ON THE ROADThe rent-a-car in Baracoa failed me, so I had to pay $28 for a cab up the coast that nobody wanted to share. Neither asking at casas nor meeting buses nor even making announcements at the Trova turned up anybody who wanted to go to Moa.
So I toured the jungle coast with just the cabbie, crossing Cuba's biggest, purest rivers, visiting the white beach at Maguana and some modernized jungle bungalows. Some still lacked floors, the cabbie said, but none were forgotten.
Moa looked forgotten. A neighborhood we stopped in because the driver lived there looked like Tipitapa, Nicaragua, except the drainage worked and everyone had floors, and you couldn't see through the walls.
Further on, past the nickel processing plants that dominated the land and the sky, Moa itself was just several thickets of edificios, Russian looking institutional apartment buildings. My friend Ana Maria in Cienfuegos later told me that, before the revolution, Moans all lived in cardboard shanties, so my ugly is their beautiful, and that's why everyone in the ugliest town in Cuba is militant.
The bus I expected to catch at the Mira Flores hotel was there with two flat tires and nobody in sight, so I tentatively reserved a rent-a-car for next morning, got a room, and had all day to enjoy Moa.
49. THE MAID: My room was still being cleaned, so I chatted with the maid while she worked. She said she loved working in the hotel. All the people who worked there were her friends. No. She didn't know everyone in Moa. Moa is a big town. Not as big as Holguin, of course. She'd been to Holguin several times, and to Baracoa, too. Havana? No. Never.
She earned 200 pesos a month, the famous $8 the "exiles" sneer at. Of course, her husband works at the nickel plant, and they have only 2 kids, "like most people now," so they have all they need. There's not much chance to hustle extra bucks in Moa, but she said, with no equivocation, that their salary and the ration are enough. Did they eat only one meal a day? Of course not. All Cubans eat 3 times a day. Nobody in Moa is hungry, nobody's roof leaks, everyone has good clothes.
When I pressed the point, she admitted that, since some outsiders do come for work, maybe some have shanties they've built, but she's never seen such a thing or heard of it.
As for the petition, she laughed at the question, she absolutely knows that 100% of Moa signed, including people who were out of town. They "sent" their signatures. Why? Because, life in Moa is beautiful.
50. A LABORER: With my immediate future on hold I went for a walk around Moa. I couldn't tell where the center was. All I saw were ugly edificios. I took several pictures and, looking at them now, one would have been enough. I've been inside Cuban edificios, so I know the apartments are OK, and all these had views of the gulf. They were on as green and clean a slope as any Mediterranean villa, and the nickel plants weren't visible. With so little traffic, kids could run free. The coast was close and might have beaches. Forests in the nearby mountains might be paradise. Most Europeans live in edificios.
But I'd been deathly sick, two nights before, in Baracoa, and I was still too weak to walk around in the heat looking for people to explain it all to me. I was dizzy and sweating prickly cold, Moa was ugly, and I was on the verge of going back to my room to lie down when another pedestrian asked if I needed directions.
The man was dressed like all Cubans, as if for a date, and I'd been seeing whole families, colorful as butterflies, headed somewhere, so I asked if there was a fiesta close by.
"In the center," he told me and pointed, east I think.
"When you say center, do you mean like in Baracoa or Holguin, with restaurants and offices and like that, because all I see are edificios?"
"It's the center," he said, "with a barber shop and everything." I wondered if that was a comment on my hair.
I asked if he lived there, which was obvious, and if he liked it. It was good enough for him. He'd been to Santiago, and he liked that, too, and everyone has his own likes, but this was home to him. Where did I live? Was I Italian? I told him and, sure as sunrise, he asked if I'd get in trouble for being in Cuba.
In America, everyone asks why the Cubans are "all" fleeing. In Cuba, I'm always asked if I'll get in trouble for visiting Cuba.
