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The Havana Desk

Fear and Loathing in Las Tunas

By Dan Pulcrano

Editor's Note: The Havana Desk is a monthly report from The Metropolitan's Havana bureau to keep readers in touch with the only country in the hemisphere that Americans are not allowed to travel to, or buy cigars from.

About a third of the way from Holguin to Santiago de Cuba, the four of us knew we should have taken the other road. A heated argument among my backseat drivers had prompted us to reverse our course from the paved but less direct route through Bayamo. Now, we were deep into the "shortcut" that was going to shave many kilometers off our trip: a slippery, unlit ribbon of puddles and mud through endless fields of sugar cane, crossed only by birds, stray dogs and railroad tracks.

Nary a sign marked the way, even when the road forked. Halfway through the four-hour final stretch to Santiago, the first sign of human life bounced our way, and we waved and flashed the oncoming headlights to a stop. But the drunk taxi driver hadn't a clue about whether this was the route to the country's second-largest city. Behind the taxi was another car, a Russian-built Lada, from which we could attempt to coax directions, but by the time the second of the six occupants began to exit the vehicle, Jimo was backhanding my knee and cueing me in English, "Let's go, let's go." Cuba's one of the safest countries in the hemisphere, a lot less violent than the U.S., but nobody wants to test that theory in a car with tourist plates on the agricultural backroads of a nation where nearly everyone takes home less than $10 a month.

We finally reached our destination in the wee hours, and as we got ready to set out the following afternoon, Turi and his American girlfriend, Steph ("My revolutionary response to an imperialist policy"), elected to spend more time in Santiago and take in the sights. That was fine with Jimo and me, not only because we would save time with fewer people asking for pit stops and offering navigational advice, but because we could smoke cigars all the way back.

We left Santiago a little before 5pm for the 16-hour drive back toward Havana. To have considered making a 1,200-mile round trip from Havana to the Eastern provinces of Cuba in 3 1/2 days, one would have to be insane. Jimo and I clearly qualified.

A road atlas published last year warned that on the carretera principal that connects east and west Cuba, "the majority of the crossways are produced strinking (sic) with other roads, so that cautions must be carry to an extreme. All these roads, specially (sic) the Carretera Central, resist a very intensive traffic with many obstructions."

The guide, as we found out later, was being generous. We dodge lakes of water; bicycles and horse carts; banana flatbeds; black, smoke-belching Soviet trucks; social circles on the asphalt; and longhorn steer that wandered onto the roadways. Though slow-moving, the cows were the least problematic because they were white and easy to spot at a distance, unlike the bicycles or trucks, which couldn't be bothered with rear reflectors or lights.

Still, it was better than the plane. The last flight I caught out of Santiago's Antonio Maceo airport, in an out-of-production Russian twin-engine Antonov-24, rattled me like the craft's decades-old engine casings. Its restroom was little more than a flying outhouse with a toilet seat hand-cut from a piece of plywood. Now, I can live without little paper-wrapped soaps, but when a week later an identical jet flying the same route dropped into the ocean with 44 people aboard just minutes after taking off, I was spooked enough to resolve to travel by land in the future.

And so it had come to pass that four of us set out from Havana two days earlier. Jimo was assigned to bring along some rock & roll, because while I enjoy salsa, more than 30 hours of congas and potholes would torture-test our collective temperament, if not the suspension.

As we started out, Jimo pulled out a cassette of what he represented as great rock, and suddenly the Bee Gees were singing "Cherish the Love," followed by Christopher Cross and Foreigner. I quickly located the first Servicentro, a fluorescent-drenched bank of pumps that sells rum, canned meats and Che Guevara T-shirts. Of the dozen or so $5 cassettes under the glass counter, I picked the best driving music I could find, a copy of Queen's greatest hits.

I had been fantasizing about a trip that would be a modern-day equivalent of On the Road, with me as Dean Moriarty driving a mud-spattered '49 Hudson through the Kansas plains, Mary Lou and Ed Dunkle in the back seat. Musically, at least, it was turning out to be closer to Wayne's World, with Garth Algar cruising to Stan Makita's donuts in his AMC Pacer Mirthmobile while lip-synching "Bohemian Rhapsody."

When we stopped for coffee at a roadside stand near Las Tunas, a guajiro approached and offered to sell a leather knife sheath for a dollar. Jimo seized the moment and, remembering our encounter the night before on the dirt road, somehow managed to talk the cook out of four cups of Cuban coffee and his chef's knife, and the peasant out of his sheath, all for a buck. We hopped back in the car, and an unarmed army private opened the passenger door and confronted Jimo, arguing that foreigners couldn't carry knives. Jimo, incredulous at the accusation, shouted, "I'm more Cuban than you!" and slammed the door. As we barreled into the night, Jimo clipped two fresh cigars and took a swig from a $2 bottle of guava brandy.

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From the December 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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