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  • The Hershey Train

    Twice on this trip we find ourselves marooned at Jose Marti Airport, waiting several hours for an airplane to materialize from, well, thin air. It seems the exponential increase in tourism to Cuba has completely outpaced their ability to house, feed, and transport all of those tourists. I am chatting with some fellow maroonees when the subject of my adventure on the Hershey Train arises. They ask how it was, to which I reply, “it was unreliable, hot, dirty, smelly and noisy, and we shared our car with a bunch of loud drunks and three goats. It was the highlight of my trip!”

    Near the end of World War I when sugar was in short supply, Milton Hershey came to Cuba and purchased a central (a cane plantation, mill and surrounding town) to ensure a steady and economical source of sugar from which to make his chocolate in Pennsylvania. He modernized the mill to process the cane into sugar, and built houses for his workers and the country's first electrically operated train to transport the sugar to Havana for shipment to the United States. Unlike other oligarchs of his era, he was extraordinarily generous to his workers, renting the houses to them at reasonable rates, letting them travel for free on the train, and even allowing those with houses close to the railroad to tap into his electricity. He seems to have genuinely liked his employees, often eating lunch with them, and habitually leaving the cigar that he had been smoking on a windowsill before entering the mill in the knowledge that one of his workers would quickly find and finish smoking it.

    Hershey sold his holdings in Cuba in the 1940's. The mill has long since closed and is slowly losing its battle with gravity, but the town and railroad still exist. One of my objectives on this trip is to ride the train to Hershey and explore what remains there, so I take the ferry across Havana Bay to the station in Casa Blanca, a Jetson-esque structure that reminds me of the main terminal at Jose Marti.

    But instead of a waiting train, I find a sign reading No hay tren hasta nuevo aviso...no train until further notice. Despite the fact that no tickets can be sold, a lady is dutifully staffing the ticket booth and tells me that “possibly” there will be a train on Thursday or Friday.

    A couple of days later I try again. This time the train is at the station, which I take as a good sign, but instead of selling tickets the lady is busy answering frequent telephone calls. These are apparently coming from the generating station in Hershey, because just before scheduled departure she announces that there is an electrical problem and the train will not run today. Mañana...maybe, goes the island phrase.

    As the time to return to the United States draws near I try one more time, and fellow travelers Illya Kovalek and Susan Fofana-Dura decide to go along. The train is again in front of the station, but this time the agent is in fact selling tickets; 1.40 CUC (the convertible currency used by foreigners, about $1.40 US) buys me a ticket to Hershey. More or less on schedule the train starts up and departs Casa Blanca. We are not yet out of sight of the station when the train suddenly stops, reverses direction, and returns, so that the conductor can retrieve a bicycle that another passenger has left behind. Off we go again, with Graham Nash's great song, Marrakesh Express as the soundtrack running through my mind:

    ...Take the train from Casablanca going south...

    I often comment that Cuba is a good place for travelers to visit, not so much for tourists. The difference is that a traveler adapts to the conditions that he finds, while a tourist expects the place to accommodate itself to him. This distinction is doubly true for the Hershey Train. The seats are made of steel and hard plastic, the cars do not appear to have been cleaned since before the revolution, some windows open while others do not, and there is absolutely no illumination, making for a very dark ride at night. The door in our car only closes halfway, so I stand in the opening as the train pitches and bucks down the tracks. What will happen if I lose my grip and fall off I do not know, but the term “natural selection” comes to mind. A short video I made of the ride can be seen here.

    Despite its unreliability, the train is an important means of travel for ordinary Cubans, and we stop at just about every small town along the way to pick up or drop off passengers. People living near the tracks but between stops stand by the tracks to flag the train down as it approaches. It is economical for them as well: Cubans pay exactly the same fare as foreigners: 1.40, but in Cuban Pesos, instead of CUCs, thereby costing them about 6 cents US. I had read one story online that on one trip a refrigerator sat in the middle of the author's car. The train stopped near a trackside house along the way, where he and others on the train helped move the appliance into the house. They then reboarded the train and it resumed its run.

    About an hour and a half later, and right on schedule, we pull in to the Hershey station. Illya, Susan, and I disembark and begin exploring the town as the train continues its journey east to Matanzas. Finding the ruins of the sugar mill is easy; we could see the smokestack looming over the town as we ascended from a valley where the sugar cane that once fed the mill was grown. I make a couple of exposures of the ruins, amused by a sign that reads, No pase...in the imperative form. I have been around many sketchy places in Cuba that are unprotected by signs or fences, so this place must really be dangerous. I heed the warning and do not pass.

    Although the houses have suffered from the neglect that afflicts much of this country, it is easy to see which part of the town that Milton Hershey built, and that it was patterned after his town of the same name in Pennsylvania. Similarly-styled houses on equally-sized lots sit the same distance back from wide, paved streets flanked by concrete sidewalks, something unheard of in other towns of this size here. Mr. Hershey was orderly as well as benevolent.

    While researching this place I had seen photographs of unused locomotives and cars loitering on side tracks, which is what I had really come here to photograph. Logic tells me that I will find them by following the tracks, so I set off, walking a mile or so in the direction the train had gone. My quest is unsuccessful, but near the edge of town someone tells me that I might find them near the car barn. I head that way and begin to see unused cars, but a guard sees me and tells me I must leave. I recall Steve Anchell's advice (if someone tells you not to take a picture of something, just smile, put your camera away, and leave.) In Cuba, forgiveness is NOT easier to obtain than permission, so I leave.

    I also found this documentary called Model Town on YouTube that explores Hershey during its heyday. Near the end of the program, older people who had lived and worked there during that era were given Hershey chocolate bars, which they handled, smelled, and tasted as if they were the most precious thing they had ever possessed. So I brought with me several bags of Hershey's chocolates that I give to people I meet here. Cubans are not used to such treats and always accept them gladly, so I cannot discern whether the connection to their town really means anything to them, or whether they are just grateful to receive some chocolates.

    After meeting up with Illya and Susan at a cantina where we have ham sandwiches and beer, we make our way back to the station to catch the train back to Casa Blanca. The sun has set by the time we depart, and the darkness is punctuated by the lightning flashes from the overhead catenary wires, the loud drunks taking their produce into Havana, the bleating of those goats, ...and Graham...

    ...Ducks and pigs and chickens call...

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