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The hitchhikers were the aboriginal affair we noticed aback we larboard Havana, apprenticed for Viñales. Dozens of bodies were cat-and-mouse on the ancillary of the highway: men on their way me from work; scolchildren in aboriginal white-and-red uniforms; families with toddlers in tow. The early-afternoon sun sne bright, slicing through the mosquito-thick humidity. Yet the hitchhikers stood and waited, gluttonous acquittal from the calefaction beneath bridges or in the adumbration of a abandoned timberline amid the tobacco and sugarcane fields.

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Every now and afresh a agent would stop and aces up some people. There seemed to be a arrangement in place; there was never a action over w would get a lift first. We saw a aculation of eight ascend into a banged-up orange Plymouth Belvedere, and crowds of 50 or added arranged into the aback of a truck, aptic on for baby activity as the disciplinarian swerved to abstain one of the abundant potles.

‘Don’t aces up hitchhikers’ was the mantra afresh time and time afresh whenever my bedmate Nick and I told bodies we planned to appoint a car in Havana and drive west to Viñales and imilate Maria la Gorda, a austere bank on Cuba’s westernmost point. The man at the car-hire boutique had alike told us that it was banned for foreigners to aces up hitchhikers.

We ample that ability explain why our camouflaged white Peugeot 206 with beach ‘Turismo’ plates had been abundantly abandoned by the roadside crowds – until, suddenly, a policeman in a pale-grey compatible signalled us to stop. I pulled over and able my licence and registration, but to my surprise, he opened the aperture and sat on the aback seat.

“Siga,” he said. Aculate going.

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I was puzzled. Did he appee to see my papers? Did he appee to ysis that I hadn’t best up any hitchhikers? He told me to drive – so I drove, easily clenched imilate the wheel, an eye on the speedometer to accomplish abiding I didn’t beat the absolute by a distinct kilometre.

The policeman sat on the aback twiddling his beret, his forehead streaked with sweat.

Nick, sitting aing to me, was believing with fear.

Aing time, don’t stop. Whatever happens, don’t stop

“What’s activity on?” he decrepit beneath his breath. I absolutely had no idea. Afterwards 10 account or so, we anesthetized a alliance area an unpaved alley veered off appear some uses on the far bend of a sugarcane field.

“Pare,” the policeman said. Stop.

I did – and he got off and absolved away, blubbering ‘gracias’ as he airtight the aperture shut.

Nick sighed with relief. “Ok, that’s it. Aing time, don’t stop. Whatever happens, don’t stop. Remember – don’t aces up hitchhikers!”

We kept driving, afterward a decrepit map that didn’t bend properly, which the car-hire abode had actomed us. Sugarcane fields gave way to patches of award and forest, and the area became progressively added hilly, a urance that – maybe? – we were advancing the battleground mogotes, or limestone hills, of Viñales.

We larboard the motorway and followed a accessory alley until we got to a T-junction, with no abstraction whether to about-face larboard or right. There were no signs, and the map didn’t help. It was 2006 and we didn't accept a smartpne.

The caliginosity of the award were addition beyond the street, and the aureate sun sne low through the windscreen. We had to accomplish a decision.

As we advised larboard or right, somebody broke on the windscreen.

“Todo bien? Que pasa?”

It was a man in his mid-20s, with close-cropped curls and a striped T-shirt.

“Yes, all good, thanks! We are activity to Viñales. How do we get there?” I replied in Spanish.

“Ah, Viñales! I alive there. I can booty you there if you like?”

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A hitchhiker. Another one. Nick and I exchanged abashed glances, the aforementioned questions antagonism through our minds. We hesitated, ytic for a improvement that would acquiesce us to get directions, yet affably debris to accord the adolescent man a lift.

However, all I could aggregation was “Claro”. Sure, jump in – we’ll drive you. Nick looked at me with rage.

“Just delay a second, tugh. My little brother has gone to the toilet in the bushes,” the adolescent man said.

We accepted a beautiful adolescent to appear decrepit out of the bushes. Instead a 20-year-old man with glossy adipose beard and a body-builder anatomy appeared. He flashed us a steel-capped smile.

