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(a geographical chapter)
City hiking and country driving
Coast to Coast to Coast to Coast
from Havana to Santiago
discovering no sign of third-world poverty

        In fact, I listened to yowling cats most of my first night back in Havana. It was not a miraculous resurrection of cats. It was just a coincidence, and it didn't tell me a lot about Cuba; it only underscored what I already thought of the San Diego Union and of the "exiles."
        Besides the cats keeping me awake, there was the tropical heat even in April and the excitement of actually being in Cuba again where so many poor people in the world would like to be, and, for the last night of Semana Santa, there was a near all-night concert (which probably provoked the cats) at the Union de Escritores y Artistas across the street - and also my bed was a bit lumpy.
    The heat, the noise, and the bed, at least, were Latin American commonplaces, a touch of realism to spice my travel advice to readers that the private home I'd chosen over a hotel was everything Francisco had assured me it would be. Francisco, known to his family and friends in Tijuana as Pancho, who'd had his way paid to Cuba several times by TJ cigar merchants, had called ahead of me to make my reservations.
    "Glen," he'd urged me, "you don't want to stay in a hotel," though in fact, while I meant to shun giant tombstones like the Capri, I had wanted ever since 1989 to stay at the beautiful old Caribbean on the Prado. But, "Trust me," Francisco said, "Cuban houses are OK. They have modern bathrooms and everything, and they cost a lot less." Francisco had gone with me to Nicaragua once and had boarded in a shack there and his point was that plunging into Cuban reality isn't like that. He meant I wouldn't be roughing it.
    So when the phone rang almost the minute I stepped into Esperanza's living and dining room a half-a-floor up in Vedado and it was Francisco, making sure I'd arrived safely, though I hadn't seen the bathroom and didn't know about the lumpy bed yet, I looked around at the heavy old dining table and couch, a small aquarium tank that smacked of California and the thoroughly Cuban song-bird cages by the big front windows and assured him he'd been right, that it looked fine.
    It did. The state usually only issues licenses to rent rooms to homes with adequate space and facilities to do that, so though certainly not luxurious, the spacious condominium apartment was somewhat beyond what I'd expected. With its miniature kitchen, combination laundry and TV room, and oversized airy bedrooms, it was about like some quaint old place a student or working person might luck into in Oakland and afford by splitting the costs with a room-mate. The bathroom, though overly shared, was OK; and since then I've often slept peacefully at Esperanza's place, so the noisiness of the first night wasn't important, except for the cats declaring their existence.
     Wall-size windows, complexly segmented combinations of shutters and grates and panes that swung open in conflicting directions, filled the rooms with dappled light and air and kaleidoscope views of the street forest and the sometimes colonial neighborhood architecture. I could hear neighbors walking by or stopping together, constantly talking as Cubans do, or calling out from backyards or windows or the barbershop under us, and children's squeals came from a nearby park where groups of old ladies have exercise classes and (I swear) fancy-dog lovers can sometimes be seen comparing their dogs.
    I know there are readers literally sputtering to tell me what they think they know - what all the reporters parroting each other say - that Vedado is a "middle-class" enclave. But they're wrong. Esperanza, who spoke a high-speed, non-stop gossipy blur that set my Spanish back 10 years, had undoubtedly been born at least somewhat privileged. But, though it never seems to penetrate U.S. reporters' skulls, way back in her youth a democratizing revolution moved into her life and neighborhood (did you ever hear of that?), and I found her, 41 years later, living on terms of equality with a mulata housekeeper who fit into the neighborhood as well as she did. Since then I've met some of her neighbors who were teleported by the revolution straight from Bautista-era shanties into the solid old homes of tree-shaded Vedado and, though you have to see Holguin, Santa Clara, Camaguay, Sancti Spiritus and other places to know it, Vedado is much more typically Cuban than Habana Vieja.
     Normal Cuban people live in Vedado, all kinds and colors of them, and it's not an enclave. It's huge, stretching under an urban forest of street trees for 30 long blocks along the malecon from the foot of La Rampa to the Rio Almendares and 15 blocks inland. Dotted with parks, crosscut by two spectacular boulevards with center-strip parks, and bordered by a huge and beautiful river park, a town-sized cemetery (oddly shadeless), another forest preserve, and the University of Havana, it boasts numerous public institutions, museums, office buildings, and hotels, and all along La Rampa, a near Los Angeles-like boulevard, it has its own downtown, arguably the real main street of Havana.
    For the next few days, I was going to waste considerable film taking bad pictures of cats, but my first order of business next morning was to visit Coppelia, the park-sized Vedado ice-cream mecca three or four blocks seaward from Esperanza's that I hadn't noticed in '89 but which was world famous by 2000 because of the movie, "Fresa y Chocolate," which begins there. Another American who'd also just arrived at the same house had the same idea, so we headed out next morning together.
    I decided to forget her real name, by the way, as long as the Washington fascists keep disappearing people into secret dungeons, and I'm going to call her Matilda. She was an intelligent, agreeably progressive person who would prove to be an ideal traveling companion for the next three weeks. Our relationship was exactly as if she were my daughter, and we projected a respectable air together that got me a different reaction from Cubans than I get traveling alone.
    Even in the morning, getting into Coppelia looked out of the question, though it's a point of national hospitality that tourists go first and people in the long lines leading in from three sides of the block urged us to take advantage of the rule as happily as if they'd thought it up.
    It looked as though the lines themselves were an eternal social event, since there were clearly little stands selling cones along the park perimeters on L and 21st Streets with no lines at all. We asked a typically slender unarmed cop, the only cop in sight, why there was such a crowd, and he assured us they all just wanted to be in the movie.
    Though the city's top tourist hotel, the Havana Libre, towers over the intersection of La Rampa and L, most of the people lined up at Coppelia, or reading movie bills at the theater on the corner across L, or waiting for the walk light at the foot of the hotel, or browsing in the music store on the fourth corner were Cubans. Maybe they weren't buying much besides ice cream, since promenading just to be promenading is as big in Havana as it is in Madrid. But, just as in '89, they were all well dressed and nobody looked like they were starving or suffering. Maybe we didn't notice they weren't "free," because their universally well-tended white smiles fooled us.
                We decided to save the ice cream for later and floated on down La Rampa's busiest three blocks with the crowd to O where we joined an eddy of tourists and Cubans packing SofÌa's open veranda cafe on the island's most cosmopolitan corner, which looked like a good place for breakfast.
          Just as in Spain, the source of many Cuban table customs,I saw that, for coffee, they were only serving tiny cups of expresso. To my dismay, Matilda, a seasoned European traveler, drank the stuff as it came and proclaimed it excellent. But I utilized the line of patter I'd developed in Spain in '98 to persuade a skeptical waitress to fill the largest cup they had (a tea cup) with plain black (and still bad) coffee. Two of those went just right with a drab breakfast that contrasted dramatically with Sofia's exciting ambience.
        Then we took the same long walk up the Malecon and back through time that I'd taken in '89. There were more cars on La Rampa and on the Malecon than I'd seen before, but the curving coastal avenue was still too wide and shadeless, big waves still crashed angrily on the rocks piled outside its wide and sun-glaring seawalk and seawall, and it still looked way too hot and too far to where it finally curved into La Bahia De La Habana behind the old city's eastern towers.
        Havana's bright white Malecon, though spectacular, is more a sweaty hike than a pleasant walk, but halfway to the 16th century this time, we had to detour into the cooler alleys of Centro to stop dodging the scaffoldings, workmen, and dust of a restoration project that was bringing the ancient face of the Malecon back to life. The entire rampart of what I'd imagined in '89 to be the yellowed ruins of Atlantis rising from the sea was being hammered, broken, re-splinted, restored, resurfaced and sanded for painting. Apparently, tourism, which had replaced sugar as Cuba's cash cow, was paying for more than food, shelter, and clothing.
        I found Centro, though, even just a single block from the fast modernizing waterfront, as dark and paint-poor as when I'd seen it last. Matilda, who was seeing Cuba for the first time, thought aloud that the worn and narrow old alleys we then followed through Centro to Habana Vieja were like some supposedly romantic Paris streets she knew, except obviously cleaner and safer, and she couldn't see why, untwisted by American delusions about communism, they couldn't be considered - well - like some supposedly romantic Paris streets she knew.
        Matilda was in the the process of being as startled as I had been in '89 by the dramatic contrast between greater Havana and the smaller historic enclave always used by propagandists to illustrate their anti-Cuba slander. Since I'd stayed in a hotel before, we'd both been surprised to find our lodgings to be acceptably modern and comfortable. And we were both destined to learn, driving around the island in a tiny rent-a-car we'd secure next day, that even greater Havana is a slanderous misrepresentation of the rest of Cuba.
        And just then, as we hiked east up the dark floor of the San Lazaro Street crevice, we found ourselves shadowed and then presumptuously joined by our first jinetero. In post-depression Cuba, jineteros (literally jockies but in Cuba hustlers) have replaced the black-market money changers who hustled me in '89. Scorned by most Cubans as good-for-nothings who don't want to work but innocently accepted by a lot of tourists as friendly natives, they are a by-product of tourism.
        They always start by asking where you are from in English ("Hey, mon, whayr you frome?") and then whether, by chance, you might need some help finding this or that - a hotel, a restaurant, a famous landmark, passing themselves off as only coincidental guides or potential friends - very subtly open to rewards.
        But legal guides work for the state and supposedly pay taxes on tips. Because they aren't licensed, jineteros evade taxation and often sell illegal goods, so they are technically crooks, breaking the law or trying to, and subject to arrest, except that Cuban cops are realistic about the difficulty of telling friendliness from hustling, and they only keep track of the jineteros by checking their ID's until they've established a provable pattern. Anyway, that was the strategy in 2000. The jineteros of those days then wildly misinterpreted that fairly civilized though foolishly clumsy police procedure to milk sympathy and contributions from easily confused tourists.
