ON THE CARRETERA CENTRAL, Cuba — "Subanse," climb aboard, I said repeatedly, pulling the right wheels of my eight-seat van off the dangerous two-lane highway that snakes hundreds of miles across an island considered off limits to most Americans.
Ostensibly, I was in Cuba to cover Pope Benedict XVI's visit. But over the week and across the length of the Ohio-sized country, I gave more than five dozen Cubans a "botella" — in Cuban slang, a ride.
My riders gave an unvarnished view of the country. They were farmers, housewives and doctors. They were school kids, half a baseball team, an economist and even a judge, who proclaimed herself to be a huge fan of Jack Bauer in the American TV thriller series "24."
The van was a lark. Waiting for my small rental car at the Havana airport for two hours — described to me as five Cuban minutes — the overworked rental agent finally offered me the huge diesel-powered vehicle if I'd get on my way.
Never miss a local story.
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I spent most of the following week offering ordinary Cubans a ride in my gray Hyundai van — which often carried more passengers than it was designed to.
I don't speak with a gringo accent. Some riders thought I was Argentine, most were baffled and many were wide-eyed to discover their driver was American and a reporter to boot.
"I have an aunt in Florida," said Angela, who got in before Camaguey, a central Cuban city. Many others said the same, citing family members in Miami, Orlando and Houston.
A few passengers were nervous — perhaps because of my driving — and sat silently. Most were expressive but guarded, quieter when others were in the car. As the number of riders thinned, the conversation generally opened up.
To break the ice, I played Latin music on my iPod through the van's speaker system. In an early, surreal moment, four Cuban women belted out "Amame," a love song by Colombian rocker Juanes. It put to rest any notion that Cubans in the interior lacked knowledge of the outside world.
I left Havana at 5 a.m. sharp on a Sunday, a good day to travel because people are trying to hitch rides home after weekend visits. I was led out of Havana by a cab driver I paid to get me to the Carretera Nacional, the national highway that is the first stretch of the Carretera Central, or Central Highway.
At the start, the drive looked promising enough, four lanes of completely empty highway. About 20 minutes in, however, the four lanes became two with no advance warning. The only indication of roadwork was the metal barriers — not visible in darkness — that I nearly hit skidding at 70 mph.
Minutes later, I drove over a hole so deep that my head hit the roof as the seatbelt snapped tight. And soon after, there was fog so thick you couldn't see three cars lengths ahead. It was a tough start.
About four hours in, I got on the narrow Carretera Central. Imagine a two-lane back road in Anywhere USA. Now imagine it rutted with deep potholes. This was my road, and my starting point for picking up riders.
Hitchhiking is about the only way to get around outside Cuban cities. Gasoline costs about what it does in the United States. Most Cubans don't have cars. Most earn a monthly government salary of less than $20. Getting from Point A to Point B requires patience, lots of it. The central highway is clogged with horse buggies, ox carts and tractors pulling wagonloads of people.
Cuba differs from the rest of Latin America in that there aren't shops and stalls along the roadside with people eking out a living in sundry small businesses. This sort of self-employment has only just been legalized in Cuba, which officially disdains the private sector, so it isn't widespread yet.
Instead, the Cuban roadside is mostly bare, with occasional in-home restaurants — known as "paladares" — and a whole bunch of revolutionary billboards.
One mocked the U.S. financial crisis with a downward plunging red line on a financial chart. Others called for the release of five Cuban spies jailed in the United States. And some were just plain odd.
"Socialism: Homework for the Free Man," read one confounding sign. Another, near an abandoned workers dormitory, read, "Fidel, yes we did it." My personal favorite was at an ecological reserve, declaring, "Nature is Revolution." Huh?
Sometimes subtly, sometimes directly, I asked the same questions of all my passengers. How do they feel about the newly announced economic openings? Are they better or worse off than before? What do they think of President Raul Castro?
If they weren't too nervous, I asked what would come after the deaths of Fidel, 85, and Raul, soon to be 81. They've ruled Cuba for 53 years, 50 of them under a U.S. trade embargo. Simple math says their end is near. And I asked what'll happen if Venezuela's cancer-stricken president, Hugo Chavez, dies? He's helped keep Cuba afloat with cheap oil.
What I was after was this: Is Cuba ripe for an Arab Spring, where people can't stand it anymore and take to the streets? Has the government lost its moral authority? Is it at risk of collapse from within?
Most riders expected continuity, post-Castro brothers. An exception was Carlos, a paramedic picked up outside Havana late in the week on the way east along the northwestern coastline.
"The day that they both die will be the day that the country reclaims its real liberty," he said, adding, "Cubans want the same rights as the people who live closest to us, in the United States."
Carlos, 52, said he was among legions of Cubans who tried to make it to U.S. shores by raft. He was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard seven miles off Florida and returned during the 1990s.
"We're living in a country of lies," he said, angry that tourists can come to Cuba and enjoy a parallel currency, while ordinary Cubans cannot travel.
Franklin, an eloquent economics-trained restaurant worker in his 30s, spoke passionately about his hope for change.
"In every country there are distinct parties because not everyone has the same thought, the same ideology. There are Republicans and Democrats in your country," he said indignantly. "Here there's just one party, there's no party that is in opposition. When we analyze it, it's as if we are all of the same mindset — and of course it's not like that. But what can we do?"
Asked if the eventual deaths of the Castro brothers might lead people to spontaneously take to the streets, Franklin wasn't optimistic.
