Michael Kerr, The Daily Telegraph, March 05, 2012
When it comes to trains, the Spanish and the Cubans don’t quite speak a common language. For the Spanish, a fast train is one that covers the 370 miles from Madrid to Barcelona in two and a half hours. The Cubans are less exacting. The day I was on it, their fast train from Havana to Santiago, some 535 miles, took 18 hours.
I was taking it out of a mixture of adventure and cowardice. It would be an opportunity to see the countryside, meet the people and learn a few phrases of Spanish. It would also be preferable to taking internal flights on planes that were said to be of “questionable airworthiness”.
I had booked well ahead. The local tour company – to safeguard me or national security – had its rep accompany me in the taxi from my hotel to the station. We shouldered our way through rickshaws and motorbikes and trolleys, and jinked around the cardboard boxes that serve for many Cubans as suitcases.
I boarded the train just after 4pm. It was due to leave at 4.30. It did not stir until nearly six, which was roughly when the air-conditioning started up. The lights, aside from a bulb at either end of the carriage, didn’t come on at all.
The five-coach diesel was as grimy as any steam train. Inside, however, the red leather seats were well padded and, I noted, had levers allowing them to recline. The windows were murky as greaseproof paper, but then there was little to look at: rusting lorries, skinny-ribbed cows, fields of rice and sugar cane, shacks which, however tumbledown, had a television aerial. Cuba was a plain with occasional bumps; Norfolk with palm trees.
My companions included Kyrenia, a petite and beautiful student (though not, unfortunately, of English). Across the aisle from her was a woman in a bright red halter top and brighter red lipstick, who laughed easily and often. In front of her was a musician in baseball cap and bomber jacket guarding a trombone case and, next to him, a thin-mustachioed policeman.
Spain’s fast trains have films, headphones, a stylish espresso bar. We had warm beer, visits to a non-flushing loo, and mozzie bashing. Every so often the Lady in Red and El Músico would take off a shoe and swat the mosquitoes that found a way in where the smoke could not get out. I made a few swipes myself with my notebook, but failed to connect. Kyrenia eyed me disdainfully.
Lunging manfully at the next mozzie, I sent my can of beer flying. Two minutes later the policeman, who had been in the next carriage, reappeared. Which idiota, he asked, had spilt beer under his seat? “It was the tourist,” said El Músico. “But he was trying to kill the mosquitoes.” I got off with a warning look.
Two men appeared wheeling a refrigerated trolley with a tap at the end. “Refresco, refresco.” This watered-down fruit juice was just what I needed – but I didn’t have a cup to put it in and Cuba doesn’t run to styrofoam. El Músico, perhaps guilty at having shopped me, offered his tumbler. He gave me his card, too. “Porfirio Mariol,” read the faint lettering, “Director, Nuestra Orquesta Los Karachi.”
Porfirio appointed himself my guide, jabbing a finger at the window to tell me that this lorry was full of pepino (cucumber), that those birds were turkey buzzards. But his skills were not severely tested. By 7pm it was too dark to see to the end of the carriage, and by 8pm Kyrenia was softly snoring. I tried to sleep myself, only to discover that my seat was the only one in the carriage that didn’t recline. What’s more, my bottle of water was in my suitcase – above the head of the sleeping policeman...
It was an endless night. We didn’t quite stop at every hole in the hedge, but where we did stop we lingered. Station names were almost impossible to decipher. Some time after two, I finally dozed off.
I woke at 5.50 to a grey dawn over another nameless town.“Michael – el sol,” said El Músico helpfully, indicating the great orange disc on our right. There was little else to remark on. The same fields of rice, the same plain, punctuated here and there by a cowboy on a horse.
Around 9.30 a grey bump appeared on our left, then another and another. They grew bigger and greener – the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had once gone into hiding. But I was too stiff and jaded to enjoy the contrast.
It was almost midday when we arrived in Santiago. Shouldering his trombone, El Músico said: “Come to my concert – next Saturday at the Teatro Heredia.” I thanked him and made hopeful signals, having neither the heart nor the energy to explain that I was staying only a couple of nights and by the time he took the stage would be long gone.
I fought my way to a taxi, collapsed into it and, on arrival at my hotel, went straight to the desk to book my return – by air. “I’m sorry, sir,” the clerk said. “All flights are booked for the next four days. But there is a train…’’
- Michael Kerr is deputy travel editor of The Daily Telegraph and editor of Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper: the New Telegraph Book of Great Railway Journeys (Aurum Press), which is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514; books.telegraph.co.uk) for £20 plus £1.25 p & p.