The train was slow (outrun by birds) and rather bumpy, but it had good ventilation (the doors stayed open sometimes) and it was faster than walking. After 2 hours or so we got to the town of Hershey, half way, and briefly surveyed the rusting ruins of the old sugar and chocolate factories, nationalized after the revolution and now mostly defunct. Not long after the train broke down. A few people including me jumped out to have a look around. Behind the train were several ominous looking pools of black sludge – did we have a coolant leak? It turned out to be caramel that had leaked from another train! Ours had broken an air line and our engineer was unable to effect a repair. An hour later another train came and pushed us to a siding, then proceeded down the track for another hour or so, until we got to San Antonio. Currently the train terminates here, 14km short of our destination: Matanzas. The 10 remaining passengers set off on foot, and after an hour we reached the first town, a small hamlet with a rusting bridge, a food distributory, no facilities for foreigners (who are legally compelled to use a separate currency at special shops etc), and mostly uniform looking concrete houses all closely spaced. It was the smallest town we saw on the trip and it was interesting to get a view into how the Cuban experiment functions on such a small scale.
It was my recent pleasure to travel to Cuba with my fiance, C. We spent eight days on the ground and it was intense. My primary interest, besides long standing curiosity, was to see how an isolated (geographically and politically) island economy functions. This was to help me examine some of the assumptions that I fed into my recent and ongoing work on small-scale industrial bootstrapping and Mars settlement!
C and I had wanted to travel together at some point this year, and we found a free week in common. Plans were made, and at 6am Saturday morning, we set off for the airport. Alaska runs a direct flight to Havana for cheap, so by mid afternoon we had landed with a bump, taxied past some ancient Russian Cubana planes being eaten by moss (their current fleet is more modern!), got through immigration and found ourselves in the humid heat, surrounded by amazing American cars from the 1950s. We realized later that Alaska flies to the old terminal, which is considerably more atmospheric.
Havana has more than a million people but the old town is compact (with buildings dating back to the 1500s) and the traffic is sensible, due to a shortage of vehicles and fuel. We set out on foot, walking along the Malecon, a seaside corniche that runs along the northern shore of the city toward the harbour entrance and old fort. The harbour had quite a number of tiny fishing boats, but I suspect the larger vessels evaporated some time ago. The Malecon fed us into the old center, where we walked a space filling curve between Hemingway’s (mostly unchanged) old haunts, eventually finding an old bishop’s palace to eat dinner. Later that evening we strolled back to our airbnb and decompressed.
Internet in Cuba is non-standard. Typically there is one or two parks in a city with a public wifi router. One looks for the sketchiest person in the park, who is selling internet tickets for a small fee. There is a considerable industry in resaling these tickets, which contain a username and password that’s good for an hour or so, or less, depending on how congested the network ends up being.
The next morning, I felt surprisingly reticent about going outside, ever again, but eventually hunger drove us forth once more into the teeming maelstrom. I have always found the first few days of any adventure to require a lot of readjustment and some gritting of teeth – and likewise at the end of a trip, a day or two back in familiar surrounds to re acclimate. We ventured forth to a nearby hotel, seeking money exchange. The foyer of this hotel had several bellboys, an entrance to an empty restaurant, a bar/seating area full of smoke, a reception desk, a retrofitted elevator, a small fountain, and as we waited to talk to someone, part of the bar’s plaster ceiling detached and sailed gracefully down onto the bar right in front of someone nursing one of the 400 different kinds of excellent Cuban rum that can be had here. The bar keep shrugged, wiped the mess onto the floor, and then topped up everyone’s drink.
We spent most of the Sunday walking around the city, venturing as far as the train station (under restoration) and the Capitolio (same). Just north of the station is an old dockyards which is now a market, in which we got some pina coladas and admired the amazing paintings everywhere. Our luggage was too minimal for souvenirs, so if you ever go to Cuba, buy us a painting!