        Pedroso was a sweet young man, dressed to the teeth and polite as pie who spoke perfect English. We guessed it was his first day trying out the career of jineterismo and he hadn't expected us to speak Spanish, carry a map we understood, and be so overtly independent. But my Spanish had evolved since '89 and though she was a little shy with it Matilda's was better, and, partly to discourage him, we were freely asking other Cubans for directions just as if he weren't there guiding us. Of course, we'd already read about Pedroso in Lonely Planet, and maybe we should have chased him away, not to be rude but to discourage him from a traitorous lifestyle.
        He showed us no sign of dissidence. But of course he saw we were clearly comfortable with Cuba, and jineteros tell tourists what they want to hear. If we'd needed an English crutch and had spoken uneasily about being in a communist land, he might have tried to earn some supposed escape money by regaling us with tales of woe that we could pass on to our receptive fellow countrymen. Too many tourists have been conned that way not to have suspected him.
        But we weren't yet as fed up with jineteros as we would be, and he was putting up a patriotic Cuban front for us, and also it did occur to us that we were tacitly using the strategy suggested by the guide book of adopting a bearable jinetero to fend off the others. Pedroso was clingy but not pushy, so we were noncommittal but friendly. We pretended to believe he just wanted to practice his English, and, as he continued to walk with us as if he were our best friend in Cuba, we used him or ignored him as we needed. He didn't seem to know how to get to the money part, and we gave him no help with that.
        So he stuck with us to the grand Hotel Ingleterra on the Prado, which we looked into just to look and where I excused him to the doorman, who was trying to cut him away from us, then to La Floridita, where we verified so quickly how stiff and phony the place is that he almost collided with us as we stepped in and immediately back out. My memory took us around the corner to Obispo Street, where there were so many people to talk to that Pedroso's inability to either guide us or practice his English should have been getting him down, but he kept up with us and kept up a gay front.
        Actually, we could have used a real expert on the 90's just then, because Obispo Street was startling. In '89, I'd seen just enough sanded and painted buildings there to prove how beautiful the old city could be. Now it was as slick and bouteeky as any touristy alley in San Francisco, lined with bookstores, artist's stalls, cafes and whatnot, and full of parading Cubans showing off their duds.
        "Are you in the youth movement?" I asked an old man selling newspapers.
        "No. I'm 74."
        "What is the rebellion about?"
        "There is no rebellion."
        "Why is the paper called Juventud Rebelde?"
        "It's the newspaper of the Juventud." The revolutionary (not rebellious) Juventud are the young communists, an auxiliary of the Communist Party much larger than the party. The old man was selling their paper to supplement his pension.
        "Who pays to put it out?" Flipping the pages, I found no ads.
        "El estado." I bought one of his papers and then two more skimpy tabloid sized papers from two other old men we met along the street. Each old man was sure that the several papers on sale were all different and free to be different.
        The old men were. The one selling the Rebelde had a brother in the U.S. But he, himself, he informed us in abrupt verbal bursts, did not want to go there or anywhere else. He said different people want different things. No, he wasn't political. It wasn't a political matter. He wanted to stay in his home town because his friends were there and he was used to it.
        The old man selling Granma, the official voice of the state named after the yacht that carried Fidel and Che and their guerrilla band from Mexico to immediate death on the Cuban coast for most of them, told us he'd been to the U.S. Very politely, he told us he didn't like it, well, not very much, well, not at all, well, the part he'd seen. That wasn't a political matter, either. He was apolitical. He just didn't like the U.S., neither the climate which was too cold, nor the people who couldn't speak Spanish, nor the way everyone went around closed inside of cars. And it was too expensive.
        A third old man, who was selling Trabajadores, the labor union paper, was not apolitical. He seemed a little contemptuous of our ignorance and made a joke of our unfamiliarity with the Intur coins we were using, which he refused to take because he didn't have the right change. He gave us the newspaper free. But he told us, looking in another direction as if staring into the past, or as if some people around (like us) might not get it, that once upon a time the former tyrant's police had tried to kill him for going on strike and he had been a militant revolutionary ever since.
        There were a lot of artist's stalls all along Obispo Street in 2000, looking downright capitalistic. And in fact they were - within reasonable limits. If the island were self sufficient, it wouldn't need money at all, except to democratize, limit, and regulate consumption fairly. In fact, that's exactly what the small salaries of most Cubans are for. Everything people really need, after all, is produced through participation, not capital, and is virtually free. But to accommodate the tourists who were now Cuba's main source of revenue for foreign exchange, the artists were providing ambience and things to buy. And with a lot of luck, they could make a little more pocket money than ordinary Cubans, but strict regulations and record keeping requirements, and closely figured taxes and overhead kept them from really cashing in on their talents. Of course it occurred to me that the government may see them one way and they may see themselves another, and it made me sad to think that, but I couldn't help it.
        Some of them subtly complained, and I easily guessed that some of them cheated, and you might sympathize with the obvious desire of some of them to break through the show-for-tourists facade and become real capitalists, but I didn't. I know that some foolish Yankee liberals who've made friends with Havana artists sympathize, because the mystique of the somehow holy value of paintings is old in the capitalist world they come from. But I've painted some myself and been offered money for my paintings, which I wouldn't take, though, once tired of them, I'd have given them to anyone who really wanted them. I know absolutely that it takes more training, study, skill, brains, and work to write philosophically profound, truly coherent and honest essays than it takes to paint pictures, and I've distributed my writing free and freely all my life.
        Anyway, exercising artistic talent doesn't make you sweat minute by minute any more than exercising your muscles, and if a single painting earns the same livelihood as all the goods produced by a laborer in the same week or month it takes to do the painting PLUS whatever measure of praise and renown the painting rates, that's adequate acknowledgement of the value of art. So if you think carpenters and mail carriers and bus drivers and teachers in a communist state should live at a normal economic level and picture painters at another, or worse, if you think the ambitious artists have the right to subvert a revolution that provides or is trying to provide a good life for everyone just because they are arteeests, I disagree and suggest you re-read these two graphs, think more realistically about it, and wake up.
        Anyway, some of the paintings we saw that day were really original, remarkable, and unlikely to sell. A lot were cliches showing innumerable 50-year-old Chevis parked by usually the same nearly-500-year-old buildings. They'd be special in America, and you can buy them or what looks like them on the internet in spite of Washington's pseudo-legal and contemptible restrictions. The size of our backpacks precluded our buying anything. But we spent a lot of time looking and asking about the locations of landscapes, quickly learning that the strange hillocks near Viñales were another cliche, and the colonial streets of Trinidad another.
        We talked to an old lady just hanging out in an open-air art and book stall who was bitterly dissident because she said she'd composed a famous song and then been robbed of personal fame and royalties by the system. We also talked to quite possibly the most beautiful, charming, and cheerful girl in all of Cuba, whose stage was a high corner Infotur booth from which she artistically dispensed important but absolutely free information in a manner that would certainly have won her a movie contract if we'd been scouts discovering her in an LA soda fountain. She explained that a poster behind her showed Punta Gorda in Cienfuegos which she urged us to visit, and directed us to a map store half a block up a side street.
        In the Plaza de Armas, we explored the cluster of shady used-book stalls there, finding, just as in Nicaragua in the 80's, more revolutionary pamphlets than seemed likely among books culled, one merchant told us, from the estates of people who died (or fled? - he didn't say that). But there was also a wide selection of world literature, including any number of Don Quixotes, numerous paperback Spanish translations of European and American writers, especially Hemingway, and even some Franklin editions in English. Most interesting to me were books about specific revolutionary fronts in the 50's that you wouldn't find outside Cuba.
        When I decided I needed a beer and Matilda wanted to try a mojito, Pedroso finally became useful. We wanted away from the Obispo Street crowd, and Pedroso said he knew the short way to Dos Hermanos, the quieter hang-out of Federico García Lorca I'd missed in '89 but had read about in our guide. We could have found it without him, but he took us by the non-tourist route, which took us a long way south along an unrestored old alley and home stretched eastward down the narrow sombra of Sol Street, where we met an Italian looking seaman with a daypack striding up from the docks loudly singing an operatic aria, a perfect introduction to the working end of the malecon well inside the harbor.
        To tell the truth, I can't remember ever reading anything by Garcia Lorca. Maybe I have. Maybe I haven't. But I immediately decided his taste in bars beat Hemingway's. In those days (it's unfortunately changed since then) Dos Hermanos looked as perfect as a shade tree. Facing the docks, wide open at one end and on one side along the malecon, it's deep enough to be a tavern and not just a deck but not too deep to be part of the hot and sunny waterfront - a shady alcove ambientally salty and full of the harbor breeze with room for only one casually zigzag row of tables, some half on the sidewalk, and a big long very historic looking wooden bar not far from the sidewalk, either.
        Ever since that day my favorite corner of Havana, it's one of several places that supposedly contributed significantly to the evolution of daiquiris, so I decided to have one. Matilda stuck to her mojito idea, and Pedroso, looking a bit uncomfortable under the somewhat scornful glare of a bartender he may not have learned yet how to tap for a commission, permitted me to buy him a beer.
        I leaned over the massive old bar to watch as they crushed the ice the same way I used to do it long long ago when I lived in a Lombard Street flat on Telegraph Hill. They put it in a bag on the floor and beat it with a hammer.
        I discovered daiquiris in the 50's as a teenage sailor curing hangovers in Tijuana and gave them up with all other mixed drinks when I discovered wine in San Francisco in the early 60's. When my nose turned so cold and numb it hurt in Dos Hermanos in Havana in 2000, I gave them up again and discovered a Bucanero beer.
