting so close to better relate the coordinates...

Then he was in the car. It happened before we knew it had happened. He just opened the door, and then suddenly he was giving us directions from within the car. The smallish back seat was empty, then full, full with this large man, his knees cramped up near his chin. He was so nonchalant, and had not uttered any commands or taken out a gun or any of the other ostensible signs of carjacking, and so it dawned on us that this was what happened in Rome. In Cuba, that is. Here hitchhiking is custom. Hitchhiking is essential. Hitchhiking is what makes Cuba move. All those other people on the median strip? All waiting for rides. Perhaps a bus, yes, if they have a few hours to lose. But until then there are cars, and occasionally the back of a bicycle, and the hope that someone will stop. So the man in our car tells us where we're going, and then we're off, eastbound, through the outer parts of Havana, along the train tracks, more and more green, past the heartbreaking roadside propaganda, 10 miles, 15 miles out of the city's center.

His name is Juan Carlos. And while he speaks a little English, thankfully in the passenger seat is a translator/navigator (T/N), and she duly interprets.

What does Juan Carlos do for a living?

He's a basketball player-coach.

Where are we taking him?

Home. Is that O.K.?

Of course, sure. Is he married?

Yes. Actually, he says, his wife is the starting center for the Cuban women's national basketball team. Do we want to meet her?

Hell, of course we want to meet her.

His building is a concrete complex overgrown with weeds and drying laundry. Neighbors stare from above, their arms draped over balconies. Through the door and inside Juan Carlos' apartment suddenly there is Judith, easily 7 ft. tall. Eight? She's huge. She leans down to offer her cheek for kisses. The walls are crowded with images of Michael Jordan. We say we're from Chicago. They nod politely. Juan Carlos thinks the Suns will take it this year. The Suns? We nod politely.

Judith is practicing for the Sydney Games, with her team playing against three other teams in the Cuban women's intramural league. From the four teams, the squad for the national team is chosen. Does she think she'll have any trouble making the team? She chuckles. Dumb question. No, she'll be starting.

They ask when we'll be back in Havana. We don't know. When you come back, they say, this is your home. Their in-laws live down the street, so they'll stay with them and we can have their bed. We say fine, but for now we have to move, must get back on the road (but not before getting a quick snapshot, for which Judith changes into her uniform), because we're heading up the coast, and we have more people to pick up and move, from here to there.

That becomes the point--it had not been the plan at the outset but now is the mission, one thrust upon us--the picking up of people, because, as we learn soon enough, the most common roadside scenery in Cuba, besides the horse-drawn wagons and broken-down classic American cars, is its hitchhikers. The roads are littered with people everywhere, along the huge highways and two-laners, all strewn with mothers and their daughters, grandmothers, working men, soldiers, teenagers, schoolchildren in their white, white shirts and mustard-colored pants or skirts, day and night, in the rain or otherwise. All waiting.

They wait for hours for the occasional bus or a spot on the back of a truck, waiting on the median strips, at the intersections, sitting with their possessions or on them, along the gravelly highway shoulders, patience their essence because gasoline is scarce and expensive, cars are owned by few and function for fewer, the buses are terrible and slow and always so full. And so we are driving in our Subaru, a tiny thing but big enough for five, and we're Americans come to move the Cubans from place to place. Feel our luxury! Hear our engine's roar!

Up the coast, and in 10 minutes we stop for Jorge, who gets in at a stoplight and is going toward Varadero, a beach town on the north coast. Jorge is about 18, in khakis and a pink shirt, with a very hip-seeming haircut, freshly gelled, a kind of haircut that makes him look half monk, half member of a dancing, harmonizing teen quintet. Jorge's father, he says, left for the U.S. years ago. He was one of the so-called balseros, the rafters who left from the Bay of Mariel in 1994 during one of Castro's periodic spurts of permitted emigration. Now he's in Miami.

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