Sunday, 23 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 18 (Sun, 23 Mar)

I think a suitable title for this section of the trip would be ´Cuba - the power to amaze´. I´ve just had the most surprising Easter Sunday ever and I might get used to it.

I got up early, enjoyed a decent breakfast (they´re very big on eggs in Cuba, but that works for me). The last information I received was that the steam train was running. I decided to go down to the station early to see if there were signs of a steam locomotive "brewing up". I found the station, I found a fairly modern Baldwin "ten-wheeler" cold. After a few minutes, a railwayman with reasonable English arrived and introduced himself as a driver. He said the locomotive had failed and there would be no steam today. I had thought to bring some Peak Rail postcards showing me on a steam locomotive, so I was able to ´establish my credentials´. We spent some time looking at the steamer and other rolling stock and I took plenty of pictures. The driver introduced me to the Railway Operator cum Booking Clerk who had just arrived by bicycle. When I left the driver, I went to the station to try and confirm what trains, if any, were running.

In the small waiting room, I met an English couple on holiday, Helen and Mick from Exmoor. Since Mick speaks fluent Spanish, he was able to confirm that the next train was 5 p.m. - too late for them, so they´d hired a taxi to take them to the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Works) which was where they wanted to visit. They kindly invited me to tag along and we spent a very pleasant morning together. As we chatted, I discovered that they formerly lived in Codsall, have friends in Brewood and that we share some friends in common! Small world, as the English say. Mick informed me that the Spanish say ´The world is a handkerchief´ - I think that´s far more poetic.

Their taxi first stopped at a natural viewpoint overlooking a large, fertile valley once devoted to sugar cane. In modern times, the profitability of sugar has fallen, so much smaller areas are under cultivation. Cuba is looking to tourism as their growth industry. Of the two million visitors a year they´re currently getting, 1.5 million are Canadian (so maybe the French I´ve been hearing is Canadian French, not French French).

We then went on to Manaca Iznago, famous for the watchtower used for supervising the slaves. I made it to the top. We had a drink in the cafe then tried out a huge machine for extracting sugar. The sugar canes are simply crushed between two serrated rolls which extracts the sugar juice, just like an old washing mangle (if you´re old enough to remember such things, dear reader) extracted the water from wet clothes.

The taxi returned us to Trinidad and we toured the military museum. Cubans are intensely proud of their various struggles to achieve independence and the roles played by Che, Fidel and their followers. This, and other, museums meticulously chronicle these activities. Various artefacts were on display, including an army lorry and a speedboat equipped with radar and machine guns. We would have visited the parish church but a sign said a service was in progress and tourists were not admitted. At another museum we climbed the belltower and were rewarded with marvellous views across the town and surrounding countryside.

Two little cameos spring to mind. We found a Chevrolet in splendid condition, signal red and polished chrome. I think Mick said it was a ´59 ´Impala´. The proud owner told Mick, with a laugh, that he took better care of his car than his wife. You often find gnarled old men sitting and taking their ease whilst enjoying a large Cuban cigar. One fellow, who was 83, had a fine looking cockerel standing on his lap, with a piece of string as a lead. He said the bird´s name was Pedro and that he was two years old. We then ´repaired to my hotel´ for a snack lunch before I temporarily said goodbye to my new friends.

In the afternoon, I set off on my own to visit more museums. Yesterday, I may have sounded a bit ´sniffy´ about all the tourists but today there seemed fewer and they were quieter. Is it because it´s Sunday, because it´s Easter Sunday, or is it just me? Two of the Museums are based in houses enjoyed by the Spanish colonists Brund and Cantero. Seeing the princely style in which they lived, you can understand why Spain was so reluctant to give up its possession of Cuba. A more modest dwelling is now the Museum of Architecture, detailing some of the materials and techniques used.

Only parts of the town have surfaced roads - stones are used elsewhere. Cars still tackle these streets but it´s very unkind to suspensions. There´s a type of motorised taxi rather like the ´Tuk-Tuk´ you find all over the East. In Cuba, these usually have a round Fibreglass, I think, body. The driver wears a safety helmet, but not his passengers. You find various designs of bicycle taxis in the streets, plus the horse-drawn people-movers with two or four rubber tyres. There may be a second horse tethered, trotting alongside. Goods are also moved around by men with simple 4-wheeled trucks who can often be found talking to friends. Some Trinidadians unselfconciously ride around on horseback. I saw a few leather saddles but many riders use a large ´cushion´ as a saddle.

There´s music everywhere, sometimes live, sometimes from a ´Ghetto Blaster´. I watched the years drop away as one old lady, all alone, swayed to the infectious rhythm in an elegant manner. Many of the people will exchange a ´Hola!´ (informal ´Hi´). Sometimes it´s just friendliness, sometimes it´s a precursor to a little bit of private enterprise - samples of local money offered in exchange for the ´Convertible Peso´ (CUC) used by the tourists or requests for soap.

There was time for a quick shower before I set off, with some trepidation, to catch the train which was supposed to leave at five o´clock. There were already a number of people waiting in the small station and more were drifting towards the station. I managed to purchase a return ticket from the man I´d met in the morning and, a little after five, a single diesel railcar pulled in, so I quickly ´bagged´ a seat at the front. Now was the moment to whip out another postcard of me on an engine and commit virtually my entire Spanish vocabulary in an appeal to the driver. Something like ´Disculpe´ (pardon me), ´Inglaterra´ (England), ´Machanista´ (engine driver) combined with pointing at me and pointing at the driving cab.

