Highway A Cross Section Of Cuba

A Chevy on the street in Havana. i i

hide captionA Chevy on the street in Havana.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
A Chevy on the street in Havana.

A Chevy on the street in Havana.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
An American car from the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution in the northern coastal town of Caibarien i i

hide captionAn American car from the 1950s in the northern coastal town of Caibarien before the Cuban Revolution. The U.S. trade embargo, which began in 1960, stopped almost all American car imports to the island. Cubans joke that '58 Oldsmobiles and '59 Packards are "new."

Jason Beaubien/NPR
An American car from the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution in the northern coastal town of Caibarien

An American car from the 1950s in the northern coastal town of Caibarien before the Cuban Revolution. The U.S. trade embargo, which began in 1960, stopped almost all American car imports to the island. Cubans joke that '58 Oldsmobiles and '59 Packards are "new."

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Rice farmers dry their crop. i i

hide captionRice farmers dry their crop on an empty main road in the Camaguey Province. These farmers are planting extra rice this year under a government program to hand underutilzed government land to private farmers and cooperatives.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Rice farmers dry their crop.

Rice farmers dry their crop on an empty main road in the Camaguey Province. These farmers are planting extra rice this year under a government program to hand underutilzed government land to private farmers and cooperatives.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
An ox cart. i i

hide captionAn ox cart rolls along the road in Sancti Spiritus province. As Cuba faces a shortage of spare parts and high fuel costs, more and more people on the island use oxen, horses and bicycles for transportation.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
An ox cart.

An ox cart rolls along the road in Sancti Spiritus province. As Cuba faces a shortage of spare parts and high fuel costs, more and more people on the island use oxen, horses and bicycles for transportation.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
In the city of Santa Clara, a Che Guevara billboard calls on Cubans to "continue your work." i i

hide captionIn the city of Santa Clara, a Che Guevara billboard calls on Cubans to "continue your work."

Jason Beaubien/NPR
In the city of Santa Clara, a Che Guevara billboard calls on Cubans to "continue your work."

In the city of Santa Clara, a Che Guevara billboard calls on Cubans to "continue your work."

Jason Beaubien/NPR

I had no intention of driving across Cuba. I had a one-week visa, and I didn't want to spend much of that time in a car. But in Cuba, sometimes what you want, what you counted on, what you demand isn't available.

The Spanish phrase no hay, meaning "there's no fill-in-the-blank," was a constant refrain on this trip.

No hay flights.

No hay rental cars.

No hay vegetables.

No hay fruit.

I flew into Havana and figured I'd catch a flight to the east of the island for the annual July 26 speech being delivered by President Raul Castro. But there were no flights and no bus seats left. So I decided to do the American thing and drive.

Except the rental car agencies had a shortage of road-worthy vehicles.

I ended up in a filthy Samsung sedan for more than a $100 a day. The trunk had been taped shut with packing tape, and the brakes squeaked horribly — but at least it ran.

I traveled to Holguin — the home province of the Castro brothers — with Nick Miroff, a reporter from GlobalPost. He brought an MP3 player loaded with Cuban music.

We rolled out of Havana onto Cuba's main highway, the Autopista Nacional, listening to Frank Delgado. The eight lanes of tarmac at times were completely empty — a testament to the transportation crisis facing the island.

At on-ramps and under the shade of bridges, hitchhikers frantically wave money at passing cars trying to get them to stop.

We picked up a woman, her grandson and two big bags of fruit. They'd been waiting in the sun for six and a half hours. A teenage girl was traveling by herself to the beach to escape her strict revolutionary father. She told us tales of Florida uncles who arrive each year bearing designer jeans and political arguments over the communist regime.

A crane operator said he dreams of emigrating to the Dominican Republic where he's heard he could earn 70 U.S. cents an hour.

In Cuba's state-controlled, Marxist economy, the black market is everywhere.

Along the highway, men jumped out of the bushes clasping strings of onions and garlic, and thrusting plates of cheese at our car.

One cheese vendor sported a giant pair of binoculars around his neck to watch for police. Other merchants who emerged from the underbrush were selling avocados, mangoes and mameys.

About halfway across the island, the eight lanes of the National Highway converge down to just two. What was a wide open freeway quickly clogs with horse-drawn carts, bicyclists and tractors.

While gasoline is available, it's expensive — more than $4 a gallon. This is a staggering sum for people who officially earn only $20 a month.

The roads are so empty in parts of the Camaguey Province that rice farmers use the smooth surface of the highway to dry their crops. They then scoop it into grain bags.

In Cuba, there's a sharp contrast between the state and the people. Things associated with the state are bureaucratic and often don't work. In one state-run restaurant that had run out of cheese, the waitress snapped at us, "No, you can't have the Sandwich Cubano without cheese; that's not authorized." But away from their official jobs, Cubans tend to be warm, generous and chatty.

One moment we were being interrogated by a pair of stern police officers outside a defunct sugar mill. Ten minutes later, we were laughing with a woman who sells mango milkshakes in a nearby shack.

In the heavy, hot tropical air, the fruit concoctions slide down your throat, as welcome as the late afternoon breeze. And then we get back on the Cuban highway.

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