I was initially surprised, given Obama’s recent visit, that many of the old building facades were still in dire need of repair. In contrast, my experiences in the Beijing Hutong before and after the 2008 Olympic games showed that the most popular thoroughfares were thoroughly facelifted. Later I realised that actually many buildings have partially collapsed behind the facades, and the people living there do what they can with the materials they have to keep out the rain etc etc. Most buildings have at least partially rebuilt or retrofitted subdivisions, stairways, concrete floors, plumbing, electricity. I had no idea of the history at all, and no easy way to find out (no internet or Spanish skills to speak of) though later we found out that Cuba’s economy was in dire straights through the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That afternoon with clouds brewing we took a pedal taxi (made of MIG-welded rebar) to the Museum of the Revolution, located in the early 20th century capital building, full of history of the early revolution and subsequent struggles against (mostly not imagined) CIA interference in the period thereafter. Parts of the building still had bullet holes in the walls, and out the back were a few planes and the motor yacht (Granma) on which the revolutionaries traveled to Cuba in the 1950s to start the revolution. It is uncertain exactly how many people were on the boat (designed to sleep 12). Some sources say 62, others say around 80. It’s possible that a few people became honorary passengers post-facto, I suppose. That evening we’d heard of a great restaurant in Vedado called Decameron, so being not even half-tired, we set out to walk there (it was good) and back, which only took 3 hours. We could have taken a taxi but it was super interesting just walking and looking. My phone contains a fitness tracker and we later discovered we had averaged more than 4 hours walking a day.
Well if that sounds exhausting, strap in, we were only just getting started. The next morning we packed up and went to a cafe we’d heard about. We turned left at a three legged dog, right at the toothless man, and behind the burned out car found the place. The breakfast was good but overall it was much too clean. We eschewed the line of coco taxis and walked to the ferry terminal. They checked our bag for weapons (one was hijacked in 2003 to go to Miami!) and we motored across the harbour to Casablanca, the much quieter northern shore of the old city. There we attempted to buy train tickets on the >100 year old Hershey electric train, walked around a bit, and clambered all over an obviously disused train carriage, a rusting hulk tucked at the end of the line. After an hour, a brave man disconnected two fat copper wires twisted around bolts emerging from the carriage’s side, it thumped to life, and we all clambered on – mostly locals (for whom it acts as a bus, stopping and starting anywhere along its 90km length) and one other set of backpackers, from Lithuania.
We carpooled with the Lithuanians in an old American car the last 10km into town. The town, Matanzas, began abruptly – no more than 10 feet separated open fields (one valley) from high density concrete houses (the next valley), with narrow sidewalks and many busy one way streets. Matanzas dates to the 1690s, and much of it in the original buildings. We found our airbnb (again, special accommodation only for tourists), a large rental house with copious fish tanks and terrariums, then walked into town to find internet, dinner, and spectacular clouds at sunset. The house had an electric hot water system that runs an element right over the showerhead. I’ve heard them referred to as Brazilian showerheads and although I’m sure they have good QC and big fuses, I’ve always preferred to have a cold shower – which after a day like ours was no imposition at all.
Day 3 (indexing from 0) and we got up early. Our airbnb hosts provided breakfast for an extra $5, consisting of pawpaw, mango, pineapple, eggs, bread, and juice. We were picked up by two guys who drove us 20 minutes north west, over a huge canyon, and down through a *very* faded seaside resort, complete with cabanas, oil derricks, and an empty seaside pool containing chunks of concrete. Down on the beach we geared up and went on two dives – both C and I are certified SCUBA divers. I hadn’t dived in the Atlantic before and the coral really stood out. We saw lots of fish, two kinds of lobster, a puffer fish, trumpet fish, a lion fish, a cone shell, and all kinds of other stuff. Resurfacing was a shock after nearly two hours of neutral buoyancy, especially with all the tanks and stuff. By the time we got back to the city, it was lunch time, which we enjoyed in the atmospheric foyer of an old hotel facing the central square. I ordered a Cuban soft drink, which uses EDTA as a sweetener! Next door, a staggeringly good choir practiced what might have been Vierne.