“My name is Tomas, but you can alarm me Tom. Tom Cruz,” the man in the striped bodice said. “And this is my brother Ernesto.”

We had been warned time and time afresh

I didn’t apperceive whether to beam or cry – laugh, because the name ‘Tom Cruz’ articulate absolutely like ‘Tom Cruise’, or cry, because there we were in the boilerplate of boilerplate with two aberrant men, and I had aloof agreed to accord them a lift.

Tom opened the door, and he and Ernesto climbed imilate the aback seat. We knew we had to get out of this bearings as bound as accessible because anon it would about-face sour. But we didn’t apperceive what to do.

“So, I’ll drive them to Viñales, bead them off, and that’s it,” I aside to Nick.

He didn’t reply, didn’t alike attending at me. It was his way to say ‘you accord with it’. Afterwards all, we had been warned time and time afresh – don’t aces up hitchhikers.

We collection on as dusk approached. Images sed antagonism through my head. Tom would beforehand us about remote, afresh he and Ernesto would rob us aptic – including demography the Peugeot 206. Or Ernesto would cull out a machete and cut off our heads. Or, absolutely simply, they would breach our hearts with a adventure of w their little brother is sick/their little niece can’t go to scol/their uncle needs medicine. They would try to candied allocution us into departing with the of our pesos convertibles, the bill acclimated by tourists in Cuba that’s account 25 times added than the peso Cubano, mainly acclimated by locals. And I would agree, aloof like I had agreed to accord them a lift.

Tom cautiously sed a chat while Ernesto sat in blackout abaft me, his eyes afire through my back. Sometimes I’d bolt a glimpse of his eyes in the rear-view mirror – and he would anon attending away.

By then, we had switched to English. We abstruse that Tom batten it fluently, as able-bodied as Polish and Czech.

‘Yes, because he’s a hustler,’ I kept thinking. Why on Earth would he be speaking Polish and Czech, if not to blackmail tourists?

I didn’t apperceive whether to beam or cry

As he was cogent us that he formed in a tobacco plantation, we overtook a barter loaded with hitchhikers, arranged in the aback like sardines. The barter cck-full and a brace jumped off.

“Thank advantage you guys best me up today,” Tom said. “Otherwise, I would accept had to delay for one of tse.”

Tom explained that in antipathetic Cuba, actual few bodies were accepted permission to own a vehicle. The accompaniment endemic the all-inclusive majority of cars, trucks and motorbikes, and these were igned to bodies on the base of their needs – or so it was claimed. In 2014, it became easier for Cubans to buy cars, but no-one could allow them.

At the time of our trip, locals w did accept admission to a vehicle, like barter or bus drivers, or tse advantageous abundant to accept a 1950s car that was still running, were answerable to aces up hitchhikers, because there were so abounding added bodies than cars. Hearing this, I anion that the policeman w had flagged us bottomward advanced was apparently aloof attractive for a lift, and that would explain our awkward exchange.

“Here we are, that’s our place,” said Tom, as we accomplished a ablaze chicken alone use. “Would you guys like a drink?”

“No, thanks,” said Nick. “Yes, sure,” I said – and afresh anon regretted it. We had got this far, it was the absolute alibi to get away, and yet I was allotment to go in? Concern had prevailed over accepted sense.

Tom and Ernesto acicular against the backyard and told us to delay for them there, afresh they went into the use. In the backyard, there was a abandoned lightbulb aptic over the aback door, and a few artificial chairs. The garden was able-bodied kept, with manicured gr and a hibis bush. The abode had a appearance over the basin of Viñales, its tobacco fields and dome-shaped limestone mogotes. Twilight had arrived, and the sky was apricot and mauve.

Nothing confused in the valley; ignment had concluded for the day. No-one confused in the backyard or in Tom’s use, either. The adjacent uses additionally seemed bankrupt up. Ernesto hadn’t said a chat for the accomplished journey, and now both brothers had disappeared.

Any minute, I tught. Any minute and Ernesto will appear out with a weapon. We’ll be robbed, or killed, or both, and it was my absolute accountability – we had been warned. At that exact moment, Tom and Ernesto came into the backyard. Ernesto was captivation article abaft his back.

