April 29, 2014 Havana to Trinidad, Cuba
I resisted the temptation to wave to the Cuban security watchers at the school when I exited the gated enclosure of Ed’s house. Turning right I paid attention to landmarks so I would be able to retrace my steps in several days.
Making a right at the ruined roofless yellow church at the corner, I found myself driving carefully along Quinta Avenida. Before long I was looking at the ocean and the famed Malecon on my left, but I knew not to lose focus. Now, I had to rely on memory and look for the turn-off to the harbor tunnel.
Aha! I saw the one lone small sign and quickly made the sharp right turn into the tunnel. My shoulders relaxed a bit and I took a deep breath.
Those shoulders went back into launch mode when I emerged from the tunnel and saw the barricade across what should have been the entrance to the Autopista Nacional.
“No entra. Cerrado.”
The highway entrance was closed. There were no detour signs, no rerouting.
The flow of traffic swept me away like a leaf in a swirling gutter tsunami as I frantically looked for signs, any signs of how to leave Havana. The road carried me through a series of confusing traffic circles, odd curving lanes, and strange, empty lots.
It only took maybe five minutes but the Havana I recognized disappeared and I was in the middle of an empty field. A decrepit sports arena was on my right, a closed cement factory ahead of me.
I was completely lost. With no cellphone or access to GPS and the driving map useless since I had no idea where I had wound up I resorted to my last lifeline—Cuban GPS.
Pulling over to a group of men smoking and talking, I lowered the passenger window of the car and leaned over.
“Can any of you tell me how to get to the Autopista Nacional please?” I asked.
My questions launched the customary Cuban debating sequence and I watched as the men argued for a good three or four minutes. Finally, the one still smoking pointing his cigarette down the road and motioned that I only needed to follow the road ahead and bear right.
It never occurred to my “Ms. Americana” brain that they, too, might be characters trapped in the “Havana Show” and were only trying to be helpful by giving me an answer, any answer.
Once I was driving on the unmarked road I realized I still had no idea where I was. The sun was over head so I didn’t even know if I was heading west toward Trinidad. Why didn’t I think of packing a compass?
Just as I was gauging the position of the sun in the sky, a vintage American automobile drove alongside, its driver honking the car’s horn in a repeating mambo beat. The front passenger yelled at me as our cars drove side by side.
“They told you the wrong way, you’re heading away from Trinidad!” the dark-skinned woman said. “If you pull over I can tell you how to get there.”
She came over to my now stopped car on the side of the road and explained a bewildering series of maneuvers I’d need to execute to get onto the national highway going west out of Havana. I imagine this is what it must feel like to get advanced salsa dancing choreography on your first day in class.
“You know what? That’s my son driving us all to work, I’ll tell him that I’ll ride with you to get you on the highway, then get myself to work, I’ll be back,” she said, dashing to the vintage car and returning with a smile before I could refuse her offer.
As she navigated me through an impossible series of turns and switchbacks (I would have never made it out of Havana on my own), we chatted easily.
She was a heavy set woman in what I guessed were her mid-60s. Dressed in stretch slacks that had seen better days and a too-tight polyester pullover top, Teresita had several missing teeth but never stopped smiling or talking.
We talked about our sons—hers was in his early 20s and the family driver while mine was still in middle school. I also told her my story, about exploring the Cuba of my family and starting with Trinidad and the surrounding countryside where my mother’s family lived “before.”
I felt so comfortable chatting with Teresita, it felt like talking to a friend’s grandmother. I don’t remember what prompted her to ask me my age, maybe when she asked why I only had one child. When I explained that I had had him at 43 and that I was now 53, she beamed.
“That’s my age, too!” Teresita laughed.
We were the same age and all I could think was how worn she looked. Her spirit was warm and bright, but her body bore the telling signs of a hard life in the “after.”
“Be careful driving in the country, there are cows on the road and you don’t want to hurt any,” Teresita warned. “The penalty for injuring or killing one of Fidel’s cows is eight years time in a hard labor camp.”
Looking incredulously over at her, she nodded vigorously. Her hand went to her chin and stroked it a couple of times, the silent gesture for Fidel.
“This is it, you’re now on the autopista,” she said. “Just keeping going until you see a large billboard on your right with Fidel. Make the right at Fidel—that will take you Trinidad,” she repeated.
Pointing to a spot on the road across from a large ceiba tree, she told me to stop so she could catch a taxi to take her to her job. I grabbed my wallet to give her that money and pulled out a compressed brick of Cuban espresso coffee to give her in appreciation.
My “political” aunt—Cubans call those relatives you acquire through marriage “political” relatives—had given me the best advice for what to take as gifts.
“They have nothing, my vida, nothing,” she said. “Take spice packets of cumin, oregano, and bay leaves, and take as many packages of Cuban coffee as you can carry.”
