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A Cuban Road Trip

Posted on by Brita Schumacher


Los Viñales to Trinidad. It looked close enough-at least on the tiny Cuba map I unfolded from my travel purse. Our driver, a coifed rico sauve in a mint condition baby blue 1954 Ford picked us up, Justin Bierber blaring from the speakers. My sister and I giggled and sang as we bumped along the dirt road, but just twenty minutes into the ride we made a wide turn into the driveway of a ramshackle wooden house, where our driver turned to us, “Un momento,” (One moment, a phrase we would hear repeatedly on our Cuban adventure). We looked at each other bug-eyed. This was not good. But, after some finagling with a young, pouchy guy leaned over our hood and an exchange of “Buenos” we were back on the road.

Two wind-blown hours later, we pulled over on a busy street outside of Havana. Our rico driver let us know that now we were going to switch to another car and driver. We exchanged wary glances, realizing we were at their mercy. Waiting for the two drivers to divvy up the cash we had paid, I took a bathroom break at a very dingy roadside “restaurant.” I warily kept the door open due to the lack of lights and fear of falling into the seatless toilet.  We then piled our giant suitcases into the ’82 Peugot of our new ride. The road stretched out head of us, wind and diesel blowing in through the front door windows as we peeled off layers, warm from  not being able to unroll our windows.

We spent the next couple of hours staring out at giant propaganda signs greeting us from the highway, munching on our stash of snacks and bobbing our heads in cat naps. Mid-ride our driver pulled over on a long desolate stretch of highway to what appeared to be a wooden shack. A familiar, “Un momento” was doled out as he opened up the card door. Nervously I asked where he was going. “Un café,” he replied. Though incredulous, I just had to believe that somewhere inside this little shack was a shot of espresso. Needless to say he returned shortly back to the car without incident and on we road...and road.

Stomachs grumbling, we asked our driver if we could stop for lunch. Minutes later we pulled onto a dusty road where a bright open air restaurant greeted us. Dogs and chickens made their way around the wooden tables as we selected a spot among the few locals dining there. We invited our driver to sit with us and as we ate our typical plates of chicken, cabbage slaw and squash we were able to inquire about his life and his opinions of living in Cuba. What struck me the most was his opinion on the government regulated salaries. He said that although education and healthcare were free, his dream was to instead be paid a decent salary so that he could pay for education and healthcare for his two children himself. This appeared to be a common opinion shared by the locals we had the privilege of conversing with. Full and swollen from overdosing the bland food with salt, we scooted back into the tiny back seat for the remainder of the ride. A couple of more hours and we pulled into a “neighborhood” of simple, colorful houses and came to a stop at one with an old man in a white tank top rocking in a rocking chair. Our driver smiled, “Mi papá “ he said pointing to the man. A young, skinny amigo quickly joined us, a large plastic jug in his hand. “Diesel,” our driver explained as the two began to fill up the running car—with us in the back seat. Having grown up to believe that turning the car off before filling it with gas was important, we exchanged wary glances silently hoping we wouldn’t blow up.

 Safe and sound, we pulled down the street, bumping along due to a complete lack of shocks. No sooner had we slumbered over for the rest of the ride that we pulled up in front of another tiny house.

 Outside stood a smiling señorita dressed in head to toe hot pink. “Mi chica,” our driver explained as he leaned over to let her into the front seat. She glanced back to greet us, laying brightly manicured nails in her lap. They chatted as any couple would in any culture or any country and we settled into our own conversation.

We perked up as we entered the ‘city’ limits of Trinidad, in awe of the beautifully colored buildings lining 500 year old cobblestone streets. We pulled up in front of the seemingly majestic Iberostar.

 As our driver handed our bags to the bellman, I thanked him slightly embarrassed he had spent over 6 hours with us for only $60 of the $120 we paid. I then handed him a $20 cuc and encouraged him to take his novia to dinner. I also handed him a crumpled gift bag we had assembled earlier with shaving cream and other toiletries I had read were hard to find on the island.  He looked at me and tears literally welled up in his eyes. “I have nothing to give you, “ he said. I insisted that I didn’t want anything in return that it was a gift, a tip in return for him doing a good job. “Gracias, gracias, but it is too much,” he told us in Spanish. He sweetly told me that if we ever come back he will give us a tour of his town, Cienfuegos, for free. I typed his name into my phone, Liriel Gonzalez Leon, along with his phone number. Hugs exchanged and a wave to his smiling girlfriend. I glanced down at my phone again to remember his name again. You bet I’ll be back Liriel, if only to meet more people like you. Xo, Bree