Aboard the “Tren Frances”
By Michael N. Landis
HAVANA TIMES — There once was a time—a time long since passed—when it was possible to step aboard a Pullman car at New York City’s Penn Station at 4:00 p.m. and, thanks to Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, not to disembark until arriving in Habana at 6:30 p.m., two days later!
If you were wealthy enough to afford that journey, however, you would likely have broken your trip by overnighting at one of Flagler’s flagship Florida hotels, such as the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, The Breakers in West Palm Beach, or still, if you were in a hurry to get down to Havana and chose to travel straight through, your train would have gone to Key West, where your Pullman car would have been loaded onto a ferry for crossing the Straits of Florida; six hours later, you would arrive in Habana.
Florida East Coast’s Havana Special ran from 1912 ‘til 1935, when the powerful Labor Day Hurricane demolished much of the roadbed between Key Largo and Key West, in the process sweeping away more than 400 W.P.A. workers, when their evacuation train was swept off the tracks in Upper Matacumbie Key. After that catastrophic hurricane, the railroad was never rebuilt beyond the mainland; instead, the old F.E.C. road bed became the foundation for the new U.S. Highway #1 from Homestead to Key West.
As a child, I loved travelling by train, whether the three-hour milk-run from Bridgeville, Delaware, near my grandparents’ farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to my home in Philadelphia, or a major journey, such as that taken when I was 11, in 1954, from Denver, Colorado, after visiting my aunt and uncle for the summer, back to Philadelphia on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy’s California Zepher to Chicago, and onward, via the Pennsylvania Railroad, to Philadelphia. Since then, I’ve crossed and re-crossed our great land on almost every one of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.
It was only natural then that I’d want to ride the Ferrocarilles de Cuba’s Tren Frances, from Habana to Santiago de Cuba. My first try was in 2004, when I attempted to obtain round-trip tickets for myself, my wife and two daughters. We couldn’t quite work out the schedule, so wound up taking the ViaAzul bus, instead. My next try was in 2006, from Santiago to Habana; again there were problems with scheduling. Ditto in 2010, when I tried to obtain round-trip tickets from Habana to Bayamo. On my fourth attempt, in October of 2012, I succeeded in booking a seat on the Tren Frances (so called because the cars used on this run are old carriages purchased by Cuba from the French National Railway) from Santiago to Habana. (Fortunately, I was able to enjoy Santiago; several weeks later Hurricane–“Super Storm”– Sandy swept through, causing major damage to Santiago and surrounding areas, before heading north, where it caused additional destruction to coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.)
I was told to report to the station by 6:00 p.m. for an expected departure at 7:30 p.m. Arriving at the station, I was informed that the departure had been pushed back to 9:00 p.m. Even at dusk, the interior of the large, high-ceilinged, station, a curve-roofed gare of French design, was like an oven; hence, I retreated to a bench in the surrounding park. After reading for only a few minutes, however, I began feeling sharp pricks on my ankles and legs; Cuban biting ants had decided to torment me.
Abandoning my infested park bench, I ambled over to a nearby food stall and ordered a croquette. It was inedible, so I gave it to a street dog. Then, I remembered the special waiting room, in a diminutive white building hard by the train station, where I had purchased my ticket in divisa (hard currency) the day before. Retreating to this small waiting room, I sat down on one of the hard plastic seats. Unfortunately, the air conditioning was set at 62 deg. F. and after an hour I was shivering. Next, I retreated back to the main station. Even though the sun had set, the interior was still like an oven.
After “cooking” for an hour, I retreated again to one of the park benches outside. This time I was not molested by the biting ants. After another hour I heard muffled statements emanating from the station’s loudspeakers, so I re-entered the station. Asking another passenger about that announcement, I discovered that the departure had been pushed back once again, this time ‘til 11:00 p.m. By now, the interior of the gare had cooled down enough to be endurable. For the next couple of hours I chatted with a Cuban family (also heading for Habana).