Thus refreshed, we set out toward the eastern end of the town, looking for the train station, which was mislabeled on the only map we had. After a couple of hours of semi-random walking and strange directions, we found the elevated concrete hall, deciphered the timetable (highly aspirational) and then walked back to town for dinner. We had some difficulty booking further accommodation, as https payment portals on the usual apps didn’t seem to function on the CubaNet. Fortunately we were able to arrange the details via text message with a buddy in the states. That evening we discovered that ants had set up shop under my pillow, so we transitioned to a different bedroom!
Day 4 we had to relax and revive before the evening’s train trip. For some reason most trains in Cuba run overnight – possibly the rails are better behaved when they are cool. We took a trip up the hill to the caves of Bellamar, the oldest tourist attraction in Cuba. Discovered by chance in the 19th century, the network stretches for 27km. The entrance drops down into a BIG cavern, around 100 steps or so, then a series of narrower passages stretch away. The cave guide had a good sense of humor. At one point there was a fountain of love (for the young people) and a fountain of youth (for the old people, but it was nearly empty because a lot of old people came the previous day). Further down was the fountain of the Americas, through which further passages could be accessed, but not on the public trail. At some point the lights went out for a second and it was super dark. On the way back up, the guide said “there’s 139 stairs to get to the top. If you feel your heart beating faster don’t worry – it’s working!”
Back on the surface we enjoyed a very cheap lunch (Bellamar caters mostly to locals), walked down the road a bit, found the cave’s air vent and some lonely looking chickens, then eventually got on the bus back to town. Just as we got on it poured with rain, but surprisingly little came in the windows. Back in town we walked around a little, found some interesting art studios, packed, then took a taxi to the train station. We were in plenty of time, but not to worry, the train was running 2 hours late. The waiting hall was painted in faded yellow, illuminated by three flickering bulbs and featured surprisingly fast ants. A small TV played a movie, and after it ended, about half the room stood up and left! Around 30 people remained in several rows of plastic chairs.
At length everyone suddenly went bezerk. The ticket office opened just long enough to sell one ticket (about 15 people including us were in line), so we walked down to the platform with everyone. Foreigners *never* take the train so they were a bit confused what to do with us. Around 11:15pm the train arrived, a huge clanking diesel engine, followed by a carriage full of prisoners (with several fresh ones on the platform to join them), then first class, a baggage car, then second class. We climbed on and found seats, settled in, and C went to sleep while I flicked the odd bug off her. The train rattled along, much more smoothly than the Hershey train, with the odd big bang and shake (possibly suspension bottoming out), and my GPS said we peaked at about 80km/h, with stations every 50-100km.
After a while some passengers across the aisle decided it would be fun to try to convince me that the fare was $5 and I had to pay them. A nearby off-duty conductor kind of shrugged and I played dumb. The true fare is about 8c. Messing with foreigners is extremely unusual/illegal (vis. the prisoner car at the front of the train) and I interpreted it in a joking light. Later, the flow of bugs intensified and after a stop we found our seats sold to someone else, so moved further down the train. For a while we rode in the vestibule with a gigantic drum of water sloshing around, then found another seat. As we approached our destination (the small town of Colon) the train slowed to a crawl for about 30 minutes, we got up, and waited near the door. Just as we arrived the train lights went out for a few minutes and it was really dark! But nothing unusual happened. By the time we got out it was after 1am, so we hightailed it through town to our booked place (foreigners must stay in casas particulares, marked with a special sign), checked in, dispatched a couple of friendly roaches (a baby two inch one ended up under my shoe), and enjoyed the hot shower. Then sleep!
