Off to Santiago


A couple stand in the area between two cars for hours as we head to Santiago, their punishment for not buying a ticket. An obviously drunk black man roams the car complaining that his friends can’t sit because they can’t afford the ticket. A pair of police officers speak to him once and when they stop him a second time, we don’t see him again.
I’m really enjoying watching people get on and off at various stops, loading and unloading their luggage and other items from horse drawn carts.
We stop at Camaguey and vendors descend on us, selling a variety of beverages in refilled water bottles as well as sandwiches and cakes.

We get a few 5CUP fried fish sandwiches and a soda. As we roll along, passengers toss the bottles and wrappers out the window. Sarge tries to collect garbage in a bag, and one passenger quips “We recycle online, the train line.”

Bad pizza, good ice cream


The train arrives in Santa Clara about 6 am and outside the station are a line of horse-drawn taxis.
It’s a 12 or so block walk, past a nice square, ring the bell at our hostal and wait, and wait, and ring and wait.
Back to the well-cared-for central square, sit down at a 24-hour hamburger stand and pay 1CUP each for a coldish glass of an orange-colored beverage. The WiFi is working, our host Alain responds and it’s back again.
The house is in great shape, the toilet and AC works and we sleep until lunch. Alain lives in the house with his mother, is renovating the one next door to expand his operations, and has four or five women employed cleaning and cooking. One makes a stew of beans, malanga(?a type of root vegetable) and smoked pork and sausage. That’s followed by a whole fish for each of us, served on top of fried potatoes along with rice and a salad. Dessert is a soft cheese and mango purée. Well worth the 12CUC.
The heat of the afternoon is avoided by napping and watching Real Madrid lose to Juventus but advance in the UEFA cup tournament on total goals scored.
The hammerıng sun subsıdes, so it’s time for a stroll over to see Che’s tomb where his resignation letter to Fidel is displayed in metal type on the wall.

Then, two strange dining experiences. The first, a stop at an ice cream parlor that drew lines earlier in the day. We sit down, learn they don’t have bottled water and bring us the only thing on the menu, small plates of ice cream. It turns out it’s a government run parlor where the public can enjoy heavily subsidized and delicious ice cream.
Next, a pizza place for an appetizer of small wedges of sliced ham called Jamon Viking and a Velveeta-type cheese wilting in the humidity before a pizza made with the same cheese atop a puffy pre-made crust.

That’s all forgiven by a stop in an exquisite hotel down the block where a tumbler of seven-year old Havana Club rum with one giant ice cube sets me back $1.50CUC.
That soothes the pain of my Yuban delusion but I’m convinced something is still out there. Pondering this, it’s off to one our main objectives, a Cuban baseball game. A 10-minute walk brings us to a sports complex with riverside barbecue grills and tables for picnicking, a few bars and restaurants, a playground and park decorated with an out-of-service fighter jet and helicopter and a large stadium.
Vendors line the parking lot in a row and the ticket lady explains the seats are one or two pesos CUP, and my CUC seem like a headache to her, so I buy a beer outside and get change. She says we can sit in the area behind home plate for foreign visitors and we plop down in the front row behind home plate.


The players are preparing for an upcoming international competition and are split into central and western teams. The Centrales jump on the Occidentales starter early and are up 5-0 after two innings. He seems to have settled down when I come back from the bathroom, which had a 55-gallon drum instead of running water because all of the faucets and the toilet tank were missing or never installed.
The game ends when a light in right field blows out with a tremendous pop and the officials decide to call the game in the sixth inning.
Walking back, I notice
the houses in Santa Clara are generally in much better shape and Alain dismisses Janet’s comments about stairwells and facades, saying people can pool their money for repair. The larger size of many Havana buildings makes me think that’s harder.
The next day, we arrange our scheduled 16-hour train ride to Santiago, where another Airbnb host awaits us. At the snack bar I discover what this country has is a good 4-cent cigar.

Government subsidies provide items that are astonishingly low-priced for foreigners: a four-cent cigar, eight-cent baseball ticket, 24-cent beer. That also helps maintain a low-cost workforce for the tourist hotels, shops and attractions that their employees will never patronize. In some ways, this seems no less bizarre than the out-of-control San Francisco real estate market that spawned Airbnb.

Santa Clara by rail

Unlike earlier, the station is crowded when we arrive 90 minutes early. Sarge made sure we lugged a doggy bag from lunch along with a few water bottles and napkins. I opted to see what awaited us: a tray full of sandwiches with a painted metal sign next to it reading “Pan con Puerco 123.5 g $5.00.” That turned out to be the price in Cuban pesos, not CUCs, or about 20 US cents each at the 24-1 CUP/CUC exchange rate. They were delicious, just one bit of grizzle in the moist, roast pork sandwiches served on the buns that are sold everywhere.


I go to the bathroom and on the way out a guy sitting on a chair counting bills makes a hissing sound to get my attention and says I have to pay.
“Cuanto será?”
“Depende, de donde eres?”
So, I tell him I’m from NJ but of Spanish parents. Meanwhile, a soldier/police man in khakis wanders over to see what’s going on.
“Really? I have a twin in NJ. Ok, give me something small.”
I tell him my friend has change and I go and get some.
We settle in to wait and the train before is delayed, worrying us a bit. Our train comes in on time but we have to cross the tracks behind the delayed train and step onto the platform, all while a steady rain starts to fall, blowing into our cabin through a cockeyed window we can’t fully close.
The conductor comes back a few minutes later and I ask her to let us know when we are getting close to Santa Clara, which should be about 1 a.m., according to the schedule. She tells us flatly that it will take eight hours, not four.
Underway, our burly cabin mate shows us photos of his son, his ex-wife, his current wife and her two children. Yovani says his father left in the Mariel boatlift and he hasn’t seen him since. He plans to join his wife in Florida in a year or so if all goes well. His wife talks to his father, he’s not that interested.
A vendor comes by and Yovani buys us a beverage in a bag we open with our teeth and suck out through the hole.

The kids in the next cabin are heading to a nearby city for a music festival, paying 10 pesos for their ticket, or about 40 cents, while ours cost 10 CUCs.
We fold down the seats to form the six seats into three beds of sorts. Our cabin mate warns us to push our shoes under the seat so they aren’t stolen, despite the fact two officers are patrolling constantly, and we watch lightning flash over the sugar cane.