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We were very cautious travelers

‘We knew we had to get out of this situation as quickly as possible because soon it would turn sour. But we didn’t know what to do.’

The hitchhikers were the first thing we noticed when we left Havana, bound for Viñales. Dozens of people were waiting on the side of the highway: men on their way home from work; schoolchildren in pristine white-and-red uniforms; families with toddlers in tow. The early-afternoon sun shone bright, slicing through the mosquito-thick humidity. Yet the hitchhikers stood and waited, seeking respite from the heat under bridges or in the shade of a lone tree between the tobacco and sugarcane fields.

Every now and then a vehicle would stop and pick up some people. There seemed to be a system in place; there was never a fight over who would get a lift first. We saw a group of eight climb into a banged-up orange Plymouth Belvedere, and

ikers’ was the mantra repeated time and time again whenever my husband Nick and I told people we planned to hire a car in Havana and drive west to Viñales and onto Maria la Gorda, a windswept beach on Cuba’s westernmost point. The man at the car-hire shop had even told us that it was forbidden for foreigners to pick up hitchhikers.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

We figured that might explain why our inconspicuous white Peugeot 206 with maroon ‘Turismo’ plates had been largely ignored by the roadside crowds – until, suddenly, a policeman in a pale-grey uniform signalled us to stop. I pulled over and prepared my licence and registration, but to my surprise, he opened the door and sat on the back seat.

I was puzzled. Did he want to see my papers? Did he want to check that I hadn’t picked up any hitchhikers? He told me to drive – so I drove, hands clenched onto the wheel, an eye on the speedometer to make sure I didn’t surpass the limit by a single kilometre.

The policeman sat on the back twiddling his beret, his forehead streaked with sweat.

Nick, sitting next to me, was wide-eyed with fear.

“What’s going on?” he muttered under his breath. I really had no idea. After 10 minutes or so, we passed a junction where an unpaved road veered off towards some houses on the far edge of a sugarcane field.

“Pare,” the policeman said. Stop.

I did – and he got off and walked away, muttering ‘gracias’ as he slammed the door shut.

Nick sighed with relief. “Ok, that’s it. Next time, don’t stop. Whatever happens, don’t stop. Remember – don’t pick up hitchhikers!”

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

We kept driving, following a tattered map that didn’t fold properly, which the car-hire place had given us. Sugarcane fields gave way to patches of palms and forest, and the terrain became progressively more hilly, a sign that – maybe? – we were nearing the landmark mogotes, or limestone hills, of Viñales.

We left the motorway and followed a secondary road until we got to a T-junction, with no idea whether to turn left or right. There were no signs, and the map didn’t help. It was 2006 and we didn’t have a smartphone.

The shadows of the palms were lengthening across the street, and the golden sun shone low through the windscreen. We had to make a decision.

As we pondered left or right, somebody tapped on the windscreen.

“Todo bien? Que pasa?”

It was a man in his mid-20s, with close-cropped curls and a striped T-shirt.

“Yes, all good, thanks! We are going to Viñales. How do we get there?” I replied in Spanish.

“Ah, Viñales! I live there. I can take you there if you like?”

A hitchhiker. Another one. Nick and I exchanged uneasy glances, the same questions racing through our minds. We hesitated, searching for a comeback that would allow us to get directions, yet politely refuse to give the young man a lift.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

However, all I could muster was “Claro”. Sure, jump in – we’ll drive you. Nick looked at me with rage.

“Just wait a second, though. My little brother has gone to the toilet in the bushes,” the young man said.

We expected a cute child to come tottering out of the bushes. Instead a 20-year-old man with slick oily hair and a body-builder physique appeared. He flashed us a steel-capped smile.

“My name is Tomas, but you can call me Tom. Tom Cruz,” the man in the striped t-shirt said. “And this is my brother Ernesto.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – laugh, because the name ‘Tom Cruz’ sounded exactly like ‘Tom Cruise’, or cry, because there we were in the middle of nowhere with two strange men, and I had just agreed to give them a lift.

Tom opened the door, and he and Ernesto climbed onto the back seat. We knew we had to get out of this situation as quickly as possible because soon it would turn sour. But we didn’t know what to do.

“So, I’ll drive them to Viñales, drop them off, and that’s it,” I whispered to Nick.

He didn’t reply, didn’t even look at me. It was his way to say ‘you deal with it’. After all, we had been warned time and time again – don’t pick up hitchhikers.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

We drove on as sunset approached. Images started racing through my head. Tom would lead us somewhere remote, then he and Ernesto would rob us blind – including taking the Peugeot 206. Or Ernesto would pull out a machete and cut off our heads. Or, quite simply, they would break our hearts with a story of how their little brother is sick/their little niece can’t go to school/their uncle needs medicine. They would try to sweet talk us into parting with the remainder of our pesos convertibles, the currency used by tourists in Cuba that’s worth 25 times more than the peso Cubano, mainly used by locals. And I would agree, just like I had agreed to give them a lift.