Day 5 we slept in a bit, then took the day to enjoy the scenery, starting with the hotel room which was adorned with some unusually erotic art. The town is about 20 blocks on a side, not really set up for tourism, and bustling! Several markets sold all sorts of unusual things, including plumbing parts, blender parts, arts and crafts, car parts, and so on. Several 1920s style buildings on the main street, and a typically abrupt transition from dense single or two story dwellings to farm land. Many people got around by horse drawn cart so we took one! I couldn’t understand how much the ride was so held out a fistful of (tourist) coins, which could easily have been a week’s salary for a Cuban. But the driver took the right amount and we proceeded on our way. I swung back via the station to gather timetable information and admired its reinforced concrete architecture – very clever ways to get the wind in while keeping the water out. But very quiet. The Cuban trains and rails are some of the oldest in the world and the system is just barely limping along. Trains the world over have fallen victim to reliable cars and trucks and excellent roads, and I would be surprised if Cuba’s apparent move to liberalize and open trade doesn’t deal the trains the death blow. When I was in my teens, it was possible to take trains from Singapore to China via Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. That route is now very (and probably permanently) broken.
C and I jumped in a car and were driven to Santa Clara, a town in the center of Cuba, thus continuing our mission to use every mode of transport possible. Along the way we saw a number of giant storms roll through, mostly defunct factories, and the usual rolling hills of the Cuban countryside. The car was initially full of mosquitoes, so that kept us amused. In Santa Clara we found our accommodation, relaxed for two, maybe three milliseconds, then set off into town to find an excellent dinner. To my pleasant surprise, a lot of the info on Cuba is 5-10 years out of date. We had feared eating nothing but rice, beans, and plantain, but we found numerous restaurants with all kinds of stuff on the menu. Service wasn’t the same level you get in the USA, where wait staff need tips to not starve, but we found a few smiles went a long way, especially once we got off the beaten track. Matanzas felt a bit strange, possibly because most tourists in the area are going to the foreigner-only resort area of Varadero, and possibly fail to comport themselves in a manner best representing the pride of their home nation.
After dinner we walked to the central square, where an orchestra played some Cuban music on the bandstand. But alas shortly after we arrived it began to pour with rain, the orchestra packed up, and we began to explore the loggias around the central square. Santa Clara’s square is home to one of the eight famous pre-revolutionary theatres in Cuba, through which many of the opera stars of turn of the 20th century performed! Unfortunately this one is no longer structurally sound and must be appreciated from the outside. The rain cleared up and we walked back to our place. Along the way I noticed a TV show about Pavarotti through someone’s open window. I would have liked to stay and watch, but C thought that was weird so we walked home. There are only 5 channels in Cuba (same as Australia) so we actually heard Pavarotti singing the whole way. But when we arrived we channel surfed for a bit and couldn’t find him! Just before bed I walked to the Santa Clara railway station, got a lot of strange looks, checked out the timetable, and then retired for the evening.
Day 6. The $5 breakfast in Santa Clara was enormous! It covered the entire table. I took only one of each thing and I nearly exploded. Given the uniformity of breakfasts in these places I wonder how expectations are being transmitted! We decided to spend the day exploring Santa Clara, while dodging very enthusiastic taxi drivers. We checked out the Che Guevara monument and museum, which contained many of his guns, writings, and even his 6th grade report card! We sussed out the bus station, which required yet more avoiding taxi drivers, literally dozens of them screaming “taxi my friend habanabadadedomatanzasinfugo”, which made me wonder about the incentive structure. Have they ever gotten a fare by screaming louder than the guy next to them? It was pretty clear the whole trip that there were way more people wanting to work in tourism than tourists, but that the underlying infrastructure to support the tourists was pretty much at capacity.
That afternoon we checked out the cigar factory, which was amazing. About 40 people each working at a specialized desk with various presses and containers for different kinds of leaves. It takes them 9 months to learn to make a cigar, and each person makes the entire cigar, between 70-150 a day, from start to finish. There is no production line! The QA procedure included measuring the back pressure of the rolled leaves to ensure that they weren’t too tight or too loose.
