THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On and off track

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / December 12, 2002

SANTA CLARA, Cuba - Dying sunlight pushes texture into soft wood, tired concrete. A mother, calm, confident, rests against a door frame.

Her son, maybe 6, arrives, and the two play patty-cake.

A lean man walks up, hugs the boy, kisses the woman, and the three step through the doorway, away from the flow of coughing buses, sneezing motorbikes, and gently whistling bicycles.

To watch such a scene unfold, on a street near a wide, lazy square in the center of this regional capital, is to understand everything, and nothing. It is to know what life here can be like, and to know nothing of that life.

The scene appeared midway through a journey, and so it had enough context to show that such moments, in Cuba, always have an opposite.

The journey, rolling east to west by train, followed a 500-mile arc, tracing from one end of Cuba, closest to Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, toward the capital, closest to the United States, the hemisphere's richest.

It began on a Saturday night in Santiago de Cuba, on a staircase outside the city's main train station, in the dark.

Voices spilled over stacked bags and sprawled legs. Electricity had been cut again. A woman with a flashlight checked tickets, and passengers strolled beneath the high, vaulted roof of the train platform, built less than a decade ago.

Santiago de Cuba, an early battleground in the revolution that set the country on a course closer to the former Soviet Union than the United States, was itself a place to linger.

In a museum housed in the old Moncada Barracks, site of an ill-fated 1953 attack by revolutionaries, a young guide with a lime scarf and perfect English pointed to pictures of poverty from 1950s Cuba; proof, she said, that the revolution, successful in 1959, changed a bad system.

An hour later, a retired 73-year-old English teacher angled for a free dinner, then gulped chicken, rice, and beans before asking for US dollars to buy soap. Later, a modest young doctor explained that he had been fired from his job after he protested a government decision not to let him travel to France to visit friends.

But a train was set to leave in an hour. In a country where trains can be "cancelado" for weeks on end, there was no telling if another would roll the next day. Passengers took their places in the worn red cloth seats of the Mexican rail car. At 9:10, the scheduled minute of departure, the train lurched forward. A ticket agent strode to the center of the car.

"Buenas noches!" she said.

"Buenas noches," the passengers answered.

Shortly after midnight, after rumbling through black deepened by stars, mothers and children and tired men hauling boxes tied in string surged into the calm of Las Tunas, home to 145,000 people living amid flat, dry country better for raising cattle than growing sugar cane.

By late morning, a gentle flow of foot traffic circled the Parque Vicente Garcia. Across a street, a plaque beneath a bust of Jose Marti, who fought for independence from Spain more than a century ago, set high standards:

"It is beautiful that people hold a full and absolute concept of their dignity and honor."

A middle-aged man, perhaps from the United States, but more likely from Germany, hustled past the bust, toward the park. Gray-haired, broad-shouldered, and muscular, the man wore micro-fiber hiking shorts, high-tech sandals (padded straps and all), a khaki ball cap, and a flowered short-sleeve shirt. He was fully outfitted, it turned out, for a sex safari.

On benches set beneath low, leafy branches, young women sat in groups of two or three, eager entrepreneurs in Cuba's free-for-all economy. During the days of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin propped up Cuba. Fidel Castro could afford to stick to pesos; a Cuban caught with US dollars was sent to jail. But after the Soviet Union tumbled, Castro, in 1993, conceded to capitalism.

Today, battered greenbacks jump from pocket to pocket to settle deals for cigars, or transport, or food, or bodies.

In the midday heat, Mr. Safari approached one woman, and they talked a few minutes. Then, a later rendezvous seemingly negotiated, he hustled off to his rental car.

A middle-aged Cuban couple strolled through the park arm-in-arm, happy Sunday smiles on their faces, then headed down a city street. A few blocks beyond, music pumped from a grove, a sloping gravel lot circled by tall hardwood trees. A disc jockey stood high atop a stage and played hits from Los Van Van and Maraca. The locals-only crowd spun to the sounds of salsa. High in the trees, birds of prey settled for sleep.

Evening again, and the only train of the day was due to pull from the Las Tunas station at 9:30.

A man with long, lean legs pedaled a bicycle taxi, angling around a horse cart. Outside the station, three small Ladas, relics of Soviet years, sat in a line. A '57 Chevy, the romanticized symbol of Cuba as cultural museum, hugged the sidewalk. Gas, at official prices, can run $4 a gallon.

A small crowd erupted in laughter as two comedians traded lines in an outdoor cafe. Inside the station lobby, a shrinking woman with railroad track lines in her face had been waiting since noon, and moved little. One television broadcast the Cuban national orchestra's tribute to the Beatles; another showed boxing.

Cuba was the first nation in Latin America to have trains - steam locomotives kept the sugar industry rolling - and is the only Caribbean island with an extensive network.

Today, the colorful hand-scripted signs in stations listing local routes tend toward fiction. The Santa Clara to Cienfuegos local: cancelado. The Santiago de Cuba to Bayamo local: cancelado. Trains to all of more than a dozen towns serviced by the open-air station in Minas: cancelado. Some routes have been cut for years; others are recent victims of fuel shortages.

Only the national trains, those running between Havana and other major cities, including the Santiago de Cuba line, keep dependable schedules.

The westbound train to Havana arrived in Las Tunas an hour late. The fading German cars had numbers stenciled by hand above individual seats. The onboard lights did not work. The seats smelled of sweat and fried chicken. National police patrolled hallways, in keeping with their habit of patrolling everywhere. Within a few minutes, the train jogged into the night, toward a 1 a.m. arrival in Camaguey, Cuba's third-largest city.

