By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Much of the afternoon is spent dealing with the bureaucracy controlling the importation of cadavers for burial in Cuba. On hand to help with those chores are two Miamians who have accompanied Tony: Rafaiy Alkhalifa, a Guyanese native who runs three cut-rate funeral homes in Miami-Dade County, and his administrator Delia Kennedy, a Cuban American who in the past two years has escorted dozens of bodies back to the island.
First abuela's body must be inspected at the medical examiner's office. From there Tony and his entourage go to the state-run funeral parlor at Calzada and K streets in Havana, the prerevolutionary home of the Rivero family business, where Cuban officials finalize plans to transport the body to Bayamo.
Tony had originally planned to take a domestic flight to Bayamo the next morning. But when that flight is canceled, Roberto offers to drive to the island's eastern end. Tony is ecstatic; not only will he be able to see the country from the ground, but he will reverse the 455-mile journey he made by bus in 1969, when he went to Havana to begin his trip into exile.
At midmorning two cars leave from the Melia Cohiba, the $250-a-night luxury hotel on the Malecon where Alkhalifa and Kennedy are staying. In the brand-new red Hyundai van Roberto has picked for the trip are his girlfriend Marisel, Alkhalifa, and Kennedy, along with a New Timesphotographer and reporter.
Tony rides with his friend José Diaz, who has decided to go to Bayamo just for the adventure, and a Havana friend of Diaz named Carlos. Diaz, again outfitted in the stars-and-stripes headscarf and jewelry, is at the wheel of a rented Peugeot.
Roberto, whose job takes him all around the island, knows the few main roads well. "Every pothole," he says. He leads the way.
From Havana west to Santa Clara, Roberto takes the Soviet-built Autopista Nacional. It is six lanes in places but the pavement is uneven, and the railroad crossings are treacherous and all but unmarked. While there are few other cars on the highway, there are many slow tractors, horse carts, trucks converted to buses and jammed with standing riders, untethered farm animals, bicyclists, and knots of hitchhikers. Nonetheless Roberto is relentless at the wheel, at times reaching speeds above 100 miles per hour, using only his horn and his reflexes to avoid disaster. He speeds up, then brakes hard when a slow-moving vehicle or wagon suddenly looms. And Diaz is in close pursuit.
The scenery whizzes by in a blur, but Tony is trying to inhale every bit of the passing scene, pointing his video camera out the window and imploring Diaz to quit tailgating the red van. At a gasoline stop Tony marvels at the stately royal palms that trail off into the distance over the flat farmland. "When I went to Havana it was at night," he says, breathing in the Cuban air. "So I didn't get to see all this."
East of Santa Clara, the highway narrows into the Carretera Central, a two-lane road built in the early Thirties. As it winds through many small towns, and more tractors and trucks clog the road, La Moleis forced to let up on the gas. The Cuba Tony sees here is little changed from the one he left three decades ago. Oxen harnessed to rough-hewn carts. Cadres of workers waiting for rides. Tobacco-drying sheds, garden plots of carrots and corn. The smoke from distant sugar refineries. Billboards touting not soap but socialism: Hoy la lucha es diferente, pero no menos epica. Today the struggle is different, but no less epic.
At midafternoon the two-car caravan stops for lunch in Camagüey. Two boys on bicycles spot the rental cars at the edge of town and offer to lead Roberto to a paladar, a state-licensed, twelve-seat restaurant in a private home. For steering customers to El Colonealthe boys will earn a finder's fee in U.S. dollars. "To help the family," says one of the boys, neatly defining what's different about la luchanow.
When Tony gets out of the Peugeot he can barely speak. He has lost his voice from screaming at Diaz to slow down. "¡Coño!" cries Tony. "Did you see him back there?" Diaz is unmoved by Tony's complaints. "Just trying to keep up," he shrugs.
After nine people eat a thin slab of pork steak, moros, several plates of tostoneswith mojo, and a salad of lettuce and tomato and pay the $27 bill, the journey continues. As the cars whip past roadside cheese vendors and vegetable stands, through fields of caña,around covered buggies and motor scooters, by pictures of Che Guevara, through Las Tunas and into the hills of Granma province, Tony recalls his grandmother. "She always wanted me to come back," he says later. "She used to say, 'Do I have to die to get you to come home?'"
Located at the southeastern end of the island, Bayamo is far off the track of most visitors to Cuba. A provincial center of sugar and rice production, it is a town rich in history: battleground of the rebel Indian chief Hatuey, where in 1868 Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his plantation slaves and declared Cuba independent from Spain, not far from where patriot José Martí was slain. In 1953 Castro and his rebels staged in Bayamo one of two attacks on army barracks that launched the revolution.