Hitchhiker's Cuba

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    The next day we're off, Varadero to Cienfuegos. First passengers, from a roadside crowd of 15 or 20: a mother-and-child duo, the mother skinny and snaggle-toothed, the baby perfect and in pink, 11 months old, little black shoes, shiny; they're headed home. We roll with them past horse-drawn wagons and slow, lanky cows. Egrets skim over the road, perpendicular. Air warm, sky overcast. The car screams.

    They get out near Jovellanos, and we never get their names. In Jovellanos, a medium-size adobe town of narrow streets, we get lost, quickly and irrevocably. At a street corner, there appears beside us a man on a bicycle. He knows where to go, he says--just follow him. We rumble behind him and his bike at 15 m.p.h., the streets full of onlookers watching our parade--left turn, right, left, left, right, left, 10 minutes and there we are, back on the main road. He points ahead, toward the on-ramp. Aha.

    We pull up next to him. He is sweating profusely and grinning. We slip him $5--for many, we're told, that's almost a month's salary--because we are wealthy and glamorous Americans and we appreciate his help. So easy to change the quality, the very direction, of Cubans' lives! It seems possible that, between our ride sharing and tip giving, we can single-handedly redress whatever harm has been done. Oh, if only!

    Just outside Jovellanos there's Estelle, chatty, about 35, and her 10-year-old Javier, who jump in at a dusty corner. Estelle sighs and laughs as she gets in and says hello. Had they been waiting long? Yes, yes, she says, they'd been waiting an hour and a half. They're going to a town called Australia, 20 minutes away. "Why is there a town in Cuba called Australia?" we ask. Estelle doesn't know. She turns to Javier. Javier has no idea. She shrugs and smiles.

    We dodge more wagons, their drivers frequently asleep, the donkeys as sad as donkeys insist on appearing. There are men in uniform waiting for rides. There are women with groceries and babies waiting for rides. Some of the hitchers raise their hands to a passing car, but most don't. Some express frustration when they feel that a passing car could fit more people (i.e., them), but most don't. Most just watch you pass, squinting beyond you, for the next slowing car or truck. But when a car stops, never is there competition for the ride. Never is there shoving or even the most mild sort of disagreement. Each time we pull over, whoever's closest simply walks to the car and gets in. There is no system in place for the rewarding of longest wait, or oldest, or most pregnant. It's both perfectly fair and completely random.

    We drop Estelle and Javier in Australia and pick up a family just outside of town. Grandfather, mother, daughter. They had been visiting a friend at the hospital and are going where we're going, to Playa Giron, home of the Cuban monument to the heroes of the Bay of Pigs. Our merengue tape, bought at a gas station, tinkles quietly from the speakers. We offer them--we offer everyone--water, cookies, crackers. They decline, and like most riders, this family says nothing unless we speak first; they don't even talk to one another. They watch the countryside pass, content. We are surprised, with them and most riders, that they do not want to know where we're from. Why are they not curious about us, the Americans here to save them? At their house, a bent-over salmon-colored ranch on a brown-dirt street, they ask us if we'd like to come in for a cold drink. We decline, must move. They scoot out. In the process, the daughter's shoe catches on the seat and loses its heel. She looks up, embarrassed, horrified. "New shoes too," says Mom. We all chuckle and then sigh. Kids.

    After Giron, we're headed to Cienfuegos, through more fields of tobacco, then bananas. When night comes again, there are no streetlights, no lights anywhere, and on the winding two-lane roads, the avoidance of donkey carts and tractors and people requires tremendous, arcadelike hand-eye coordination. All is dark, and then things will suddenly be in front of us, lit as if by a camera's flash; swerving is an essential skill. Up ahead a car is parked, hazards blinking. There is a group of people around the car. Obviously an ambush. We should not stop. In the U.S., we would not stop.

    We stop. Four people are standing around a white, early-'70s Volvo. They're out of gas; can we help? Yes, yes, we say, of course. They want to siphon from our tank. They have an actual siphon right there. We don't have enough, we say, noticing that we're almost out ourselves. We'll take them to the next town. Another man, Esteban, about 19, gets in the back seat, as does Marisa, 24, petite, in silk blouse and black jeans. They hold the gas container on their laps. It's 15 minutes to tiny-town Roda and its one-pump gas station.

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