PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA — I had been warned about the many hitchhikers who congregate around the highway entrances looking for rides; public transport outside the city is scarce, slow and overcrowded, and lucky is the Cuban who owns an operational vehicle.
Still, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of people massed under bridges and along entrance ramps, and the paucity of vehicles on the highways available to pick any of them up. Some sat on suitcases or duffel bags and simply waited; the more enterprising jumped up at each passing vehicle and waved. “Pidiendo botella,” it was called – asking for a bottle – for reasons nobody could really adequately explain.
“Picking up hitchhikers is integral to showing your goodwill in a land where on any day, tens of thousands of Cubans stand by the roadside beseeching rides,” writes Christopher Baker in the Moon Handbook to Cuba. “However, there have been many reports of robberies, and I do not endorse picking up hitchhikers.”
How to reconcile these facts? I spoke to numerous Cubans and internationals before my road trip through the Cuban countryside. Ultimately, I decided to follow my instincts, and what began as an act of solidarity ended up providing friendly companionship, lively conversation and an entrée into the everyday lives of scores of Cubans, a genuine connection that had thus far proven elusive. Never did I feel the slightest threat. What was more, I found them guiding me to my destination along roads with few signs and sometimes ambiguous directions.
To be on the safe side, I stopped mainly for mothers and children, and they guided me through Pinar del Rio, to Las Terrazas on the first day and to Viñales on the second. They tended to be shy, and conversations were light; we talked about children, the hurricanes, the weather. Many had a brother or a son or a cousin in Miami. Many wanted to go there.
I had brought along a big bag of colorful gel pens to distribute to children along the way, and this became a great topic of conversation as I invited the children to choose their favorite color, and the mothers as well.
On the third day, I was to make the much longer drive from Viñales in the northwest, through Havana and on down to the Bay of Pigs in the southeast. Getting to the Bay of Pigs was going to be quite a bit more complicated than Pinar del Rio, I discovered as I studied the map. The closest city was Cienfuegos, so I decided to ask for directions there. First, though, was the two-hour drive to Havana. Instead of heading back south to the Autopista, I opted for the road that paralleled the North Coast, passing through small towns like Las Palmas and Bahía Hondo.
I started early, when the mists still draped the mogotes, the strange formations that tower over the landscape here. Nonetheless, people were already out on the highways. I picked up an elderly woman in front of her tidy wooden cabin outside of Viñales; soon she was chatting with a young woman we picked up in the next town, who she hadn’t seen since she was a baby. Neighbors caught up on the gossip; who was getting married, who’d had a baby, who’d left for the States or for somewhere else.
A mother and her two sons pointed out Mariel, a sleepy industrial city on the north coast, made famous by the 1980 boatlift incident, when 120,000 dissidents were allowed to sail away to the States. A smoky pall hung over the city, unusual along the otherwise sharp blue skies and waters of the North Coast. They made no comment as I got out to take a photo.
Finally we were in Havana, and I bid farewell to my last passengers of the morning as they instructed me to find a place to turn around and take the highway back in the other direction. I was confused, and the lack of signage among the cloverleaf-type formations connecting the highways only made matters worse. I lost half an hour looking for the highway to Cienfuegos. I was getting hot and hungry.
Finally, I saw a dapper old man sitting placidly, Buddha-like, on a concrete bridge and I stopped and rolled down the window.
“Yo soy Alberto Reyes Reyes Cruz,” he announced himself. “Soy un cristiano y un testigo de Jeovah.” (I’m a Christian and a Jehovah’s witness.”) Before I could pull away, he had latched onto the doorhandle and was giving me a salute with his Che Guevara hat.
“Do you know the way to Cienfuegos?” I asked.
“Do I know the way! Why, I was born there!” he exclaimed, shooting me a snaggletoothed grin. “I could find Cienfuegos with my eyes closed. I will take you there.”
Actually, I clarified, I was looking for Playa Girón.
“No problem! I know Playa Girón very well! I fought at the Bay of Pigs,” he assured me. “You can take me to Cienfuegos, and then I’ll show you the way to Playa Girón.”
What luck to find a veteran, I thought – I’ll be able to get an interview along the way. I congratulated myself on my good fortune and we headed down the road.
“Yo soy Alberto Reyes Reyes Cruz,” he informed me. “Soy poeta, músico y loco. Don’t worry – Jesus is my shepherd, and I always follow him, so I never get lost.”
