A tattered red and white Ford station wagon, straight out of drive-in movie, pulled up in front of the house in Viñales. The collectivo, a shared taxi back to Havana, was twenty minutes early. That was new. I hugged Darelys and Rigo, the amazing Cuban couple who had hosted me the past week, then passed my bag to the driver. He threw it in the back as I squeezed myself into the middle row of the car next to an Italian couple. As we waited to leave, Darelys came to the side of the car and grabbed my hands. “Cuídate,” she said, take care.
Slowly, we pulled away from the beautiful green house and made our way around the corner to pick up the last group of passengers. I chatted with the Italian couple and two other Italians who were sitting in the front seat as we emptied out of the car to make room for a trio of French travelers. The driver played around with the jenga board of bags in the back as the youngest and tallest of the three French travelers inspected the car. He turned to the driver, after seeing the open seat for him in the last row, and looked up at the roof of the car. “I would rather be strapped up there than sitting in the back of that car,” he said to him in Spanish. We filed into the car and I decided, given my height, to take his place in the back, in exchange, he carried my bag on his lap.
Finally, with the small car full, overflowing with people, bags and energy, we started on our journey. Latin music was blaring from the speakers as the old car buzzed down the dirt road. The driver was talking in Spanish with the two Italian travelers in front bench, the Italian man was chatting with the younger French man in front of me in English. An older French man sat in back and alternated between French and English while conversing with me, a French woman and the Italian woman in front of him. Languages changed like television channels as everyone in the car familiarized themselves with their fellow travelers. The 1940s Ford contained a quilt of cultures, patched with a various mix of languages, crammed together in the same space all with their own story. Outside, the indescribable green landscape flashed by our window as we cruised through the winding hills. The driver sang to us in a strong, deep voice, his hand tapping to the beat outside the window. Occasionally, he would stop in the middle of the highway to answer his cell phone as cars passed in the lane beside him. Once his call ended, he picked up the speed and carried on like nothing had happened. Throughout it all, we were unphased.
Our full collectivo back to Havana
My heart was intoxicated by this unique experience and my ears jumped around the car hungrily trying to comprehend the various languages. I reveled in the opportunity to refresh my French and practice my Spanish and comforted by the rare opportunity to fall back into speaking English. With each mile, I missed the beauty of Viñales and the relationships I had made there more and more but, at the same time, I was excited to get started with my new adventure in Colombia. I just had to get through one more night in Havana.
Viñales was my saving grace in Cuba. Its unbeatable geography and vegetation coupled with the quaint, quite town and authentic people made up for my bad impression the country based on my time in Havana. After counting down the days until my departure for weeks, I was suddenly feeling sad about leaving. Looking down at my phone, I was comforted to see a text from a new friend in Viñales. “Me puse muy triste al igual que la mujer de la casa cuando vi que te ibas…que tienes muchas personas en Cuba que te quieren,” he wrote. I understood the message, thanks to my accelerated real world Spanish lessons in Cuba, and smiled. “I was very sad to see you leave, same with the woman of the house…you have many people in Cuba who love you.”
The hills began to fade as we got closer and closer to Havana. Right as we crossed into the city limits on the highway, the French girl sitting next to me screamed. My gaze jerked upwards trying to figure out what happened. The driver slammed on his breaks the car and began to pull the car over as he pounded on his dashboard desperately cursing in Spanish. I assumed our car broke down until I looked to my left to see a body lying facedown on the road. Next to it was a blue, antique American car with a freshly smashed windshield stopped perpendicular to the highway. Oh my God. I turned to my right to see the young French man covering the eyes of the sobbing French woman as we slowly drove by the body. The tension in the car was strung tight like a rubber band waiting to snap as we all absorbed the scene behind us. Seconds later, fast paced French and Spanish shot through the as everyone tried to figure out what had just happened. The French woman, unable to speak, continued to cry, then raised her hands miming a person coming out of nowhere onto the highway and a car crashing into him. Sitting in the middle seat, she had an unobstructed view of his body being thrown across the highway. I hadn’t seen the accident happen as my view was, thankfully, obstructed by the head of our driver, but I still felt nauseous and on the verge of tears.
Pulled over, we sat in silence processing, the energy in the car still abuzz but now panicked rather than joyful. Suddenly, the driver shouted, “Está vivo,” jumped out of the car and ran across the highway. He was alive.
Cars and ambulances stacked up behind us turning the previous freeway into a parking lot. Occasionally, one of us in the car would dare to glance back to see what was happening but the haunting sight of the man in white shirt and jeans lying on the highway stopped our glances from lingering.
Propaganda on the highway back into Havana
After about 20 minutes, the driver came back to the car in an air of exhaustion. “Está vivo,” he whispered as if he wasn’t sure how much longer it would last. Without another look behind us, we drove off in a heap of exhaust towards the city. There was no more music and the silence congested the air in the car with despair. The driver muttered to himself in Spanish, “Havana es loco. You come here and this is what happens. The people are crazy. Havana is crazy.” His singing had stopped and his reflection in the mirror showed no traces of the infectious smile that radiated throughout our drive in the countryside. As we got closer to the city, the silence in the car got stronger as the noise from outside increased. The luscious green hills transformed into crumbling buildings. The calm highways changed into congested roads. It was hotter. Everything – the air, the energy, the people – felt heavy.We drove through familiar streets, past famous monuments and cultural icons. For the first time in a week, my countdown to leave was back on. Only twenty more hours and then I can leave, I thought. Next to me, the French woman continued to cry.