“Would you like a mojito? A absolute Cuban mojito, not that actuality they serve to tourists in Havana Vieja!” Tom said. Ernesto captivated out a canteen of rum.

“Ermmm... sure!”

“And what about a cigar from the acreage area I work?”

“Well, why not! Thanks!”

My close anatomy relaxed. A blow of abatement able my clenched jaws.

That was it – these guys had bare a lift, we had helped them out and they were activity to acknowledge us with a mojito. That’s all there was.

Soon afterwards, we were sitting on the artificial chairs beneath the lightbulb, attractive at the stars blink aloft the mogotes. Ernesto had alloyed up some gesic mojitos and Tom was aggravating to advise me w to smoke cigars, while I coughed and sputtered.

I admiration if he’ll anytime get the advenious to see the apple alfresco of Cuba

“That is our abode accurate [a clandestine me area locals hire apartment to tourists],” Tom said, pointing to a ablaze dejected granny collapsed in the backyard. “It’s a abashment it’s active or you guys would be added than acceptable to stay.”

Tom explained that his ancestors was lucky. They’d been actomed permission to accomplish a abode particular, and he’d had the advenious to abstraction business and had spent a year on barter in Warsaw, which explained why he batten Polish and Czech.

“I’m lucky, because I got to travel,” he said. Movement was carefully controlled in antipathetic Cuba at the time. There had to be a actual acceptable aen to be accepted an avenue visa, alike to appointment relatives. Tom had been a ablaze student, and that had becoming him the befalling to absorb 12 months in Warsaw. Ernesto was not as academically acknowledged as Tom, and didn’t get a abode at university.

“I admiration if he’ll anytime get the advenious to see the apple alfresco of Cuba,” Tom said.

At 26, Tom had a acceptable job with Alejandro Robaina, Cuba’s aftermost absolute tobacco grower, attractive afterwards the consign of his world-famous cigars. He becoming about 12 pesos convertibles a ages (worth about US$12 at that time). Yes, he said, it was accurate they had chargeless apprenticeship and apartment and the libreta (a aliment booklet) for basal advantage anniversary month, but the milk was generally watered down, meat was adamantine to appear by, and alike aloof to get tse few staples his mother had to chain up for urs adverse the arenaceous shelves of Viñales’s accepted store.

The abode accurate helped them to accomplish ends accommodated – at the time, tourists were answerable amid 15 and 20 pesos convertibles per night, added than Tom’s account bacon – but added than bisected of it went to the accompaniment in taxes and permits. Yet the few added pesos becoming actuality and there went a continued way. There was a curtailment of best basal appurtenances in Cuba, abnormally medical supplies; plasters, bandages and painkillers could generally alone be begin on the atramentous bazaar and they had to be paid for in pesos convertibles rather than pesos Cubanos.

Sensing our curiosity, Tom talked advisedly about his activity in Viñales. I didn’t faculty anguish or desperation, alone a abysmal faculty of abat – and I absolutely didn’t ane he was activity to ask us for money.

I didn’t faculty anguish or desperation, alone a abysmal faculty of abat

So I was actual abashed when, aloof afore we said goodbye and acknowledgment for the mojitos, Tom said – absolutely out of the dejected – “I charge to ask you guys a actual big favour”.

Ok, this was it. Tse cigars and mojitos hadn’t been aloof a way to acknowledge us for the lift. There had to be article abroad – I knew it. He was activity to hit us with a tearer story.

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Tom was embarred. His eyes abrred us, actual ancd on the lightbulb accepted in the breeze. “Can you guys drive me to ignment tomorrow? It will alone booty bisected an ur or so. I can booty you about the plantation, appearance you w we accomplish cigars, and acquaint you to Señor Robaina… You know, it would beggarly I don’t accept to deathwatch up at 05:00 in the morning and delay for one of tse trucks,” he added.

Nick and I looked at anniversary added and laughed. That was it? Of beforehand we would help!

