A fifties-era Buick parked on a street in Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río. October 1999. Alastair Smith

Second in a two-part series. Click here for the first part.

Today would have to be a lucky day for hitching. Waking up in San Diego de los Baños, an out-of-the-way resort town 130 kilometers southwest of Havana, I didn’t know exactly how I’d get back to the capital — only that I would.

The fastest way was the highway linking Pinar del Río, the eponymous capital of the province I was visiting, to Havana. But I didn’t want to miss the smaller towns along the northern coast.

I decided to head to Soroa, thirty-five kilometers to the east. Nicknamed the “Rainbow of Cuba,” it is known for heavy rainfall, orchids, and tall trees. Because there was no long-distance bus or train to reach it, and I had no car, the only way there was to hitch or take several buses.

People must have been looking out of their houses every minute, because I had hardly gotten far on my way to the bus stop before a young man appeared to help me with my bag. It was the same man who had given me a ride here on his bike the previous day. He carried my bag to the bus stop, then left.

After waiting forty-five minutes for a bus that never came, I left, too. “Lejos,” people at the bus stop said, as if I intended to walk all the way to Havana.

Soon a young woman carrying a pail came alongside me on the road. “Where are you going?” she asked in English.

“Candelaria,” I said, naming the larger town just below Soroa.

“It’s a long way,” the English student said.

A middle-aged man on a bicycle had stopped, and the two talked. She then turned to me and said, “You can go with him.”

I looked at him and the bike and pointed at my heavy bag and backpack. “Noooooo,” I said, shaking my head.

“This is my father,” she said, as if that would suffice. I almost started to laugh, thinking I would be the person who would give him a heart attack.

“It’s okay?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” she said. “He’ll take you to the next town.”

I positioned myself sidesaddle on the bike rack, but her father had trouble pedaling because I was tipping the bike over. “It’s better if you put each leg on each side of the bike,” the woman mused.

Would wedging my big duffel bag against her dad’s back make him uncomfortable? I asked.

“Don’t worry about it. No problem,” she said, without asking him.

With that, I put a leg on each side of the bike and held my bag between the two of us. Chug chug chug … we were off.

And the man’s daughter waved.

At one point, my bag fell, its strap nearly choking me to death until the man caught the bag and placed it in front of him. He told me I could hug his stomach to keep balanced. It occurred to me that this probably wasn’t his first time traveling this way.

The man took me to the next town. There was a slab of rock on the side of the road. As the day was beautiful, I lay down on it to nap, waiting for my first vehicle.

There were, in fact, two. A sputtering tractor pulled up just as a truck passed by.

I was about to tell the tractor driver where I wanted to go when he pointed ahead. The truck had also stopped for me, and it was headed for Soroa, the very town I wanted to visit.

It was barely one o’clock. I could not believe my good fortune.

When I arrived at Soroa’s Orquideario, home to 350 orchid species, a guard allowed me to stow my bags with him during my visit. Feeling particularly ambitious, I decided to climb a craggy hill for a view of the valley.

By the time I finally left the orchid garden, it was five in the afternoon. Now I just had to hitch nine kilometers south to Candelaria, where I could take a direct train to Havana, another ninety-five kilometers away.

Or — I could take the road north and travel a more scenic route along the coast. After all, I’d been lucky so far.

I decided to leave it up to fate. The decision maker would be the first car that stopped for me.

North or south. Coast or train.

It wasn’t long before a a car driven by a middle-aged couple came along. They were headed north, toward the coastal town of Bahía Honda. They stopped to pick me up — and then their engine died. As I sat in the back seat, the man took two wires near the steering wheel and crossed them to get a charge. He tried a combination of pedal work and gear-shifting as the engine groaned, then roared back to life.

We had not traveled far before I noticed the sky in the distance turn gray and stormy. Still, the land was beautiful, with palm trees scattered across the countryside, the road winding its way through the hills. The car often slowed down to avoid the potholes.

We passed the couple’s house, and within a mile we reached a crossroads: Bahía Honda lay to the west, Havana to the east. Any further north, and you were in the ocean. The couple told me Havana was far — lejos — and pointed to the setting sun. , I said.

A tractor pulling a cart was waiting, headed east to a nearby village. I climbed in with two local men who were also hitching a ride. We all rode standing, gripping the sides of the wagon, as the tractor jolted along the road. The wind made the air nippy. Darkness was approaching quickly.

