Railing away

Michael Johansen
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Why you should always bring your own mustard, and other helpful pieces of advice when riding the Cuban rails

Nobody wants you to take the train. Not the Canadian you met on the plane. He says it'll take days to arrange tickets.

Not his Cuban wife. She says the toilets stink and demonstrates by pinching her nose.

Not her brother or his friend. They say the trains are late and you can't get food.

Nobody wants you to take the train. Not the Canadian you met on the plane. He says it'll take days to arrange tickets.

Not his Cuban wife. She says the toilets stink and demonstrates by pinching her nose.

Not her brother or his friend. They say the trains are late and you can't get food.

Not the hotel receptionist. She thinks the train cars are old.

Not the government tourism agents. They say the cars are stuffy, with no air conditioning, unlike the new buses.

Not the information officer at Havana's EstaciÓn Central de Ferrocarriles. She tells you the buses are quicker.

Even the reservations clerk can't imagine why you'd want to take a train. She thinks you're lost. She thinks you imagine you're in a bank. She thinks you want to exchange money. It takes a written note from one of the travel agents to convince her you actually want to buy a railway ticket.

Everything they say is true, except for one thing: there is food on board the Tren FrancÉs. But the description of the toilet is disturbingly accurate. The one in your first-lass car may have had functioning parts and running water when it was on the Trans Europ Express from Paris to Amsterdam (it may even have offered toilet paper), but on the Havana to Santiago de Cuba run, it's only a dry (but stinking) metal funnel sticking through a hole in the floor. You're given a streaming view of rail ties while doing one business and a cool refreshing breeze while doing the other.

Cobbled together

Cuba's railway is cobbled together with antique American stock supplemented by hand-me-downs and new purchases. Diesel locomotives from Canada and the former Soviet Union pull freight and passenger carriages sold by France and Iran. With them, the national company, the Ferrocarriles de Cuba, runs the only passenger rail service in the Caribbean, moving thousands of people daily, but it has difficulty helping foreigners find their way. Everyone will direct you to Havana's Central Station, a place devoid of posted schedules and route maps, but they'll be sending you to the wrong place. What the EstaciÓn Central's officer will tell you is that you should go to another station altogether: "La Coubre! La Coubre!"

Fortunately, the EstaciÓn La Coubre is within walking distance of the EstaciÓn Central, located only at the far side of the railway yards. It's smaller than the main station, but there's an identical lack of timetables and the reservations office has no sign. The main area of La Coubre has ticket counters at several points, but it's a mistake to join any of the long lines to get to a wicket. You'll just be turned away. Reservations is elsewhere and can only be reached by going back outside and up to the northeast end of the building. There the doors are blocked by people who've slid their waiting room benches in front to catch whatever breeze makes it through. Once inside the small, hot and stuffy hall, you'll be faced with four numbered wickets and dozens of seated and standing travellers.

The clerk at No. 2 wicket will send you to No. 1. That clerk will keep you waiting until a tall young man - who wears no badges on his remarkably dry shirt, but seems to be in charge nonetheless - figures out what you want and leads you to wicket No. 4, where he points to a precise spot on the floor for you to stand. There's one person with the clerk and no one else in line, but others soon join.

No good deed unpunished

Seniority has little importance in a Cuban line. An impulse to let a little old lady go first can open a floodgate of queue-jumpers who leave you stranded like a boulder in rapids. Then again, it doesn't speed things up if the reservations clerk thinks you're confused about where you are and makes you the butt of her jokes before she realizes, with no contriteness but more respect, that she's exactly the person you need.

She offers you a choice between first and second class (the difference is 12 convertible pesos). She takes your money - cash only, despite the credit card signs - and gives you back something that looks like a ticket. She'll tell you your train leaves at 5:30 p.m. two days hence and that you have to get the ticket confirmed at least an hour ahead of time. She won't tell you at which station the train will be waiting, but if you get to La Coubre with a few hours to spare, you'll have lots of time to get to where you should be.

You will actually be catching the Tren FrancÉs from the EstaciÓn Central de Ferrocarriles - Track 3, according to the ticket, but don't let that fool you when the time comes to board.