        Like its more famous rum, Cuba's beers, though now all produced by the state, are still made in the same old breweries that invented them, they're each unique and, except for Crystal - the Budweiser of Cuba - which is all fizz and no flavor, they're all good, including Hatuey, though Hatuey's a bit sweet. Like the Floridita, its fame is largely a Hemingway invention.
        I never knock Hemingway's writing, by the way, only his tastes in drinks, bars, hotels, and lifestyle. As a writer, I rank him right up there with Hammett and Chandler but, though I've eagerly hiked through most of the scenes of his romantically violent stories in Spain, my own real-life adventures are seldom intentionally dangerous. I call them "gentle adventures," and when they're not, unlike Hemingway, who thought talking about one's "grace under fire" (i.e. bravery) cheapened it, I enjoy talking and writing about my scary experiences later a lot more than I enjoy having them, maybe because I'm not all that brave or graceful, anyway.
        Our next two adventures, one gentle, one not so gentle for Pedroso, were (1) watching the noisy anchor-lifting party of an Italian cruise ship whose passengers on the afterdeck and their well wishers on the street, looking like a staged musical movie scene, still composed a giddy arc of international goodwill when we left them behind, and (2), a third of our way and then two thirds of our way to Chinatown, watching the cops gently crack down on our erstwhile guide.
        Don't be too quick to gasp, now. This does happen in America. In fact, once at a Fourth of July parade in Coronado, deliciously ironically, I watched a cop writing up a street vendor for selling American flags without a permit. He didn't confiscate the flags, but he made it clear that that and worse could follow if the guy didn't cool it forthwith. And the Coronado cop was fat and wore a big gun and had the swaggering manner of a movie tough guy.
        Each of the Che bereted cops who briefly detained Pedroso separately and at separate points several blocks apart along our trek was slender and unarmed except for a baton and a cell-phone and did nothing but examine his carnet, call his data into someplace, lecture him in a private tone I couldn't hear, and send him on. I could imagine HQ telling the second cop that the kid's record was a few minutes old and went way back to the last cop we'd passed, maybe five blocks behind us.
        I just naturally don't like cops intruding gratuitously into people's lives, so it made me mad, and I audibly told Matilda so, which the cop calmly ignored. But a citizen who, if he'd been 11 years older and wore a city slicker's hat (which he wasn't and didn't), could have been the same citizen who explained the counterfeiter's arrest to me in '89, stopped to assure me again that it all made sense and was for the good of all concerned.
        But why had the cops zeroed in on Pedroso at all? I remembered that all the illegal money changers in '89 had been black and told the citizen, hoping the cop was listening, that I thought it was racial profiling. Even as I said that, though, it came to me that maybe a third of the people we'd been freely talking to (and of those standing there listening) were black, and, while the citizen patiently assured me it wasn't true, I thought that what made Pedroso noticeable was that he was walking with us though he clearly wasn't with us. He was too well dressed, trying too hard to look respectable when all the other young Cubans around him were trying to look fashionable, and we, of course, were Euro-California casual.
        Later, though, after too many more jinetero experiences, it would be Matilda who figured out the unhappy logic of the cops' certain racial profiling. Almost all jineteros are black, because black Cubans don't have Miami relatives sending them money. So a self conscious black Cuban not just chatting amiably with tourists but clearly pursuing them probably is a hustler. And hustling is police business in Cuba, whether it should be or not.
        Pedroso, as we continued on our way, assured us he hadn't been bothered, but entering the San Rafael Street mall on the other side of the Prado and seeing another cop a block ahead, he asked me to step into a small shop and buy him some cigarettes. Curious about the cigarettes and thinking he'd probably decided to get something for his trouble and bail out, I agreed. But back outside, glancing at the cop ahead, he told us that zigging a block over and zagging down would take us directly to the best Chinese restaurant.
        And, for all we knew, it did. Anyway, a dark alley-sized street took us to an inscrutable knock-knock door, and a cramped inside staircase took us up one floor to another mysterious door which opened into a dark (but cool) second-floor, half-veranda food den without a single Chinese looking waiter or waitress.
        But it was a Chinese restaurant. And after (tactfully, I hope, though the cigarettes had diminished my concern) explaining to Pedroso that we didn't need his company for lunch, we enjoyed resting there. The food, which was probably a good example of what Lonely Planet calls feaux Chinese, was odd but OK. We hoped it wasn't the best and that the waiter who followed Pedroso out to the stairs didn't give him more than an appropriate "commission." We gave him nothing. Since he posed as a Cuban just friendly and willing to help because he had nothing else to do and wanted to practice his English, we treated his pose as if we believed it.
        I understand the empathy Mark Cramer expresses for jineteros in his excellent 2000 guidebook, "Havana At Your Door," but I don't agree with him on that point. I agree with most Cubans, who almost universally see male hustlers as embarrassing beggars who don't want to work and who misrepresent Cuba to tourists.
     And, whether it's fair or not, I also agree with most Cubans about hustlerettes, referred to by guidebooks promoting your Spanish as jineteras but actually called just chicas (and rarely putas) by most Cubans. The "chicas," barely differerentiated from all other chicas, chiquitas and chiquititas by context and maybe a slightly different intonation of the word and an eye-crinkling smirk, are almost always cheerful and charming and are almost universally adored.
        In any case, though they seem to take up a lot of the tourist's narrow view, there aren't really many jinoteros or hustling chicas, and ordinary Cubans aren't as aware of them as you are, because most Cubans are busy with their co-workers and their work every day, just like Americans. Even AP and Barbara Walters, by the way, can't be too blind to notice that there's a Cuban on the job behind every desk and counter and broom and shovel all day every day everywhere they go in Cuba.
        Why? Why, if Cubans are so poor that some have to hustle tourists to survive, aren't they all doing that? Why are they all going to work every day instead? If you believe the endlessly repeated propaganda that an average salary of 300-400 Cuban pesos isn't worth even $20 of pocket change, and you're not quite as stupid as AP and Barbara Walters, you have to wonder why Cubans work just as regularly as Americans for such a pittance, don't you? So pay attention to the answer. It has to be because every Cuban understands what no AP reporter or U.S. talking head has the brains to grasp, that what each Cuban's participation in the system earns is both his pocket pesos and the subsidized parts of all his benefits.
        Every AP reporter counts his own rent or house payment, for instance, as probably 35-50% of his salary, doesn't he? Even though he gives it right back to the system without ever seeing it? So why doesn't he count the only equally invisible 99% subsidy of a Cuban's house payment on, say, an 850 square foot modern home (normal for new homes virtually given to Cubans these days), as part of the Cuban's salary? That much alone, added to the supposed $8 to $30 (minus 80¢-$3 house payment) obviously has to run a typical salary up to at least $757.20-$777, or that's what my calculator says - what about yours? And if the AP reporter admits what he certainly knows and conceals from his readers, that a 300-peso salary which he claims is only worth $12 will buy more movie tickets, ice cream cones, bus fares, green beans, milk, etc. than $300 will buy in his hometown (and is therefore obviously worth more than $300 in Cuba), he also has to admit (you can do this in your head, right?) that a Cuban's salary and just his home add up to over $1000 a month in Cuba (which is where Cubans live).
        Besides his home, almost everything a Cuban needs is mostly subsidized or free, so the simple reason you almost never see a hungry or shabby Cuban is that, in exchange FOR his participation in a system that (when things are going well) produces all the goods and services everyone really needs, BESIDES the pocket money AP reporters cunningly call his salary, he's given back his share of the goods and services he helped produce - which is how maybe nobody else ever told you communism works. Now I've told you.
        The next morning we spent some time watching a sweating car rental agent at work, who I assume (since he didn't throw up his hands and become a jinetero while we were there) had to consider his deal with the state good enough to pay him for the frustration of endlessly explaining terms and requirements and availability of cars to the nearly hopelessly confused tourists ahead of us who didn't speak Spanish, while juggling us, them, and an arrogantly pushy group of Spaniards (from Barcelona of course) who marched in and out and butted in when they felt like it.
        We didn't necessarily take the right approach, either. Our polite sympathy with the guy earned his sympathy for us and we got what we wanted, the smallest cheapest car possible, a Japanese midget make I never heard of, to be brought there from somewhere else on the morning we needed it, but we overlooked some small print that would unpleasantly surprise us later.
        But that would be later. That morning we hiked west all the way to Siboney, looking on the way for a Miramar laundromat we mistakenly thought we needed because we each traveled with only one small backpack, and in Cuba you do sweat. The last surprise at the Capri in '89 had been the outrageous price the hotel gouged me for washing a tiny bundle of T-shirts, and though I'd seen a laundry on Reina, I hadn't known it was Reina then and I didn't think I could find it 11 years later. After we'd found the Miramar place and decided it was impractically remote, we'd learn to depend on the houses we stayed in.
       In fact, Esperanza, who met us each morning with a friendly copita of sweet coffee and a glass of juice, surprised us next day by throwing our clothes in with hers as a courtesy, and I've learned since that the price for doing laundry in a casa, usually negotiated with the housekeeper, is: "Tu me digas" (you tell me), a good psychological trick on Americans, though probably not on Spaniards and Italians.
        Anyway, that morning, we hiked west. In '89, I'd followed the Malecon under the river as far as Miramar. This time, after trekking for what seemed like hours through the sometimes sunny, sometimes shady, sometimes ritzy, sometimes worn and weedy western Vedado residential region (where we estimated far more ordinary Cubans must live than live in Habana Vieja (though maybe not Centro) and where we didn't see a single cop that day). We rested along with several stray cats (that I pursued with my camera) at a lushly shady neighborhood El Rapido, Cuba's McDonald's except that their hamburgers are ham and cheese sandwiches. El Rapidos are all over the island and we'd not only already seen several in Havana, we'd eaten the sandwiches, but this time we just rehydrated with Tropicola.
