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Cuba - My love/hate relationship

 

A personal report based on my journey to Cuba in the late nineties, where I hiked in the Oriente province (Santiago de Cuba , Sierra Maestra and Baracoa) .  

Get a great experience going by train in Cuba ,but bring a tremendous lot of patience, as the following story shows:

 

Cuban train


I am close to the main train station in Havana going by a private taxi. It is around 10 AM and our train is leaving 5.20 PM.

Everything around the station is a chaos, or at least it looks so. Everywhere there are lines, where Cubans are waiting. Some patient but many yelling and pushing, anxious not to get a ticket on the pride of the Cuban State Railways, El tren no. uno (train no 1) from Havana to Santiago de cuba, the only train as it is said, that you can be sure isn't canceled.

I am looking for the Ladis office, where I ,according to my guide book, should be able to buy tickets, if there are any left.

I ask some of the Cubans who are waiting and they point to a place where the line is stopped and a lot of people are shouting and waving.

I try to force my way through the masses, at first polite in an European way, but later, as nobody seem to bother about my polite manners, I do as everybody else and force my way desperately to the front of the line.

It looks like the Cubans accept this, even if they themselves have been waiting for hours.

Cuban bus

Now I understand the reason for the turmoil. In front of the entrance to the ticket office resides a typical Cuban bureaucrat.

One of the sort, that I will meet a lot of times later on during my trip, sometimes disguised in train uniforms, sometimes as policemen or waiters.

Fidel Castro has once said , that when you give a Cuban an uniform he/she changes totally like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Later in my trip I met the trained bureaucrats everywhere: It was far out in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they regarded this hiking traveler going by himself and coming from somewhere in Europe as a suspicious subject. One who probably was going to Cuba to start a new revolution like Fidel had started one 40 years from his base Commandancia de la Plata in the same area.

On my way to Commandancia I met?:

Sierra maestra Cuba

Following this they made every possible effort to make it very difficult for me to go anywhere in these mountains. But they didnít succeed. I was not admitted by the police as planned to go from the north side via Pico Turquino (1900m)(the clouded mountain in the background) to the south coast. Why? You can ask the authorities in Cuba if you dare, but you don't get an answer. Anyway I managed otherwise to experience this beautiful mountain area , hidden for tourists, but waiting to be opened up.


Pico Turquino Cuba

Back to the story. This bureaucrat is a female middle-aged person. She knows the power she has, and she likes to perform it, and lets nobody get in the office. Why bother selling tickets, when the train leaves anyway, she probably thinks.

I show her a firm European-dollar-tourist-"donít dare to stop me" expression, as I ask her, if this is where I buy ticket for El tren no uno, and by a miracle she opens up a tiny passage and lets me in the office.

For the next hour nothing happens. That is of course in relation to my main purpose being in the office to get a ticket. Even if I tried several times to ask her, when she planned to return to her main job.


Cuban bureaucrat

But otherwise a lot happened:

The bureaucrat kept her position locking all sort of possible ticket buyers out, with the exception of 2 or 3 that obviously were her friends, and who were greeted with cheek kisses and a smile. She had someone to bring her a sandwich that she ate in front of the Cubans with great delight. In no way caring for the many fellow citizens in front of her, who hadn't had anything for hours, eager not to miss their place in the line.

After one hour suddenly another bureaucrat emerged from nowhere and placed herself behind an enormous desk covered with dusty papers. Everyone in the office got up to get the attention of the newcomer.

Cuban lines

Now the negotiations for a ticket started. .

The first one, a Cuban, was interrogated in the same way as if he had asked for a visa to get out of Cuba. After this questioning he had to show all sorts of papers and documentation, and everything was carefully inspected.

Finally the miracle happened. From a drawer she brought a piece of paper the size of a stamp to act as a ticket, where she managed to write all sorts of specifications probably needed for the many bureaucrats in the next many hours until Santiago de Cuba.

When it became my turn I considered if I should in some way make compliments about the Cuban Railways and their service-minded employees, but wisely I kept my mouth shot and just looked humble like the others before me, who had succeeded in getting a ticket.

And finally after 2 hours I could leave the office, with a ticket in my pocket no bigger than a stamp, proud to have won the first of many fights during the next 3 weeks over the Cuban bureaucracy, and fighting my way out through the now nearly desperate crowd of Cubans, waiting to get a ticket.

I returned again at 3 PM now to go in another line, this time to have my ticket bought just 2 hours ago confirmed in another office, like this was a flight overseas.


Cuban reading

This office was manned with another Cuban, who had been in the same school as the first one.

But 4 PM I could join the hundreds of Cubans now waiting for the train to leave at 5.20 PM. All equipped with food and drink like this was an expedition and not a train ride for 800 km.

Cuban street scene

But that was wise, as it later showed up, and probably based on many years of experience of traveling by train in Cuba.

The departure hall was crowded like an exotic market with Cubans, who all looked like they had lived through 3 revolutions and not just one, and now were ready to meet anything the destiny would offer them.

It didnt take long time before I met the first of many Cubans in the following days, who were eager to get in contact with me. Nearly everyone expressed more or less clearly a wish that I in some way or other could contribute to make their daily life more tolerable.

It took some days to divide the hustlers from the the regular ones, and probably during the first days I was more than necessarily rude to people, who hadnít deserved it.

But you have to learn all the time, and not the least in Cuba when you travel by yourself.

