Hitchhiker's Cuba

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T/N: What does he do there?

Jorge: I don't know. I haven't talked to him since he left.

T/N: Oh, that's too bad.

Jorge: No, no. It's O.K.

We drop the subject of Dad of Jorge. We pass miles and miles of oil pumps along the ocean, some pumping, their bird heads rhythmically dipping their beaks, others inanimate, the surf spraying over. We ask Jorge what he does for a living. He says he's a student of astronomy.

"Oh, so what does that entail?" I ask the rear-view mirror. T/N translates.

"Oh, you know," he says. "Cervezas, sodas, comida..."

Oh. Ha. Not astronomy. Gastronomy. Big laughs all around. The sky is watercolor gray, and the clouds hold rain. We all go over the mix-up three more times. Not astronomy. Gastronomy. Yes. The beach comes into view, palm trees bent by a wicked ocean-borne wind. Jorge wants to know if we need some place to stay. Jorge, like every last man in Cuba, knows of just the place, the perfect casa particular--the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast--and he, like most, is very difficult to convince of one's lack of casa particular-based need.

No thanks, we say.

I know just the place, he says.

No thanks, we say.

Very nice place.

No thanks but--

Clean, very cheap.

Thanks, no.

Have your own kitchen, very private.

No, no.

Only $18.

You are too kind but--

You want me to show you?

We drop Jorge at the beach at Santa Maria del Mar and get back to moving down the coast. Minutes later we pull over for two girls, each carrying a cake, each about 20, giggling to themselves in the back seat. Sisters? No, just friends. They're on their way home, to the next town, Guanabo. We pass a photo shoot, by the water: a skeletal blond woman, a photographer, a band of Cuban men, grinning in matching shirts, all standing in front of a mid-'50s Chevy, powder blue. We all wonder who the model is. Anyone we know? The girls giggle more. We're suddenly pals, they and all hitchers instantly familiar, completely at ease--as if we've picked up classmates on the way to the mini-mart. Safety here is assumed, trust a given. Where is there danger in Cuba? This is unclear.

Sand covers the road. We almost get blindsided by a mural-burdened van from Pastors for Peace. Bumper stickers thereon: END THE EMBARGO! ¡VAMOS A CUBA! Terrible drivers, these guys.

We drop the cake-bearing girls on the corner just past Guanabo's main drag and pick up a much older woman, 60 or so, who's been visiting her mother and needs to go just a little ways out of town. Ten minutes later--¡Aqui, Aqui!--she gets out. She smiles thank-you, and we smile goodbye--and again we're empty. We don't like to be empty. Through the Cuban countryside we feel ashamed to have the back seat unpeopled--all this room we have, all this fuel. It's getting dark, and as the roads go black, what was a steady supply of hitchhikers, punctuating the roads like mile markers, quickly disappears. Where they go is unclear. What happens when night comes but a ride hasn't? It's a problem of basic math we cannot fathom: always there are more riders than rides, a 10-to-1 ratio at best, so what are the odds that all riders will be transported before sunset?

At Varadero, there is money. Resorts and busloads of European tourists waiting impatiently in lobbies for their bags to be ported to their private beachside cabanas. There are buffets and games of water polo organized in the main pool--a ridiculous sort of comfort level for about $100 a night. (Best yet, the help is obsequious and a 50[cent] tip would do just fine!) After being turned away at the daunting gates of the massive Club Med, we drop our luggage next door and set out to the area's most fiery hot spot, the Cafe Havana, a huge disco/Hard Rock-style fun provider. The place is overflowing with tourists from around the world, come to see how the Cubans entertain.

We sit at a table by the stage, and after some fantastic salsa-dancing action--women wearing little beyond sequins and feathers--there is a magician, ponytailed, with two ponytailed assistants. And this magician's specialty is doves. Everywhere he is making doves appear. From his sleeve, a dove. From a newspaper, a dove. A balloon is popped, and a dove appears and flaps wildly. The crowd loves it. The doves appear, each one flailing its wings for a few seconds of chaos and quasi-freedom. Then the magician, with fluid nonchalance, grabs the dove from the air, two-handed, making from the explosion of feathery white a smooth inanimate sculpture of a bird. Then in one swift motion he shoves the dove into a small cage, with little steel bars, on a stand by his waist. Once inside, the doves sit docilely, staring ahead through the tiny silver bars. Though there is a hole just behind them, they sit, cooing--one dove, then two, three, four, five, six, all in a row. When he is done, the magician is applauded. We all love him. The birds in their cage, content and so pretty. How does he do it? He is fantastic. Then the band comes on, and everyone dances.

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