Hitchhiker's Cuba

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At Trinidad, a colonial town 400 years old, sun bleached and ravishing, we drop off Condela. He shows us his shop, right on the main cobblestone drag. "If you need anything," he says, pointing to a storefront, "I'm right here." Trinidad is much too perfectly aged and brilliantly colored to be free of tourists: Germans, Spanish, Italians, even a few Americans drawling Indiana r's.

On to Sancti Spiritus. Carlos, about 30, and Armena, 25, get in just outside Trinidad, where three dozen others are waiting with them. Carlos works in construction now, after a five-year stint as a policeman in Havana. Armena has been in Trinidad looking for work.

"What kind of work?"

"Anything at all," she says.

"Is it hard to find work?"

Eyes are rolled. Yes, yes. These days, yes. We drop off Armena at a little yellow house, clothes hanging in the windows. Carlos gets out soon after. At Banao, a tiny town, there is a crowd of 40 waiting; a dozen or so people wave us down. We can't stop right in the middle--too confusing. (Oh, to have a bus!) We drive to the end, where the throng thins. We nod to a woman, and she jogs forward and gets in. Dayami is about 30, lipsticked, in tight black jeans with a black mesh shirt over a sports bra. She's a doctor, on her way to pick up her daughter at school. We ask if it's hard to get medicine. After all, on the way from Havana, a billboard had read: YANKEE EMBARGO: GENOCIDE AGAINST CUBA. She says no, not really.

We pass a barefoot, shirtless boy on the back of a donkey. A mile later, a man on horseback, galloping, beams as we go by, takes his hat off and waves it to us in mid-gallop, even as we're passing him going 65 m.p.h. Is Cuba cinematic? It is.

At a corner outside the city, we grab a tallish, red-haired woman in a white medical jacket. When she gets in, she and Dayami laugh. They used to work together, and begin chatting. She's a dentist, and had loaned her bike to a friend. We drop Dayami off at her daughter's school and park in Sancti Spiritus' central square. A school band practices in an auditorium above us. Mopeds buzz to and fro, soldiers talk to schoolchildren, and within minutes we see the dentist. She rides by on her bicycle and rings her bell. "I got my bike back!" she sings to us. Cuba has become one huge Richard Scarry neighborhood.

Then we're off to Santa Clara, too dark to pick up anyone, but the next day it's Santa Clara to Havana, and en route there is Wendy. Wendy is talkative and insists on tapping T/N on the shoulder and saying "Mira!" (Look here!) every time she has a question or statement. She's married, has a three-year-old, works at a peso food market. "Oh, I knew you weren't Cuban," she says. Why? we ask.

"Cuban couples won't pick people up," she says. "People in groups or driving alone but never couples."

(Shoulder poke) "Mira!": she has family in New York, New Jersey.

(Shoulder poke) "Mira!": she also cleans houses, to make ends meet.

(Shoulder poke) "Mira!": "You know how the situation in Cuba is, right?"

She's on her way home. Her husband's in prison, she says--she has just been visiting him. He was convicted, with nine others, of stealing gasoline. He was originally sentenced to four years, but with a lawyer--he is innocent, was set up, she insists--he was able to get the sentence reduced to 20 months. She gets out and is replaced by a cheerful trio--a large blond woman, her sister and her sister's daughter. Havana? they ask. Yes, yes. Oh, they cannot believe their luck. They cannot believe they're getting a ride all the way to Havana. Waiting long? Hours. Are things always like this? Getting worse every year. Castro, they say, is getting too old, senile maybe. Things are not good. Are we aware of the situation here? Things are getting worse. The past 10 years, they say, much worse. Fidel is obsessed with the U.S., they say, which is fine, but he must start taking care of things here at home. When we drop them off, at about noon, they're astounded that they're home before nightfall. They are beside themselves. When we're in Cuba again, they tell us, we have a home, we have a family. We take pictures.

And finally, there is Yuricema. About 20, dark brown skin, wide white smile. She gets in on the Malecon, just shy of the Hemingway Marina. She's coming home from school; she's a business and law student. We're in the suburbs of Havana, and the sky is purplish and getting darker as we approach the city's center. Yuricema claims that her English is bad, but then she speaks it, and it's kind of perfect, at least in terms of the words she does know. The accent sounds more California than Havana. We ask her where she learned English.

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