Stores along Maceo, the city's curving main commercial street, held modern riches: televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, perfume. But such things do not come at a discount. In a corner market, a liter of vegetable oil sells for $1.95.

After nine years, many people have found a way to climb into the dollar economy. Those with relatives in the States can collect up to $1,200 a year at one of two Western Union offices in Camaguey. Some wait for visiting friends and family toting hidden envelopes full of dollars. Others abandon professorships and doctorates in philosophy to wait tables or rent cars. All fill the layers of communist Cuba's capitalist classes.

Ten miles north, a dirt road cut west into a cattle ranch owned by the government, which also owns the country's newspapers, the dollar stores in Camaguey, the trains in Las Tunas, the big hotels in Santiago de Cuba. The road stretched several hundred yards before reaching a network of low shacks with thatched roofs. A manual water pump stood outside one house.

Inside a one-room general store, customers stopped to claim rations of basic supplies: rice and beans, sugar and soap, rum and cigars. A clerk scooped cooking fat onto a scale, already swarmed by flies. A frame on a shelf held the famous photo of Che Guevera, the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary who helped conquer the island. On the facing wall, a small bulletin board held another famous photo: Elian Gonzalez, sitting at a table, reunited with his father.

By 1 a.m., that night's hurtling train caught cold air through an open window. At 4:30, the train hesitated long enough for the tide of passengers to descend on Santa Clara, more than halfway home.

In late morning sun, white flowers topped sugar cane stretching north of Santa Clara. Behind the Luis Arcos Bernes sugar factory, a relaxed woman with cropped hair dragged on a cigarette and told a familiar story. The factory had not processed sugar since 1995. In September, Castro officially conceded the fight, closing dozens of sugar factories.

Within 200 days, the woman explained, the Bernes factory's tattered iron roof and walls would be pulled down, its hulking machinery carted away. A social center and sports complex would grow in its place. The workers would all keep their salaries, about $10 a month, paid in pesos. Forty of the factory's workers, living in a village around the plant, would stay. The rest, some 246 workers, would be sent on to other work or education.

Sugar, long the economic engine of Cuba, bowed to tourism. Up the road, the Marcelo Salado plant had already been turned into a steam train museum, which opened in November.

When asked her name, the woman with the information hesitated, then declined.

"I think the economy will progress," she said. "You have to trust in El Comandante. He knows what's best."

Farther north, past the colonial town center of Remedios, past the fresh-lobster restaurants of Caibarien, a sturdy causeway ran for 30 miles, over 42 bridges, to keys set in the calm, blue Atlantic. On the second low island, dense mangrove traced a single-lane dirt road to a ribbon of white beach.

There, a pelican swooped upward. An approaching couple climbed into a car, a day of swimming and sunning complete. Their skin, that of tourists, was white. Cubans, barred from this part of their country, are stopped by police at the toll booth, 30 miles away.

By noon the next day, one regular westbound train had already been canceled. Another was running seven hours late. The reason: An eastbound train rolling through the sugar-cane sweetness outside of Matanzas had jumped the tracks. Seventeen people had already died; more than 70 were injured.

A train from Bayamo finally arrived in Santa Clara, then kept on toward Havana. In a seating compartment near the front of the 12-car train, four women and three men laughed. One woman had been to visit her parents and daughter in Camaguey and was now returning to Matanzas. Another had waited all night in Bayamo for the train to carry her through to Havana.

At a pause in the conversation, a foreigner, a Yankee, noted that the air in the train was hot. A boisterous, middle-aged woman, already standing for the next stop, turned calmly.

"Yes," she said. "This is for the poor people. But you have another life. And when you go back, there will be air conditioning."

In a forward compartment, a train crew relaxed after a long night on another route. An engineer, Jorge Lino Vazquez, rubbed his forehead. Vazquez was all muscle, wide cheekbones beneath a tight crewcut, hands of fine leather. Months earlier he had cracked his head while climbing on a train engine. He injured a vertebra and now had frequent splitting headaches. He asked for aspirin.

Vazquez, 49, had been working on Cuban trains for more than 30 years. He knew little of the recent crash, though he said it had been a regular train, with 12 of the Mexican cars holding more than 700 people. The last major accident Vazquez could recall had happened in 1989, a longer hiatus between tragedies than in the United States, or Britain.

"I trust the equipment," Vazquez said. "Can you imagine going 100 kilometers an hour on two rails of iron, two inches wide? It takes a lot to trust your life to two inches of iron."

The train slowed as it approached Coliseo station, scene of the recent deadly crash. Everyone - tired passengers, Vazquez, train conductors, police - pressed into the narrow hallway, crowding the window for a view. On a parallel track, workers stood before the wreckage. The Canadian engine lay on its side, concrete shoved into its face. Rail cars scattered behind like broken bones.

"Terrible, terrible," one conductor, Isabel Garcia Hernandez, said softly.

As the wreckage passed, it sprawled like a metaphor across the land. Imagine, 700 Cubans sleeping and wondering in the dark as the old train rocks through the night, trying to keep pace with modern times.

It seemed impossible to believe that when the crash happened, there was not more death.

Vazquez pondered this.

"It is luck," he said.

Vazquez quieted. The train accelerated onto another stretch of open track. The galloping rhythm increased. Fresh wind whipped through the compartment.

He slumped into a chair and, headache pounding, massaged his eyes.

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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