The source of the smoke turned out to be a burning brake-drum. Finding itself with nothing much to stop - the nearside rear wheel having just overtaken the 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air to which it had previously been attached - the component promptly self-combusted.
The tyre sped on past the ancient hulk. This comprised no great feat of velocity, since the ancient hulk of Detroit detritus was incapable of exceeding 30mph even with a full complement of wheels. The speedometer would have confirmed this, had it not itself stopped functioning at some time in the early Seventies.
In the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, Carlos had jabbed at the brake pedal a little too zealously. Once I had retrieved the errant wheel from the ditch where it came to rest, we spent a sweaty hour re-attaching it to the axle and accepting the condolences of the occasional passing vehicle. Carlos and I had teamed up three hours earlier, in the middle of the drowsiest of sleepy towns, Manzanillo. We had met in the usual manner for Westerners wishing to travel around Cuba these days - a combination of hitch-hiking and robust financial negotiation. Bus and train timetables aren't worth the paper they're not written on. What once passed as Cuba's public transport system has been crushed by a pecuniary pincer movement: America's economic embargo, and the collapse of Communism (which removed Moscow's handy pounds 5 billion annual subsidy). Instead, I had walked from the somnolent solitude of Manzanillo's main square along Calle Marti, dodging the hobbling horses and carts that serve as short-haul transport, and hailing anything motorised that moved. Not much was moving that afternoon, which meant all the more time to soak up the comfortable stupor of a Cuban provincial town. The experience is like stepping into an early Cezanne painting: duck- egg blue cuddles up against baby pink, while delicate green gives birth to fragile lavender. Maybe Manzanillo provided the inspirational palette for corporate colours, too, where Cafe Rouge gold merges with Pepsi blue to generate Vidal Sassoon green. My target was a bay on the southern shore of Cuba, 60 miles away on the far side of the mountain range; a pounds 15 journey by the time Carlos had guided the Chevy to a stationary shambles by the side of the street and we had concluded our negotiations. This is about five times the going rate for a local, and therefore a reasonable price for a Westerner to pay to reach a curious kind of paradise. Within two short hours, we were still in Manzanillo. Carlos had not been planning to make the drive, so before setting off we were obliged to pick up his wife from the hospital at which she works; take her along to their daughters' school; pick up two young girls, who immediately burst into fits of giggles at a gangling gringo; return to the family home, a single- storey affair on the edge of town whose two other residents squeaked and squawked respectively; and, while sipping strong, sweet coffee, discuss when the family pig and chicken would be transformed from pets to dinner. When we finally broke free of the city limits, miscellaneous Cubans enjoyed free rides along the way - a tiny repayment for the generosity shown by the companeros. …