I told him Americans are free and democratic. He said so are Cubans. I said I thought they were socialists. That's certain he said. He said he was a militant, like everybody. Were all the Moans in the party? No. But they were all militant -100%. He worked in the plant with all his friends, and they were all militants - 100%. Did they all sign the petition? That's certain - 100%.
He told me he was not a technician, just a laborer. I summarized what I'd done one summer on the "bull gang" at a cement company, and he said that was it. I remembered that the rest of the bull gang had been 100% for "bombing hell out of Cuba" in the summer of '59 when I worked at the Redwood City cement company.
51 & 52. THE GROUNDSMAN AND THE HOTEL GUARD: The edificio thickets of Moa are scattered and the slope between was as weary that day as centerfield when nobody hits a fly, so at the risk of staying ignorant, I went back to the hotel. Then, wondering if I could drive and remembering my license was expired, I tried to find out if the bus was going to be fixed by morning.
The woman at the desk, whose Spanish was impossible, didn't care if I ever found out anything, but a guard there, seeing my condition, accompanied me to the bus yard to find out. There was no one there but a groundsman.
As usual, my business was known, and they both thought I had a car rented. I explained that I'd since remembered my license was expired. The guard didn't think it mattered and we could ask the rental man in a minute, but since there were chairs in and around an untended gate hut, he suggested we sit down and rest first (meaning I should). So we did.
The goundsman told me he was juventud. The guard was in the party. I asked if everyone in Moa was really militant. The groundsman thought there were a few who didn't like the system but never said so. But he didn't mean dissidents. Life is sometimes hard in Moa, but it's OK.
The guard, a charming guy who would walk me back to the rental office and hang around making sure I was alright, said his life wasn't hard. He had studied metallurgy in France and in an eastern block country I don't remember. He was sent by the plant, which is not wholly Cuban, but when he got back, the work he'd studied for wasn't open, but he didn't care. He'd had some adventures and learned there's no place like home, and the guard job was better anyway. All he had to do was stroll around and turn his head this way and that
Both of them were certain that, for whatever reasons, 100% had signed the petition in Moa, except the foreign students at the technical university there, and many of them had wanted to sign it, too.
53. THE COWBOY: He described himself as "in the vacaria." In the cow business. He was my first hitchhiker. Few Cubans have cars. Busses aren't abundant and hitchhikers abound, most of them, for some reason, women. It's the same in Nicaragua, which is where I learned to do research and practice Spanish by constantly carrying hitchhikers.
I picked up the cowboy in open green hills, pinned down here and there with palm groves and white dotted with cows. He said he lived there and he told me who lived in every isolated house we passed. They were almost equally split between his relatives and his friends.
I told him that I was keeping my eyes open for a house without a visible floor and hadn't seen one that morning. He said his house was dirt floored. He said he was down the list because the state's priorities started with houses away from the road and, as everywhere on the island, with the poorest houses. His house was a good house.
I told him what I'd learned the year before about milk problems, and he brought me up to date. The Canadian cows had not worked out. They still had brahmas, but they had a lot more. So they had a lot more milk. Not enough yet, but more. But he added that imported powdered milk was still important.
Being related to everyone around there, or almost, he knew that everybody signed the petition. He couldn't say why. He was not militant, but he was very strong for the revolution. It was working better than ever and they had to stick with it.
54. THE DIVORCEE: My second passenger was new around there. She had been living in Holguin with her husband. Now she was living with her mother.
Her husband had been incurably jealous. I asked if he had a new girlfriend yet. "Maybe. But he doesn't have a wife, and he's still jealous. Yo ando solo," she shrugged her shoulders, "and he's still jealous." She doesn't care. Men are that way and nothing can be done. She prefers being alone.
Since she was changing her residence from Holguin to the country near Sagua when the petition was passed, where did she sign? "In my mother's CDR. I just told them I'm staying there now."
But, I objected, they didn't have her listed, she was a volunteer, and she was listed in Holguin. How did that work? "Well, they didn't count who didn't sign. They counted who signed." Anyway, she just signed because she's content.
"Because you're divorced?"
