El Guayabo, Dec 3: The single dirt street in El Guayabo runs past a few dozen cinderblock homes, the medical clinic and the primary school to a grove of 76 trees planted to honor Fidel Castro on his 76th birthday.
Today, residents of El Guayabo walked a mile down that street to Cuba's central highway to bid a final farewell to the man they credit for bringing medical care, education and basic comforts to this hamlet in the farming and ranching country of arid, sun-scorched eastern Cuba.
"We owe him everything," said Rafael Toledo, a 71-year-old rancher.
"There'll never be another one like him."
Mourning for Castro has reached near-religious peaks of public adulation across Cuba since his death at age 90 on November 25.
Huge crowds have been shouting his name and lining the roads to salute the funeral procession carrying his ashes from Havana to the eastern city of Santiago.
By midday, the cortege had reached the city of Las Tunas, some 665 kilometers east of Havana.
Las Tunas residents shouted, "I am Fidel!" as the seven-vehicle caravan sped by, some waving little Cuban flags and others capturing the moment with cameras on their cellular phones.
In the cities some of the ceremony has been undercut by grumbling about Cuba's autocratic government, inefficient bureaucracy and stagnant economy.
The outpouring has seemed the most heartfelt in Cuba's east, the region his ashes are crossing today.
Castro was born in eastern Cuba.
His revolution started here, and it's here and in other parts of rural Cuba where his campaigns for literacy, social welfare and land redistribution had their deepest impact.
"Before the revolution, the countryside wasn't what you see now," Toledo said.
"My parents were sharecroppers, cane-cutters. They did what they could to support a family of 12, but they couldn't even sign their names. When they died they were literate and had a house with electricity, television and a refrigerator."
For many foreigners, landing in Havana feels like traveling back in time, to an era of 1950s cars and Art Deco homes unpainted for decades.
Heading into the countryside is another step back -- to a region where farmers plow with oxen and people travel by horse-cart. But, thanks to Castro's programs, there are also neighborhood health clinics, small-town libraries and specialized high schools with dance and arts instructors.
Before the revolution, El Guayabo was a family estate with a cheese factory owned by a Cuban family who fled to the United States after Castro and his rebel army took power.
The land was distributed to those working it under agricultural reforms that Castro began in 1959.
Still, while rural Cubans' lives have improved with the arrival of doctors and teachers in once-ignored backwaters, it has been a struggle to earn a living under the island's one-party socialist government and its stifling economic rules.