The confirmation process turns out to be the simplest step of all, once you find the right railway station. Several windows are clearly marked "ConfirmaciÓn," and nobody ever seems to be lined up for them. The windows are also marked for your track number - making the proper one even easier to find. The official will look at your passport and stamp your ticket and quickly send you on your way, leaving you time to find a seat in a waiting area. You'll need to rest up for the next step, anyway.

Like the departure time, the track and gate numbers also look impressive on paper, but in real life they mean little or nothing. All human traffic is channeled through a single gate nearest the luggage counter, a gate that is always guarded and sometimes padlocked. The closer you get, the denser the crowd becomes, but it's impossible to tell who is waiting for what. Most of the station staff, police and military also use the single gate, passing through it at will when it's not locked and the key is away. Anyone using the gate has to tread through tightly packed passengers and piles of luggage.

"Permiso! Permiso!"

None will stop to answer questions - no matter that your departure time is fast approaching. The only way to get reliable information is to squeeze through the gate when a destination is called. Even then the official who looks at your ticket might only send you back and tell you to wait some more, but at least you'll know you haven't yet missed your train.

Don't give in

An hour past the scheduled departure time you might be tempted to leave the crush to find some fresh air away from the smokers, or to get some food and a place to sit, or maybe even to take a bathroom break, but resist all temptations. Things are happening on the tracks: trains are being shuffled. Carts of luggage and snacks are being trundled out over the uneven platforms. Squads of conductors appear from nowhere and vanish into carriages. Lights turn on. Soon it will be time to observe the cardinal rule of Cuban rail: be nice to your conductor. Better still, if you can do her a favour, like if she needs you to take a portable step from her hand and place it onto the platform so she can descend from her carriage, don't hesitate.

Fifty years of socialism has built barriers to insulate Cubans from outsiders, to the point where you'll be warned that any person speaking or walking with you could face fines and harassment by the police, their being with you being prima facie evidence that they're either "pimps or prostitutes." Ironically, that can mean the only Cubans confident enough to approach tourists are the hustlers, con-men and the pimps or prostitutes who are savvy enough to avoid capture.

As a foreigner you'll meet many people who will go out of their way to guide you and offer to sell you cigars. Their help comes at a cost, no matter how much they profess to be friends and say they don't want your money.

In Cuba, if you can find your way to people who genuinely welcome you and want to help you learn about their country, the rewards are enormous. A friend from the gangs that hang around hotels and taxis only pretends to make things easier and cheaper. A real friend will introduce you to the Cuba away from resorts and beaches.

In Cuba, friendship both subverts the socialist state and keeps it running. For a Cuban to negotiate the bureaucracy he or she must exploit any and all personal connections, bypassing countless formalities and getting through semi-permanent bottlenecks with the help of friends in official places. Those connections can get them rare food items, can get them to the heads of lines, and can get their indiscretions excused. Money and other gifts might also help things along.

On the one hand, that creates two tiers in a country that boasts of being egalitarian, but on the other it's difficult to imagine how the state could function without them. Without friendship to provide shortcuts through Cuba's choking rules and regulations, the country could come to a standstill.

On a practical level for foreigners, that means if you make friends with the conductor, she'll do more than her job requires and go out of her way to make your first-class car really feel like it's first class, despite the dirty carpets, grimy windows, torn seat coverings and broken toilet. She'll let you switch seats to get a more comfortable one for overnight. She'll talk with you about where you're from and where you're going. She'll advise you not to leave your baggage in the overhead rack while you're asleep in case it disappears. She'll even introduce you to her family - her sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews - who all seem to be occupying most of the seats behind you. They'll all be interested in the only tourist on the train and you won't lack for help to practise Spanish.

Finally, if the conductor likes you she might even give you an extra pop and sandwich. The cola's useful for morning because it's the closest thing you'll find to coffee for your breakfast - if you're needing caffeine as the sun rises over the sugar cane plantations north of Santiago de Cuba.

But don't try to save either of the sandwiches. The meat inside is Cuba's version of bologna, which means it's made of the rejects of several fly-specked stages of animal processing before being placed between two slices of bread and wrapped in plastic. If it is to be eaten, 'twere best eaten quickly.

A bit of mustard wouldn't hurt either, but you'll have to bring your own.

Michael Johansen is an author and Telegram columnist who lives in Labrador.

Organizations: Trans Europ Express, Central Station

Geographic location: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, La Coubre Paris Amsterdam Canada Soviet Union France Iran Caribbean Labrador

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