"Si. Por eso. Puede ser." I think that was a joke.
55. AN INARTICULATE WOMAN: She seemed stupid. But there are New Englanders like her who think they're being "no-nonsense." Or maybe she wanted a ride from me but didn't want to talk to me. She tried to avoid responding to anything I said except by ejaculating, like a marching order, "Aye!"
All my professions have involved interviewing, but she was hard. At last, I broke through, and finally she told me she lived with her two grown daughters and their kids in an isolated house that was the entire CDR, so how could I doubt her word when she told me so plainly that she knew that all three of them had signed?
Several "Aye's" later, she said it was just because things are fine the way they are. I wondered if she thought I was trying to get her to change her mind.
56. ONE OF THE GIRLS OF THE BITIRI: In Jose Iglesias' book, "In The Fist of the Revolution," ('68), the girls of the Bitiri hotel in Mayari, where Iglesias wrote the book, play a major role, so I was thinking of stopping there. It was only lunch time when I arrived.
The hotel seemed too grand for the image I'd gotten from the book. But the waitress who approached my table looked playfully insolent enough and her pose, one hand reversed on her impatient hip, dared me to doubt it.
"You can have ham, or cheese, or a ham sandwich, or a cheese sandwich, or bread."
"Why can't I have a ham and cheese sandwich?"
She squinted at me. "I'll see."
But she came back and told me there was no ham.
Then she brought me a cheese sandwich with cucumbers, exactly as I had expected. But she denied ever hearing of the book or of Iglesias.
She told me everyone signed in Mayari and she ought to know. She said her two kids are healthy and in school. Her mother is often sick, but the state takes care of her. She has no problems. She doesn't want any.
I tried to see a room, but two other women gave me a run-around that they ended by claiming all the rooms were taken and the tenants were in them and didn't want to be disturbed, though there was only one other car there, and the place was clearly near empty.
57. THE CITY GIRL: On the way out of Mayari, I picked up a neat and cheerfully dressed young woman from Santiago. She was plain and almost flat chested but with such a brilliant smile, so articulate, and so sure of herself that she seemed beautiful. She was going to visit her grandmother in Banes, and after many rides, she was almost there.
"Does it please you to get out into the country?"
"No," she smiled. "It's all just cows and grass."
Was she never in the country before? Of course, as a volunteer. She was in the juventud. She did all she could. She'd helped fix hurricane damage, picked coffee, taught reading, and other things, too. I knew she signed, but I asked.
"Y como no? Para defender mi pais? Es cierto!"
She said of course there were dissidents in Santiago who might have felt pressured to sign even though they really didn't have to. But in places like Moa and Mayari, she had no doubt I'd been told the truth.
It was only a short distance to the turn off for Banes, where a small group of hitchhikers was waiting.
58. THE CANE CUTTER: A woman and her niece were going to San Luis, a small town near Holguin not on my map. The town is so small, the aunt was sure everyone signed, including her niece, a plump 19, but the niece couldn't actually remember the event. She clearly wasn't bright. She might not have remembered falling off a log.
They were both enthusiastic about their town, at decidedly different levels. People there had cut cane in the days of important cane cutting, when it was a patriotic duty for everyone. The aunt boasted of her own feats and, looking at her, I wondered. She may have been 5 feet tall and may have weighed 90 lbs.
She showed me her muscles, though, and assured me she had been a top cane cutter. The niece being the same age as the Santiago girl I'd just dropped off, I asked if she'd cut a lot of cane.
"What? Me?" She giggled wildly, and I dropped the subject.
59 & 60. TWO TEACHERS: At the San Luis turn-off, the aunt and her niece were replaced by two young men, one black and one latino, both teachers. The latino taught physics in a prep school, the black taught high school in the beach town of Guardalavaca, where they were going.
They immediately asked my origin and then wanted to talk about George Bush. Bush is a popular topic in Cuba but it isn't a compliment. I understand he speaks Spanish. I wish he'd go there in disguise and ask people how anxious they are for him to save them.
