There are Chinese characters on the seat in front of me. Not written, they’re ingrained into the plastic by the manufacturer. I seem to be the only one on this bus who lucked out and doesn’t have anyone sitting in the seat next to me. How fortunate because I brought everything I have with me and dumped it on the seat to my right. If China was selling these buses to Cuba, it must have happened a while ago because these buses are old. A few seats ahead of me, a guy with shaggy hair and a mustache cracks a joke to someone across the aisle. He throws in a “po” at the end of almost every sentence. A Chilean guy. I’ll have to remember that later when we stop, to possibly make a friend. How is it that I travel so much in countries that begin with the letter “C”? Are there any that I’ve missed? Croatia, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cayman Islands, C.A.R., Cyprus – maybe that should be a long-term goal.
My original idea was to go to Guantanamo and try to get as close to the prison as I could, but tales of land mines still existing around the perimeter kind of put a damper on the idea. Now it was just a desire to go as far east as possible to see how it differed from Havana. Back in October 2016 a cyclone ripped through Cuba’s eastern most city Baracoa, which is situated in the Guantanamo region, and decimated most of the city, but people I met who had been there spoke passionately about it’s beauty. There are plane rides from Havana to Baracoa, but there’s only three flights a week and they sold out long before I made up my mind to hike it out there, so it was a 20 hour bus ride each way. No internet so nothing to do but settle in, relax, maybe some sleep, maybe some writing, definitely some music, and hopefully not slip down into a disastrous rabbit hole of self reflection.
About eight hours in we stopped for some food, and I asked the mustache guy if he was from Chile. He was a friendly guy, we chatted for a bit about my time there, all the good surfing spots where we lived and he invited me to sit with him and his wife, a Kiwi Spanish teacher who either hated me or was permanently smelling something bad. I could have sworn that I showered that morning, and it got really awkward when the guy went to the bathroom and left the two of us alone. More awkward was the fact that she kept speaking Spanish to me even though it was clear that both of our native languages was English. But I was lucky to have made friends for the few short times we stopped.
By the twelfth hour I was the only person still on the bus from the original crew. Everyone else had gotten off at Cienfuegos, Camaguey, or Santiago, and the age of the bus and the Cuban roads were starting to get to me. The bus had NO shocks and as we got further and further east, the roads turned to gravel and then to dirt. Sleep had become impossible and I thanked whatever higher power there is in this strange existence that I remembered to bring my neck pillow. Small victories, people, small victories. Bumpy doesn’t do it justice. It was as if we were going on a wooden roller coaster from the 40’s that just happened to be on a violently vibrating planet. Not even the bus rides through Tibet came close to the horrible state of these roads. Reading a book made me nauseous and the music in my headphones couldn’t compete with the jostling bus bouncing up and down through a field of potholes. I desperately needed sleep and my mind slipped into a sort of twilight-state where I started dreaming of everything that was bumpy. An older French woman had sat down next to me and every time we went over a massive bump and I was ripped back to reality she would comment on how much she hated Cuba, there was nothing good here. For sure, at this point I regretted the trip to Baracoa completely. After twelve hours of traveling on meh-roads it was another eight hours driving through non-existent roads with holes so deep that when we bounced up and down, my ass literally came off of the seat. I went back into my memory of the ten days I spent meditating in complete silence and tried to bring some of that calmness into my mind, but it was impossible.
And then, the bus stopped. I had fallen asleep for the final hour, and was one of only five people who got off at this final destination. My mind and body were so worn down that I had trouble lifting my bags, but the static state of my neck felt incredible. I got off the bus into an outdoor terminal, three stone walls and then a final wall of Cubans, all staring me down with taxi-ride offers leaping off their tongues. In Havana I called a BnB in Baracoa that I had read about, the owner was an art professor who talked my ear off on the phone about how Baracoa was the only place in Cuba where you could drink the water off the tap. He also gave me directions from the bus terminal so when I came to the taxi drivers, two or three men thick across the whole line, who screamed in reply to my inquiry that it was too far to walk and I would need a taxi, I almost started throwing punches out of frustration. Instead, I pushed my way through and when I lifted my head I saw one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever encountered. The sun had recently come up, and I was looking out on a violent sea with swirling grey and white clouds above. The waves were bouncing up against the stone road, the wind was making designs in the puddles in front of me and silencing the taxi drivers behind me, the sun was trying hard to peak its way through the clouds, and there I was, hunched over with, I imagine, the same look on my face that Jack Nicholson had when he froze to death at the end of The Shining.
I didn’t have enough energy to cry, which I’m sure I normally would have done.
After asking a few locals, I found the street where I was headed and there was the art professor standing outside chatting with neighbors. How did I know it was him? Because his face had a kindness and calmness that only a man who studied paintings his whole life could have. I told him that I was the one who called him in Havana and he said yes, yes, he remembers, and he still has the room available. Won’t I please come in and sit down? And so he lead me to take my bags into the bedroom, and then to the back room to sit and eat breakfast. There was a large parrot who seemed to understand by my posture that I needed silence, and then plants all around me. The professor asked if I liked hot chocolate, a question that my mind couldn’t process at the time, and then pointed to a tree next to me with cacao plants hanging off. “We make our own chocolate here,” he said, grasping one of the hanging fruits. “It tastes a bit different than in other places.” How could I say no to this man? And so he and his wife put a plate full of eggs and fruit in front of me, some juice made from guava, and then a cup full of the thickest and most delicious chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It was amazing. Broken, I told him that I needed to lay down after the trip, and went into the bedroom. When I put my head down on that pillow, that sweet pillow, that unbelievably still and silent pillow, I can’t express my emotional state.