Tom timidly started a conversation while Ernesto sat in silence behind me, his eyes burning through my back. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of his eyes in the rear-view mirror – and he would immediately look away.

By then, we had switched to English. We learned that Tom spoke it fluently, as well as Polish and Czech.

Yes, because he’s a hustler,’ I kept thinking. Why on Earth would he be speaking Polish and Czech, if not to swindle tourists?

As he was telling us that he worked in a tobacco plantation, we overtook a truck loaded with hitchhikers, packed in the back like sardines. The truck stopped and a couple jumped off.

“Thank goodness you guys picked me up today,” Tom said. “Otherwise, I would have had to wait for one of those.”

Tom explained that in communist Cuba, very few people were granted permission to own a vehicle. The state owned the vast majority of cars, trucks and motorbikes, and these were assigned to people on the basis of their needs – or so it was claimed. In 2014, it became easier for Cubans to buy cars, but no-one could afford them.

At the time of our trip, locals who did have access to a vehicle, like truck or bus drivers, or those lucky enough to have a 1950s car that was still running, were obliged to pick up hitchhikers, because there were so many more people than cars. Hearing this, I thought that the policeman who had flagged us down beforehand was probably just looking for a lift, and that would explain our awkward exchange.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

“Here we are, that’s our place,” said Tom, as we reached a bright yellow detached house. “Would you guys like a drink?”

“No, thanks,” said Nick. “Yes, sure,” I said – and then immediately regretted it. We had got this far, it was the perfect excuse to get away, and yet I was choosing to go in? Curiosity had prevailed over common sense.

Tom and Ernesto pointed toward the backyard and told us to wait for them there, then they went into the house. In the backyard, there was a lone lightbulb hanging over the back door, and a few plastic chairs. The garden was well kept, with manicured grass and a hibiscus bush. The house had a view over the valley of Viñales, its tobacco fields and dome-shaped limestone mogotes. Twilight had arrived, and the sky was apricot and mauve.

Nothing moved in the valley; work had ended for the day. No-one moved in the backyard or in Tom’s house, either. The nearby houses also seemed closed up. Ernesto hadn’t said a word for the whole journey, and now both brothers had disappeared.

Any minute, I thought. Any minute and Ernesto will come out with a weapon. We’ll be robbed, or killed, or both, and it was my entire fault – we had been warned. At that exact moment, Tom and Ernesto came into the backyard. Ernesto was holding something behind his back.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

Would you like a mojito? A real Cuban mojito, not that stuff they serve to tourists in Havana Vieja!” Tom said. Ernesto held out a bottle of rum.

“Ermmm… sure!”

“And what about a cigar from the plantation where I work?”

“Well, why not! Thanks!”

My tense muscles relaxed. A sigh of relief escaped my clenched jaws.

That was it – these guys had needed a lift, we had helped them out and they were going to thank us with a mojito. That’s all there was.

Soon afterwards, we were sitting on the plastic chairs under the lightbulb, looking at the stars twinkle above the mogotes. Ernesto had mixed up some killer mojitos and Tom was trying to teach me how to smoke cigars, while I coughed and sputtered.

“That is our casa particular [a private home where locals rent rooms to tourists],” Tom said, pointing to a bright blue granny flat in the backyard. “It’s a shame it’s occupied or you guys would be more than welcome to stay.”

Tom explained that his family was lucky. They’d been given permission to operate a casa particular, and he’d had the chance to study commerce and had spent a year on exchange in Warsaw, which explained why he spoke Polish and Czech.

“I’m lucky, because I got to travel,” he said. Movement was strictly controlled in communist Cuba at the time. There had to be a very good reason to be granted an exit visa, even to visit relatives. Tom had been a brilliant student, and that had earned him the opportunity to spend 12 months in Warsaw. Ernesto was not as academically successful as Tom, and didn’t get a place at university.

“I wonder if he’ll ever get the chance to see the world outside of Cuba,” Tom said.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

At 26, Tom had a good job with Alejandro Robaina, Cuba’s last independent tobacco grower, looking after the export of his world-famous cigars. He earned about 12 pesos convertibles a month (worth about US$12 at that time). Yes, he said, it was true they had free education and housing and the libreta (a supplies booklet) for basic groceries each month, but the milk was often watered down, meat was hard to come by, and even just to get those few staples his mother had to queue up for hours opposite the dusty shelves of Viñales’s general store.

The casa particular helped them to make ends meet – at the time, tourists were charged between 15 and 20 pesos convertibles per night, more than Tom’s monthly salary – but more than half of it went to the state in taxes and permits. Yet the few extra pesos earned here and there went a long way. There was a shortage of most basic goods in Cuba, especially medical supplies; plasters, bandages and painkillers could often only be found on the black market and they had to be paid for in pesos convertibles rather than pesos Cubanos.