These two were well informed. They knew what happened in Mexico between Bush, Fox, and Fidel, when Fidel recorded Fox asking him to give Bush a break by not being there to upstage him. The latino tied that to the humiliation of Bush Sr. in Rio when Fidel got the standing ovation and the assembly laughed at Bush's discomfort shown on the hall's big TV monitors when Fidel said capitalism threatens the eco-system as much as overpopulation.
They wanted my help analyzing the connection between Texas cowboy mentality and the psychoses of the Miamistas. But they also wanted to talk about a black American recently beaten by cops. They weren't with me long enough to pursue all their interests. Of course, they both signed, from consciencia.
6l & 62. A TELEFONISTA AND A TEACHER: After my lunch in Buena Ventura, where the waitress offered to be my pen pal, I picked up two women hitching in the rain, on their way to Las Parras. One was a telephone operator and the other a hard-bodied blonde primary teacher braving the weather in a hip-hugger sarong and braless under a near non-existent blouse.
Apparently there's nothing to do in Las Parras, so they'd been looking for action, I guess, in the slightly bigger Buena Ventura. They earned miniscule salaries, but both were enthusiastic about their jobs and defensive about the difficulties of life in Las Parras. It was agricultural, but some basics weren't always available.
I told them about a fisherman in Baracoa who had told me all Cubans eat for 6 days on their rations and salaries and, for the rest of the month, eat dirt and leaves.
"That's a lie," said the telefonista.
"I don't eat dirt," said the teacher, "Do I look like I eat dirt?" She turned sideways to frame her belly with both sets of offering fingers. I agreed without looking much, since I was driving.
"Why would anybody say that? That is such a lie," said the telefonista.
One of the other fishermen had said that what the guy ran out of in 6 days was rum, I offered.
"Well, yes, that's a problem with some men, but there's nobody in Las Parras that ever eats dirt and leaves."
Really, they didn't want me to think it was that bad there. Life is always hard, but it was quite alright in Las Parras. And everybody had signed the petition there. They had signed it together. Actually, everybody had.
63. A LADY COP: Leaving Las Tunas, I picked up a lady cop going to Camaguey. That's a long way, so we must have talked a lot, but my notes don't say much. I think I criticized the cops, since I always criticize the cops to cops, but soon learned she was an office cop in Ciego de Avila, not even a tourist town, so her claim that they never arrested anyone for talking to or going with tourists wasn't significant.
She was stronger on living conditions. I hadn't seen it yet, except in passing, but I'd learn later that day that Ciego de Avila is a relatively poor looking city. And they were getting over a devastating hurricane there. She said it's not poor. She said she has two daughters and they are well fed and healthy and nobody eats dirt anywhere in Cuba and there's plenty of milk, now.
She thinks the hustlers who tell all the lies or pass them on from Miami to gullible tourists are selling lies to tourists who buy lies and they want the money to buy things they don't need. Those are just the regular Cuban opinions, except they usually say, exactly like Republicans, that the hustlers are people who don't want to work.
Of course, even desk cops see more flakes than most people. And she was also a member of the party. Of course, she signed the petition and she thought almost everybody did. She helped me thread my way through Camaguay before getting out on the other side.
64. AN ALBAÑIL: Approaching Florida, my fuel filter started acting up, and a Transtur person there sent me back to Camaguey for repairs. He said he'd phone ahead of me and if I didn't make it, they'd send out a search party.
Adventure is when things go wrong, but I picked up a hitchhiker just in case he was mechanical. But he was an albañil who knew less about cars than me. He lived east of Camaguay, but he'd been in or near Ciego de Avila working on houses hit by the hurricane.
At least I got a first hand view of one the island's major ongoing stories. A hurricane the winter before destroyed and disabled thousands of homes. The repair and replacement effort was all out. My rider couldn't verify that Havana jineteros were getting "job training," But he assured me there were plenty of volunteers and that they'd be done by September.
