Our Girl in Havana: The Necessary Hazard Of Cuba's Trucks

It was three in the morning and I was somewhere in Camaguey province. Beyond the small spotlight in which I stood, the night was black.
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I stood on the edge of the road, the neon glow of a gas station behind me. It was three in the morning and I was somewhere in Camaguey province. Beyond the small spotlight in which I stood, the night was black. The rain was falling fast and hard, and my wet clothes clung coldly to my skin.

I was focused on one thing only: I was getting on the next damn truck that passed by.

I generally don't recommend solo female travelers to stand on street corners hailing down trucks by night. But if you're trying to get around Cuba on a budget, sometimes there just isn't any other option.

Three weeks previously, I had started off my journey from Havana in the lap of luxury: scooped up by two American sailors in their private car to go for a jaunt on their yacht. That was verging on the absurd. Next came Víazul -- modern air-conditioned buses intended primarily to ship tourists between key destinations. They were just lovely apart from the crowd of jineteros (hustlers) and touts that ambushed you every time you stepped off.

The deeper into Cuba I explored, the more obscure and death-defying were my forms of transport: squeezing into the back of a beat-up Cadillac convertible with eight not-so-skinny people; going far too fast in a former American yellow school bus (no seat belts); manning a bicycle taxi myself while the driver sat in the passenger seat; nearly falling off the back of a horse-pulled cart.

But if you want to get off the tourist trail you have to master the camion. Camiones -- trucks -- traverse the island from one side to the other stopping in every little town, village and obscure outpost. They're often trucks with makeshift containers on the back and desperately small windows cut in the side. Sometimes they're flatbeds with a canvas roof. They're frequently packed to bursting with bottom-busting benches welded to the floor.

Officially, foreigners are banned. At least, this is what some people told me. "I'm sure they would not allow a foreigner to use this mode of transportation as this was designed for Cubans," one official explained. Another said, "It's Cuba! Everything's illegal!" Other people said this was no longer the case. I am yet to find a clear consensus. But the tourist offices aren't about to start telling you how to catch one.

After an excruciating six-hour bus journey from Santiago de Cuba through the bucolic mountains into Baracoa, I didn't want to leave the way I came (a travelling tick of mine). So I went to the tourist office -- where you buy bus tickets - to ask about my options.

"There's only one way out of Baracoa," he said firmly.

"That can't be true. There must be another road?"

"No, there is only one road. The road you came in on."

"What if people want to travel north to Moa?"

"If you want to go north you have to take that bus to Guantanamo, and change."

"That's crazy. Are you saying I have to travel six hours in the wrong direction in order to get anywhere else?'

You get the picture.

I just didn't believe him, so I asked around. The people at the bus station told me about camiones, but insisted I was prohibited from traveling on them. The lady in my casa agreed, but told me to have a go anyway. So I went and stood on the roadside heading north. Bicycles with girls precariously balanced on the handlebars hiccuped happily along leaving clouds of white dust. A group of men stood waiting in the shade of a fruit stall nodding along to some tinny tune. I asked them how to get north, and they indicated a passing truck.

And so I waited with them. In silence. It was that sweltering time of day when even speaking is a struggle, like your tongue dries up in the heat. I was full of that anxiety of not knowing what I was doing or how to go about it. A truck came, and after some confusion, a little miscommunication and a lot of laughter, I payed in moneda nacional, and jumped on.

That first time was the easiest. I was lucky the right camion came along. The destination is not negotiable; they follow set routes and you jump off closest to where you want to go. This can be very confusing if you're unfamiliar with the system or the country. It's not like they have timetables or maps at the stops, or even any indication of where the official stops are.

A lot of travelers I met used the camiones without any difficulty, jumping on and off like any other Cuban. Many travelers, especially holidaymakers, hadn't even heard of them. For a long time, the system was a complete mystery to me, seemingly based on the kindness, whim or avarice of the driver rather than any logic.

So, fast forward three weeks to Camaguey. After jumping off one truck to catch another, I'm on a roadside in the torrential rain, and for whatever reason not one camion would stop and pick me up. After three hours, I'm a rage of indignation that a political ideology that purports equality could create a system in which a traveling writer can't get a bloody ride.

The first camion out-rightly refused to take me. The second wanted to charge me 15 convertibles, about 25 times as much as everyone else had paid. Arguing with him as I felt the water drip down the back of my neck, a dozen faces stared out at me from the dry sanctity of the truck, and no one said a word. Finally, the third camion accepted 20 pesos cubanos to let me on. Soaking wet, I took a space in the corner, my rucksack between my knees, feeling cold and sorry. I suffered from that very particular sort of traveler's guilt: I had got myself into this situation because fundamentally I didn't know what I was doing.

At night they close up the truck with tarpaulin to stop the wind blowing through that small gap to the outside world, and it plunged us into darkness. I could feel the shift of uncomfortable bodies all around me and the sticky air of too many people breathing in too small a space. I had three hours until we reached the coast.

As the sun began to rise the truck turned a hazy shade of gray and I could see through sleepless eyes out of a small gap in the corner of the tarpaulin to the world outside. Between the trunks of the palm trees a pink dusky fog had settled, and horned cows grazed. I could smell the sea somewhere not so far away, and knew by the time the sun was up, we would be at the beach, and that would make the whole thing worthwhile.