Backstory: Hitchhiking my way around Cuba

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

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.

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.

Finally, I decided to give up and take a collective taxi going to Sancti Spiritus. The price, announced the driver's assistant, was 5 pesos (18 cents), to be collected by assistant No. 2. Half the people at the hitchhiking stop paid up and piled into the '56 Chevrolet. "Not to worry," the policeman assured me as I waved goodbye. His free ride would eventually come. "The system is slow," he said. "But it works."

Fernando, the Chevy's driver, was really a rowing instructor who earned a state salary of 500 pesos ($19) a month. But he inherited a '54 Buick several years ago, which he fixed up and traded for the Chevy. He filled out the paperwork and, a year later, got approval to switch jobs and become a driver – and now makes four times what he did as an instructor.

Such permission, of course, comes with regulations. He can, for example, only make one run on his two-hour route a day. "Why?" I ask. "That's just the rule," he said, bemused at the question and slowing down for the second police inspection in half an hour.

On Day 2, I didn't hitchhike either. I wanted to. But it was not to be. I was told the Sancti Spíritus-Caibarién road, where I was going, was a bus route, which meant no amarillos, few hitchers, and even fewer people moved by the spirit of socialism. There was only one other problem – the bus was only for Cubans. I could have taken the tourist bus – at nine times the price – but it had just left, according to station master Fidelito. But not to worry: Fidelito's friend, Juan, who runs a small unofficial transport business, was going to help.

Soon enough, Juan and I were road-tripping along in his rebuilt Russian Lada. He would be fined if caught with a foreigner, so he asked me to pretend I was a mute cousin. Later, we made a detour to see a monument to Camilo Cienfuegos, a hero of the revolution, in Yaguajay. It was impressive, but we had to whiz by to avoid police. I stared out the window at coconut trees and billboards. "Life is worth living," read one. "Plant ideas and they will grow," suggested another.

I was getting discouraged with hitchhiking, when, on Day 3, it all came together. As I stood outside Remedios, an amarillo finally stopped a state vehicle, a minivan filled with workers returning from a "fun day" at the beach. I jumped in. We then pulled over for the driver to buy some avocados. We stopped later for onions for the driver's assistant. We picked up a family going to see cousins. No one talked to me, but it felt great. I was hitchhiking.

I got dropped off in Santa Clara, where I went to the Che Guevara museum. And then, still humming the catchy revolutionary tunes piped in over the speakers there, I got another ride. And another – all the way back to Havana. My fortunes had turned.

There was Pablo with his horse and buggy, who wedged my laptop bag between his legs and the horse's backside for "safekeeping." Caesar and Diego from the national water department, who told me about their time as soldiers in Angola. And Luis Alfonso, a cancer specialist, who took me for tea at his great aunt's home. By the time I rolled into Havana the next evening, chatting baseball with my new friend Jamie from the Finance Ministry, I was a bona fide hitchhiker – living the Cuban experience.

I was also ready to hail a tourist cab.

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