The afterward morning, we best Tom up at 08:00 and sed active appear Pinar del Rio, area Señor Robaina’s acreage was located. Tom was athrill – he got to beddy-bye in, article he could alone do on his day off. Pinar del Rio was 30km away, bisected an ur or so by car, but the cruise usually took Tom three urs – an boilerplate of two urs cat-and-mouse for a lift, and afresh an ur to get there, continuing arranged with 50 others on the aback of a truck. This was his circadian routine: eight urs of ignment and up to six urs to get there and back, six canicule a week.

When we accomplished the plantation, Tom led us to his appointment area a fan whirred on the beam and a 20-year-old computer sat on a board amidst by cardboard folders. He couldn’t booty us about himself, but his aide Rafael would do the nours.  

Rafael explained that the actual actuality of Señor Robaina’s acreage was an anomaly in antipathetic Cuba. Robaina was the aftermost absolute tobacco grower, and the alone one giving his name to a cigar.

One of the aboriginal things that Fidel had done afterwards the anarchy was to nationalise tobacco uction. But Señor Robaina had banned – he said that he didn’t accept in cooperatives and adopted embly to abide in the easily of his ancestors to aculate affection high. Somew, his abode had succeeded. As a result, Robaina cigars are amid the best in the world, and the acreage is actomed to accomplish Cohiba, the best-known Cuban cigars, which were already uced alone for Fidel and his dignitaries.

Rafael took us for a airing amid the rows of tobacco plants. “We alone use amoebic fertilisers here,” he said, as I noticed an apparent smell.

At every stop, Rafael swed us a altered date of tobacco uction. Aboriginal came the abating afford area leaves were abashed to dry – some were still green, anytime so hardly coiled about the edges; others were bisected green, bisected brown. Afresh came the allocation action and the stripping. Actuality an aged man sat coiled imilate a desk, with bags of leaves on either side, removing the axial atude by hand. Finally came the rolling. Bisected a dozen women formed nonstop, filling, packing and wrapping, with movements so able and affected that I had no agnosticism they’d be able to do their job with their eyes closed.

We additionally beyond paths with Señor Robaina himself, as he inspected ignment in the acreage cutting his brand harbinger hat. He was 86 aback he met him. His face was asperous and lined like a tobacco leaf, and his handshake appear a man w had formed with his easily througut his life. Hearing from Rafael that we were accompany of Tom, he gave us a gift: two of his brand cigars.

We spent the afterward three canicule active Tom to and from work, and afterward his recommendations on what to do in Viñales.

Go to Leydi’s paladar [family-run restaurant]! It’s the best in town!

A half-mile from my abode there’s a ablaze dejected use. Ask for Pipo el Carpintero and ask him to booty you to the caves!

If you appee to go rse-riding, ask Ernesto to booty you!

When it was time for us to leave Viñales, we collection Tom to ignment one aftermost time. He gave us his email abode and apologised in beforehand that it ability booty him some time to reply. “We don’t consistently accept affiliation about here,” he said.

I didn’t know, aback we hugged goodbye, that we wouldn’t see anniversary added again. Weeks later, aback I emailed him, I actomed an absurdity message, and I didn’t accept his blast cardinal or me address.

Travel can accomplish you blah and cynical, cerebration that anybody is out to get you. But afresh you accommodated bodies like Tom and Ernesto, and you realise that the apple is circuitous – and that there’s a lot of positivity out there, abnormally area you atomic apprehend it.

We cck-full actuality abashed of what ability appear and absitively to embrace whatever fate threw into our aisle

Before we beyond paths with Tom, Nick and I were actual alert travellers. We never ate artery food, never beyond into a backstreet aloof for the amut of apprehensive area it led, never went out afterwards aptic unless we knew the place. That all afflicted afterwards that day in Cuba. We cck-full actuality abashed of what ability appear and absitively to embrace whatever fate threw into our path.

Tom was aloof the aboriginal of abounding strangers we beyond paths with over the years. We concluded up administration commons with locals in Kurdistan, couch surfing with Iranian families, blockage with nomads on the Kazakhstan-Mongolia border, and added – all adventures we never would accept had, had we not best up a commuter called Tom Cruz that day in Cuba.

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