Cuba week: the Hershey Electric Railway

An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.

July 31, 2015

Our last “big plan” day of tourism would take us on the historic Hershey Train. I set out on foot toward Lorenzo’s family home. He had shown me the street names the day before. I was on San Julio, just beyond General Lee. I walked down the hill until I hit Santa Emilia, where I turned right and continued to his houses. The directions were fine, but I had walked only three blocks when I misjudged a pothole and turned my ankle. My nice hiking shoes (costing half a year of salary for many Cubans) had not protected it. I whimpered for a moment at the street corner (a passerby asked if I needed help) and then hobbled the rest of the way. It was only ten minutes. I had arrived before 9AM, and Lorenzo was still asleep, having argued about Cuba’s future into the early morning hours (as is his custom). His nephew, an M.D., explained the term “almendrone,” used to describe the ancient American cars seen everywhere. I replied that people in the United States might call an ancient car a “lemon” instead.

Lorenzo and I were tasked with a chore. Cuba has suffered more than 100 cases of cholera in connection with a recent outbreak on a nearby island. We were to carry six one-gallon jugs for drinking water to the home of Lorenzo’s grade-school friend Ruben for refilling. Ruben has a very interesting history. He was a biochemist for a research institute, but his father was arrested and tortured for some of his actions, and the rest of the family were fired from their positions. Ruben has since become a noted web-designer, working with a French firm. He does his work off-line, using only his apartment network. Then he connects to the Internet to upload completed versions (Internet access is quite expensive and heavily regulated). Ruben has repurposed a swimming pool filter to make drinking water; it uses UV to produce ozone molecules that are mixed with tap water as it flows into a drinking water bottle. He throws in a chlorine tablet for good measure. Ruben’s home features large abstract paintings produced by his sister. Her husband left for the United States some time ago, and so she housed some of her art with her brother. She, herself, left for the U.S. recently, and she has reunited with her husband. The theme of her art is “migration.” A recent show of hers featured suitcases that had been arranged so as to “float” in a pattern, painted with vignettes from their owners’ lives.

When Lorenzo and I arrived at the ferry terminal, our back packs were searched; in 2003, passengers of the ferry sneaked aboard fuel canisters and hijacked the ferry to travel to the United States. When the ferry reached the Casablanca side of the harbor, I was happy to see that the landing had been painted in celebration of the revolution anniversary. We walked thirty feet to the train terminal. One hour later, Lorenzo and I were on our way to Hershey!

The Hershey Electric Railway at Casablanca

The Hershey Electric Railway at Casablanca

The Hershey Train is a rarity in Cuba for using electrical power. The route was originally intended to shuttle workers to the sugar mill in Hershey (and presumably bring sugar to the power in Havana). The mill has since been decommissioned, but recent documentaries have drawn tourists to the train. We mostly observed locals making use of it. To give some perspective on its condition, we paused on our way east for a train worker to pull on a frayed rope between cars; it was attached to an electrode on top of the car that had become detached from the power lines above. A shower of sparks was frequently reflected by our surroundings.

As the train was in progress, we had a fascinating microcosm of Cuban society around us. We initially passed through a series of shacks adjoining the tracks. Lorenzo noted that these were as similar to Brazillian favelas as one was likely to see in Cuba. A shirtless teenager made me irrationally angry as he sat atop a wall between the front window of the train car and the first seats, smoking and noisily greeting his friends. Some of his neighbors played the usual games with the ticket agent as he passed through. One entered into extensive negotiations about how much he should pay for the ticket and when he might be expected to furnish the money. When the agent reached us, Lorenzo tried to pay for two Cuban tickets, but the agent explained that I was obviously a foreigner (I was in a Hawaiian shirt) and so we owed 1.40 CUC more. Lorenzo noted that our tickets looked exactly the same despite the different cost, so there was no record I had paid more for mine.

A woman had boarded carrying a variety of snacks. I recall pork rinds and candy canes in her inventory. Many people made purchases. Several times, I saw people casually throwing empty wrappers out the window. A mother and her teenage son were in the seats facing us. She decided she didn’t want her last pork rind and threw it out the window. Her son finished his bag and then asked her what to do with the bag. She pointed to the window, and he dutifully threw it outside.

