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 we’ll be traveling by train has shaken their head. “Why?” They ask. The simple answer is that we want something real, an authentic Cuban experience, not a tourist package. And more, there’s just something romantic about a train.
After 2 hours seated atop our packs in the middle of the packed platform, the train arrives. Seemingly random gates open while others remain closed and suddenly 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.
7:00 pm: So much for waiting patiently in line.
A woman just in front of us passes her baby over her head to her husband (outside the line) so it won’t get crushed in the train-boarding pandemonium. Once she reaches the front of the line, they pass the baby through the gap, but the man behind me swings his shoulder into me. I stand firm. “Espera!” I snap “Para que no le haga daño,” gesturing to the baby. He not only stops, but steps back a bit, pushing the crowd in the other direction so as not to injure the wide-eyed infant. Once through, Sean helps the family hoist their luggage aboard and we follow suit. They don’t seem shaken in the slightest.
9:00 PM: After 2 hours of “boarding”, we still aren’t moving. The rain hasn’t let up the entire time and the one moment I should be alert, I feel sleepy. We’ve been warned that since no foreigners take this train (or are even allowed to, really) we should take precaution in guarding our things and ourselves. “Cubans are generally warm-hearted, great people, but don’t take that for granted,” our Cuban acquaintances have told us. Don’t be an idiot; this is the essential takeaway. Anything could happen anywhere, of course; we can’t let eternal optimism cloud our judgment.
The train stewardess tells us we should arrive between twelve and one tomorrow and then she laughs. “But, we’ll get there when we get there,” she says. She also makes a big deal about smoking, saying none will be tolerated on the train under any circumstances.
After half an hour moving at a speed I could walk comfortably with a pack on, we stop for a half hour. No one seems to know why, but no one seems to care either. Passengers 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, pointing to the conductor who is drinking Aguardiente (homemade booze, literally translated: firewater) 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,” He jokes.
“So what, they drive for 30 minutes and then stop for an hour?” I ask.
“Baby, this is as fast as a drunk conductor can drive!”
10:00 PM: We learn that the lengthy pause is due to a broken hose and that they’re fixing it. We shrug; it’s all part of the experience. “No quiero que se alteren,” (Translation: Don’t freak out) says the train stewardess with the purple hair as a general announcement. 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 cease playing Go-Fish and look around; the way this is going we’re sure to make friends soon.
11:00 PM: We stop again, this time it’s a different train broken down in the station we need to pass through. The Cubans laugh less and grumble more, saying the other train probably has a busted hose too.
Meanwhile the baby cockroaches have come out, crawling the train walls. The bathroom is rusted through and piss-covered. No one seems to be aiming. Even with the windows open the smell of urine permeates the car.
4:30 AM: It’s nearly five o’clock in the morning, 12 hours from our arrival in the train station, and we haven’t reached Matanzas – a distance of 64 miles. The train has been broken-down for hours. One woman jokes that it could take 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 the whole trip in six hours. Now, with more money, the train won’t even attempt sixteen.
Another woman interjects, “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 crying in the seat in front of us 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?” I ask trying to mask my frustration.
“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.
“Gross, but ok. Yes.”
The man hands slices of unrefrigerated pizza through the window to dirty hands. No water to wash them.
11:00 AM: I ask the purple haired trainstress where we are and how much longer we have. 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.” We’ve only gone 334 miles in 18 hours?? 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 help me pull my shit together. I can do this. I know I can. “I’m just wondering 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 reeling and vomiting 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 at least 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 decides to walk to the back of the train to photograph the cow and encounters several hopping 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.
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. Government like that – 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, getting all the passengers wet.
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 also 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 the 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 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 (private houses that rent rooms to tourists). They finally find an available. We pass out there without question (or taking off our shoes.)
But this isn’t the end. Unbeknownst to us, our hallucinations weren’t based solely in hunger and exhaustion. We contracted typhoid and the fun was just beginning.
We sleep most of the day and wake up mildly delirious, but assume that after a trip like that it’s to be expected. After meeting our gracious hosts, Roberto and Sofi, we head down to the beach to celebrate. We have arrived.
We take a tiny rowboat out to Playa Blanca and find we are practically the only ones on this tiny island beach. It doesn’t take long to notice that we feel strange – suddenly hot, then cold, and exhausted. But whatever, after an experience like that who wouldn’t? We start back to the house, but can’t walk more than 30 feet at a time without sitting down. This is when it dawns on us – something is actually wrong.
Back at our room, Sofi tells us not to worry. She happens to have a PhD in micro-biology (she makes more money renting the rooms in her house), so she will keep a close eye on us …and that she does. For 3 days, we can’t leave the room. Fever through the roof, pain and suffering, and through it all she brings us meals and tea and anything we need. Essentially, she saves our lives.
After 3 grueling days, I turn to Sean: “I think I’m going to be okay.”
We decide to try to leave the room. It’s a simple seeming proposition and there is a nearby Casa de Cultura where live music is sure to be happening. We drag ourselves out of bed, out the door and two blocks down the road where we can hear the music. Inside we order sparkling water and collapse into our seats weakly, so proud to have made it. After one song the owner receives a phone call and we watch his face change.
“What?” He asks, clearly stunned. “Everybody out!” He shouts. “Hugo Chavez is dead.”
With that the musicians lay down their instruments, some mid-chord, and everyone leaves. 3 days of national mourning begin; no music is allowed. The shutters close, leaving us to finish our mineral waters in the dark.
Visit us at Sean and Mittie for more overland travel stories and budget travel tips. We may save you from Typhoid!