       Just past there, we detoured around a barricaded block that was one corner of a tiny river-bank military base, crossed the Almendares River on the old 11th Street bridge, and after finding and discounting the Miramar laundromat, caught a jam-packed people's taxi on 5th Street and continued westward.
        The vintage "maquina" (I think it was a 1950 Dodge), with the word taxi painted on its windshield, was both interesting and uncomfortable. Squeezed in with 5 oddly taciturn Cubans (like elevator riders) who seemed unaquainted yet coincidentally disguised together as the Adams family, we got about 20-25 residential blocks further before, both rested and steamed enough, we opted out and returned to walking and breathing.
        Just scanning it through the taxi windows and walking along the beach front, we decided that Miramar did look, though not as beautiful, somehow more upscale than Vedado, but it was too big to be inhabited only by the Castro brothers. That's an example of the lost art of male (and female in this case) linear logic. In fact, we also noticed that most of the big white buildings we passed were apartment buildings, not single family mansions.
        We were exploring just to be exploring that day, trying to see more of Havana than I'd seen before, but, as politically interested tourists, we were also searching for a crack in the peaceful, safe, and civilized surface Cuba was showing us. We'd both seen the Third World, which may seem normal to its unfortunate inhabitants but to us was an open wound, and we weren't seeing any such atrocity in Havana. We'd zigzagged over 100 downtown blocks the day before, crisscrossing the tourist track but mostly, like surveyors, following our street map rather than the guide book. And that day we were zigzagging over 200 suburban blocks beyond the backdrop, through neighborhoods we'd never have seen in Los Angeles unless we had relatives there, in a hot city where people live very visibly outside as well as inside, and we weren't finding that crack.
       We weren't touring, we were thoroughly snooping - what I always do - but as Americans in an exotic foreign land, the most extraordinary thing we were seeing was ordinariness. The old and decaying center, like ordinary old and decaying centers everywhere, was only ordinarily ugly. And away from the old center, the city was just as ordinary. There was even too much traffic on the main streets - a lot more than I'd seen on my first visit.
        I knew that before the revolution, Havana, like all Latin American capitals, had been ringed by shanty towns. But I knew that only because I'd read how, in 1959, all or most of the shanties had been erased. So we were consciously looking for traces of them. We'd seen no shanty barrios either in the city or coming in from the airport, and we'd see none leaving town in another direction next day. So THAT was extraordinary, but unless I counted the visibly absent shanties as a sign, exactly as in 1989, I was finding communism to be invisible.
       Most Americans who think in slogans instead of logical sentence sequences think communism = dreary slums. But I don't think in slogans, and I didn't jump to the conclusion that many wishful thinkers who wish what they're taught to wish jump to, that - by golly, it's OK - Cuba's NOT communist. A better explanation, after all, was that communism is an underlying system not a facial expression, and the system doesn't produce the facial expression that Americans, relentlessly trained to expect horror, expect.
        We weren't dumb enough to think Fidel doesn't know what he's doing - that he's running a capitalist society without knowing it. And we weren't gullible enough to fall for the gusano fantasy that Cubans, along with their homes, are under strict orders to show tourists a happy face or be dragged by night to the palace dungeon for a whipping. Too much experience with Cuban gusanos in San Diego and Latin America had taught me that they, at least, are not only NOT authorities on Cuba - they're nut-cases.
        We were a long way from seeing all the nooks and crannies of Havana, a complex city of 2 million - more than 1/6 of the Cuban population, and of course there were the other 5/6 to be seen. Overnight-in-Havana reporters are famous for owlishly observing, undoubtedly always mimicking other reporters, that "I've heard things are much worse in the countryside." And the day after next we were going to drive into "the countryside," a region which, our map and common sense indicated, includes most of the island.
        But that day, exhausted by almost two days of hiking, at the western end of a long coastal trek that still didn't get us to the city limits, we took a break to enjoy a palmy patio restaurant in Sibonay that Pancho had recommended and to wander around an adjacent ranch-style tract looking for Silvio Rodriguez' house, the point being that one of the most famous singers in the world, a man who'd be a millionaire living on a walled estate in America, lives in Cuba as a loyal revolutionary in an ordinary suburban housing tract.
        The state-owned restaurant (La Vicaria) was a spacious tropical place on a par with similar places in California, semi-shaded by tall coconut palms that made us nervous, though the very suave uniformed waiter assured us that falling coconuts had killed only a few tourists since he'd been there.
        As a San Diegan, I saw the Sibonay residential neighborhood, with its green yards and one-story homes, as a notch above Vedado or Miramar (or maybe just more Californian), but Matilda, being from San Francisco, considered it tacky. Knowing only from Pancho's say-so that Silvio's house was blue and, oddly (for Havana though not for any similar California bedroom community), encountering few people outside to ask, we didn't find it, but we decided, if it was there, it had to be "ordinary" for the neighborhood, since we saw nothing that stood out. The houses varied in style and vintage, as in any topsy-grown California suburb, but not drastically in class.
        On our long busride home that partly retraced our hike along the city's westward coast and partly zig-zagged randomly through so much additional inland suburbscape that we had to be reassured by our fellow passengers that we were indeed headed for Vedado, we pondered the problem that at least what we'd seen of Havana beyond old-town should pose for smirking American Cuba scorners.
        You see (now don't deny this), American media have no myth of any immense clean pastel Havana quarter filled with thousands of solid homes, nor even any myth of a huge contingent of rich gambling, yachting foreigners or Cuban upper class or even a middle class occupying all those homes and turning up their noses at any favela-dwelling peasants we weren't seeing. Their only myth is very clearly about two or three - certainly no more than a dozen - cartridge belt wearing dictators terrorizing an otherwise entirely Haiti-poor population. That's the myth. Don't lie to yourself or to me. That's the myth and you know it. Yet there we were, just as I had been in '89, on a walking and bussing odyssey through several large parts of an obviously adequate to upper-middle-class, over-all normal city, our bus constantly filling and refilling with people who lived there who were clearly healthy and better dressed than us.
        To verify what couldn't have been just my gigantic illusion, Matilda, gesturing generally at the entire metropolitan region flowing past the bus window, exclaimed that, "Surely, it's Cubans who live here, isn't it?" And we tried to verify it with a fellow passenger who asked where we were from, but she was mystified by our question and could only respond that, yes, it was all Havana.
        We had to change busses in a neighborhood southwest of Miramar. The stop was in a large park, where we were forced to rest awhile, because the connecting bus that was leaving just as we arrived was already full. Of course, the stranded line quickly established its order and dispersed, so we called out, "El ultimo?" and a women looking for a shady seat on the grass informed us she was el ultimo and we were after her on the next bus. So we found our own shady spot close enough to keep an eye on her and practiced our Latin American patience.
        While we were there, an apparent street person, the first we'd seen in about 2 1/2 days in the city, went about collecting newspapers from people who'd read them and reselling them. Like the one apparent pauper I'd seen in a week in Havana in 1989, he was dirty and ragged and of an uncertain age. His skin was dark and grainy from constant exposure to the sun, and he smelled. And he was as rare as a circus sideshow in that city full of clean healthy people. But nobody seemed surprised or offended by him and he sold the used papers easily for whatever small coin he was handed. When he'd wandered out of earshot, his closest customer to us explained, with a smile and without being asked, that he was crazy.
        Back at home in Vedado, we mentioned the guy and were treated to a litany of hearsay. Though I'd seen no sign of anything like classified ads in any of the papers we bought, the housekeeper said notices were sometimes placed in the papers by people looking for a lost relative with Alzheimer's. Esperanza informed us a little prissily that some supposedly good people who kept their senile grandparents at home to commandeer their ration books then ignored the old people and didn't care if they wandered off.
        We grasped the chance to talk about beggers, since, leaving out the little boys whose friends had told them foolish tourists would give them money if they asked for it, we were being accosted in that huge city by about one begger a day. Esperanza, after being lengthily indignant about the little boys, told us the beggers were lazy people who just don't want to work. The housekeeper said they were probably drunkards or the wives of drunkards who spent every centavo they had for rum.
        Next day I think Matilda hung around the apartment and neighborhood resting, while I spied on more of Havana, and then early the following morning, after reserving our space at Esperanza's home for another 3 days when we got back and stowing some excess weight in one of her closets, we drove out into the rest of Cuba in a brand X Japanese car just big enough to have a back seat (for hitchhikers) and a trunk that tightly squeezed in our two backpacks. Matilda was a good map-reader and co-pilot, but searching for the eastern city exit, before she'd spotted our left turn-off from a long crooked line she thought was still Calle Infanta onto Via Blanca, we were swept by traffic across it and into a barren gray thicket of raw concrete institutional apartment buildings of the depressing kind that US TV news shows everywhere in the Middle East.
        Turning as quickly as I could into a nameless traffic-free side canyon and almost losing my sense of direction following Matilda's somewhat map-based guesses around a block that wasn't exactly a square block to get back on track, except for some flashy pedestrians, I saw little sign of color there and subjectively filed the neighborhood with Habana Vieja and Centro as (on the surface at least) a high-rise slum.
        Back on the right map-line and being pushed by a honking tailgating truck faster than I wanted to go, I thought outloud that I wanted to explore that neighborhood later. The world always proving larger than expected, plans like that made while zipping through its enormity are often left behind, but Matilda searched the map, which was not very clearly detailed or posted away from the center, found (a couple of inches away) a possibly relevant regional label, Diez de Octubre, and suggested it could be reached again by hiking the street that might still be Infanta out that far.
