4th of January 2014
I already spent 3 days in Havana and I must say that I was beginning to feel disappointed. I always had a very dreamy picture of Cuba and Cubans. For me, they were all bearded revolutionaries fighting for justice and full of love for life, I forgot the simple fact that people are people, and poverty and revolutionary idealism just can’t thrive together.
What was shocking about Cuba after these three days though was that, at many times, Cuba felt even poorer and more miserable than Khartoum or Cairo’s poor alleys, you can see this poverty in all the jiniteros hustling tourists in hope of ridding them of some of their dollars and euros but also just in the exhausted eyes of older men and women. I felt uncomfortable with the situation initially, I wouldn’t accept distancing myself as most westerner tourists do, but in the same time, I recognized that – in the eyes of Cubans – I am yet another tourist even if hold an identity and a passport as cruel and as miserable as theirs.
But by the fourth day, my trip was about to take a massive shift. I decided to head east from Havana with my German friend Miriam that I met in the hostel in Havana. Our final destination was the bay of pigs with a stop at Matanzas on the way. We decided to take the old electric train to Matanzas, it is an old train that resembles Heliopolis trams in Cairo albeit it functions in much more beautiful surroundings. We headed towards Casablanca – the station on the other side of Havana – it is the most unassuming train station I ever saw, it looks like any other colonial house in Havana.
The old train departed exactly on time in a precision that astonished even my German friend. It started rolling very slowly in the middle of the beautiful nature of the suburbs of Havana. In front of us, was a family formed of a father and his daughter, and as the train went forward, more members of the family joined them at different stations. In about an hour, there were more than 10 members of the family from the grand father to a baby who is probably the fourth generation of the family. The train reminded me of my father’s stories about Kareema’s train in Sudan, it was rolling slowly from one station to another taking its time at each stop allowing passengers and workers to chat with their friends, that train – as well as Kareema train probably – are the extreme opposite of Europe’s miserable punctual and spiritless trains.
Two hours into the trip, an electric fault happened and the roof of the train went on fire. All of a sudden, there were blazes of fire falling from the windows into the carriages. For a moment, I thought I was dreaming until people started running around me, and the train stopped in the middle of the villages. We got off the train, sat down on the grass while people were chatting and drinking loudly. One Cuban came to talk to us, a doctor who speaks English fluently, he explained how these accidents are very normal on this train, and the problem will be fixed soon and we will continue our way shortly. Meanwhile, the train staff were fixing the issues accompanied by lots of passengers who didn’t shy from providing their knowledge and expertise to the cause of getting us moving again. The train finally moved, and we arrived to Matanzas, strangely enough, on the exact scheduled time as if this accident was completely accounted for.
When we arrived. we joined another tourist from Spain named Jorge, and we decided to look for a casa together. We found a great casa with a huge room with three beds, which looked – as most of the casas – as if it belonged to a family that was extremely rich before the revolution. Jorge is an architecture student who is spending a semester in Mexico, an extremely clever and knowledgeable young guy, one of these young Europeans that I keep meeting and wonder how beautiful and fair Europe would be – to itself and others – if it gets ruled by this generation one day. We put our bags and headed for a walk around Matanzas, we went to a local restaurant where we can pay in moneda nacional – Cuba has two currencies – and I found out, thanks to Jorge, how much we can change the course of our trip once we start using moneda nacional. It is not just because of saving money, but because it opens the ability to travel, eat and enjoy Cuba more like Cubans.
We had our good food then sat down near the railway track looking at the rusty malecon of Matanzas and talking about all sort of things for hours.