Cuban street

The stories I were told from the Cubans whom I got into contact with the first hours were of all sorts.

There was the old man dressed in a uniform, who whispered me a long story about how he had been professor in economics in the pre Castro days, and now had to work cleaning the toilets.

And the young Cuban who during our conversation lifted his T - shirt and showed me his operation scar.

And the first of many young girls "chicas", who were more than eager to help me in any possible way, or should we say help me to spend some money on their behalf.

Cuban chica

Time went quickly but at the departure time 5.20 PM nothing happened. Not a word was said on the loud speakers. The only movement was when a lot of Cubans formed another line in front of the fence that separated the departure hall from the platform. Here was a train, but alas no departure.

Cuban chess

During the next hours nothing happened. The crowd returned to their places and their destiny patient waiting for something to happen, without having the slightest possibility of being able to influence their situation.

Take life as it comes: A way of living that is a main part of Cuban lifestyle together with tolerance, solidarity, and the joy that they find in being together with their family and their friends, dancing and singing, as I learned in the next days.

Around six the sun went down and gave a last bloodred tribute to the many waiting Cubans in the hall.

I went down to the other part of the hall, just to exercise my legs and passed sleeping children and Cuban farm workers with faces that were marked by the many years in the cane-sugar fields. Brown faces with a peculiar glow, like their faces had been lacquered. Faces that didnt care about a curious European, trying to get closer to the Cuban national soul. Faces that expressed a pride in being a farm worker and a tranquillity and a firmness, that for the first time made it clear to me, why the Cuban revolution was started and has a main part of it roots in the farm country.

Cuban old man

After the sun disappeared it was replaced by the icy light of the neon bulbs in the Hall. It was in some way like a surrealistic picture to watch all the people colored or suntanned in the white light.

Finally after hours the miracle happens. Suddenly someone opens the gate to the platform and the hundreds of people who had been waiting are now all moving to be sure that they at least get a seat, as a result of their efforts to get a ticket.

Slowly after another hour the train starts moving out in the dark Cuban night on its way to Santiago de Cuba, with arrival in this beautiful city 20 hours after the planned departure from Havana, only 7 hours delayed!

That's Cuba.

But Cuba is also people, who even if they fight for food and living every day, are prepared to share everything with you.

Cuban farmer

A people who are proud of what they have achieved: No racial discrimination, and an excellent health and school system .

And a lot of them are ready to fight for it if necessary once again like in 1958.

Cuban fidel

Cuba is also a country where you learn to appreciate the freedom of speech and thought in your own country

It is a people who seems to be born with salsa rhythm and joy in singing.

 

Cuban salsa trainingCuban salsa

All about Cuban Salsa . Listen to salsa

 

Listen to a piece of salsa "amiga" (be patient - amiga.wav 110 k)

 

It is the Cuban National ballet, with some of the best dancers in the world even if they are fighting just to get necessities like training shoes.

Cuban ballet training

My pictures from the Cuban National ballet training.

 

It is colors in the cities that you see nowhere else, on buildings that are dying due to lack of maintenance or on American cars from the fifties.

Cuban buildings

La Habana in February and other wonderful stories Thank you Mike.

Cuban love Daily life in Havana - Pictures

 

And it is a country with landscapes that are unique in their beauty and as they have been for hundreds of years.

 

 

Cuban river baracoa Cuban mountains baracoa

The mountain area around Baracoa

See more pictures from Cubas eco life

 

My advice to you:

Cuban happiness

Go to Cuba and experience it yourself. It will be something you never forget. Learn some Spanish, and go before the crowds of tourists are coming. Go your own ways and not the ways the Cuban Tourist Ministry wants it with tourist packed in "luxury camps" like Varadero. Show respect to the Cubans and the results they have achieved, even if their problems with their mighty neighbor haven't made it easier for them to survive as a nation.

Hasta luego - Cuba.

 Cuban sunset

I'm Jon from Denmark

Please come back soon and see new pictures and tips on the site.

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FAQ - Cuba budget travel Questions , answers and comments from budget travellers like you. Just what you need for your Cuba travel.


Links to other Cuba sites on the Web revised May 2008

Cuba-pictures.com Cuba-Pictures.com is a photo gallery by David Stanley, original author of Lonely Planet

Cuba Picture Gallery this site is a commercial site but it has a very good picture gallery

Todo de CubaTodo de Cuba with a Chat, Forum and many updated informations about country and the people(mainly in german).

Cuba budget guide The no 1 guide for budget travel. Thank you Allison.

Train travel in Cuba. Useful tips .

A photo tour of Cuba. Thank you Richard.

Find casa particulars, stay private and meet Cubans? In German here

Guide to Casa Particulars Very comprehensive

Casa particular onlineUseful

Tips about Cuba travel in german . Thank you Olaf

The Rules for Americans traveling to Cuba Very useful

Cuban mega links very comprehensive

A 1800 km biking trip in Cuba very useful for Cuba bikers

General travel information Useful and updated information

guide to transportation Useful information for planning

Cubamania - sorted and rated links Very useful to get an overview

Lonely Planet - travellers messages Useful to get the latest tips

La Web del tiempo en Cuba. Instituto de Meteorologi­a de la Republica de Cuba.En espagnolThe latest weatherforecast for Cuba.

Detail maps of The Cuban regions Useful for planning in detail



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