        Thanks to the truck, a traffic cop (the last we'd see until we reached Santiago) standing by his parked motorcycle at what looked like the city limits waved me (but not the truck) to the shoulder and cited me for speeding before I got past him. Apparently, stepping on it after I'd passed his position would be alright. The citation was a note made on my car rental contract, to be dealt with when I turned in the car. I assumed our brown tourist plates were a flag that had probably arroused his attention the way a red cape supposedly arrouses bulls, so I mentioned the truck, not to complain but just to talk to him.
        Actually far from bullish, the guy was slender and carried neither a gun nor an attitude. He didn't even deliver a cop lecture and only wagged a finger side to side playfully in reference to the honking speeding truck, so I asked him about our seat belts (which we weren't wearing) and showed him our map, which he wasn't familiar with. He told me buckling up was required but treated as optional, and once I'd shown him where we were on the map, he pronounced it generally inaccurate but OK for our route, pointed out a large park-like circle ahead that we'd need to go part-way around before turning right to continue on the Via Blanca which he traced with his finger the rest of our way to the north coastal highway east.
        That worked, and the city and its traffic evaporated with no sign of any edge-of-town shanties and we folded the clumsy city map and switched to a beautiful and colorful, slightly fanciful but accurate enough island map booklet I'd bought at the Tienda el Navigante on Mercederes Street in Habana Vieja (Guia de Carreteras, 1999, tercera edition: 2000, hecho en Mexico by Editorial Limusa), which I've used ever since. I also had a stapled sheaf of essential pages including small city maps cut from David Stanley's 1997 Lonely Planet Cuba Guide - one of the best books ever written about Cuba but most of which I'd left in Esperanza's closet.
        Turning off at Santa Maria del Mar, we followed beach-front streets along the white beach I'd hiked to Guanabo in '89, but the coast was foggy and deserted and when we parked and walked over to the clear and near surfless sea, the sand that seeped into our shoes was even a little cold at that hour of the morning. Some eating places were open but lonely, and we decided to hold off on breakfast until we got to Matanzas, squeezed back into the car, and continued along the coastal highway between the turqoise gulf and low inland hills as green as the pages of our map book, though mostly just tall grass and brush and a few small woods and not really tropical except for some gracefully scattered tall palms. Along one brief stretch, maybe 3/4 of the way to Matanzas, there were some oil wells and what looked to my layman's eye like a refinery.
        Blocked by the wide-open mouth of a large bay, the road turned suddenly away from the coast and into the heart of Matanzas, an old port city that smacked a bit of colonial Maryland. We rattled across the mouth of the Yumuri River over an ancient bridge, and then three walled-in blocks as tight as a musket barrel shot us into an elegant little government square, where we could have parked in front of the high porch of a handmade book publisher, an art gallery, and a saloon with batwing doors, if there'd been space to park.
        But we'd suddenly exchanged the quiet coastal highway for the downtown traffic and parking snarl of a miniature metropolis. So I double parked long enough to be directed two blocks up Calle 85, a narrow main-street crevice, to a reportedly OK parking space behind a cathedral, where an opportunistic old man supplementing his pension assured us we could legally and safely leave the car in his care.
        Since we were in Cuba, not Guatemala or New York, we did that without fear and walked, close to the wall to keep from being run over, back to the saloon, which looked like a place Gary Cooper could have gotten off his horse and strode into and ordered a whiskey, but which was crowded inside mainly with international motorists (from everywhere but the United States until we arrived) on their way to Varadero Beach who, just like in El Rapido, were eating ham and cheese sandwiches with coffee, Tropicola or Bucanero beer.
        Since then, that porch has been reconfigured to make space for a much larger more open cafe, where Cuban diners outnumber tourists and they serve the best hamburgers in the world. But in 2000, Matilda and I enjoyed what then may have been the best ham and cheese sandwiches in Cuba, took a much needed coffee hit, used the bathroom, which, since I don't remember it, must have been OK, and went next door to look at handmade books.
        The products of Ediciones Vigia tempted me a lot more than the paintings on Obispo Street. These were VERY limited editions of less than 200 copies each, ranging from original Cuban children's books to world classics lovingly put together in front of our eyes by an assembly line of sensitive women's hands. The covers tended to be ornate, some to the point of fluffy, and I didn't buy a book, not to avoid offending the US State Department, but because it couldn't have survived in my backpack.
        Old Matanzas's slightly high-rise center is caught beween two rivers crossed by several spectacular old bridges, the most startling, right next to the Vigia porch, being the direct route out and onward. But, guided by our tiny Lonely Planet city map, we decided to detour up a riverfront street that followed the busy Rio San Juan along the edge of the center to another upriver bridge by an outdoor mercado. But just as the upriver bridge appeared, we were haled by a beautiful black teenager striding along beside our car in a cool white dress, who told us in perfect English that we couldn't go that way; the street was a dead end. It went to the bridge but not up onto it.
        ""Where do you come from that you know so much about Matanzas?"
        "Matanzas," she laughed.
        "Where did you learn your English?"
        "In the school." Using the word the was her first slip-up.
I told her not many kids learn to actually speak a foreign language in school and she agreed but informed me with perfect certainty that, in her case, she was going to be a teacher. Then, as if to prove it, she explained our route so clearly and exactly that I asked her if she regularly drove her own car that way. No, she smiled happily, like most Cubans, her family didn't have a car.
        Her directions took us back, up, left, left again across the river over a bridge orientally jammed with trucks, cars, pedestrians and horse-drawn carts, south with the flow to the provincial (not the national) bus depot, then left again through a sprawling one-story residential grid that reminded me of south-side La Paz in Baja, and directly out onto the now relatively peaceful shore-line highway that circled the bay and headed us east again. The bridge had been so exciting we forgot to notice the riverside mercado.
        Leaving the bay area, our colorful map book warned us the north-coastal yellow ribbon we were on was about to become a bright red-outlined green stripe - an autopista - a freeway straight to the Varadero Beach peninsula, which wasn't on our agenda because we'd heard it was nothing but a Club-Med type tourist ghetto. That's not true, but it's what we'd heard. So we forked right on a more discreetly red-bordered yellow ribbon that started us across the map by country roads toward the Bay of Pigs on the Caribbean coast.
        Before leaving San Diego, I'd consulted some Cuban Friendship Society members who'd been past Havana, one who'd worked in the canefields, a pair who'd gone overland to Santiago in a taxi, and a couple who'd ridden their bikes to the Bay of Pigs, lodging in homes along the way. From them, the map store, the car rental office, and Lonely Planet, I'd derived hope that even the simple red lines impressionistically drawn in my cartoonish new map book, or at least the broadest of them, represented driveable roads.
        There's a freeway for much of the way up and down the middle of the island, but to get the most panoramic view of Cuba we could while we had the car, our plan was to zigzag the byways for five days back and forth across the island, from coast to coast to coast to coast and finally along the foot of the Sierra Maestra to Santiago, where we'd turn in the car and spend a week. And we'd look as we drove for a good midway place to train or bus back to for another week before returning to Havana.
        Because life is painted on a canvas of space and time, besides studying history and maps before leaving home, I always spend part of my travel like a German tour group, trying to literally survey both the geography and infrastructure as if I meant to buy the place I'm looking at. If I could, I'd like to drive or bicycle or walk every road and street and path in the world, constantly slowing down and stopping to take a trillion closer looks until I had the whole world's surface memorized.
        Cuba is about the same length as California though only a third as wide, tapering at one end and bulging at the other, shaped like a leaping whale. At the western tail end, there are semi-wild green hills, woods, and open brushland. At the eastern head are the lonely mountains where the revolution began and some beautiful jungle. But the arching body, the center, is mostly as flat and agricultural and densely populated as California's Central Valley.
        We were in the center. The only drama the land had offered since Havana had been the coastline and some uplands, not highlands, and As we turned away from the coast and across the middle, the land got quite flat.
        The road was good and mostly ours, but I couldn't drive fast, because, just often enough to keep re-surprising my brake foot, we came up behind horse-drawn vehicles or old cars creeping along to save gas and tires. We met no cows in the road that day, as I always do in Nicaragua, and the pastured goats we saw didn't seem inclined to jump their fences. But as the number of small farm towns increased, so did roadside pedestrians.
        People walking along the road are ubiquitous in Latin America. But, while mainland pedestrians range from stylish girls you can't believe stepped out of dirt-floored shanties to ragged wretches with ruined and blackened bare feet bent under loads like human trucks, in the Cuban countryside, all the people we saw walking between the small towns looked healthy and were dressed at least as well as middle class Americans dress to travel, and we saw no beauties stepping out of shanties because we kept seeing no inhabited shanties.
        You might have thought you did, if you consider small houses poor, but I live in a small apartment I consider nicer than your big house, and Matilda and I had also seen thousands of real shanties and even briefly lived in a few. We had the experience to know we still weren't seeing the poverty American media always rave about.
        In or near the town of Jovellanos, we knew we had to turn off our yellow ribbon and thread our way through a network of simple red lines that confusingly straddled a page break in our map book. So, in the middle of town, I slowed to a hesitant crawl to watch for an intersection sign, while Matilda studied the disconnected map pages for names that might be on just such a theoretical (i.e. non-existent) sign.
        Our mini-drama must have been a familiar replay there or just easy to read by one of the men in a street corner conversation group who grabbed his pack, abandoned his friends, and flagged us down. He wanted to go south, too, and offered to guide us in exchange for a ride. He was clean and polite, so we accepted his offer and he squeezed into the back seat and became immediately helpful, since it took a little extra exploring just to get out of Jovellanos and on our new way, which, either because our guide knew all the right turns or because Cuba has a lot of good roads, was all reasonably well paved.
        Our passenger was a secondary English teacher (in the foreign language department) with a strong interest in American literature, but the Jack London book he'd most recently read had a Spanish title I couldn't relate to any London title I could think of.
