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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A 'Tourist Apartheid' in Cubaa

It was a simple matter of buying gas, but one, like so many things, that was not so simple in Cuba. Three of us had just piled out of a gray Peugeot 306, a cramped little model best driven with the choke full out and the pedal flat down that we had rented about 80 kilometers back in Havana.

Though he was standing in front of a tiny island of working pumps, the gas station attendant, shyly and as tactfully as he could, was trying to tell us that we should, well, sort of just pull behind the bushes across the road, where the gasoline could be siphoned into the car. The station could not sell us gas, he said, because it was not allowed to take dollars, which could be used only at places designated by the state.

So pull across the road we did, and entered Cuba's thriving black-market economy. There, an eager youth took in a mouthful of gas from a plastic hose to get the siphoning started while another balanced a faded red jerry can on his shoulder. It was a transaction (costing about $20) exceptional enough to draw a small crowd. Among them, a golden-haired, green-eyed young mother named Paula, who quickly offered her address and, only half in jest it seemed, the baby suckling at her breast.

This was the Cuba we had come to find, one a bit off the beaten path. The best way to experience this Cuba, we had figured, was to drive around. Our destination was admittedly vague and our system f let's just see what turns up f about as reliable as a bad three-card monte player's.

What turned up during our visit in January was a rural landscape unexpectedly varied and beautiful and, more often than not, people and travelers tossed about on a topsy-turvy economy whose absurdities f sometimes navigated, often simply endured f could only be explained by four decades of embargo and mismanagement.

Our chosen route eventually took us west of Havana through the province of Pinar del Rio, along a coast road that offered up more pothole than pavement but led to some of the country's most fertile sugar cane and tobacco lands. Along the way, the vagaries of what one young Cuban described, rather nervously, as "tourist apartheid" were at least as stunning and abundant as the towering royal palms.

The term is meant to describe a system with places for foreign tourists and their dollars, and places for Cubans and their pesos, though things hardly divide so neatly. Cubans, who on average earn the equivalent of about $10 a month, have become so hard pressed that even the most timid will risk skirting the law to coax dollars from tourists on the black market.

Since this needs to be done mostly discreetly, a traveler rarely meets the hordes of hustlers that one might in other developing countries. Rather, so many tantalizing dollars floating about just beyond legal reach have generated more persistence than packs. In fact, a furtive appeal for dollars could just as easily come at the end of an ordinary conversation as after an illegal transaction.

For a traveler who wanders outside the country's expanding resorts, all this means that even routine encounters can sometimes leave you scratching your head. There are some hotels that won't take tourists, and others that won't take Cubans; restaurants that conjure up hardly more than rice and beans, and private homes that will cook you ample and illicit lobster.

Other absurdities abound as well, like beautiful island women who fall over themselves to spend their time with pasty old Europeans, and gray-haired women who slyly peddle the world's finest cigars. In short, it means a land of (sometimes) artful adaptation, which nearly any visitor quickly joins in.

If hotel rooms are short (and they are), no bother. The moment you are shut out, a taxi driver will discreetly mention that he can fix you up in a private home f as will the man behind the hotel desk, your waiter if you have first stopped to eat or just about anybody in the stream of sometimes pestering young men who mill about pursuing opportunity.

Some of these arrangements are approved by the state. Others are not. But all offer a window on the myriad of ways Cubans have learned to survive in their harrowing, hybrid economy.

Such accommodations can mean hot water for a shower heated in a bucket, food cooked over charcoal embers and a veritable Doctor Dolittle's farm of chickens and pigs to greet you in the morning.

They also offer a chance for warm hospitality and strolls on starry nights along secluded cane fields, where the light glows between the ill-fitted boards of the workers' houses as if, improbably, they were filled with gold.

The coast road runs first past suburban bungalows plunked down on short lawns as it empties out of Havana and eventually enters into rough-and-tumble little towns like Mariel, Cabanas and Bahia Honda. In no time, it flows past grassy seas of sugar cane, lumpy green hills dotted by silver-trunked palms and wide valleys where turkey vultures carve lazy spirals.

The land here is filled with every conceivable image of rural life. Driving along a road that shimmers in the glare of sunset, they turn to silhouettes: men on horseback; children sucking cane; cutters, bodies sinewy and slight, with straw hats and machetes; a young woman, walking with slow grace, balancing her lone cargo, a tin can, on one upturned palm.

We trundled along these roads for several days, and picked up hitchhikers on the way; it was a virtual cruelty not to. There was Clara, a 32-year-old mother of three who like many Cubans complained that without dollars she could afford nothing, including shoes for her 2-year-old. There was Janet, a dance teacher to Europeans ("clumsy as ducks," she said), who gamely accompanied us on bongos through a few off-key verses of "Pinball Wizard." There were others, too: a male student, a doctor, families traveling late at night with a sleeping or sick child.

Our favorite place was Vinales, a well-touristed town of one main street lined by tall pines and bars that pulsed with music. It was mercifully free of hustlers and set in a surreal landscape of woolly humped mountains that lay like sleeping mastodons in the middle of fields striped by red earth and green tobacco plants.

The music here draws a restive crowd of family and friends. Performances, tight yet informal, quickly become free-for-alls of call and response. In no time, the show leaves the stage and surrounds you, as young men and women dance a salsa that is a dizzying swirl of arms.

While these singers were very good, every third-rate pickup band in the country, it seemed, aspired to be featured in the next "Buena Vista Social Club."

I asked for one particularly catchy song at a little CD stand at the airport on my way home. The man behind the counter said he did not have it on any CD, but on cassette, a version sung by (wouldn't you know it) him. It could be mine, of course, for a mere $5.

By now weary of trading dollars on the sly, I instead headed straight for passport control. There, a Cuban official took my passport and, an inky stamp poised at the ready, gravely explained his obligation to strike the opened page knowing that this could get me in big trouble back home, as it is mostly illegal for Americans to visit Cuba.

Then, just as quickly, he dangled before me the offer of a reprieve in a final, appropriately opaque pitch for dollars. "I can help you," he suggested vaguely. "Can you help me?"