By Dave Eggers, TIME Magazine. Dec. 27, 1999
On the road outside Havana, where weeds grow through the train tracks, and the crumbling buildings, colors fading into a decorator's dream, alternate with wild trees and shrubs in the most gorgeous, postapocalyptic way, is where it first happened, when we first got an idea of how it all worked.
We had missed a turn (we suspected) and so had stopped to ask directions. We pulled over next to a median strip, on which stood eight or 10 people, half with shopping bags, presumably waiting for a bus. We rolled down the window, smiled sheepishly and directed our confusion to one of the men
(tall, black, in a shiny Adidas jersey). With a swift sort of purpose, he nodded and stepped forward from the island and toward us, in a gesture we took as exceptionally friendly and helpful, getting so close to better relate the coordinates...
Then he was in the car. It happened before we knew it had happened. He just opened the door, and then suddenly he was giving us directions from within the car. The smallish back seat was empty, then full, full with this large man, his knees cramped up near his chin. He was so nonchalant, and had
not uttered any commands or taken out a gun or any of the other ostensible signs of carjacking, and so it dawned on us that this was what happened in Rome. In Cuba, that is. Here hitchhiking is custom. Hitchhiking is essential. Hitchhiking is what makes Cuba move. All those other people on the
median strip? All waiting for rides. Perhaps a bus, yes, if they have a few hours to lose. But until then there are cars, and occasionally the back of a bicycle, and the hope that someone will stop. So the man in our car tells us where we're going, and then we're off, eastbound, through the outer
parts of Havana, along the train tracks, more and more green, past the heartbreaking roadside propaganda, 10 miles, 15 miles out of the city's center.
His name is Juan Carlos. And while he speaks a little English, thankfully in the passenger seat is a translator/navigator (T/N), and she duly interprets.
What does Juan Carlos do for a living?
He's a basketball player-coach.
Where are we taking him?
Home. Is that O.K.?
Of course, sure. Is he married?
Yes. Actually, he says, his wife is the starting center for the Cuban women's national basketball team. Do we want to meet her?
Hell, of course we want to meet her.
His building is a concrete complex overgrown with weeds and drying laundry. Neighbors stare from above, their arms draped over balconies. Through the door and inside Juan Carlos' apartment suddenly there is Judith, easily 7 ft. tall. Eight? She's huge. She leans down to offer her cheek for
kisses. The walls are crowded with images of Michael Jordan. We say we're from Chicago. They nod politely. Juan Carlos thinks the Suns will take it this year. The Suns? We nod politely.
Judith is practicing for the Sydney Games, with her team playing against three other teams in the Cuban women's intramural league. From the four teams, the squad for the national team is chosen. Does she think she'll have any trouble making the team? She chuckles. Dumb question. No, she'll be
They ask when we'll be back in Havana. We don't know. When you come back, they say, this is your home. Their in-laws live down the street, so they'll stay with them and we can have their bed. We say fine, but for now we have to move, must get back on the road (but not before getting a quick
snapshot, for which Judith changes into her uniform), because we're heading up the coast, and we have more people to pick up and move, from here to there.
That becomes the point--it had not been the plan at the outset but now is the mission, one thrust upon us--the picking up of people, because, as we learn soon enough, the most common roadside scenery in Cuba, besides the horse-drawn wagons and broken-down classic American cars, is its
hitchhikers. The roads are littered with people everywhere, along the huge highways and two-laners, all strewn with mothers and their daughters, grandmothers, working men, soldiers, teenagers, schoolchildren in their white, white shirts and mustard-colored pants or skirts, day and night, in the rain
or otherwise. All waiting.
They wait for hours for the occasional bus or a spot on the back of a truck, waiting on the median strips, at the intersections, sitting with their possessions or on them, along the gravelly highway shoulders, patience their essence because gasoline is scarce and expensive, cars are owned by few
and function for fewer, the buses are terrible and slow and always so full. And so we are driving in our Subaru, a tiny thing but big enough for five, and we're Americans come to move the Cubans from place to place. Feel our luxury! Hear our engine's roar!
Up the coast, and in 10 minutes we stop for Jorge, who gets in at a stoplight and is going toward Varadero, a beach town on the north coast. Jorge is about 18, in khakis and a pink shirt, with a very hip-seeming haircut, freshly gelled, a kind of haircut that makes him look half monk, half
member of a dancing, harmonizing teen quintet. Jorge's father, he says, left for the U.S. years ago. He was one of the so-called balseros, the rafters who left from the Bay of Mariel in 1994 during one of Castro's periodic spurts of permitted emigration. Now he's in Miami.
