Cuban highways can be as wretched as they are good. A three-lane, lightly traveled “freeway” stretches horizontally across the western half of the country and is mostly smooth, complemented by the occasional floating overpass, unconnected to any on or off ramp and mostly serving as a convenient sunshade for people waiting for rides in either direction. The rides sometimes come in the form of buses, sometimes open air lorries, rusting Chevys, Ladas or Moscovys and sometimes, like manna from heaven, the occasional “tour,” which is how Cubans refer to a modern comparatively luxurious air-conditioned car driven by a tourist. A stop to ask directions often ends with the acquisition of an additional unplanned passenger.
The freeway surface is somewhat unpredictable. Long even stretches can be interrupted without warning by bone-shaking ripples, patches or potholes that have a way of appearing, especially at night, immediately after you’ve already passed over them and punctured a tire or worse, destroyed a rim. This situation is multiplied by a factor of at least two on country roads and highways. For this reason I always recommend that visitors who intend to drive in Cuba pack an electric cigarette-lighter powered tire pump, because you never know when that sort of thing will come in handy.
This was last night’s adventure, capping an already surreal day. We had spent the afternoon at the international marriage bureau where a Cuban relative was marrying a Canadian, and I’d been asked to interpret. The bride was not allowed to do her own interpreting which aside from its illegality, was probably sensible considering the rudimentary state of her English.
The international marriage bureau is for me, quite possibly the most entertaining people-watching spot in all of Havana. While we were waiting for some missing paperwork, another groom from a non-English speaking country who was waiting to marry his Cuban bride realized that he would also need an interpreter and with limited time to spare, pleaded for my assistance. I agreed. While waiting, he told me their story.
The age difference between them was roughly 25-30 years, something that had concerned him at first, until her aunt, who’d introduced them, assured him that in Cuba, this was really no big deal. He didn’t speak Spanish. She didn’t speak his language (or English for that matter). They’d been texting for ten months, thanks to Google Translate. Aside from the age difference they were not terribly mismatched in terms of looks, at least compared to some of the wild pairings I’ve seen on other visits to the bureau. She was quite beautiful, with a radiant smile, and seemingly relaxed except for the almost imperceptible trembling of the thin gold necklace suspended from her neck. What will become of this couple, I wondered, when she ends up in a dark, rainy northern country, far from the intense colors, sounds and flavors of this vibrant place? What will happen when they eventually and inevitably learn who the other person really is? She was from Santiago de Cuba, a place where I have always found the people to be sweeter and more sociable than the supposedly urbane Habaneros, who often mock those from the eastern part of the country. But they mock those from the west too; they consider Havana to be the “ombligo del mundo” (literally, its belly button – the center of the world).
The marriage took place in a dim, ostentatiously curtained room just large enough to hold a large wooden desk behind which the notary sat, facing the spellbound – for there is no other word to describe it – couple and their two witnesses who, like me, had also been roped in at the last minute. The air conditioning was non-functional and as we began to sweat, it suddenly started raining. First outside, and then inside, with water dripping through the ceiling lamp, directly onto the desk. I quietly opened my umbrella. Once the ceremony was completed, it was already late afternoon and we kissed the newlyweds goodbye, wished them luck and headed out to roam the city for our own celebrations.
Late in the evening when we finally arrived home, our babysitter needed a ride. This launched the day’s second and last episode of magical realism. I offered to drive her alone, but my husband said, “You’re kidding, right?” There was no talking him out of coming along. Being the sober one, I took the wheel and flew down the rural coastal road, hoping to return home as quickly as possible. Our son was sleeping alone in his bedroom and I worried about him waking to a startlingly empty house.
It was, as my dad would say, “dark as the inside of a wolf’s belly,” and I struggled to peer as far ahead as possible, alternating high and low beams depending on the oncoming traffic. Suddenly we felt the unmistakable spine rattling jolt and crack. Twice. We had crashed directly over two deep and invisible potholes, but kept barreling along in a state of wishful ignorance for another half kilometer or so, until the punctured tire sound was no longer deniable.
The shoulder was somewhat steep, so we had no other option but to pull over as far to the right of the right-hand lane as possible and turn on the emergency flashers while we dug out the jack. Illuminated by the cellphone flashlight, a yellowish six inch millipede as thick as a man’s finger slithered into the darkness under the car.
With the countless stories I’ve heard or read about the weirdly magnetic force of cars broken down at the side of the road where their luckless drivers are killed by other drivers plowing into them from behind, I was panicked about ending up the same way. Our situation was arguably worse because of our location and the fact that the visibility for the approaching drivers was no better for them than it had been for me. Indeed, repeatedly, a pair of headlights appeared to be heading directly toward us at frightening speed, before swerving left at the very last second.
We heard the lunatic before we saw him. That he’d not already been flattened in the night by an oncoming car was a miracle. “Don’t shine a light on me!” he said, over and over again, as he staggered toward us in the darkness from the middle of the road. I wasn’t, and didn’t, but he kept coming nearer, repeating the phrase. When he got closer I could see he was hobbling along with a strange combination of things balanced on his very unstable shoulder. He approached the car and in passing asked – quite insincerely – if he could do anything to help. We ignored him. He asked again. Without looking up, my husband responded in a tone of unmistakable warning. “What you can do to help, is get as far away from us as possible, do you get my drift?” The man lurched on, but the litany continued. “Don’t shine a light on me. I was nine years in Angola. My mother is dead. Don’t shine a light on me. I’ve got an axe.” That’s when I suddenly realized that sure enough, in his left hand, he was carrying a rather hefty axe. Somehow I’d missed that.
His voice faded into the distance, and then grew louder again. “He’s coming back,” said the babysitter. Scriccchhh…scriccchh. It was the distinctive sound of metal on pavement. Now he was dragging the axe by its head. By then, it was midnight. “Don’t shine a light on me!” My husband, who by now had finally managed to change the rear tire, was having a great deal of trouble situating the damaged wheel in its Styrofoam nest built into the trunk of the car, which is after all, Chinese. I began to shake. “Just throw it in, let’s go!” I begged. He seemed quite unperturbed and insisted that it would rattle around too much that way. Finally, he got it placed to his satisfaction, and I jumped in the car to leave, while he and the babysitter calmly followed. “Just let me check one more thing,” he said suddenly, and got out again, to my despair. “The front wheel is flat too,” he pronounced.
Fortunately at this point, the lunatic had turned his back to us again and was vanishing into the distance, his voice growing fainter. This is terrible to admit, but as the cars continued to approach us from behind, I did not wish him well.
We took out the electric pump. The rim was also likely damaged, with air leaking out of the tire almost as fast as we could put it in. But at this point we’d run out of options. We had to turn around with a half-flat tire and see how far we could make it back home before stopping to re-inflate it. That’s how, several stops later, we finally made it back to where we’d begun. Afterwards, my husband said, “Now you can understand why I didn’t want you driving alone and how worried I was when you drove across the Nevada desert in August and refused to answer your phone.” I tried to explain the concept of AAA, though granted, even AAA is of limited utility in the face of an axe murderer appearing in the middle of nowhere, or more likely – in the US at least – an unhinged stranger toting an assault rifle. He could not be persuaded.