He talked without stopping in his heavily accented Cuban, telling me stories about his 100-year-old grandmother and his 105-year-old grandfather, pulling a photograph from his pack to show me, and placing it in my guidebook so I would never forget him. It took so much of my attention to understand him that I forgot to watch for the all-too-occasional highway signs.
“Wait, are we supposed to turn that way?” I asked as one flew by. “No, no,” he said. “Remember, I was born in Cienfuegos. I could find Cienfuegos with my eyes closed. I fought at Playa Girón. Don’t worry. Now, didn’t I tell you Jesus is my guide?”
I was trying to do the math. Could he really have fought at the Bay of Pigs if his grandparents were still alive? I was dubious.
“No, I told you, I was 13 at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion,” he said. “I had my own gun, and I fought alongside all the rest of them. We Cubans, we are born warriors!”
This seemed plausible, so I let it ride, resolving to ask him more about it as soon as we were outside the city and the traffic cleared. He prattled on, telling me again about his elderly grandparents.
Soon, however, he was telling me of all the other important qualities possessed by Cubans, including their romantic ones. Wasn’t I married, and wouldn’t I like to be? he wanted to know. He had a beautiful house in Cienfuegos, and I could come live with him.
Time to pick up another hitchhiker, I decided, seeing a single woman standing under the next bridge.
“Yo soy Alberto Reyes Reyes Cruz,” he announced himself to the hitchhiker before I could say a word. “Soy poeta, músico y loco.”
“Where are you headed?” I asked the hitchhiker.
“Matanzas,” she said.
“Matanzas! Why, that’s on the North Coast!” I exclaimed, surprised.
“Yes, of course – you’re on the North Coast. We’re only about an hour from Matanzas.”
“But I don’t want to go to Matanzas – I want to go to Playa Girón! I wanted to take the highway south!”
“Oh, you passed that highway a long time ago,” she said. “The best way now is to go to Matanzas, and take the road south.”
I turned to Jesus-is-my-guide.
“You said you knew the way with your eyes closed! This is not the road to Cienfuegos or to Playa Girón – it’s the road to Matanzas! Why did you say you knew the road if you didn’t?”
“Ah, but don’t worry, everything’s for a reason,” he said brightly. “Look, here is a gift I brought you – it’s Baby Elián!” he pulled out a tiny plastic doll and installed it on the dashboard, together with a dingy rubber dolphin he retrieved from his dusty pack. “Viva Cuba Libre!”
Suddenly the bright blue sea flashed into view on my left.
I was furious. It was afternoon already, and Playa Girón was miles away. The sign ahead said Playa Varadero, the beach town that 90 percent of tourists head for, which has been described as a run-down Cancún or Miami without the perks. I wanted to see something different; I wanted to have a beach, yes, but also a story to tell.
Today I was scheduled to arrive early at Playa Girón, scene of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and morrow I was slated to tour Cienega Zapata, the wetlands and the crocodile hatchery, then head for Havana to arrive before dark. This mistake would cost me my long-awaited and tightly scheduled afternoon on the beach.
“There’s always enough time if you’re enjoying life,” Alberto advised. “Look, there’s the beach. Let’s go swimming!”
“No! I don’t want to go swimming! I want to be at Playa Girón! Why did you tell me you knew the way?”
“Oh, no, she’s angry,” Alberto stammered to the girl in the back, who was trying hard not to laugh. “She’s going to kick my backside!”
I drove on, scowling. The sands gleamed white against the multihued blues of sea and sky. Finally I decided to let it go. I was driving a car through Castro’s Cuba, a jewel preserved in a capsule of time, something few human beings have the opportunity to do. I was on the beautiful North Coast; I might as well enjoy it. I stopped to take a photo.
I was checking my settings when the girl burst out laughing. I followed her gaze to Alberto, striking a dramatic pose against the waves for my camera.
My next stop was at the highway control station, where I asked the police officer for directions to Playa Girón – no more trusting hitchhikers for directions. He jotted down the names of two towns: Jovellanos and Jaguey. When I reached Matanzas, I was to ask for directions those towns.
The girl bid us farewell and told me to be careful who I picked up. “He seems pretty harmless, but you never know about the next one,” she warned. I rolled into Matanzas, touted as the Athens of Cuba. I could see why as I followed the curve of the bay, the sun lighting up the white buildings along the water’s edge. Traffic, dilapidated warehouses and industrial towers made the city a bit less Athens-like, but the iridescent blue waters were so beautiful I overlooked them.