Sensing our curiosity, Tom talked freely about his life in Viñales. I didn’t sense sadness or desperation, only a deep sense of hopelessness – and I certainly didn’t think he was going to ask us for money.

So I was very surprised when, just before we said goodbye and thanks for the mojitos, Tom said – completely out of the blue – “I need to ask you guys a very big favour”.

Ok, this was it. Those cigars and mojitos hadn’t been just a way to thank us for the lift. There had to be something else – I knew it. He was going to hit us with a tearjerker story.

Tom was embarrassed. His eyes avoided us, remaining fixed on the lightbulb swinging in the breeze. “Can you guys drive me to work tomorrow? It will only take half an hour or so. I can take you around the plantation, show you how we make cigars, and introduce you to Señor Robaina… You know, it would mean I don’t have to wake up at 05:00 in the morning and wait for one of those trucks,” he added.

Nick and I looked at each other and laughed. That was it? Of course we would help!

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

The following morning, we picked Tom up at 08:00 and started driving towards Pinar del Rio, where Señor Robaina’s plantation was located. Tom was ecstatic – he got to sleep in, something he could only do on his day off. Pinar del Rio was 30km away, half an hour or so by car, but the trip usually took Tom three hours – an average of two hours waiting for a lift, and then an hour to get there, standing packed with 50 others on the back of a truck. This was his daily routine: eight hours of work and up to six hours to get there and back, six days a week.

When we reached the plantation, Tom led us to his office where a fan whirred on the ceiling and a 20-year-old computer sat on a desk surrounded by paper folders. He couldn’t take us around himself, but his colleague Rafael would do the honours.

Rafael explained that the very existence of Señor Robaina’s plantation was an oddity in communist Cuba. Robaina was the last independent tobacco grower, and the only one giving his name to a cigar.

One of the first things that Fidel had done after the revolution was to nationalise tobacco production. But Señor Robaina had refused – he said that he didn’t believe in cooperatives and preferred production to remain in the hands of his family to keep quality high. Somehow, his appeal had succeeded. As a result, Robaina cigars are among the best in the world, and the plantation is allowed to make Cohiba, the best-known Cuban cigars, which were once produced only for Fidel and his dignitaries.

Rafael took us for a walk among the rows of tobacco plants. “We only use organic fertilisers here,” he said, as I noticed an unmistakable smell.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

At every stop, Rafael showed us a different stage of tobacco production. First came the curing shed where leaves were hung to dry – some were still green, ever so slightly curled around the edges; others were half green, half brown. Then came the sorting process and the stripping. Here an elderly man sat curled onto a desk, with piles of leaves on either side, removing the central vein by hand. Finally came the rolling. Half a dozen women worked nonstop, filling, packing and wrapping, with movements so deft and calculated that I had no doubt they’d be able to do their job with their eyes closed.

We also crossed paths with Señor Robaina himself, as he inspected work in the plantation wearing his trademark straw hat. He was 86 when he met him. His face was weathered and lined like a tobacco leaf, and his handshake revealed a man who had worked with his hands throughout his life. Hearing from Rafael that we were friends of Tom, he gave us a gift: two of his trademark cigars.

We spent the following three days driving Tom to and from work, and following his recommendations on what to do in Viñales.

Go to Leydi’s paladar [family-run restaurant]! It’s the best in town!

A half-mile from my place there’s a bright blue house. Ask for Pipo el Carpintero and ask him to take you to the caves!

If you want to go horse-riding, ask Ernesto to take you!

When it was time for us to leave Viñales, we drove Tom to work one last time. He gave us his email address and apologised in advance that it might take him some time to reply. “We don’t always have connection around here,” he said.

I didn’t know, when we hugged goodbye, that we wouldn’t see each other again. Weeks later, when I emailed him, I received an error message, and I didn’t have his telephone number or home address.

We were very cautious travelers

We were very cautious travelers

cautious travelers

Travel can make you jaded and cynical, thinking that everyone is out to get you. But then you meet people like Tom and Ernesto, and you realise that the world is complex – and that there’s a lot of positivity out there, especially where you least expect it.

Before we crossed paths with Tom, Nick and I were very cautious travellers. We never ate street food, never crossed into a backstreet just for the pleasure of wondering where it led, never went out after dark unless we knew the place. That all changed after that day in Cuba. We stopped being afraid of what might happen and decided to embrace whatever fate threw into our path.

Tom was just the first of many strangers we crossed paths with over the years. We ended up sharing meals with locals in Kurdistan, couch surfing with Iranian families, staying with nomads on the Kazakhstan-Mongolia border, and more – all experiences we never would have had, had we not picked up a hitchhiker named Tom Cruz that day in Cuba.

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