        He confirmed that the bulb-top towers we saw were indeed elevated water tanks, a necessity in populated flatlands everywhere, and he neatly printed in my notebook that the acronym UBPC on the gates of country driveways meant Union Basica Productiva Campesina, indicating these farms were some of the cooperatives they'd broken large state farms into in the 90's, trying to achieve greater efficiency.
        He was going to visit his daughter who was living at a country boarding school near Jaguey Grande. It was barely off our route, so we took him to the front gate.
        Crossing the freeway dividing Jaguey Grande from Australia, we saw a lot of hitch-hikers on both sides of it, headed east or west but none on our cross route. We wanted to carry hitch-hikers, because I'd learned a lot about Nicaragua by informally contributing my car to the rural transit system there. But on our indirect route, we hadn't seen any so far except the high school teacher.
        Australia was a broad scatter of homes with no visible center. A few pedestrians pointed us through it, and we drove on south through a vast mangrove swamp that explained why the CIA and the Contras of '61, the misguided would-be liberators of Cuba, had wrongly picked the Bay of Pigs as a safely remote invasion point.
        At Playa Giron, on the south coast, we found a nondescript bedroom community where my bicycling friends and another couple I knew from San Diego had found rooms in private homes, a cabin hotel asking $68 a night, what looked like a gated campground, a lot of sand, and a gas station, where we filled up and learned the gas gage needle we'd been told was wrong wasn't wrong. The tank had been as low as the needle said when we got it. I got out the rental contract and noted, next to the motorcycle cop's citation, the miles we'd driven to there and the amount of gas I'd just bought.
        A lonely but very good red-line road turned east there and then bounced briefly away from the coast through pastures and low hills, passing several dairy farms and some small towns, each with a water tower, that lacked only Coca Cola and neon motel signs to look like California in the 50's, and then coastward again to join the main street of Cienfuegos, "the pearl of the south," located on a land-locked Caribbean bay as big inside as a small sea with one narrow virtually hidden entrance, a pirate hide-out or a place to hide a Spanish town from pirates in the days of Henry Morgan, a Russian sub base more recently, now the city of the beautiful poster we'd seen at the Intur booth in Habana Vieja and our destination for the first night of our drive. We arrived in the early afternoon.
        El Prado, the Main Street of Cienfuegos, is a broad avenue divided by a center-strip park with statues, walkways and benches, not as crowded as El Prado in Havana, because the small trees aren't as shady and it's hot, and not as spectacular because the buildings on each side are lower with less ornate balconies. But it's neat, clean, and straight and, like the whole pastel colored city, well-lit by the open sky.
        Air-conditioned by the sea breeze, relaxingly simple with all the streets going straight east and west or straight north and south, Cienfuegos is a strikingly pretty and pleasant city. At the center, prominent signs point east to the train and bus stations and west to Parque Marti through a crowded shopping promenade - an airy, sunny street closed to traffic like San Rafael and Obispo in Havana.
        We followed El Prado across the downtown to the southside, where it becomes a malecon between a long stretch of sparkling bay front and a big green sports park. Spaced out on the parkside are a few walk-through fast-food restaurants, including a big and busy El Rapido with a lot of outdoor tables, and the bay side features a mile-long elbow-high wall to sit or lean on where crowds of teenagers congregate.
        All the way through town and along the malecon, we were accompanied on both sides by bicycling boys offering to lead us to houses with rooms to rent. To put them off, we claimed we wanted to see the hotel Jagua first, so they followed us and waited outside as we toured the Batista-era blockhouse at the end of the street on Punta Gorda, actually a short peninsula that seems, when you're on it, to divide the bay in half.
        As expected, the hotel was too expensive, but we found the upstairs view we'd seen on the poster and a cafeteria-style lobby dining room offering a healthy fruit and egg breakfast we decided to try next morning, and by the time we emerged only one patient bicycling boy remained, simplifying our life as we followed him up a short side street to a California tract-style bungalow with a fenced in parking place half occupied by a well preserved '57 Chevi.
        Putting first things first, our host opened the hood to show us the clean original stove-bolt engine surrounded by lots of elbow space and told us about the local fabrica where they made parts for cars like his. He said he'd grown up in the house with a large upper-class family, and long ago, after the revolution, when most of the family left for Florida, he, one brother and his father had stayed on, because they liked what was happening and, since then, the revolution had treated them fairly.
       After the kitchen table ceremony that always starts a stay in a casa particular, to record passport numbers and sign the register and chat a bit about the services and rules of the house and about nearby resources, we secured a card for the card collection we were starting, deposited our backpacks in two very American looking bedrooms with a shared bathroom between them and then walked back to the other side of Hotel Jagua to explore the beautiful point shown on the poster.
        Punta Gorda is one narrow street between the western bay and a row of mostly large wooden Victorian castles with their back doors facing the eastern bay. The street leads to a small triangular park at the tip, with a gazebo and a tiny beach frequented by local swimmers and fishermen.
        The smallest house on the street, a one-story on a narrow lot a little over glorified by a columned front porch, had a front-yard sign proclaiming it to be Ana's Hospedaje, so we talked to the two women sitting on the porch, Ana herself and Anola, whose friends called her La Chinita, she said, because she had almond eyes. It was Ana's house, where she'd grown up and, after a busy revolutionary life, had retired, but she shared it with Anola, the head and only housekeeper and Anola's man, Rafael, who maintained everything.
        They showed us the house, a not quite straight walkthrough from bayfront to backbay under a high open ceiling, with a row of bedrooms and a kitchen on one side and on the other a large living/dining room and a lush, partly enclosed patio, probably built as a simple beach house in the 19th or early 20th century not for show by an archetect but to be lived in by an individual with taste. The furniture was coincidental, the floors honorably aged, the kitchen ancient and dark, the plumbing uncertain, and the whole incredibly comfortable. We fell in love with it, so we took a card from Ana and told her that, if we decided to come back to Cienfuegos for a week, we'd call from Santiago.
        It was two kilometers in the hot sun back up the malecon to the center, but we walked it, resting on the wall halfway. Two boys we met on the shopping promenade, known locally as el bulivar, led us to a downtown paladar, a dining room restaurant in a casa particular, a private house, hard to spot from the street, where we had filletes de pargo (red snapper), a complex though mostly cucumber salad, our first delicious Mayabe beer and a long, certainly taboo-free, but not very deep conversation with our chatty hostess.
        Matilda and I did most of our Cuba analyzing privately between ourselves. When talking to Cubans, unless politics came up, which it did because we were Americans and everyone feared that our repressive government would punish us for going there, we just talked, seldom actually interviewing anyone. It's a slow way to absorb information, but more effective than a reporter's procedure, because people spoke more naturally to us. We found few Cubans shy about any subject, though quite a few declared themselves apolitical.
        We walked to Parque Marti, as grand a plaza as any central park in the world, and then back through el bulivar, where we finally met the only two cops we'd seen so far in the city. Only one of them, the older of the two, had a gun.
        At the same time, we also saw our second Cuban street person, a miraculously dirty old man sitting on the sidewalk. So we asked the cops how he could be there in socialist Cuba.
        "You can be sure," the older cop told us, "that someone is responsible for him."
        ""But to get that dirty," I protested, "he' s got to have been on the streets for months - at least!" I was thinking maybe years.
        The cop told us that, nevertheless, mental health authorities didn't want cops to bother such people unless they were a threat, and "This man is not harming anyone."
        I thought the guy was a threat to Cuba's reputation because, you can count on it, tourists who overlook as irrelevant the ragged crazy beggars and run-away youth they keep tripping over on all their own downtown sidewalks, if they see one street person a week in Cuba, will immediately memorize the sighting as proof of the failure of communism.
        As for us, we still weren't clearly seeing communism. We knew what it was and that, with some obvious exceptions, it really was generally there behind the country's face, but what dismayed us was that the face was, nevertheless, so ordinary. We weren't at all surprised to find the US media description to be a lie, but we were surprised, Matilda newly and I freshly, to find Cuba so ordinary. We were even deciding Cuba was not a good tourist destination because of the absence of exotic experiences to be had. Except that, while absent things don't make good photo subjects, the absence of street people, beggars, shanties, and oppressive police had to be proof of the success of something going on behind Cuba's face.
        Of course, we knew that, in a way, we were making the same mistake most tourists make. We were counting street people (2 so far). We were counting cops, hustlers, classic car owners, inn keepers, waiters, souvenir sellers, people who worked in the tourist sector and people who sought us out. We were not counting the people who ignored us. We weren't counting the people who simply lived in their homes, went to work every day to produce the goods and services everyone needed, sat in front of their TV sets at night and then went quietly to bed.
        I once met, back in the 80's, a probably unusual man on a remote wave-battered jungle shoreline in Nicaragua, whom I wouldn't have met or even noticed in the small port several miles north where I was staying and he lived, because, in my limited perspective, most natives were just extras who inhabited the backdrop of Nicaraguan huts and shanties and adobe cubicles. Maybe I had seen him without seeing him. But that day, at least a two-hour wilderness hike south of town, I met him with his small son, both of them barefoot on a barnacle covered half-submerged sea-ledge. He had a bowl a knife and a fork and a bag of limes and was showing his son how to find and dig edible crustacions out of crevices, shell them and make and eat instant very fresh ceviche on the spot. We talked and I learned that, like me, he'd done some low budget traveling. He told me he'd once visited my hometown, which was San Diego then. Of course, he hadn't met my neighbors, who spent their days at work and their evenings in their apartments watching TV or gossiping about sports on our shared patio. He'd only seen San Diego as a third-class tourist and, as politely as he could, he told me he hadn't liked the place at all, because there were too many beggars there.
