Before I went to Cuba, everyone told me I was lucky to be getting in while Castro was still alive and before everything changed. That was in 1996. He’s not dead yet and no one’s sure whether we’re about to see a historic change or just a handover. Now’s the time to go, all the tour operators are saying — just as they were saying a dozen years ago. And they’re right: any time is a good time to see Cuba. I’m not sure, though, that I would want to see it again from the railway.
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.
The Man in Seat Sixty-One, who is usually dependable on these matters, says Cuba got newer secondhand trains in 2001, so they may have got quicker and more comfortable, but the picture on his site of the “primera especial” looks just like the one I rode.
I went by train 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 travelling with Cubana, whose planes, my guidebook said, were of “questionable airworthiness”.
I had booked in advance and the local tour company — to safeguard me or national security — had its rep accompany me in the taxi from my hotel to the station. Having a ticket already, I was denied the experience of queuing at a window, but the pre-boarding scuffle was some compensation.
We shouldered our way through rickshaws and motorbikes and trolleys, and jinked around the piles of roped cardboard boxes that serve for many Cubans as suitcases. Before I reached the platform my bit of flimsy had been inspected three times and, with my visa, stamped once.
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, once cream with brown stripes, 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, sported a TV 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 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-moustachioed policeman, a chain-smoker.
Spain’s fast trains have movies, 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 it was an accident — 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 or a bottle 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 off-centre 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, let alone through the window, and by 8pm Kyrenia was softly snoring. So much for seeing the country and meeting the people.
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, and my suitcase was 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. Cuba, for fear perhaps of making things too easy for invading Americans, burns no midnight oil. Some time after two, I finally dozed off.
I woke at 5.50 to a grey dawn over another nameless town. Through the window to my right two early risers huddled on their stoops, savouring the first cigarette of the day; a third was already disappearing into the sugar cane.
“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, the same giant palms.
Around 9.30 a grey bump appeared hazily on our left, then another and another. They grew bigger and greener — the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. But I was too stiff and sore, too 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 transport desk to book my return — by air. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the clerk. “All flights are booked for the next four days. But there is a train . . .’’
And if you still fancy taking it, see what The Man in Seat Sixty-One has to say about it…
Peter Pomerantsev wins the @RSLiterature Ondaatje Prize for Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.