Lorenzo mentioned that farmers are no longer allowed to slaughter their cattle for beef, in an effort to boost milk production. In fact, the maximum penalty for illegally slaughtering a cow and selling the meat is 18 years in prison! Now beef farmers keep their herds near the train tracks in hopes of occasional “accidental” beef. On the train ride I had hoped to see sugar fields, but I saw only banana or plantain fields

The train began oscillating as it passed on its trip. The cars were bouncing back and forth independently, so it seemed to amplify the effect. My shoulder became sore from the periodic swing. I felt some rain sprinkles and thought someone was being incautious with their drink, but then I realized I was feeling drops of rain. Lorenzo became concerned, explaining that if we were forced to close the windows, the train car would become a steamy sauna. The clouds relented, though, and we stopped at Hershey after approximately two hours.

Though the train stop is labeled “Hershey,” the town was renamed as to honor Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary from Fidel’s July 26th movement. Lorenzo and I wandered down the main street toward the town center. A gentleman offered to show us around, and we accepted, though he was somewhat tipsy. The main commercial center of the town juxtaposed an American-built pharmacy / supply store with a socialist-built cinema. The two styles were jarringly different. One would seem perfectly in place at any small town square.

The houses, too, were obviously American in design, with pitched roofs and front porches. Our guide explained that many of the American homes screened their porches to stave off clouds of sugar dust from the local mill. The sidewalks were lined with stones, and almost all signs of pavement were absent. Lorenzo taught me a shorthand rule for recognizing an American house: “if it has a chimney, it’s American.”

Dave in front of a Hershey home featuring a porch screened against sugar dust

Dave in front of a Hershey home featuring a porch screened against sugar dust

The remains of the industrial complex are truly massive. We saw the powerhouse, the mills, and the rail transport hub. A new smokestack had been constructed as recently as the 1980s. I posed for a photo by a painted sign stating goals for production. This site is not undergoing restoration or reconstruction. Lorenzo explained that the sugar production of Cuba is not even sufficient for its own needs anymore. We wandered to an local church and debated whether or not it had been abandoned. I saw that a glass pane had been knocked out of the rose window, but Lorenzo countered that the grounds were too well-maintained for it to have been left out of service. Just down the street, we relaxed in the rusty bleachers adjoining a baseball diamond. In the outfield, a black horse quietly grazed. Some teenagers arrived and began playing soccer in the other half of the outfield. We enjoyed the peace.

Lorenzo had learned of a restaurant at a park near the river, and so we retraced our steps to the train depot and continued on the road leading past it. My rolled ankle was grieving me, so Lorenzo recommended that we hitch-hike the kilometer left before we’d hit the park. The next vehicle, though, was a bus. We stopped it and smashed into a mass of humanity inside, trying to keep some purchase on the exit stairs or railings. For me, the next five minutes were a torture as I balanced on the ball of my injured foot and tried to catch water bottles knocked from my bag. The bus swerved around hills and curves. Lorenzo pass our fare of 4 CUP to the driver, and we descended at the next stop.

I was not doing well. My hobble was paired with dehydration, despite my having guzzled three water bottles since breakfast, and I was headed for heat-stroke. Lorenzo and I managed to stumble down to the Jardines de Hershey. I was required to pay the 3 CUC entry fee (rather than 10 CUP) when they demonstrated that I didn’t speak Spanish. Lorenzo was excited to discover the restaurant had low prices for its entrees in CUP. We splurged wildly, ordering a pitcher (!) of ice-cold mango juice, a liter and a half of drinking water, a plate of banana chips, and four entrees (clams, chicken, and two kinds of pork), each with beans and rice, green beans, and yucca. Our total bill was around 15 CUC. A turtle in a wishing well blinked his eyes at us in bewilderment. The restaurant staff told us we might be late to the train if we visited the river nearby, so we headed out to the parking lot.