"We are like zombies. We walk, but we don't know what our rights are, our duties are, what we should think. What we're presented is how we think," he said, not hopeful that the dissident movement has much influence. "If 1,000 or 2,000 people (out of 11 million) think like this, it won't change anything."
Most of the riders expected things to stay the same, however. That's because the structure of governance has been in place for five decades. Local and regional party bosses and secret police have a vested interest in continuity, they suggested.
In the eastern city of Holguin, I was talking with a former soldier, Reynaldo Gonzalez, a jack of all trades, when he paused to take stock of a middle-aged man he said was a secret police officer who'd scooted up a park bench to eavesdrop on our conversation.
Gonzalez was pro-regime and referred to Miami Cubans as "gusanos," or worms. He vowed that Cubans on the island can withstand any U.S. invasion, but he acknowledged he's worried that if Chavez dies or is defeated in October elections there'll be a repeat of the early 1990s after Soviet funding disappeared, when life in Cuba was particularly hard.
"We will have to tighten our belts," he said somberly.
A woman named Milagros did fear the coming change. She spoke bluntly and then, remembering she's in Cuba, asked me to turn off the recorder and begged that I not mention her profession or her city because "everybody knows I complain."
Milagros feared a harder line after the ailing Fidel passes. His brother Raul has ruled since 2006, but Fidel looms large still.
"Raul is not passive like Fidel. Fidel, all he wanted was discussion of ideas, like he says, a battle of ideas: no war, no arms. But Raul is more aggressive," she said, adding, "It really scares me. It really scares me that Fidel will die."
Not one passenger could name a person they expected to succeed the Castro brothers. Until their ouster in 2009, two names were frequently cited in and out of Cuba — Carlos Lage, who was de facto prime minister, and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. Fidel Castro famously accused them of falling under the spell of the "honey of power." (Cubans joke that the pair belong to the Pajama Party, since they now cool their heels at home.)
The police presence in Cuba remains quite visible. There are checkpoints in every town along the highway. Having traveled extensively behind the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it felt familiar. It wasn't a menacing police presence, just a constant one.
Hard times dominated almost every conversation with passengers. They complained about how tough it is with rising food prices and shortages of milk and other essentials. They complained about the government cutting back subsidies and slashing government jobs.
Angela, a poor white woman from the interior, said her kids, ages 11, 9 and 2, don't know yet what ice cream tastes like. The government no longer provides subsidies for milk for children older than 8, she said. Angela gets a 30-peso-per-child subsidy, roughly about $1.50 a month.
"What do you think a mother can do to feed her kids with that money? It's not even enough to pay for the milk the state sells!" she said bitterly. Her husband divorced her, and Yaritza, a tall black woman who hopped into the van at the same time, urged Angela to seek a husband with a cow.
Cattle are the property of the state. A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Cuba's cattle population is at least 20 percent less than it was at the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Killing a cow carries a prison sentence of four to 10 years, according to the penal judge I picked up later in the week.
Yaritza complained that Cubans every day are forced to make unpleasant tradeoffs.
"With what they pay us, we can't live. If you eat, you can't dress yourself. And if you dress yourself, you can't eat," she said. "Food prices are very high, and clothes, don't even mention it."
What about those economic reforms getting headlines outside Cuba?
"It's helped economically, but you need money to invest to start up something you can do later," said Angela. "The self-employed must have startup money. And for those of us who don't, what can we do?"
I ask about government plans to adapt microfinance — small loans, often to poor women, which have proven successful in Bangladesh and other developing nations. None of my passengers had caught wind of this idea yet.
All across the central plains of Cuba, the plains were, well, plain. I was traveling in the dry season, a six-month period that generally ends with May showers. Parts of Cuba are in a five-year drought, so some cattle and horses in this region were clearly bordering on starvation.
Their rib cages protruded through their sagging skin as they foraged for anything green. I sent a picture of one cow home to my 10-year-old daughter when I reached Santiago to cover Pope Benedict.
"DAD call animal control it's neglected!!!!!!!" she wrote back with the innocence of a grade-school student.
Elcio Cabrera, a poor farmer with red eyes and the stink alcohol wafting from every pore, climbed aboard in Bayamo, an eastern city.
"You've got to work real hard to get food on the table for your family," he said of the current hardship, offering guava and other fruit before stealing my spare shoes upon exit.
During the eventful week at the wheel, I sat in on a pickup baseball game near Bayamo, with barefooted players as entertaining as any major league game. I gave eight kids a ride in Biran, the birthplace of Fidel and Raul. I happened upon a horrific car crash in Holguin that left me in a "there but for the grace of God go I" mood. Cuba's accident mortality rate was 14.5 per 100,000 citizens in 2009, unusually high given how few vehicles there are in the country but almost half what is was in the 1980s. In 2010, the comparable rate was 11.4 per 100,000 in the United States — where nearly all households have a car.
Back in Havana, I reflected on how much was squeezed into a short trip, trying to match so many names to so many conversations.
I was most struck by the warmth of the Cuban people. Three or four strangers climbed in, and within 10 minutes they were talking to each other as if they'd been lifelong friends.
There's a lot to be depressed about in Cuba, where much in life is brought down to a shared level of misery, a lowest common denominator, if you will. Yet Cubans have come to rely on each other for five long decades in order to survive.
Passenger Milagros best expressed that optimism.
"We all know we are in a poor country, but within undeveloped countries, Cuba is a privileged country," she said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.