3.5 out of 5 stars
This Caribbean sun-soaked island is one of two full Communist states that are left in the world today. The other is North Korea. Unlike that closed state, Cuba is open to tourists who want to visit, though most rarely venture out of their holiday resorts to see how life is like there. I have never been but would like to visit one day. I have seen lots of photos of the place, the iconic images of the slight tired baroque architecture with 1950s American cars are quite evocative and the music as we discovered from the Bueno Vista Social Club Is quite exquisite.
Cuba has had a difficult relationship with its neighbour, America, who really didn’t like the fact that they had a full-blown communist state in its immediate vicinity. Their blockade of the island had been going on for decades and has meant that the standards of living have been driven down. The railway there was once the pride of Latin America, but now it is run down, but somehow, just still working. For little more than the price of a can of beer, a Cuban resident can travel the entire 1200 km length from Havana to Guantanamo. It is this railway that Peter Millar wants to travel along and discover the real Cuba.
He begins his journey in the capital, Havana, but first, he has to find the station. Wandering through the city, he finds the parts of it that haven’t received UNESCO money for renovation and have pretty much crumbled into rubble. It is the same with the Cadillac’s, there are less driving around now, but many more on bricks succumbing to rust. He was expecting it, but it is still a bit of a shock nonetheless. Locating the station he heads in to buy a ticket and finds that the train to Santiago leaves at eight. He asks about trains to Matanzas but is told that there is only one train and it leaves at eight. He is also informed that to get a train on a particular day he would need to buy the ticket a few days before. This is going to be much more complicated than he thought.
Seeing the train is a bit of a shock though, he has not seen that much rust on anything moving ever. It is not exactly reassuring, but he pays his fare using a CUCs, a special tourist rate that is much more than the locals have to pay. He climbs aboard and it is not long before they are moving with a worrying series of clanks and creeks. Ten seconds later they stop. This sequence repeats itself a few times and eventually, they are moving at the heady speed of 20 miles an hour. Millar is sure that it can’t safely go any faster than that. When the train stops at the platforms, people climb aboard to try and sell the passengers food, drink and anything else that they think they might need.
Waiting to be given the opportunity to buy a ticket for a train that hasn’t arrived but should have been and gone hours ago.
It is the beginning of scenarios that repeat themself as he heads across the island. Late trains, barely palatable food and night spent in bars drinking the tourist approved rum whilst talking to the locals. However, he gets a feel for the island and the people and how they are managing under a communist state. The people there are literate and educated and enjoy free healthcare, but they are restricted in many ways and very tightly controlled economic freedoms. These have been loosened a little under Raúl Castro, but people are ingenious and find ways around the system.
I liked this book, Millar shows that there is much more to the island to discover if you are prepared to get out from the all-inclusive resorts. The better parts of the book are his interactions with the people and they are sometimes really funny as he gets frustrated with a system that cannot and will not bend to the demands of an individual. Whilst I think that he has to a certain extent got under the skin of the island, there were a couple of things that did grate a little with me. One of which was constantly comparing the country to his time living behind the Iron curtain and the other was his obsession with the short-skirted girls. They are only minor gripes, it did make me want to still visit the island, especially before the American’s arrive in force. Not quite a good as Cuba Diaries by Isadora Tattlin, but still worth reading though.