T/N: What does he do there?
Jorge: I don't know. I haven't talked to him since he left.
T/N: Oh, that's too bad.
Jorge: No, no. It's O.K.
We drop the subject of Dad of Jorge. We pass miles and miles of oil pumps along the ocean, some pumping, their bird heads rhythmically dipping their beaks, others inanimate, the surf spraying over. We ask Jorge what he does for a living. He says he's a student of astronomy.
"Oh, so what does that entail?" I ask the rear-view mirror. T/N translates.
"Oh, you know," he says. "Cervezas, sodas, comida..."
Oh. Ha. Not astronomy. Gastronomy. Big laughs all around. The sky is watercolor gray, and the clouds hold rain. We all go over the mix-up three more times. Not astronomy. Gastronomy. Yes. The beach comes into view, palm trees bent by a wicked ocean-borne wind. Jorge wants to know if we need some
place to stay. Jorge, like every last man in Cuba, knows of just the place, the perfect casa particular--the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast--and he, like most, is very difficult to convince of one's lack of casa particular-based need.
No thanks, we say.
I know just the place, he says.
No thanks, we say.
Very nice place.
No thanks but--
Clean, very cheap.
Have your own kitchen, very private.
You are too kind but--
You want me to show you?
We drop Jorge at the beach at Santa Maria del Mar and get back to moving down the coast. Minutes later we pull over for two girls, each carrying a cake, each about 20, giggling to themselves in the back seat. Sisters? No, just friends. They're on their way home, to the next town, Guanabo. We
pass a photo shoot, by the water: a skeletal blond woman, a photographer, a band of Cuban men, grinning in matching shirts, all standing in front of a mid-'50s Chevy, powder blue. We all wonder who the model is. Anyone we know? The girls giggle more. We're suddenly pals, they and all hitchers
instantly familiar, completely at ease--as if we've picked up classmates on the way to the mini-mart. Safety here is assumed, trust a given. Where is there danger in Cuba? This is unclear.
Sand covers the road. We almost get blindsided by a mural-burdened van from Pastors for Peace. Bumper stickers thereon: END THE EMBARGO! ¡VAMOS A CUBA! Terrible drivers, these guys.
We drop the cake-bearing girls on the corner just past Guanabo's main drag and pick up a much older woman, 60 or so, who's been visiting her mother and needs to go just a little ways out of town. Ten minutes later--¡Aqui, Aqui!--she gets out. She smiles thank-you, and we smile goodbye--and
again we're empty. We don't like to be empty. Through the Cuban countryside we feel ashamed to have the back seat unpeopled--all this room we have, all this fuel. It's getting dark, and as the roads go black, what was a steady supply of hitchhikers, punctuating the roads like mile markers, quickly
disappears. Where they go is unclear. What happens when night comes but a ride hasn't? It's a problem of basic math we cannot fathom: always there are more riders than rides, a 10-to-1 ratio at best, so what are the odds that all riders will be transported before sunset?
At Varadero, there is money. Resorts and busloads of European tourists waiting impatiently in lobbies for their bags to be ported to their private beachside cabanas. There are buffets and games of water polo organized in the main pool--a ridiculous sort of comfort level for about $100 a night.
(Best yet, the help is obsequious and a 50[cent] tip would do just fine!) After being turned away at the daunting gates of the massive Club Med, we drop our luggage next door and set out to the area's most fiery hot spot, the Cafe Havana, a huge disco/Hard Rock-style fun provider. The place is
overflowing with tourists from around the world, come to see how the Cubans entertain.
We sit at a table by the stage, and after some fantastic salsa-dancing action--women wearing little beyond sequins and feathers--there is a magician, ponytailed, with two ponytailed assistants. And this magician's specialty is doves. Everywhere he is making doves appear. From his sleeve, a dove.
From a newspaper, a dove. A balloon is popped, and a dove appears and flaps wildly. The crowd loves it. The doves appear, each one flailing its wings for a few seconds of chaos and quasi-freedom. Then the magician, with fluid nonchalance, grabs the dove from the air, two-handed, making from the
explosion of feathery white a smooth inanimate sculpture of a bird. Then in one swift motion he shoves the dove into a small cage, with little steel bars, on a stand by his waist. Once inside, the doves sit docilely, staring ahead through the tiny silver bars. Though there is a hole just behind
them, they sit, cooing--one dove, then two, three, four, five, six, all in a row. When he is done, the magician is applauded. We all love him. The birds in their cage, content and so pretty. How does he do it? He is fantastic. Then the band comes on, and everyone dances.
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.
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