On the road to Pons

By Eramo Calzadilla

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when I got to the “yellow point,” the spot to begin my journey from Vinales to Pons.

Although many people travel this route daily between these two Cuban towns, for many years there didn’t exist any form of public transportation along this or other similar roads.

As an alternative for dealing with such a serious problem, ever since the economic crisis beginning in the early 1990s “Special Period,” yellow-clad inspectors have been given the authority to stop state-owned cars on the highway and to fill them with as many people as can fit.

The line is organized on a first-come-first-serve basis, with tickets and everything. When your turn comes (in an hour, or maybe six) the people pile into the vehicle that luck has afforded them; it doesn’t matter if it’s a dump truck or the sedan of a municipal official.

When you’re out here in the “yellows,” you realize that you’re truly no longer in the city, and that you haven’t the least idea of when you’ll get home.

Those who turn up at these “hitchhiking” points make themselves as comfortable as they can in the shade. They tend to strike up conversations, which seem more like chats between friends and close relatives than with people who only gather occasionally to catch a lift. Many have known each other forever, but others haven’t, although that doesn’t keep them out of the conversations.

The atmosphere is almost always one of jokes shooting back and forth at full speed between women, men, old-timers and youngsters. The kidding pushes people right to the limit, but adeptly avoids disrespecting or humiliating those to whom the teasing is directed.

It is as if nature knew to provide these folks with a gift for telling stories, which they use with wonder to sharpen the humor in their jokes. The atmosphere really becomes quite pleasant.

I arrived at this stop anxious to get to my next destination. But after having waited for a good while and becoming relaxed, I dozed off, infected with the “no hurry” syndrome of the locals.

I was a stranger there, not only because I didn’t open my mouth even to say hey, but also for having lain down in the grass – something not very well fancied among these finicky compatriots.

Nonetheless, I prefer to follow the advice that someone said a millennium ago: a man is only dirtied by that which leaves his heart.

Yet, when hope had long since vanished and the sweetest of dreams had swaddled me, there appeared a typical dump truck, without a roof or seats, but one going to Pons. Everybody ran to climb up the railings at such speed (including the old women in dresses) that we easily could have matched any military unit in a combat drill.

The trip to Pons pressed on, skirting – but not going into – the most beautiful mountain range I’ve ever laid eye on, although I haven’t really seen so many. Almost before arriving, a cloudburst pelted us with droplets that drove into one’s skin; uncomfortable, but well received, given the drought.

Maybe it was fortune, or maybe it was fate, but of the 365 days of the year the rain and I happened to come on the same day to Pon, and for a while I was proud to be “the man who came with the rain.”