As 11:00 p.m. approached, however, yet another announcement informed us that the train’s departure had been moved back, this time to 3:00 a.m.! By this time I was getting pretty drowsy, and regretted not retaining at least some of my luggage—a small rolling suitcase, a ruck-sack and a day-pack—to use as pillows, instead of earlier checking them all into the station’s baggage room. Exhausted, I lowered myself to the floor and curled up on the station’s hard, unforgiving, terrazzo floor for some fitful snatches of sleep over the next few hours.
Sensing activity around 2:15 a.m., laboriously I hoisted myself up from the terrazzo floor and reported to the baggage room, where, handing in the claim forms, I retrieve my luggage, and headed out to the platform to be near the head of the lines already forming. For the next hour we observed the crew loading supplies and freight. So numerous did the crew seem that I estimated there must be a conductor, and several stewards or stewardesses, for each coach (an estimation which proved woefully off the mark).
Finally, the signal was given and everyone surged forward, onto the platform. Do you recall that memorable scene from the film Dr. Zhivago, where Yuri Zhivago, his wife and father-in-law board that train in Moscow during that terrible winter of 1918-19 to travel to Yuriatin, in the Urals, to find refuge at Borikino, the father-in-law’s estate? Now picture a tropical version of that scene. (I hyperbolize, of course, but not by much!)
Once I reached my assigned carriage, the two GIANT steps up to the carriage, especially with all my luggage, proved insurmountable. Where now were the scores of train crew I had seen boarding previously? Nowhere to be found! After a valiant attempt to climb up to the carriage, fellow passengers already aboard took pity and lifted up my rolling suitcase, while other sympathetic passengers, still beside me on the platform, gave me a boost up.
Once aboard, the Lord of Chaos reigned supreme. Again, no crew in sight, and the seat numbering system was ambiguous, resulting in a game of “musical chairs” for the next quarter hour. In the absence of any crew, we finally figured out the numbering system and settled in the correct seats.
Brazenly violating the rule on not smoking, one passenger lit up. Several other passengers informed him that this was forbidden, but he ignored their remonstrations. A woman pleaded with him to extinguish his butt, stating that she had asthma, and that his smoke would aggravate her condition. Her appeal fell on deaf ears. Again, no evidence of the crew. Finally, many of us in surrounding seats began cough, cough, coughing, and as our chorus of coughs became ever louder and more incessant the thoughtless offender relented, and stubbed out his cigarette.
Around 3:15 a.m., the train glided out of the station. Somewhere between Santiago and Bayamo the conductress took my ticket, and then she spent much of the next hour berating a family who had gotten on the wrong train. Their tickets were for a local “milk-run,” not the express Tren Frances. Later, they were put off in Camaguey.
By the time the train pulled out of Santiago, I was drenched in sweat from the struggle to board the train, put my luggage in the overhead rack, find, and then switch x 2, my seat. Rather than a seat in one of the air conditioned, first class, carriages, I had chosen to purchase a cheaper, second-class, ticket. The breezes from my open window began cooling me off. Within 15 minutes, however, I was shivering as the chilly pre-dawn air rushed in. From the overhead, I pulled down my rucksack and, rummaging through it, found my jacket at the very bottom, since I had not intended to wear it again until returning North!
On the outskirts of either Cacocum or Bayamo we passed a striking scene: hundreds of men warming themselves around flaming barrels in the pre-dawn darkness. Whenever I hear the cliché: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” I remember these hard-working guajiros, in the chilly pre-dawn darkness, preparing themselves for a day’s labor in el campo.
The interior of the carriage was clean, wide, and tall, with comfortable reclining seats recently reupholstered in a bright, garish, red leatherette or naugahyde. Bathrooms, however, were not up to even one-star standards. In fact, they were in star-negative territory! Fortunately, during the entire journey I only needed to pee; had I needed to use the “throne,” I would have stood over, and above, it. In the second-class carriages there were no rolls of sanitary tissue, of course.
In contrast to the stream-lined, yet closed-in, feel of Amtrak coaches (at least the ones on routes east of Chicago), those of the Tren Frances were high and wide. There was enough room in the overhead rack for even a steamer trunk (if one could have been hoisted it up). Unlike overhead compartments on airliners, the overhead rack of the Tre Frances easily held my rucksack, daypack and rolling suitcase.