Later on, we met up with some couchsurfers who I had found the previous day. Our surfer, M, studies banana genetics and CRISPR (!) at the university, and showed as a cool hill from which there was a good view. We ended up talking for nearly 4 hours, met M’s husband (who is obsessed with rockets!), the dog, the family, and had a great time. They explained why Cuba is so proud of political autonomy, and wary of foreign investment. It is a compelling argument but it does illustrate the industrial precariousness of wanting to be un-aligned within the western hemisphere. We also took in a monument to the battle Che led in Santa Clara, which was the turning point of the revolution. They managed to interdict a train filled with weapons for the opposition, and then achieved a convincing victory despite a terrible numerical disadvantage. That evening we found a good pizza place, packed up, and slept.
Day 7 we got up before 7am, confronted a total and ongoing failure to connect to the internet, then walked back to the bus station. Dodged the taxi drivers, chilled in the waiting room, killed mozzies, then eventually boarded the bus. It was overcrowded (they pick up hitchhikers along the way) and had window shades that made looking out impossible. I was reading a good book, and I’m glad we eventually used the system that foreigners are recommended to take, but the three hour trip along an almost empty three lane highway was nowhere near as exciting as a midnight train to an uncertain destination! We determined that the bus station was a lot further from the city center than the point of closest approach, so jumped off in a great hurry as the bus turned away from downtown Havana. We walked into town, arriving at our place just as two other tourists we had met on the bus also arrived, having gotten off at the terminal and taken a taxi. Ha! Saved $5! We found a place to stay, did a lap of the old city, then went on an art gallery crawl finishing with the national gallery, which was pretty good. Unfortunately our plan to go salsaing on our last night failed when every salsa club we tried was closed! We’d heard a lot earlier in the week but missed our chance! We headed off to dinner on the fifth floor of some 19th century palazzo, where we encountered a father/son pair who had sailed to Cuba to support a Hobie Cat race from Florida. Dinner was pretty tasty, after which we walked back along the Malecon, took an electric shower, and abruptly passed out from exhaustion.
Day 8, Sunday, the last day. We packed our bags, checked wifi, then took a Coco Taxi from out the front of the old hotels through the town towards the University of Havana. It turned out to be closed on Sundays, and the physics department was derelict. We walked further into the distant reaches of the town, seeing the hospital, Jose Marti Plaza (my sandal broke at this point), and the Colon Cemetery (applied duct tape to sandal). This cemetery had nearly a million interees, hundreds of varied mausoleums, and distinct areas separated by class and profession. Apparently its architect died before completion and was the first occupant! These days it is overfull so remains are removed after a few years and warehoused.
From there, we walked to the John Lennon park, and eventually stopped at a fancy hotel overlooking the ocean, where we sipped drinks in the bar, which probably made us ill. We watched the fancy yank tanks with their incredibly shiny and probably structural paint glide by, and relaxed before our mad rush to the airport.
We scoped out a fancy bright red 1959 Impala with wings and white seats, and took it to the airport. Along the way, we got rather hot under the sun, and I admired the workmanship that had gone into making this ancient vehicle look and run okay. Almost everything except the chassis was non-original, including the suspension! The silver trim seemed to have been made from some shiny metal stock by hand, the windshield was plexiglass, and so on. Incredible! He dropped us at the fancy terminal so we spent our last $5 taking another, slightly less shiny ancient car to the old terminal, where we got through to the departure lounge with no hassles at all. Unfortunately we had no money so we couldn’t buy any food, but an engineer from Virgin Galactic recognized C’s astronaut and south pole patches and we had a good chat. He had spent a week with Cuba’s national television and animation studio, which apparently has a large focus on education.
Walking out along the tarmac to the waiting 737-900 was an odd feeling. Passenger jets are miraculous enough at the best of times, but shimmering in the heat, every rivet precisely flush with its compoundly curved double winglet, it looked like a spaceship. A spaceship that would zip us up into the stratosphere to hurtle homeward at a solid fraction of the speed of sound.
Cuba. Wow. What a place!