Cuba is well organized, and it is said that their insurance company is the people's unity and participation, the pay-off, perhaps, of a one party system, wherein the one party is for all the people. That's what they think, anyway.
My rider, though tired and headed home for rest, was still happy about the project's progress. And he explained to me that while many of the workers had sent their signatures for the petition to their own CDR's, which was just a matter of organization, most, like him, had gone home for the weekend and signed.
To all the people working on such a project, the reason for the petition was obvious, he thought. What they were doing was socialism after all.
65 & 66. A MOTHER AND A DENTAL TECH: Leaving Camaguay again with a healthy car after a few hours, not lost but well spent, sharing and comparing notes with other travelers with car problems, I stopped well past a crowd of hitchhikers to avoid being flooded and went on with a mother and child in front and another woman, not with them, in back. The lone woman was a dental tech.
We all talked about dental care and what can be done at home. She approved of my cleaning my own teeth, but I didn't show them to her, because most Cubans have much better looking teeth than mine. She'd heard most Americans can't see a dentist regularly, as all Cubans do. I had no numbers to offer but confirmed the problem as "muy comun, si."
When she said she signed the petition because she's content, and I asked if she meant because Cubans have such clean teeth, she laughed but then said, "Puede ser."
The mother laughed, too, and said that was a good point. She said she was content because all the children were so plump. That's why she signed, she said, and laughed more, flashing her eyes back at the dental tech, while patting her kid's stomach.
Then she asked me if it's true there are dead animals lying all around in California from the pollution.
After them, I carried two Havana bound cops to the Sancti Spiritus turn-off and, by confronting them with cop complaints I'd heard all over Cuba, I learned some things, but it's not relevant here.
67. AN UNHAPPY LAB TECH: I carried her only a few miles on the road from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad, while she told me life these days is "muy dura," very hard.
I said the rain had stopped, the hills were green, some pedestrians we were passing looked fat and happy. She said you could be fat and still be malnourished, but she said she didn't mean hungry. "I'm not hungry. Nobody is hungry." But she said, "The diet isn't what it should be."
She thought improved relations with the U.S. would change that. She had never visited the U.S. She had no relatives there. She would like to know if Americans suffered her kind of bone problems. She held out her arms to show me, or to help her find the right words.
She said her wrists and forearms hurt because of some weakness of the bones that came from a vitamin deficiency.
I asked if she worked with computers; I'd guessed she was a dietitian, but she told me she was a lab tech, "but no, it has nothing to do with my work. It's a diet deficiency in Cuba. Many Cubans have bone problems." On that subject, she was probably ahead of me, but I'd never heard this before.
She said she never complained, and I asked if she could lose her job. She said her skills were too much in demand, and I realized she hadn't understood my point. So I followed her lead to ask if she'd signed the petition.
Yes, she said, but not from fear of losing her job. She didn't think that was a real threat for anyone, certainly not her. No, it was just that it would have looked bad to her neighbors if she hadn't. She thought lots of people may have signed just under social pressure.
68 & 69. TWO HAPPY LADIES OF BAÑAO: Amazing how quickly the contradictions come. Waiting where I set the lab tech down were a grade school teacher and a nurse's aide going home to Bañao. Since I hadn't even noticed it on my map, though we must have flashed through it the year before, they listed everything their town had: a health center, a grade school, a high school, a barber shop, a store, no theater but a video place, etc. Of course, everyone had TV and most had phones.
"What do people do besides watch TV?" They grew onions and garlic. "It must be a nice smelling town," I said.
They laughed and laughed.
"Do you know how to make garlic cake?" No. No. "Neither do I." They laughed and laughed. I forgot to say they were both just a little plump and had beautiful teeth and delicious dimples. Rosa and Arelin (I forget which was which), my friends.
I told them about the garlic festival in Gilroy, and they said they have one, too, but not with garlic cake, they laughed. But everyone in Bañao eats garlic. It's good for the bones.
"What are you telling me?" I told them about the lab tech's bones.
