May 4th, 2009
As directed by the woman at the garage, we turn left just past the picture of Che and head for Cienfuegos, pausing only to pick up two hikers on the road from Trinidad. They can’t speak English and our Spanish is pathetic so we settle into comfortable silence as bruising miles bump by, happy in the thought that our passengers will keep us on the right road. And they don’t seem interested in our dwindling supply of pesos.
If I was any good with a camera I would make a road movie about our journey from Havana to Trinidad and back again. It’s roughly 340 kilometres between the two cities, probably not much further than a trip from Edinburgh to Carlisle, but it can take six hours of hard driving on roads with no markings, few signs to tell you where you are going. And the guide book gives no advice on how to handle hijackers.
Hiring a car brought us closer to real life in more ways than we expected. Roadside posters celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution. Castro’s communism may control the economy, the news and the nation’s food rations. But something more like anarchy rules on the autopista.
Every road junction, every roundabout, every road in and out of every town is lined with people desperate for a lift – to work, to home, to play, carrying bags or sleeping children. Transport is a problem in an impoverished country where Chinese investment is only just beginning to boost the supply of buses and few people can afford cars of their own.
On the road to the autopista, a rare glimpse of white lines.
Sadly, my efforts to snap cowboys riding carelessly along the motorway produce endless shots of my knees or Ray’s nose while lonesome riders disappear into the rear view mirror, hat pulled down, upright but easy in the saddle holding the reign with one hand.
Ray had more luck photographing a horse rider from a steam train inTrinidad: part shanty town part World Heritage site.
Miles of empty land roll by. At times much of it seems to be on fire – at supper last night our new friend Eduardo tells us farms burn vegetation to release nutrients. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union agriculture has withered. Castro’s green revolution does not entice workers back to the land beause they get paid too little. Even so we see green patches where the co-operative Organoponicos are producing crops of fruit and vegetables without benefit of oil-derived fertilisers.
My road movie would show tall palm trees rising out of charred ground, white egrets fishing by green rivers, bony cattle in brown fields, an occasional horse and cart ambling casually across six lanes of a highway where cars suddenly appear at over 100 kilometres per hour, and the incredible shock of hawkers jumping out from the central reservation waving goods for sale – mangos, bananas, guavas, pineapples, even cigars. Under every bridge clusters of people wait for a lift, some of them waving pesos.
It feels mean to keep on going but we have given one lift today without mishap (those were indeed good guys on the road to Cienfuegos) and don’t want to risk another bad experience like the one when we somehow ended up paying three roadside pirates to get out of the car after they forced their way into the back seat to take us a long back to the motorway. The ‘favour’ cost us 30 convertible pesos, almost three times the average monthly wage in Cuba.
So there would be heroes and villains in this road movie. No, actually, there are no real villains (we never feel physically threatened), just different people trying different ways to survive. But the real stars would be the old cars that roar past us in the fast lane. Some are rattling war horses, pockmarked with rust. Others are gleaming with new paint and polished chrome. Miracles of engineering, a weird and wonderful Cuban sting in the tale of the US motor industry.
Even the most discontented young Cubans we meet are fiercely proud of these old cars: Cadillacs, Chryslers, Chevrolets, Pontiacs (we did see the odd Lada and Hillman Imp too). More than 50 years old and still motoring. As Ray comments from behind the wheel of our hired car (a Korean Kia, still going strong after 104,000 km on awful roads): “These old American cars will outlast the US motor industry.” [Prophetic words, that beautifully restored Pontiac we saw has indeed outlived the company].
The movie would end where it began in Havana. But that will be another story.