Brightly painted fifties-era cars wove in and out among wooden horse-drawn carts – not a tourist attraction here in Matanzas, but a daily form of transportation.
I followed the policeman’s directions, and soon we were headed to Jovellanos with another pair of ladies in the back seat.
“Yo soy Alberto Reyes Reyes Cruz,” he announced himself to the hitchhiker before I could say a word. “Soy poeta, músico y loco.”
He started telling them, too, about his grandparents, showing them the photo, and I began to wonder if his self-description was more literal than I had thought.
The women in the back seat were silent and worried-looking. Now I wondered if there were something in Alberto’s speech that I was missing. Perhaps he really was loco, and not in a good way. I began wondering how I was going to get rid of him.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as if he were reading my mind. “I have an aunt who lives in Playa Girón. She is dying of cancer. I need to see her. I will find her, and we can stay at her house.”
“You have an aunt in Playa Girón who is dying of cancer? Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“Well, you were angry with me,” he whined, making an exaggerated gesture to protect himself. I sighed, exasperated, and tried to make conversation with the ladies in back. “You seem a little stressed,” I said to the one whose pained expression was particularly visible in my rear-view mirror.
“I’m just tired,” she said. Soon, she asked to be let off on the side of the road, with no apparent destination in sight. Now I was truly worried.
Finally Meiky, the remaining passenger, spoke up. “Look,” she said, “I have to tell you, you are headed into a very dangerous area. There are crimes there all the time. That’s why that lady was so distressed. You shouldn’t go there alone.
“My son used to go to school there. He works in security, and he knows about these things. Why don’t you just come and spend the night at my place, and we can ask my son about it? We have a little rancho in the country – it’s a peaceful little paradise, you’ll see.”
“Yes, let’s go to the peaceful little paradise,” chimed in Alberto. He was getting nervous.
But I was adamant. I must arrive in Playa Girón tonight, I said. It was my only chance; the car must be returned tomorrow. I had an assignment. It was my work, and that was all there was to it.
“OK, then – come with me, and we’ll talk to my son. He is on his day off. He can accompany you, and make sure you arrive safely.”
I was skeptical. The police, after all, had told me to take this route.
“Sometimes the police are corrupt,” she warned. “I just have a very bad feeling about that place. Look, feel how cold my hands are – I just get the chills when I think about you going there alone.”
Her hands were indeed cold – and it was a hot afternoon.
“Listen, if you must go tonight, I will send my son with you. My son is my baby – I wouldn’t send him with just anyone. But I can tell you are a good person, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
Regardless of the danger that might or might not await me in Jovellanos, I was concerned about the time. It was mid-afternoon already, and the sun sets early in the tropics. The guidebooks, the rental agency and everyone else advises of the imperative to be off the roads by dark in Cuba, due to wandering animals, unexpected potholes and general lack of lighting.
I decided to go and meet her son, get his advice and go over the map together to scope out other options. Finca Buena Vista was indeed lovely, a tiny house on a hilltop amid the banana and coconut palms. Father and son awaited us: Fernando, a soft-spoken man with a gentle smile, and Eduardo.
Meiky’s baby was six feet tall, with a sculpted build, sun-frosted hair, a tattoo of a cougar on his shoulder and a very serious face.
“Yes, Jovellanos is a little rough if you’re passing through alone, and you could get lost; there are no signs,” he agreed.
“Can I even get to Playa Girón before dark?” I wanted to know. It was already nearly 3, and the sun goes down here before 7. It had taken me all day to traverse a distance that seemed to me on the map to be equal to what lay ahead.
“Oh yes, you can make it, the youth assured me. “I can go with you and show you the way. It’s no problem.”
“But how will you get back? I’m not coming back this way.
“It’s no problem,” he repeated. “I can always get a ride.”
His father was already helping him lace up his new sneakers for the road ahead. Alberto, who had already given his “poeta, músico y loco” spiel, was busy bonding with Fernando, showing the photo of his grandparents.
“I will stay here in paradise,” he announced. “I will stay with my brother Fernando.”
Well, there was one bit of good news. The family had agreed to keep the old man and take him up to the bus stop. I was trading up.
