Hitchhiker's Cuba

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As we wait, we talk to Marisa, who we learn is studying English; she wants to get into tourism. She is married to an American, a photographer from Los Angeles. She was just coming back from Havana, as a matter of fact, where she was seeing him off at the airport.

So who are the others in the car?

She doesn't know. It's a taxi.

A taxi? A taxi running out of gas?

Big laughs all around.

The taxi was taking three passengers the three hours from Havana to Cienfuegos; the driver had grossly miscalculated how much fuel that would require. They had left at 3 that afternoon. It was now at least 9. We fill up their container and are ready to go.

But the Subaru won't start. It won't even turn over. In a flash, Esteban is out of the car and pushing. I'm driving, and he's barking orders, which need to be translated instantaneously by T/N. I have no idea what we're doing. We stop. Esteban, sighing loudly, takes my place, and then I'm pushing. Down the road, and before long we're out of the town and into the dark fields. The road is red from the taillights and slippery and I can't get a grip, but then boom, Esteban pops the clutch and the Subaru whinnies and I get in while it's moving and we're off, Esteban at the wheel. Like a getaway car! In a minute Esteban's doing 80 m.p.h. He's veering on and off the road. "Flojo! Flojo!" Marisa is saying, urging him to slow down, but young Esteban has something to prove to her and to T/N, so 80 it is, the engine hitting high notes with full vibrato.

We get to the taxi. They fill up the Volvo while we wait. We meet the third passenger, Dale, an English-speaking med student from St. Kitts, who decides he's sick of speaking Spanish, so he'll ride to Cienfuegos with us. He's studying Spanish there, the first year of seven he'll spend in Cuba on his way to a medical degree. We follow the taxi into Cienfuegos, drop off Dale at his barbed wire-surrounded dormitory, check into a hotel with red light bulbs and a lounge singer plowing through the high points of the Billy Joel songbook, and we're done for the night.

In the morning, on the way to the town of Trinidad, it's all rolling hills and farms, and the people have been waiting for us. At an intersection 10 miles out of Cienfuegos we stop at a gathering of 20 or so, mostly young men, some in uniform. One gets in, followed by a woman, running--she's just jumped out of another car and into ours. Her name is Maela and, like the vast majority of Cuban women, Maela is a devout spandex enthusiast. She's in a black-and-white bodysuit, bisected with belt, and she's laughing like mad at her car-to-car coup, the soldiers tossing her a wide variety of obscene gestures as we drive away. The soldier we've got is named Jordan; he's doing the mandatory military service--two years--and is heading home for the weekend. Maela was in Cienfuegos with friends and is going home too. He's quiet, but she's bubbly, and through the countryside we roll.

Ten miles and Jordan gets out at a tiny town called Pepito, where Condela gets in. Condela is about 45 and has crumbs all over his mouth and hands--he has been eating a pastry while waiting for a ride, standing just outside a bakery. He's a butcher in Trinidad, so he'll be with us the rest of the ride, about an hour more. Condela has been visiting friends and is on his way back home. He asks where we're from. Los Estados Unidos, we say. Ah, he says. He has family in Miami. (Everyone has family in Miami.)

We drop off Maela; she giggles thanks, and in comes Belgis, about 40, pregnant, in a white frilly blouse and floral spandex leggings. She was waiting for three hours. She was visiting her family, and is on her way to Playa Yaguardabo to see her in-laws, 10 minutes up the road. We get there, and she's out. Condela stays put and seems perturbed--the back seat is not so big--when we welcome a young couple, Alexander and Yaineris, who bustle in, exhaling with relief. They have a chicken with them. A live chicken. Condela laughs at our surprise. The chicken is small and in a plastic bag--its red, confused little head poking out. Alexander and Yaineris are married, and have been visiting her parents; they're headed back home to Trinidad. The ocean is a few hills to our right. Tour buses whip past us doing 75 m.p.h. The tour buses are always empty, always doing 75, and they don't stop for anyone.

Halfway to Trinidad, while we are passing La Guira, something recklessly symbolic happens. At the bottom of a small valley, there is a split second when a huge, bulbous green army truck passes us, heading in the other direction. At the same instant, we are passing on our right a straw-hatted farmer on horseback and, to our left, a woman on a bicycle. Symbolism contained: each of our vehicles represents a different element of what makes Cuba Cuba. The bicycle (1) is the Cubans' resourcefulness and symbiosis with their communist brethren (about a million bikes were donated by the Chinese, decades ago). The army truck (2) is the constant (though relatively sedate and casual, we'd say) military presence. We are the tourists (3), perhaps the future, our dollars feeding into Cuba's increasingly dominant second economy, largely inaccessible to Cuba's proletariat; and the horseback farmer (4) represents, of course, the country's rural backbone. All caught, for one split second, on a single linear plane.

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