        Next morning, about an hour out of Cienfuegos driving east along an unexciting coast, we came to Trinidad, puffed by tourist guides as an unspoiled colonial village - one of the three most obvious scenic cliches we'd seen in the Havana art galleries. We parked between two giant busses and joined a thousand tourists spoiling the colonial village.
        White was the place's color scheme, and a white-clad couple were staging a colonial wedding in the square for the tourists' cameras.
        An old man found us in the crowd and offered to show us his house. It was a tight slot behind a white colonial wall, but solid and clean with a modern enough bathroom, which he assured us that he and his politely dignified wife would use and then clean up for us early every morning while we were sleeping in. The price was reasonable and there was a little house-silhouette sign on the wall outside proving they were licensed. We thanked them and told them we weren't sure we were staying in Trinidad yet but we'd remember the place, and we took their card.
        We found ourselves strolling about with the other tourists, peering at the old stone streets, at the colonial buildings, and at nic-nacs in the boutiques that spoiled some of the colonial interiors.
        In one such crowded boutique, a well dressed young Cubana nudged me and asked for money to buy a bar of soap. I told her she looked very clean and smelled very nice and seemed smart enough not to waste money buying household supplies for the high prices they were charging tourists in that shop.
        "Ya-ta-ta. Ya-ta-ta," she said and disappeared.
        Finding the cashier leaning on her elbows, I asked if Cubans ever shopped there.
        "Don't pay any attention to that woman," she told me. "She's a fool."
        I won't say Trinidad was not as interesting as it's hyped to be, but there were too many other tourists there that day and rising crowd-phobia finally drove us back to our car where we asked a tired looking but carefully polite parking guard how he liked living in the midst of such an avalanche of foreigners. He soberly explained that everyone knew that the tourists brought in money to buy things the island didn't produce and to build better houses for people who needed them.
        He also told us all the big busses he was guarding would leave town going east or west, so we went north up a steep winding untraveled road over the Sierra del Escambray, a local pocket mountain range and unsung revolutionary front, our eventual destination another reputedly colonial town on the other side of the island which the guidebook said tourists didn't know about yet.
        Halfway up the grade, sensing that our little car was huffing and puffing, we pulled off to rest it at a lonely outdoor bar - just a bar - no walls or tables just a bar by itself on a jutting jungle cliffside viewpoint, which was so pleasant compared to Trinidad that we stopped awhile and chatted and shared his open breeze and wide view of the sea with the lonely bartender. He told us we were climbing toward Topes de Collante, an uncrowded mountain pass boasting a camp ground, a health spa, a hotel built by the Russians, and a rustic village famous among Cubans for being cool.
        So, though we hated to do it to the car, we kept climbing until we found the village, which was, as advertised, small, and at least somewhat cool, though barely 2000 feet up and nestled in a valley among hilltops of not much more than 3000 feet. The resort area was dominated by a huge black building, either the hotel or the spa, which was ugly as sin, but the pass, the valley, and the hilltops were covered with tropical rainforest so beautiful that, just before the road tipped down again, we parked to walk a bit in the shade and take some pictures of the tree-ferns.
        A man who saw us from the porch of his cabin almost hidden by trees in a dell below us hiked up just to ask what country we came from and assure us that we could safely explore Cuban forests because, he said, there are no poisonous snakes or insects or dangerous animals on the island. Being happy we didn't have to climb through any barbwire or defy any no tresspassing signs to step off the road, I asked if we were on his land. He told me it was everyone's land, and he welcomed us on behalf of Cuba, so we stayed and strolled for awhile in the breezy shade.
        On the north side of the pass, we dropped gradually through an Oz-like country side of woods, fields and pastures, scattered houses and barns. We were still seeing no shanties, but some houses had grass rooves, and we saw a couple of barns that looked to be made of grass. It looked like a good peaceful place for Trinidadians to take a vacation from their hectic life, and, passing through another tiny village at Lake Hanabanilla, a fisherman's mecca according to the viewpoint bartender, we looked for a hotel for them but didn't spot one.
        We kept dropping until we came inevitably out of the pretty wooded hills and back onto the hot central plains again. Some historic accounts claim that before wholesale European business, including the lumber business, came, right on the heels of Colombus, Cuba wasn't mainly just hot bushy grassland, and here and there, isolated on the rolling plain, a single giant shade tree streamed vines as if it had once had company. In the towns, there were trees clustered like oases, sometimes even slightly beautifying the ugly low-rise apartment buildings that must have been considered the quickest way to provide civilized viviendas (living spaces) for everyone.
        There were only a few crops visible from the road around those towns and a few goats and some bony cattle we thought may have been the imported Canadian milkers we'd heard of that turned out to be unable to stand the tropics. From an agricultural point of view, the land seemed generally unused, though a lot of wild grass and bushes occupied it happily enough.
        We crossed the central freeway again, and, entering the hot but apparently clean and orderly suburbs of Santa Clara, we were met by a boy on a bicycle offering to guide us to a home with rooms to rent. But our reluctant departure from Cienfuegos, our over exposure to Trinidad, and our ramble in the cool high jungle had begun to wear out the day, so I told the boy that we were looking for the turn-off to Remedios.
        "Cierrto," he said and motioned us to follow him, whereupon, apparently undaunted by the heat, he pedaled furiously ahead of us along a fairly straight and unobstructed detour route to the right maybe half the length of the city's south side, then to the left maybe half the zigzag length of the city's east side, and deposited us in short order and very exactly at the Remedios exit. The tip Matilda gave him was governed by what change she had handy, and she said she was ashamed of it.
        We got to Remedios with ample daylight left to tour it in the car and decide it wasn't as colonial as billed. But while we were touring, a large German tourist regiment advanced on and occupied the town's only spanking new decidedly NON-colonial hotel, leaving us only one tiny room, which we'd already accepted and paid for when, on our way out to dinner, we met a home-owner who showed us his better and cheaper plaza-front rooms, about 100 yards away. He clearly wasn't licensed. He just wanted in on the tourist trade, which was the government's idea, after all.
        While we dined on ham and cheese sandwiches at the sidewalk counter of a plaza-side El Rapido, I asked about secure parking for the car and, though everyone there was sure it would be perfectly safe at the curb, a friend of the house rode with me to an enclosed lot a block away. As we started walking back, all the town's lights went out, and it occurred to me to worry about Matilda, but I found her still safe and well attended in the warm darkness at the outdoor counter, where she'd added several new proposals to her growing list.
        I didn't know if a marriage proposal is part of the Cuban line, if gringa tourists are viewed as potential tickets to Miami, if Matilda looked like some au courant Cuban movie star, or if her quiet intelligence and olive complexion just struck an island chord. She wasn't blonde, the characteristic guaranteed to stun Latin American males, but she was certainly a lot more popular than me. Unlike in 1989, when I'd been a mere 11 years younger, in 2000, roving bands of Cuban girls were not trying to pick me up.
        Remedios's main feature, we decided, was tranquility. The girl at the hotel desk told us we should have gone on another 5 miles to Caibarién, where she proudly lived, where there were more hotels and more rooms for rent in houses, better restaurants, a beach, a beautiful malecon, and even a disco.
        She was definitely biased. We slow-buzzed her hometown next morning, before heading east along the north coast, and found it to be the tackiest small city we'd so far seen in Cuba, though maybe - once the eye of the beholder got to know it - it was just beach-town laid-back, while otherwise just as wonderful as she claimed. I've lived in two somewhat shabby California beach towns that it wouldn't occur to me to describe as third-world, and though a probably modern Caibarién street of cement cube houses and apartment buildings struck me as neglected by the revolution, a probably very old and sandy neighborhood of familiar wooden bungalows offended me not at all. The place was just a little too big to explore in an hour, but it was a big enough city to have had an obvious shanty-slum periphery in any other Latin American country, and it didn't.
        Not too far east, we found the only dirt-floored shanties we saw in Cuba in 2000, an attached row of hutches on a beach actually labeled as a hotel near a rambling but vacant spa on a pier, the whole shebang called Playa Vitoria on our map, the beach "hotel" as bad as the worst such nightmares I've seen in Mexico, but it all looked abandoned and in the process of biodegrading (rather than lying in wait for summer), and we hoped it represented nothing more recent than a Batista era concept of a blue-collar vacation dream.
        Between there and Moron, the road followed but hung well back from the low coast that fronts on the famous maze of sports fiishing keys where Hemingway fished for German submarines during WWII. People there may have lived off the Gulf stream, but we were seeing goat ranches, dairies, small scale agriculture, undeveloped grassland, and small, proudly pretty towns, one of which met us with a huge Bienvenidos sign urging us to stop and be impressed.
        Turning right at the Moron traffic circle, we picked up two girls who'd been waiting for a bus but, seeing a car, extended their arms to 8 o'clock and waggled their fingers. They lived in Moron and were only going about 20 miles south across a flat green countryside to visit relatives in Ciego de Avila, which we bypassed on a neat and efficient periferico and turned left toward Camaguey on the central Highway, which at this point had not yet become a freeway and passed very personally through several tiny unlabeled neighborhoods and through the heart of the big modern small town of Florida, which, with its central gas station, could have easily passed for a prosperous 50's California town.
        Because Lonely Planet warned us that Camaguey was a puzzling labyrinth, we followed its partial periferico to the north side and entered on a straight and simple main Avenida with several consecutive names wnich, finally, as Avenida Republica, took us with no further trickery to the front door of Hotel Colon, an elaborate old European style inn for $18 a night (in 2000) that had been recommended to us as both picturesque and comfortable and easy to reach and leave, though right on the edge of the famous colonial maze, supposedly built for the unlikely purpose of confusing 15th century pirates expected to tramp 50 miles inland to sack the rich Spanish city.