It might not be grammatical, but it worked. I was invited up front and given the right hand seat (the second best seat in the house. The best - come on, the driver´s seat, of course). Then followed an incredible 3 hour journey up to the end of the line and back. The diesel engine is underfoor mounted in between driver and secondman and quite deafening. A crude wooden box formed the engine cover. This cover had partially disintegrated and was topped by a loose piece of vinyl floor covering. Each time the vinyl started to slip off, it was carefully moved back to the proper position. It was, as you can imagine, also quite hot so near to the engine. On gradients the engine would scream its head off, as the driver advanced the throttle and the vibration was intense.

The track is in pretty poor condition and, in places, I was convinced we were about to derail. The driver just carried on, perfectly nonchalent. On the trip out, a ´Ghetto Blaster´ was played in the cab, loud enough to be heard above the engine's roar. Of course, the railway is completely unfenced, so there´s much blowing of the loco horn to warn people or animals. Frequent stops are made for people to get on and off, often loaded with produce and all sorts of packages. The service is more like a bus. Some stops are provided with a small shelter but, in most cases, the train will stop on a road crossing where the people congregate. The horses, chickens, cattle, goats and oxen will normally get out of the way just in time, but my heart was in my mouth as a goat ran alongside on my side for hundreds of yards before suddenly jumping in front of the of the train. I was sure we would hit him but there was no ´thump´ and the driver said he made it. Later on, a hen with her brood decided to cross in front of us 'chickens playing chicken'. Again, I believe they all got out OK. The line is as spectacular as the publicity claims. I only saw one short tunnel but bridges abound. They're usually trestle but the larger ones are impressive girder structures. The line twists and weaves through changing countryside, sometimes downhill, sometimes up.

We stopped near the Watchtower I´d climbed in the morning then contined, with frequent stops, to our destination, Mayer, where the tiny platform was crowded with passengers for our return trip. Some minutes of confusion followed as people got off with all their belongings whilst others got on.

The driver allows the second man to drive back to Trinidad. I´m allowed to stay in the right hand seat, so the driver supervises from a bench seat at the back of the cab. There´s only a driving cab at one end of the railcar, because there should be a second trailer coach with its own cab, so we set off, rather disconcertingly, backwards. After a few hundred yards, we reach the triangle of lines (or ´wye´) I´d spotted on the way in. Now, the ´third man´ (guard, shunter, perhaps) jumps onto the ground to set the points. When we regain the main line, the cab is leading again.

We were busy coming out but, going back, we find some large crowds waiting to board. We have plenty of space in the large driving compartment, but it´s getting packed back in the coach. The driver does allow some of the parcels forward into the cab, but no passengers (making me fully realise the privilege being extended to me). We´re travelling more or less West, watching the sunset. Each station stop gets longer and longer as the new passengers try to squeeze on. At one stop, the driver chats to two very old-looking ladies, who then sell me the most overpriced banana I´ve had. But why not - it tasted good.

More luggage comes into the cab, generally through the window. Most unexpected was a white piglet, trussed up in nylon sacking, which was placed on the floor alongside me. It was the very image of ´Babe´. The heat and the noise each time we started away set the pig off crying and struggling, so I quickly had to develop my pig communication skills to try to keep him settled during the rest of the journey. I think I was reasonably successful - the crew were certainly amused. By now, fully dark, the headlights lit up the track for fifty yards or so. At the last few stops, I think we turned passengers away. It was hard to tell in the dark and with all the people milling about. Finally, we arrived back at Trinidad (where my piglet friend was unceremoniously returned to his owner) and all the passengers got off, leaving the crew and some hangers-on (who might have been relatives of the crew).

But we were not quite finished, yet. I knew the likely moves - turn on the triangle at Trinidad ready for the next day's departure then stable in the fairly new railcar shed I´d seen in the morning. The driver asked if I wanted to ´take the chair´ and, of course, I did. I moved away slowly, whistling for a level crossing, just stopped short of the points which were changed for us to turn onto the ´wye´. Draw over the points and wait for the third man to put the points back to the main line and jump on again. The third man signalled when we were clear of the points at the ´top´ of the wye, the business of changing, moving through and retoring the points was repeated then I gingerly backed round the sharp curve, stopping short because the points were not yet set for us to rejoin the main line. Reverse clear of the points, wait for them to be set for the shed then, gently forward and into the shed. The driver eased up the last couple of feet, because I´d been a bit too cautious. But in the dark, on a line I didn´t know and in a railcar I only half understood, I was reasonably happy.

More goodbyes and thanks from me, then I walked back to the hotel, pausing only to buy some blank CDs from the camera shop, so that I can make yet more copies of my treasured photgraphs. What a day!


Trinidad, Cuba.
Valle de Los Ingenios Railway.
The Watchtower: Manaca Iznaga, Trinidad, Cuba.
Journey on the Valle de Los Ingenios, Cuba..
Railcar 4021, Valle de Los Ingenios, Cuba..