JULIA STEINECKE | Toronto Star

HERSHEY, CUBAó“Why are you taking pictures?” a local woman asks me in Spanish. “There’s no history here.”

Five minutes later, a young man walks up and says: “Cuba is a museum.”

Such are the ironies of this small town near Havana, officially known as Camilo Cienfuegos, unofficially referred to by its original name, Hershey.

In 1917 Milton Hershey built a mill here to process sugar cane for his chocolate factory in Pennsylvania. Around the mill, he built a town featuring American-style bungalows and sprawling fieldstone mansions.

There was a golf course, a cinema and a hotel. Six years later, the Hershey Electric Train journeyed from Havana to Matanzas, stopping in the town of Hershey.

Fast forward to the present: I wait, with a growing crowd of Cubans at the train stop outside Guanabo, in the countryside just east of Havana. We’re surrounded by towering royal palms and a distant ridge of hills. Every few minutes a beat-up car putts past, or a horse and buggy, or a clunker bicycle.

The Electric Train pulls up only half an hour late. Rust has turned its roof reddish brown. On top is a transformer that looks older than electricity. Four bent poles reach for the sagging cables that miraculously manage to deliver power to the engine.

Slowly, we sway through miles of overgrown fields, some seats swaying considerably more than others. I feel like I’m inside the skeleton of a double-jointed contortionist. We stop in one-shack hamlets to pick up peasants dressed in their business best for a trip to the city of Matanzas. Several riders get off with me at the clay-roof Hershey station.

The first thing I notice is the mill, now a jumble of twisted frames and patchy sheet metal. Fidel Castro’s government took it over after the 1959 revolution and sold sugar to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, when the Cuba’s Russian lifeline fell away, there were few markets and fewer spare parts to keep the industry afloat. Efficiency went down and sugar prices dropped.

In 2002 Cuba shut down half its sugar mills, including this one. Hershey became a one-industry town without an industry, hollow at the core. Today, the mill is still being dismantled. Ancient Russian trucks rumble around the un-building site, preparing to ship any useable parts to other functioning mills. Behind many homes I see storage sheds made of scrap metal.

Cheerful billboards pop up all over town, with messages like, “The Electric Railway will be rejuvenated,” “Sports are the right of the people” and “This revolution was made with the humble, for the humble, and by the humble,” a quote from Camilo Cienfuegos, a comandante who played a major role in the overthrow of Batista.

The paint is peeling on the tiny bungalows surrounding the mill, but they still look like they were transplanted directly from the post-war suburbs of America. Each has its own porch and wee lawn outlined in pebbles. I feel like I’m in a Communist Pleasantville, twice-frozen in time, evoking two opposing dreams.

I meet one believer, the man who described Cuba as a museum. He’s a mechanic in one of the post-mill industries, fixing ailing trains dragged here at all hours from all over Havana Province. His workshop could pass for a museum, crammed with turn-of-the-century trains from Russia, Romania, the U.S., France and Spain.

He poses for a photo beside a massive cast-iron funnel spray-painted green. The letters embossed on its surface read, “New Doty Mfg Co, Janesville, Wis.”

“I love my job!” he exclaims. “I love trains! I love Che!” I believe him, even though his boss is standing right there.

I keep believing when I see what the other laid-off mill workers are doing. Many have gone back to school, continuing to receive their government salaries. One man repairs umbrellas on the front porch of a house. Others work on an organic farm in the middle of town, where I buy two shining eggplants for one Cuban Peso.

My optimism deflates in a dingy snack bar near the train station, when I bite into my long-awaited sandwich. A closer examination reveals a mystery meat like bologna decorated with large chunks of fat. Poor fuel for a revolution.

I can’t wait to get back to Guanabo and cook my eggplants. As the vegetables sizzle on the frying pan, my host asks me why I spent the whole afternoon in such an obscure place with no tourist attractions.

My answer comes in pieces. It was the surrealism, the wild juxtapositions, the way the town made me believe, if only for a moment, against all odds.

Julia Steinecke leads writing retreats in Cuba and can be reached at [url=http://www.JuliaSt.net]http://www.JuliaSt.net[/url]