Apprehension crossed my mind as Eduardo emerged from his room with a new shirt and new, suspiciously low-hanging shorts and suspiciously new shoes. Where did this poor family find the money for new clothes? What if this was a setup? What if he had a gang in Jovellanos? What if they made their money robbing unsuspecting tourists and throwing their bodies into the Bay of Pigs?
I sat quietly and sipped the cup of Cuban coffee Meiky had made for me and watched. Eduardo was taking his mother’s blood pressure, worried about her headache. I wondered about my own.
Fernando was listening intently to Alberto’s stories of his grandparents. The birds sang in a tree outside the window. “Please, promise me you’ll take care of my baby,” Meiky said.
I took a deep breath, said a prayer and decided to put my trust in this family, and Eduardo and I prepared to leave.
Not before Alberto proposed that I give him a goodbye kiss and a few pesos for the road, however.
I laughed out loud. “You really are loco,” I said. “You should give me a few pesos for all the trouble you’ve caused me.”
“Oh no – she’s going to kick my backside!” the old man cowered behind Fernando. I confess the notion didn’t seem out of the question.
Fernando’s amused gaze met mine. “Don’t worry about anything,” he said. “We’ll take care of him.”
We headed off to the south, and Eduardo quickly put me at ease. He studied to be a security officer so he could support himself, he explained, but really he was a musician. His band played traditional Cuban and a fusion of Caribbean styles, he said. He was hoping to get a professional video of his band so that he could promote it, but the economy made it difficult.
He told me about going to school here in the countryside, where students were obliged to work in the fields in the morning while turning to their studies in the afternoon. It didn’t bother him, he said. “It’s a way we can give something back.”
Jovellanos didn’t seem dangerous, but it was confusing, with many twists and turns along the dusty streets on the way to the autopista. We crossed over and soon the Bay of Pigs flashed into view, a sparkling blue sea lined with a mangrove marsh.
We picked up a maroon-haired and very hip young woman about Eduardo’s age and we passed a sign denouncing the invasion and Yanqui imperialism. I asked them what they thought about it all.
“Those were other times,” Eduardo said. “We need to move on. It’s true that the embargo has caused us a lot of problems, but the government wants to blame everything on the North Americans – and it’s really not possible that it’s all their fault.
“We’re proud of the revolution, and we don’t want to give up our independence. But it ‘s time for a change.”
The girl agreed. “We don’t need to be enemies with the Yanquis. Those days are over. That’s just political nonsense.”
The current change of government has everyone a bit on edge, Eduardo said. “If you’ll ask anyone, you’ll find that most people feel very loyal to Fidel – probably 90 percent of the country are Fidelistas,” he said. “Fidel was always looking out for us – if it was a hurricane, he was there right afterwards, visiting every village.
“With Raul, it’s different; we don’t know what to expect.”
We passed through miles and miles of mangrove before reaching a sign that proclaimed, “Playa Girón: The Last Rout of Imperialism in Latin America.” Eduardo went to a good deal of trouble to help me track down an available guesthouse – the home of Sebastian Urra Delgado, survivor of the invasion – before taking his leave and heading for the bus stop. “I like to finish a job well,” he said.
I offered him $20 for his trouble, and he refused. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I was glad to help. If I were in your country and had a problem, I guess you would help me.
“Besides, I would have just been bored at home.” We exchanged e-mails and promised to stay in touch, and he made his way to the bus stop.
I made arrangements for dinner with Sebastian and his wife, Caridad: fresh lobster from the bay. Sebastian promised to join me and talk about his memories of the invasion.
I walked the dusty gravel streets, past tiny wooden houses and skinny dogs, chickens and goats and children, out to the Malecón, the dilapidated cement structure that had once served as a grand entrance to the town – built after the invasion had made the area something of an attraction, but fallen to ruin in subsequent years.
Nearly 300 people died here half a century ago, virtually all of them Cuban – both the Cuban-American invaders sponsored by the CIA, and the Cuban defenders of their homeland.
The sun was a brilliant ball of fire descending into the shimmering horizon. I sat on the edge Malecón and watched the colors deepen on the crystal-clear waters that lapped at my feet. Behind me, some tourists were getting out of a pontoon boat and heading up for their hotel.
Times have changed, indeed, I reflected, and they’re changing still. Like Eduardo, I wondered what the future holds for this island, trapped in time. The last red-gold sliver dropped into the sea, and I headed back for dinner.
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