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Backstory: Hitchhiking my way around Cuba

From a vintage Chevy to a buggy ride, adventure proves a corner – and a thumb – away.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2006



TRINIDAD, CUBA

In perhaps a moment of lapsed judgment, I recently decided to travel around Cuba the way most Cubans do – by thumb. And so, on a cloying Caribbean day, I found myself standing under palm trees on a road outside Trinidad with an off-duty policeman and his family. We were waiting for passing cars to stop. We were hitchhiking.

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These days, wherever you travel, someone – usually your mother – will warn you that hitchhiking is not advisable. But in Cuba it's a way of life. "Here, your car is your brother's car," Araceli, a grandmother in Trinidad, explained to me. "That's the essence of Cuba."

But, the spirit of socialism aside, picking up hitchhikers is also required in Cuba. And, as far as I could tell, it would be hard for anyone to get anywhere if it weren't.

The first thing you need to know about Cuban transportation is there isn't much of it. According to a 1997 World Bank study, only 32 cars exist for every 1,000 people – about the same ratio as in 1958, a year before the revolution. The US, by comparison, has 808 per 1,000.

To buy a new car, you need state permission. This is granted exclusively to senior state workers, certain medical professionals, and VIPs. Regular Cubans are restricted to owning vehicles already in the country, mostly American classics from the pre-1970s – cars with big grilles, big fins, and big gas bills. Few spare parts exist because of the US embargo.

Public transportation is scarce and overcrowded. People line up for hours to get on buses or "camels," 18-wheelers transformed into lumbering transport vehicles. Taxis belong to the state and are too expensive for all but tourists. While some private car owners can get permission to run taxi collectives, these are as unreliable as the vintage cars themselves. There is always biking and walking. But, I was told, hitchiking was a top bet.

Outside Trinidad, it became clear that life on the road involved a lot of waiting by the side of it. An hour after arriving, I was still standing there with the off-duty policeman and co. By then, we had been joined by a family going to the beach, a dozen people heading to work, an elderly man on crutches, a young couple on a date, and a church group. And, of course, an "amarillo."

As might be expected, hitchhiking in a land of rules is no free-wheeling affair. State officials, known as amarillos for their yellow uniforms, are stationed along the country's highways to oversee the process. Their job – for which they earn a respectable 400 pesos ($15) a month – is to make lists of riders and flag down passing cars.

Not all cars are required to stop. Those with yellow, caramel, and white plates indicate state vehicles and must pull over. Brown plates (military) and blue (private) should stop but don't have to. Little is expected of green (tourists) or black (diplomats) plates because, as Araceli explained, "they think differently about their responsibilities to the community."

The system is not without problems. Theoreti- cally, drivers in state cars who don't stop can be fined. But a suspiciously high number passed by, making a "turning in a moment" sign with their hand. Others just ignored their community responsibility altogether – leaving the amarillos vainly trying to scribble down plate numbers.

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