"She should eat more garlic," maybe the nurse's aide said. But she didn't believe such a deficiency is common in Cuba. Certainly not in Bañao.
Everyone in Bañao signed. One of them, maybe the teacher, said she should have been the first to sign, but the guy at the table cheated and signed first before he let her. There are a lot of militants in Bañao.
Why? It's a beautiful place to live. Life is good. Nobody is poor. They're all socialists already. No, neither of them was militant, but with conscencia, like everyone.
70. RADIOLOGIST IN RED: The town buildings of Bañao stretched for about 200 yards on one side of the road. Houses were scattered around and along a road that went left. I set the happy girls down at one end and picked up a gorgeous black girl at the other end, dressed like a chica, in elevated shoes and a red dress with a window in the chest, but totally innocent - just fashion in butterfly country.
She was a perfectly poised college girl studying radiology, with 3 years to go. She was going to work as a nurse in Cienfuegos, and then as a radiologist, and then become a doctor.
She had no awe of me. She had intelligent answers to anything I said and was as ready to disagree as to agree. She grasped points easily.
She said there were some malcontents in Bañao, but they signed the petition because their neighbors wouldn't have understood at all. Her brother was in Cienfuegos at the time and came home just to sign. Her father is a fisherman who makes nets.
She's juventud and called herself a socialist. She understood that socialism is a transition to communism but didn't think Cuba was moving that way, now. When I asked what her grade point was, she produced her last report card. It was 99, because she had some trouble with English.
I should have had some trouble with her level of Spanish, but because everything she said was logical, by staying with her thought process, I could guess the most difficult words and structures from how they worked in her sentences.
Just before we reached her corner in Trinidad, I asked her age. "Me voy por veinte," she said proudly. She was going for 20.
71. A HOUSEWIFE: I'm calling her that because I didn't ask about her work, and she identified herself, as if it were a private joke, as "a mother of one." I only took her from Trinidad to the turn-off (or turn-up) to Topes de Collantes, a woodsy community on a high ridge, that I'd gone through in '00.
We talked mostly about the heat.
The day was heating up. She said it's even hotter in August. It's cooler where she lives, but she'd like to live someplace cold, though she likes her life.
"We had to sign the petition," she said, looking a little dismayed, and I misunderstood and asked, "Why?" as if I'd have understood if she hadn't.
But then she said, "For Fidel. For the country. For the children. To keep things as they are and always improving."
"For Fidel?" I asked, "or for yourselves?"
"For myself and for my family. It was very important."
Most hitchhikers are women. I'd passed one guy but he was a cop, and I'd had 3 cops the day before.
72 & 73. TWO FOOD SERVICE TRAINEES: They'd just finished their shift in the beachside restaurant where I stopped for a rest and a Cuban cola (besides Tropicola, they now have tuKola, with a small t and a capital K in the middle), and they were waiting for me to give them a ride to Cienfuegos.
The job was field work, since they were college students studying tourism. One was fat enough to look a little piggish. The other was nondescript. He said the profession wasn't sure. There might not be enough work.
"So why are you in it?" I was thinking the only way tourism would diminish would be if Cuba came to its senses. The guy was just talking.
The fat one explained that working with tourists they could get dollars, hotel tips, make more than a doctor.
But the other one said the economy is a mess, people don't have what they need, everything costs dollars. The fat one nodded agreement in my rear view mirror, which also showed me that he, like the guy in front, had a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
They wanted to know about the U.S. One thought there are a lot of gold mines there. I'm not making anything up. They both thought good clothes and shoes cost more in Cuba. They asked my opinion of Fidel. I asked them theirs.
At first they slyly praised him, and when I asked if they'd signed the petition, they said they signed it for Fidel, from patriotism. That was the first time that word had come up.
I told them I was just asking to know, not to test them, and I didn't care what they said, except, just between us, I'd like to know the truth about Cuba.
Then, one said he was doing really good and deserved a good assignment, and he signed to avoid being unfairly passed over. The other said he just signed for no reason - nothing better to do.