We sit down to lunch in the Jadins de Hershey

Did I eat well in Cuba? Oh, yes…

My ankle was still grieving me, and so Lorenzo began negotiations with a school bus driver waiting in the lot for his students. The driver refused to move for less than 3 CUC, so Lorenzo paid the bill, and we pulled onto the road. I sat in front of a massive spare tire, housed inside the bus. We were at the train station with twenty minutes to spare. We were both nearly asleep as the resident gossip regaled his comrades with an account of all the times the CIA has tried to assassinate Fidel Castro. Then he switched to detailing how corrupt an acquaintance in the party hierarchy is. We trudged aboard the train when it pulled up.

We sat near a couple of women who were rotating fluently through Spanish, English, and French. Lucy and Katrina are junior faculty at two different U.K. universities, having met in Latin American literature graduate school. Cuba had been a major “bucket list” destination for them both. Their adventure here had been diminished by the continuous cat-calling of local men, with more silly marriage proposals than they could count. They were beyond tired of officious customer service gouging. Being denied an “unavailable” cocktail that everyone else in the bar was obviously drinking had chafed them. As a backup, they had begun carrying around small drink boxes of rum. They visited a faculty friend of a friend, and he repaid their attention by sticking them with the lunch bill for the most expensive restaurant in town. We were near the Casablanca train station when the train slid into reverse and returned to the prior train stop (two or three miles?) at the refinery, belching flames and black smoke into the skies. We learned that a passenger had disembarked without his goat, which had been hobbled. Lucy and Katrina joked that the train had only two rules:

  1. No bicycles.
  2. No live animals.

At last, the train pulled into the Casablanca station. Lorenzo’s wife Perla was there with her smartphone, and she captured a video of our arrival. As we exited, Lorenzo’s younger son was frightened by one of the two dogs roaming freely the station. Lorenzo explained ominously that many cats from the island vanished during the food shortages of the early 1990s.

Lorenzo’s family of four was joined by his sister and her husband plus me in the car, heading to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, a massive fortress overlooking the city. On the way, we paused by the Che Guevara museum to snap some dusk photographs of the Havana skyline and the Cristo atop the Casablanca hill, swaddled in scaffolding. It had been damaged by a lightning strike due to an improperly attached lightning rod.

A view of Old Havana from the Casablanca side of the harbor

A view of Old Havana from the Casablanca side of the harbor

We continued past a display of military equipment including missiles and a Mig23 to a parking lot at the castle. Lorenzo’s children and I tried to remain silent so we wouldn’t give ourselves away as English-speaking foreigners, but we were still compelled to pay 8 CUC for me rather than the CUP entry price for everyone else. As soon as we entered the fort, we were surrounded by hawkers trying to sell their wares.

A huge mass of people had assembled to see that night’s ceremony of the cannon firing. It began with a few figures marching to the top of the wall. A chorus with a flaming, twirling torch provided some sort of narrative in Spanish. A platoon of soldiers in period uniforms marched across the courtyard to mount the wall. They were led through a series of drills by their sergeant. The light was so dim that the white figures on the wall seemed almost ghostly. The motions of the soldiers, though, seemed strangely sloppy. I wondered why actors rather than soldiers were given this role. As the moment to light the cannon neared, a boisterous heckler began mimicking the sergeant’s commands. When the cannon was lit, the breech emitted many sparks for a long time, raising doubts that it would really go off. It made the eventual firing all the more jolting, and the silence of the crowd gave way to nervous tittering. The forest of raised tablets and smartphones descended to earth once more

A full orchestra began playing a succession of pop tunes. A crowd regathered to listen and dance. We passed into a small museum devoted to medieval arms then a dark courtyard featuring public art and ghostly trees that had seemingly fused with the castle walls that guided them to the sky.

We took the tunnel back to Old Havana. When Lorenzo dropped me off at my apartment, I collapsed into bed, a sweaty mess.

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4 thoughts on “Cuba week: the Hershey Electric Railway

  1. Pingback: My Week in Cuba: Arriving in a different world | Picking Up The Tabb

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