        After checking into a small room made smaller by the recent installation of a small modern bathroom, we again stowed the car in a close-by enclosed and guarded parking lot, and risked getting lost by walking into the maze, which was a little like a colonial old-town park and a little like a small slice of downtown San Francisco - more cosmopolitan than Habana Vieja. It didn't really seem maze-like, because the streets were too wide, too well skylit, and not crooked enough, we judged, ever to have fooled Henry Morgan.
        Nevertheless, exploring this way and that, it was in spite of our map that we finally discovered the local Casa de la Trova, facing a park that popped up out of nowhere.
        It was mid-afternoon, hours before showtime, but inside the otherwise empty club, we met four musicians - a maracca shaker, a drummer, a guitarist, and another guitarist who only strummed now and then and may have been a little tipsy. In a circle of fold-open chairs, they were practicing together or just enjoying each other's musical company but were ready and willing to provide a private concert for two tourists. Another three band members were still at their day jobs, so we were invited to use their chairs to join the circle.
        So, for an hour or so, we alternated between talking with them about regional life and music and listening to them play and sing hot new son and old-time trova. I have a small collection of Cuban CD's and know a few lyrics, so I asked if they knew what I call "the tree song," a musical children's tale, which, through poetic ambiguity, softly spotlights a profoundly romantic dimension of male/female interdependency. When I sang a line, they told me the song is called "Que Has Hecho?" (what have you done?), that everyone knows it, and that I should sing it with them. While we were singing, the other guitarist proposed to Matilda.
        Back outside, we weren't sure which way to go, so, when a sudden spring rain struck the sidewalk, we dodged with a dozen other pedestrians into a small post office lobby on a pie-wedge corner with big windows and a sheltered view of three rainy streets. Of course, as soon as they saw us trying to find that corner on our tiny city map, locals renewing acquaintances, and discussing the weather around us competed to give us directions, though all we needed to know was which street went straightest to Avenida Republica. We weren't lost.
        Next morning we unwound our way out of Camaguey back onto the highway and headed for the historic Sierra Maestra mountains.
        At Las Tunas, a small pretty city 75 miles east of Camaguey, the way through Cuba stops being simple. From the western tip to there, the new main highway, much of it freeway, neatly (except for the confusion of Havana) slices up and over and down the island's inland center, roughly paralleled all the way by the more meandering old main highway that often follows the north coast. But beyond Las Tunas, the island's head spreads out, the terrain varies more, destinations are widely scattered, and the ways to go scatter to find them.
        Since 2000, I've gotten familiar with the way east to Holguin and from there either north to Gibara or south to Santiago or northeast to Guardalavaca and Banes or east to Mayari and on to remote Moa at the island's northeast corner and then south through Baracoa around the eastern tip and back west through Guantanamo to Santiago.
        In 2000, in the rent-a-car with Matilda, was the only time I've ever been south from Las Tunas to Bayamo, west to Manzanillo, then, circling the mountains, south and east again along the foot of the coastal escarpment to Santiago, and a few days later in Santiago, I was destined to lose a notebook and, with it, a measure of specific memory of the route.
        But I remember hours of recently cut sugarfields where they were burning the stubble, the smoke everywhere coloring the sky, the land, and a large seasonally vacant cane-cutters' camp flat and dreary. I remember crossing the wide green delta of the Rio Cauto under a brilliant blue sky, where we saw rice paddies, and gradually climbing the wooded foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where any coffee trees we passed must have been hidden in the shade of larger trees protecting them from the sun.
        In the center of extra-pretty Bayamo, a tall cartoon sign bristled with arrows pointing to everywhere else, but the tour busses hadn't found Bayamo, where we were the only strangers in sight. There was a 2-for-1 ice cream sale at the park that day and we saw Cubans all around us with a cone in each hand, and Kids were riding around and around the park in little carts pulled by goats. I know the town is historic, but it looked virtually all new.
        There's a direct road east from Bayamo to Santiago, but, with no hitchhiking guides to help us, because we didn't see anyone hitchiking when we left town, we struck out to the west through the woods on a network of country roads so disconnected we had to stop at every intersection to either find a local person to point the way or flip a coin. I don't remember passing Yara, the jump-off for pilgramages to Fidel's 50's guerrilla camp on Mt. Turquino, so we must have gone the wrong way, but we made it through to Manzanillo, on the coast of a big gulf Americans have never heard of, the Gulf of Guacanayabo.
        Manzanillo, the hometown of Celia Sanchez, Fidel's guerrilla girlfriend, though one more city we drove through and around without seeing any shanty slums, is nevertheless a homely place, industrial, wooden, weathered, paintless, mostly tree-free. But we saw several new housing tracts there which, though laid out in uniform rows of identical units like army camps, were plastered and painted bright white, and we wished them some future landscaping. It's at least a clean city, Manzanillo, and, except for the smells you expect in the home port of a large fishing fleet, the coastal air was fresh and flowing.
        Most Latin American cities are bulldozed places surrounded by the unbulldozed beauty of what's left of the real world (undeveloped your realtor friends might say), and we were soon back in the beautiful undeveloped woods. There are pictures in Che's book of war memoirs showing horribly poor peasant bohios in that area, and maybe Florida gusanos desperate to prove their favorite myth can still hike way off the road, find, and take a picture of such a place to post on the net to bullshit the world, but we continued seeing no such thing, instead passing through a series of small towns as pretty as Bayamo or any California beach resort.
        Growing road-weary, eight miles south of Media Luna, not far from the coast where most of Fidel's invading revolutonary force died virtually in the act of landing in 1956, we decided to shorten our journey and cut across the foothills from the Gulf to Pilon on the Caribbean coast, where we suddenly found all the tourists and all their busses again.
        After being turned away from two jammed hotels, hot and tired and longing for rest, we had to drive another 10 miles east to lonely Punta Piedra, where we stumbled on an empty modern cabin hotel and rented a slick little two-bedroom casita for $25, right on the rocks of course, and went wading, just us and the crabs, before eating I can't remember what, maybe shrimp, in a slick cafeteria, very modern and clean, also right on the rocks, which we shared only with a squadron of persistent flies.
        On the last morning of our 5-day drive, we had bravely intended to maybe climb Mt. Turquino, but having seen how steeply the mountains rise from the sea there, we were actually relieved to be advised that we couldn't do it. It would take all day to go up and down, if it didn't rain, which it might, and we'd be stopped, anyway, maybe not but probably, because we hadn't hired a Cuban guide in advance.
        In fact, a road construction project prevented our even stopping in the vicinity of the trailhead. So we settled for a stroll in Uvero, the scene of Fidel's first publicized military victory, now just a pretty little town.
        We carried an old fisherman who told us we were there on a no fishing day. Fishing was permitted on only certain days each week on that coast, he said, because catches had been low and the government wanted to give the fish a chance to recover. We also carried a singer on her way to a gig at what looked like a tourist resort but which she said was only for the families of Cubans who'd won their vacations there by being exemplary workers. She sang "Que Has Hecho" for us a cappela.
        It was still morning when we saw Santiago and spotted our second highway patrolman, the first we'd seen since the motorcycle cop who'd cited us for speeding at the edge of Havana. Seeing him from afar, we'd slowed down to school zone speed by the time he flagged down our brown tourist plate and a bit officiously told us we had to slow down in the city. Sensing that he was trying to confuse us into accepting a citation, I told him we knew that and that was why we'd already slowed down. He then waved us on, so maybe he routinely stopped all tourists just to issue a friendly reminder.
        Anyway, as we passed the cop and entered his hometown, another Cuban city with no shanty fringe at the edge, our 5-day drive was just about done and, though the account of it you've just read has not been deep, it has been wide and makes a couple of deep points I don't want you to miss.
        Though seemingly ununsuspected by any of the US wire services, newspaper editors or reporters, TV news shows, presidents, embassadors, CIA spooks, or other State Department officials, who apparently think Cuba is where Havana is and where the Castro brothers and a few harassed dissidents and ragged peasants live, there are, besides Havana and miles and miles of hill and dale and coasts and woods and farmlands (REALLY), 13 actual cities, 14 more fairly large towns (i.e. small cities), and several hundred other smaller towns big enough to be called towns in Cuba, all inhabited by several million people just going about their daily lives, virtually all looking, to us, based on the ample sample we'd scanned, more middle class than poor.
        Remember, I've seen lots of poverty, and I've learned that the most important dividing line between poverty and ordinary middle class life is the home. And though the Cuba we were seeing a lot of didn't look like the tract you may live in, it looked OK. New Cuban houses are small, less than 1000 square feet, older homes are bigger or smaller - whatever history made them - but even driving fast, and we weren't driving fast, you can tell the difference between shanties and houses with floors and rooves and electric wires, and what we saw was clearly the latter. We couldn't see everything from the road, but most towns and most small town neighborhoods are on the road and the road eventually passes a comprehensive sample of everything and we'd covered a lot of road. We'd covered so much road, in fact, that, by the time we got to Santiago, any really poor enclave we were still destined to see would have to be considered an aberration.
        After driving for 5 days from Havana, through Santa Maria del Mar, Guanabo, Matanzas, Guanabana, Limonar, Coliseo, Jovellanos, San Jose de Marcos, Jagua Grande, Australia, Playa Larga, Playa Giron, Horquitas, Yaguarama, Rodas, Ariza, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Topes de Collantes, Manicaragua, Matagua, Santa Clara, Camajuani, Remedios, Caibarien, Jaguajai, Simon Bolivar, Chambas, Falla, Moron, Ciego de Avila, Florida, Camaguey, Sibanicu, Cascorro, Marti, Guayimaro, Las Tunas, Bayamo, Manzanillo, Campechuela, Ceiba Hueca, San Ramon, Media Luna, Pilon, Uvero, and Chivirico, we arrived in Santiago, the island's second largest city.