Between Las Tunas and Camaguey appeared rosy-fingered Dawn, revealing a vast plane of sugar-cane fields, pasturages–and lots of marabou! I love train travel because I feel like I am passing through the back yards of a nation. Even though the scenes may be fleeting (not as fleeting, however, as those on Amtrak, since both track and equipment of Ferrocarrilles de Cuba are more decrepit), I get to view scenes hidden from the “windshield tourists” who drive the Interstates or Autopista Nactional: desolate crossroads where I can imagine a Cuban Robert Johnson meeting the Devil to exchange his soul for the gift of playing his guitar with inspiration, or sleepy little bateys where piglets roam the streets, guajiros trot along on horseback, elementary students, in their red uniforms, joke with each other on their way to school, and abuelas gossip over fences of living cacti.
Although there were other extranjeros up in the first-class, lux, coaches, I was the only foreigner in my second-class carriage. Since I was exhausted by my semi-sleepless night on park benches, plastic chairs and terrazzo floors, I drifted in and out of sleep for much of the trip, taking a less active role engaging fellow passengers in conversation. Even at this reduced level, it was delightful experiencing the sights, sounds and smells as we passed along the 900 km. from Santiago to Habana.
Dozens of vendors came aboard in Camaguey, hawking sandwiches, cafecitos, soft-drinks, crackers, cakes and other sweets. These were far better alternatives to the dry, Velvita-type cheese-product sandwiches and orange drinks proffered by the train stewardess shortly after leaving Santiago. Sanitary standards were somewhat lacking, however, with the cafecita vendors reusing the same diminutive cups without rewashing them; then again, my philosophy is: “Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger!”
I was a bit shocked when some of my fellow passengers, consuming their snacks and drinks, blithely tossing both wrappers and empty soda bottles out the windows. During the late morning and early afternoon we continued travelling across the vast planes of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila and Sancti Spiritus Provinces, sometimes glimpsing, from afar, the Sierra de Escambray range on the West Southwest horizon. For the most part we traversed vast planes, occasionally going around modest hills. Since the Tren Frances is express, we bypassed many of the provincial cities, such as Ciego de Avila and Sancti Spiritus, which I had visited during my eastward journey down the island a month before. As we progressed westward, cities and towns became more numerous, with folks detraining and climbing aboard in Santa Clara and Matanzas. About a half-hour after leaving Matanzas, the train sped by the abandoned and forlorn station for Aguacate, where I had cut sugar cane for three months, during the Zafra de Los Diez Millones, in 1969-70.
As we approached Havana, the excitement of my fellow passengers was palpable: the buzz of conversation grew louder and the hubbub of folks retrieving their suitcases and parcels from the overhead and making ready for their departure became more frenetic, especially as the train slowed to a crawl through the outlying industrial zones. This activity culminated with our arrival at Havana’s Estacion Central.
The train’s aisles filled with folk waiting to descend to the platform, and the platform itself became a scene of chaos: passengers reuniting with their families and friends, then hurrying off in cars, taxis, buses, and camiones (passenger trucks) to their final destinations. Since I was burdened with a rucksack, daypack and small rolling suitcase, after making my way out to the street I opted for a taxi to my destination in a far western suburb of Habana, first, of course, negotiating the price in advance. After checking into the Hotel Mariposa, in La Lisa, I drew the curtains, flung off my clothes, turned off the lights, dove into bed, and slept soundly for the next twelve hours!
Would I elect to make such a journey again? Probably. Taking the Ferrocarrilles de Cuba is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with low levels of tolerance. Also, I might have second thoughts had I arrived 27 hours late, as did another extranjero some years back! Still, if you are a lover of trains, someone who wants to experience Cuba more authentically (without, of course, taking this authenticity to the extreme by taking a series of trucks from Santiago to Habana), and embraces the philosophy that “getting there is half the fun,” then Ferrocarilles de Cuba is your ticket to the stars!