April 29, 2014 Havana to Trinidad, Cuba
After a Cuban coffee-fueled breakfast, it was finally time to take out the large detailed map of Cuba I brought with me to guide my driving in Cuba.
Without a cellphone (deemed too risky, I left mine home lest Cuban security spooks riddle it remotely with spyware) or GPS (no Wi-Fi outside of the limited tourist areas in Old Havana), I would have to use a map for driving across half of Cuba.
If you have a navigator or co-pilot along for the drive, then folding and unfolding a huge map and reading the small print is doable, of course. But I would be driving alone.
My mission was to try to memorize the escape route out of urban Havana so I could drive without stopping from Ed’s house in suburban Miramar west of downtown onto the Autopista Nacional, the national highway which connected in some mysterious way with the eastern portion of Havana.
It was mysterious because I had spotted few road signs in the 48 hours I had spent in Cuba. Somehow it looked like there was a turn that connected to the highway only after one went through Havana’s Bay Tunnel that runs under the entrance to the bay. Built in 1958, it connects Old Havana to the eastern part of the city on the bay.
I asked Ed’s driver David for directions to the highway, expecting what should have been a straightforward answer.
Twenty minutes later, both David and Maria were still over my map spread open on the dining room table, arguing over what they imagined might have been the best way to leave the city.
It could have been a scene from the movie “The Truman Show” in which the main character grows up in a seaside town that is in fact, an elaborate T.V. set that keeps him trapped. In this case, I was watching two main characters who were talking about routes out of the city when in fact, neither had ever driven out of Havana.
Cubans must first gain government permission to travel internally in their own country. Visiting your mother back in your hometown across the country? Better bring your visa stamp in your passport to board a flight, bus, or train.
In a country with few private vehicles and even fewer drivers, knowing how to leave the capitol by car was not common knowledge. During the 40 minutes of their heated discussion, I had managed to pack the rental car and was ready to leave.
“I can drive Ed’s motorcycle in front so you can follow me to the highway if you like,” David offered.
First, I knew he was looking for a reason to drive Ed’s motorcycle instead of the dependable Prius. Second, David still had no clue how to get onto the highway out of the city.
“I’m sure I’ll find it on my own, thanks anyway,” I told David. “I should have plenty of daylight to get to Casa Magaly before dark.”
“Call the house from the casa particular in Trinidad to let us know you made it there,” Maria asked me as I clicked on the seat belt in the Geely. “And don’t pick up any hitchhikers or stop by the road for anything, you’ll get mobbed if there’s people around.”
“Oh, and don’t hit any cows no matter what,” David added.
“All cows belong to Fidel,” David explained. “Just don’t hit any and don’t go fast so if you do hit one, you don’t kill it. Just don’t kill a cow,” he stressed. “Don’t go fast at all, no one else will be driving fast.”
David of course, was right—I didn’t witness any crazy driving antics that one routinely might see elsewhere. No one ran red lights or weaved in and out of traffic. Other than some mild speeding, everyone drove with a caution that reflected the precious value of the few personal vehicles still in driving condition on the road.
It also explained why only state-owned luxury butchers could sell beef and serve it in state-run hotels and restaurants. All beef is owned by the government.
It should take me four hours to drive 200 miles to the central part of Trinidad. Promising repeatedly not to hit a cow, or to speed, or drive at night, or to stop or pick up strangers, and double-checking my bottles of water and the fresh new roll of toilet paper in my camera bag on this hot April day, I was finally ready to hit the road.
Featured image shows how seemingly simple Google Maps makes it seem to drive from Havana to Trinidad in Cuba. Screen capture by Iris Gonzalez.
Did you miss my first post in the Cuban travelogue series? You can read it here.