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A hitchhiker on the road to Mariel

To get to Vinales, we decided to follow the northern route instead of the main highway. Exiting Havana, we picked up a hitchhiker -- a thin young woman who was heading for Mariel. Pat was driving and I twisted around in my seat and asked if she spoke English. No, she replied, but she was only being modest or shy. In fact, she was a dental student with quite adequate English, a sweet and gentle disposition, and -- naturally -- relatives in America.

"We live close to the water," she said. "My mother watched as the boats took the people away." 

"And you? You were probably too young." 


"So how old are you?" 

"I'm twenty-two," she replied, and I made the quick calculation -- she would have been two years old. We told her our names and she told us her name was Doradrys. 

Soon, the telltale signs of an approaching urban center began to appear on the side of the road -- crowds of people waiting for buses or hopping onto open trucks, garages and grimy structures with vaguely commercial or industrial functions. We caught a glimpse of the bay ahead, and made a hard turn to the left. On the left-hand side of the road was a sprawling industrial complex -- tens of acres of even grimier structures of brick and sheet metal and rusting structural steel, along with cranes and hoppers and steel and concrete tanks. "It's the cement factory," she said. 

"That's some factory," said Pat, though I couldn't be sure if she was marveling at its size or its state of disrepair. 

"And I live right here." It couldn't have been more in the shadow of the cement factory if it had been on the property. "Would you like to come in? Eat something, or have a drink?" 

We looked at each other and the same thought must have gone through both of our minds -- that a quick stop could easily turn into several hours. "Just for a minute," said Pat. 

"Yes, that would be nice -- just a minute," I echoed. 

It was a small home set 20 meters back from a chicken wire fence down a dusty path. The inside was cool and dark, with a side door leading out to the yard. "Come," she said, after we'd had a drink, and she escorted us out the door. Two or three mango trees were laden with ripe fruit, a small garden was full of vegetables, and out back, little pens held pigs, sheep, and chickens. We walked through a gate and down a short path and there we were, standing directly above Mariel Bay, probably four or five kilometers across at that point. There were three or four small fishing boats out in the middle of the bay, and it seemed all but unimaginable that that quiet body of water had been jammed with thousands of boats and rafts and inner tubes, and tens of thousands of people clinging to them, fleeing who knows what and headed for some vague notion of paradise. How many of them, I wonder, reached the destination they had expected? 

Back inside, the smell of beans cooking on the stove was enticing. "Would you like to eat?" asked Doradrys, but we declined her offer. "Then please -- take these," she said, and presented us with a bag of mangos. We bid farewell and drove out into a gently rolling countryside of sugar cane fields stretching from the sea on our right (only occasionally visible) to the low mountains a few miles distant on our left. 

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