Sunday, November 06, 2011

Cuba Travel Diary - Preparations (1)

It seems that the train journey I had planned to take from Havana to Santa Clara is not to be. It was one of only two reasons I could muster for making the journey, the other being a visit to the mausoleum of el comandante, but it seems that El Che doesn't open for business on Mondays.

My itineraries are usually distinguished by their flexibility, but over in Cuba they like to see a firm committment to location for at least the first three days and so, after booking my flight and making reservations for the three evenings that I plan to spend in the capital, Monday it was really going to have to be unless I was prepared to sacrifice one of my stops en route to the east of the island.

Sadly the evening rattler to Santa Clara is said to be the only reliable train service these days in Cuba, a society which once proudly boasted the first railway system in all of Latin America. It will have to wait for another day, and I will have to depend on the buses of Viazul to get around.

If any of the train journeys I made between Reading and London Paddington last April were at all memorable, I'm sure I'd remember at least one of them. I do however recall having to traverse the Thames valley that way four times in forty-eight hours around the time of the Royal Wedding.

So this year's only unforgetable ride on the rails was the return leg from Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) to Ollantaytambo on IncaRail. On the way out I'd been packed in knee-to-knee with the French tourists, but on the return leg the only seat avaialble was in First Class, where I was to share a delightfully robed table with a well-to-do Peruvian mother and her somewhat high-maintenance, coppertopped ten-year-old. The meal was served in little ceramic pots: there was a tomato confit and quinoa salad, queso paria, a veggie lasagne, and sacred valley fruit infused with mint for dessert. The wine was local, a Tacama Gran Tinto from the oasis of Ica (south of Lima), and appeared first in a steaming mulled form one might say the last hike of the day, and very welcome as the cold closes in at 3300m.

First Great Western commuter services aside, I can readily agree with Paul Theroux's notion that, alone of all forms of transportation, a train is just as much a place as a vehicle. Of course the most famous train in Santa Clara is indeed now a place (of pilgrimage), as it was famously derailed by el Che himself at the wheel of a bulldozer as it attempted to deliver government reinforcements to the critical final battle raging in that city. (Viz Stephen Soderbergh's Che Part 1)

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