Waiting On A Deserted Road For Whatever Comes Next

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“I have the most delicious mangos here, my love.” As I accept a piece of impossibly large fruit from the woman’s basket, in exchange for about four U.S. cents, she moves on to entice the others assembled by the deserted coastal roadway.

We have all been deposited in this spot by an old East German truck, which, much to the dismay of its driver, sputtered to a halt about an hour before. The driver now emerges from under its hood, throws up his wrench in defeat, releases a flurry of curses, and heads down to the beach for an afternoon dip. There is nothing to do but sit and wait for another lift to come by so that we can continue our journey to Santiago.

This scene on the side of a Cuban highway is nothing new to me after two weeks of enduring the rigors of hitchhiking. I’m here in the far southeastern part of the island to visit a renowned community-based education project outside Santiago de Cuba. But my true aims are much more general in nature: to experience firsthand a land and a culture I’ve admired enormously from afar.

In my two weeks of hitchhiking, I have not yet met another foreigner doing the same. In fact, the only other non-Cubans I’ve encountered are mostly young Europeans staying in hostels in the larger towns. I chat with them as they board tour buses, or wave as they speed by in rental cars. This lack of contact is largely by design: Most travelers to Cuba never leave the sequestered all-inclusive resorts that have sprung up in recent years.

For many small-town Cubans, hitching is the form of transport—there is even a civic occupation that amounts to “finder-of-rides-for-the-people.” As the ride-finders are uniformed in yellow coveralls, they are known colloquially as amarillos (yellows). On the outskirts of any provincial Cuban town, it is common to see a friendly, yellow-clad amarillo or two striding about with a clipboard, asking the assembled where they are going, taking note of how many are in their party and who got there first, and summoning a certain party whenever some diesel-powered relic comes rumbling along.   
The amarillos, and the citizens they serve, have a job made much easier by the fact that in Cuba it is against the law for state-owned vehicles not to stop for hitchhikers—if they have space. As the category “state-owned vehicle” includes virtually all the trucks on the island, and a good many of the cars, I’ve found that I usually don’t need to wait for many drivers to pass before one slows down just long enough for me to hop in back.

The problem on the petrol-starved island is that on a country road, there might only be one such car or truck each half-hour. You can easily pass an afternoon by the side of the roadway waiting for a lift. So I now prepare myself to spend the next few hours watching the sun move across the sky, hoping that someone might have a bottle of rum and some dominoes to help pass the time.     

The man with whom I share my palm-shaded bench eyes me with a knowing smile. “No es fácil,” he murmurs with a shake of his head. “It’s not easy” is a phrase one is bound to hear from Cubans multiple times a day. I nod and sink my teeth into the mango, gazing at the soft afternoon light on the mountains behind us and the green Caribbean below. The mango juices drip down my wrist. Kids play tag by the side of the road. The man turns to me again after a few moments. “Pero, sino tan difícil,” he says with a memorable sigh.

That is, life is not easy, but then again, neither is it tan difícil, so difficult.

And so we wait, readying ourselves for whatever comes next down the road.


Posted on 5/16/2009 by

Debbi Vasquez

beautiful. i can't wait to go back.

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