We got off at the village. A bus had been scheduled to depart further east but appeared to have broken down, its passengers heading home for the night. There would be no more buses for now. Some cars and trucks passed, and I waved at them futilely. At one point, my wave turned into an angry middle finger.

By now, darkness had completely fallen. Never again be ambitious after 3 p.m., I thought, as I sat on the road, resting on my bag.

A man passed several times, just staring at me. “What?” I wanted to snap at him. I felt like an alien dropped down from outer space, abandoned by its spaceship. Another person walked by and asked me where I wanted to go. “Havana,” I answered. “Lejos, lejos,” he said, waving his hand toward the horizon.

No kidding, asshole, I muttered. I was so tired of that word.

No more cars came by. At one point, my patience wearing thin, I yelled, “OH MY GOD!” After all, nobody was around, just a few houses nearby.

The first man returned. It was as if he had decided in the middle of dinnertime to take a stroll. He walked while he ate, his fork scraping food from his metal plate. He asked me where I was from.

“China,” I lied, not wanting to betray my American identity.

He asked me if I was hungry. When I said yes, he told me to come with him. “Brother,” he said.

We went a little ways down the road, and he knocked on the door of a modest house. He explained to someone inside that he had found somebody from China on the street. She was sola. Could she have some food? he asked.

The brother let us in. He and his young wife took me into their living room and turned on the television. “Siddown! Siddown!” the two men said, gesturing with large up-down arm motions for me to sit. To make sure I was feeling comfortable, the brother turned up the TV volume — even though it was obvious, no entiendo español.

Their mother came into the room and tried to communicate with me in sign language. You’d think she was mute or I was deaf. They asked me if I wanted to take a bath — the brother rubbing himself with an imaginary bar of soap to get the question across. I tried to tell them I didn’t need a bath, but whatever I told them made them laugh instead.

Meanwhile, the brother’s wife had gone all out in making dinner. I was ushered into the kitchen, where a bowl heaped with rice and plantains was waiting for me. On another plate were chicken and slices of cold ham on bread.

I was starving. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I began to shovel forkful after forkful until I noticed something black, with legs, in my rice. The ant was alive. And then, as I began to pick through the rice, I saw more. Ants were also on the chicken and crawling on the ham, perhaps two or three on each piece.

The brother looked closely at my plate and noticed an ant just when I did. He muttered something to his wife. Her back was to us, and she showed no reaction, but I think she was embarrassed. The eggs she was cooking for her husband were crackling in the oil, and they smelled good.

The brother pointed to the wall, where many ants were crawling. He laughed and told me that those ants were the same as the ones on my food. No problem, I said. The food was good. I didn’t want to eat the ants, but I wanted to seem as if I were cleaning off my plate. At the same time, leaving behind only those portions with the ants would make them all the more obvious. I did the best I could.

Afterwards, seeing me wipe my mouth with my fingers, the brother vigorously rubbed his hands together to ask me if I wanted to wash my hands. I said yes. He and his wife took me to the little bathhouse next door and brought a kettle of boiling water, which they poured into a pail for me to wash with. The wife gave me a soft, blue towel. Its newness contrasted with her sweater, which was tattered at the sleeves, and her husband’s T-shirt, which had holes.

When I needed to use the toilet, the wife gave me a shard of cotton from her bag. It did the trick. Later, I noticed in the trashcan that the same kind of shard also doubled as a sanitary napkin.

My hosts let me sleep in a big bed off the living room. The white sheets smelled like laundry, and I felt guilty about climbing into them with my dirty, dusty body. As tired as I was, the mosquito bites all over my legs kept me awake, long after everyone else had gone to sleep.

The young wife stayed up later than her husband. She was busy in the kitchen, probably preparing formula for their baby, whom I heard gurgling in the background.

Later, during the night, the baby cried. And outside, a man hollered, sang at the top of his lungs, and banged on pans. He chanted something indistinguishable, and I wondered if it was indistinguishable in Spanish as well. The husband stirred in the next room. I thought he would get up to tell the crazy man to be quiet, but he did not.

I wondered if this was normal. Perhaps it was a religious ceremony.

As I pulled the sheet over me and drifted into a fuller sleep, I thanked the man who had found me alongside the road and taken me to the home of his brother. Girberto Veltia and his wife, of the village Brail in Bahía Honda, had given me shelter, food, and a big bed, most probably their own.

Luck was on my side.

November 3, 1999

Second in a two-part series. Click here for the first part.

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