Teresita hugged the coffee package to her chest and wiped away tears. But before I could even open my wallet to give her taxi money, a scowling man in his 30s appeared from behind the ceiba tree. He was no friendly spirit, as he was there to make easy money.
“I’ll take you for $40 CUC,” the man told Teresita, never once looking my way.
“Amigo, I am no tourist, I am a Cuban only trying to get to work,” Teresita pleaded.
I had heard Cubans calling each other amigo, or friend, instead of the customary greeting from the early days of the Revolution— compañero, someone of equal status.
There was nothing friendly in this amigo’s attempt to shake me down for the equivalent of two month’s salary for a short taxi ride for Teresita. After some more back and forth (in which I kept quiet) the price came down to $20 CUC. Handing over a $20 bill to Teresita, we hugged one last time.
“Remember, take the right at Fidel!” she yelled as she waved to me.
Finally, I was ready to drive and focus on everything. The wide-open highway flanked by towering palm trees on both sides, the speedometer, and the few cars on the road had my full attention.
There was also the complete lack of a safe shoulder or breakdown lane. Sadly, I did not stop to take a single photograph on this drive.
Instead, I focused on noticing as much as I could. It did not take long for the little traffic to thin out. A vintage American car turned taxi was in the middle of the highway with its driver under the hood, trying to get it started again. After about 40 or so minutes on the autopista I noticed that soon the only other signs of life came from country residents on foot and the police speed traps.
The cows I gave wide berth. The police only nodded at me as I sedately drove past their motorcycle stations.
I could tell when I was approaching a small village or town, but not by any road signs, which were far and few in between.
There would be stretches of empty road and then a crowd of people huddled together as if at an invisible bus stop. As a car would approach, people would wave their outstretched arms, the worthless Cuban pesos clutched in their hands looking like a sea of fluttering pennants in the wind.
Hitchhikers. Many, many hitchhikers, too many for the sparse traffic on this national highway. Maria’s warning not to stop came back to me. If I did, I’d cause a riot. How on earth would I choose? My preference would be to offer rides to women, old people, and those with small children, but the crowds were mostly composed of men.
I did not stop. There was more driving and hitchhikers until I hit a lonely patch of road. Looking right I caught my breath as I saw the iconic image from my childhood.
There in the clearing was a thatch roofed humble bohio dwelling. I could see inside it had a packed earth floor like the one my mom had described to me from the small home she had shared with her mother when she was very young. The farmer was just outside, leaning against the wall. Thin, dark from the sun, all leathery skin and tattered straw hat, he rested alongside his equally gaunt donkey. They both looked exhausted standing in the palm tree clearing. All around them were tall stands of treacherously sharp sugar cane fronds.
My aunt had painted this exact scene based on my uncle’s description of his early childhood Cuban home. I would always go to the painting of the bohio whenever I went to their house to gaze upon the humble Cuban farmer’s home and imagine my mother and uncles growing up in rural Cuba.
My aunt finally gave the painting away to a local Cuban restaurant that has since closed. The painted snapshot of my mother’s youth was lost to me until this moment.
Did I stop to take a photo? I could not, not with the tired owner standing there, looking blankly back at me. How could I?
Driving on, I kept track of where I was on the stretches of signless highway by marking off kilometers and huddled masses of hitchhikers on my map. Reliably, the hitchhikers signaled the presence of a small town. When there were no hitchhikers the only way I knew there were people living in all the sugar cane I saw was by the detritus I spotted on the highway.
I would see flattened pale colored pieces of husks littering the road except they didn’t look exactly like corn husks. I have since learned the word for these—squibs or bagasse, the sugar cane fiber after the juice is extracted.
A horse drawn cart driven by a farmer or a single horse and farmer would amble by, the old man chewing a pale colored piece of cane in his mouth. Once juiceless, he would toss the now flattened squib aside onto the road.
What else was available for people who lived in these tiny settlements? Using a machete, a person would cut off sections of juicy sugar cane and chew on them, flattening them to suck out the cane juice. All those corn husk looking pieces I saw strewn across the Autopista Nacional indicated the presence of sugar cane farmers traveling from field to field.
But now I was searching for a sign. In Communist countries there are no advertising billboards. In its place are displays of propaganda.The one I needed to find was of Fidel.
Suddenly, there he was on my right—Fidel with his arm outstretched. Past it, there was a single lane turn off with no sign.
With Fidel pointing the way, I took the turn on faith Teresita knew at least how to get to Trinidad and drove down the unmarked road with an emptying gas tank and another one rapidly filling up.
Featured image is of a vintage Cuban postcard showing the traditional bohio dwelling common in the countryside. Photo of postcard by Iris Gonzalez.
Did you miss my first post in the Cuban travelogue series? You can read it here.