03 May Cuba Train Travel
5:00 PM: After another day of wandering around Havana, photographing entryways and chatting with locals, here we sit in the packed train station (on top of our backpacks) waiting. The train is late, but that’s to be expected. We’re not taking the 1st class train, though we hear it’s not much better anyway. Every Cuban we’ve told has shaken their head at us. “Why?” They ask. Real is what we want, and more, there’s something romantic about a train.
7:00 PM: But when the gates open to board the train, the gates for cars 9-12 remain closed and we find ourselves caught up in a wave pushing its way into the nearby lines. People shove each other, grunting and complaining while suitcases knock people’s knees out from under them. A man in the front of the line is drunk and has no ticket. He refuses to move. The mob rocks back and forth until he’s dragged off by the police and the stampede breaks out again.
A woman passes her baby to her husband (outside the line) so it won’t get crushed. As soon as she reaches the front of the line and they pass the baby through the gap, the man behind me swings his shoulder into me. I stand firm. “Espera! Para que no le haga dano.” He not only stops, but steps back a bit, pushing the crowd in the other direction so as not to injure the infant. Once through, Sean helps the family with the baby to hoist their luggage aboard and we follow suit.
9:00 PM: After 2 hours of getting us boarded, we still aren’t moving. The rain hasn’t stopped the whole time and the one moment I should be alert, I feel sleepy. The train stewardess tells us we should arrive between twelve and one tomorrow and then she laughs. “We’ll get there when we get there,” she says. She also makes a big deal about smoking, saying none of it would be tolerated on the train. Under any circumstances.
After half an hour moving at a speed I can walk (with a pack on), we stop for a half hour. No one seems to know why, but no one seems to care either. They roam around chatting, until one of the conductors walks through the car smoking and says, “Alright, let’s go.”
“This is clearly the party train,” says Sean, watching the conductor drinking Aguardiente (firewater) from the bottle and flirting with a teenage girl in the back of the car. “Let’s get fucked up. You’re clearly in no danger of getting motion sickness.”
“So what, they drive for 30 minutes and then stop for an hour?” I ask.
“This is as fast as a drunk conductor can drive, baby.”
10:00 PM: We find out that it’s a broken hose and that they’re fixing it. “No quiero que se alteren,” says the train stewardess (with the purple hair and purple scalp) to the people in the car. Just then the smell of burning rubber seeps in the windows and the train begins to lurch. Laughter erupts as the train comes to a stop. We pause playing Go-Fish and look around. We’re sure to make friends soon.
11:00 PM: We stop again, this time due to a broken down train in the station we’re about to pass through. The Cubans laugh less and grumble more this time, saying the other train probably has a busted hose too.
Baby cockroaches crawl the train walls. The bathroom is rusted through and piss covered. Even with the windows open the smell of urine permeates the car.
4:30 AM: It’s nearly five o’clock in the morning and we haven’t reached Matanzas. The train has been broken-down for hours. One woman jokes that it could be 3 or 4 days. Through the piss-permeated haze of the cabin, I’m inclined to agree with her. Coughs echo through the space – shouts and complaints as well. The man next to us explains that in ’79 trains were air-conditioned and so efficient they could make this trip in six hours. Now, with more money, the train won’t even attempt sixteen.
Another woman says, “Calm down. We’ll get there when we do. No sense in raising anyone’s blood pressure.” Still another woman complains about the stench in the bathroom that elderly people and children have to use. A little girl can’t sleep for fear of the cockroaches. Did we do this to be romantic?
The train lurches and finally takes off again, fluorescent lights raining down on us like the neon signs of Vegas permitting little sleep.
“This is all fodder for your article,” Sean says, stroking my arm.
“Why wasn’t the train checked in the nearly twelve hours it was in the station?”
“Complete lack of quality control.”
6:00 AM: “La pizza, la pizza de queso a cinco y el refresco frio.” A man selling food outside the window in Santa Clara.
11:00 AM: I ask the purple haired trainstress where we are and how much longer do we have to go. The original estimate had been between noon and one, and after eighteen hours, quite frankly, we were over it. “Camaguey,” she says, “Eight hours to go.” I stagger back to my seat. I’ve reached a threshold where I want to claw my skin off. I’m ready to climb out the window. I stink of sweat and desperately want to brush my teeth, but there’s no running water and nothing but wedges of unrefrigerated cheese to eat.
Sean suggests the sounds of Etta James to make me pull my shit together. I can do this. I know I can.
“I just wonder who’s going to win,” he says, “Mittie or the train.”
I’m changing my bet.
1:00 PM: Conversations about Socialism: “This is mediocre. I mean, the people in charge could care less because at the end of this no one is going to say, ‘Oh, let’s see, you arrived 14 hours late; you’re fired.’”
Everyone is drinking firewater, even the twelve year old on the verge of puking in the seat next to us. And out of the bottle no less. They pass the grain alcohol from seat to seat, swigging out of the bottle and why not? We’ve still got a long way to go.
2:00 PM: So, we just hit a cow. The train is stopped and the families are keeping the children away from the windows. I hope someone is going to eat it. The trainstress walks through the car an hour later saying, “well, the cow messed up that famous hose and two more. One woman jokes that there must be steak between the tubes.
Sean walks to the back of the train to photograph the cow and encounters several firewater parties along the way. Several cars back someone says, “Hey, you’re the American guy who lives in Mexico, here with your wife.”
7:00 PM: I ask the purple haired woman when we’ll arrive and she says in two hours.
9:00 PM: I ask the purple haired woman when we’ll arrive and she says in two hours. Again.
Sean’s rant: There is a point when a government becomes an impediment to its people, subjecting them only to disservice & restrictions. Government has no such right. Such government – be it in Cuba or the US deserves to be stripped of its authority. Fidel and Raul should be removed from power by the same people whose entire lives they have hampered & degraded. Generations living half-lives in squalor all in the name of patriotism & the revolution. This inefficiency (total incompetence in so many areas) is domestic – having little to do with the embargo. The people in charge have no incentive to get anything right.
This government has jailed its people for generations. The country is broken. Socialism – Cuban socialism is a clear failure. You can be a doctor and your education is free but you’ll earn less than a taxi driver – so why bother? Fifty-five years later, is it time for another Cuban revolution?
1:00 AM: Finally, after thirty-two hours on the train, no food, water, or sleep to speak of, and two mental breakdowns we arrive at Guantanamo. When we try to board the bus to Baracoa, we’re turned away. We find a 1951 truck waiting to drive the overage to their destination, another 4-5 hours away. The driver, Julian, invites us to sit up front with him to keep dry. It hasn’t stopped raining for three days and the back of the truck is ventilated with long open panels.
We cram our packs in and try to make conversation. Julian is astute and surprisingly forthcoming talking about Cuba’s two-facedness and what a farce it all is. “The new privileges given to its people are a joke,” he says, “since they can’t be taken advantage of.” We’re both struck by his honesty and openness, but by the time we break the wall of fog and start climbing the cliffs, we can’t help it. We’re both unconscious.
I wake to Sean lowering himself onto the truck floor, his head on my lap. I struggle to keep my eyes open and conversation flowing as the highway’s railings double and swerve like a Dali painting. I say something to that effect and our conversation stops abruptly.
5:00 AM: Desperate to arrive, we finally make it to Baracoa. I’m ready to climb out the window and sleep on the sidewalk. I will literally do anything to sleep. Julian weaves through the streets while a sidekick knocks on all the Casas Particulares looking for a room. They finally find one. We pass out there without question (or taking off our shoes.)