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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

To Havana for the sugar trains

Posted March 24, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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By Henry Baum | Contra Costa Times

Our day begins at SFO at 5 A.M., and ends in a fourth-floor hotel room that reeks of mildew. Welcome to tropical Cuba.

We are a group of railroad fans, affectionately known as “foamers,” here to see the steam engines that move sugar cane from the fields to the mills. Most of these locomotives date from the late 19th and early part of the 20th century.

Each member of our charter was required to bring 15 to 20 pounds of medical supplies into Cuba.

I am severely overloaded, thanks partially to a last-minute change in our group’s travel arrangements. The group that was originally co-sponsoring our trip lost its cultural tour license, due to the transfer of control from the State Department to Homeland Security.

Our entire excursion to Cuba figured to be over before it began, but excursion director Henry Luna, owner of Key Holidays in Walnut Creek, arranged for us to travel on the Humanitarian license of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, which provides medical aid to disabled Cubans through a similar group in Havana.

So, as a condition of our traveling on their license, each member of our charter was required to bring 15 to 20 pounds of medical supplies into Cuba.

FEB. 29—A new day finds the air conditioning in the room working, so I slept like a baby.

After breakfast, a bus tour of Havana took us to Revolution Square and the old Capitol plaza, where we stopped to photograph the vintage autos. We drove the entire Malecon (or Harbor Boulevard, similar to the Embarcadero) and passed many sites of interest. The memorial to the USS Maine is passed in a blur, but the old Riviera and Sheraton Hotels are pointed out with great interest, with information on the hotels’ nationalization.

About then I figured out that our tour guides were definitely pro-Cuba and pro-Revolution. While politics and religion were officially verboten as discussion topics, bias still can be discerned, and they wanted us to see Cuba in the best possible light. They didn’t try to hide anything from us, and questions were answered openly. But it was always implied that, while things could be better, they are not so bad.

The bus tour was followed by a walking tour of old Havana. We started in the oldest of the three fortresses in Havana, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built on the (tactically) wrong side of the harbor in the 1600s and soon abandoned. It is now a museum of ceramics and pottery.

We then strolled into the oldest section of Cuba, past El Templete, the former church where Havana was founded, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, a colonial residence, then walked into Cathedral square, where the Cathedral de San Christopher is still an active Catholic church, and is where Pope John Paul II said Mass when he visited Cuba in the ‘90s.

From there we proceeded to an area where a marketplace was set up and local artists and craftsmen ply their wares. I noticed a complete void of religious art—to be expected in a Communist state, but intriguing in a country with such strong Catholic roots.

Adolf Hungry Wolf, our “man in Havana” who had been busily arranging our itinerary for us before we arrived, joined us for lunch. He worked for the sugar railroads in Cuba for many years, and is probably the world’s leading expert on Cuban steam engines. His presence on our tour opened up many doors for us.

We had to return to our hotel to sort out our medical supplies. When I returned to our room, a surprise—while we had been out, a large portion of the cornice and ceiling had collapsed. That explained the heavy mildew smell. A quick call to the front desk, and within a half hour we were moved to a new room.

FEB. 30—Went down to the lobby to see if the hotel’s cyber-cafe, Plaza.com, had opened this morning, as promised. I was then told, “Will be broken all week.”

Today we head for the Centrăl Agro-Industrie sugar mill, where two steam engines were heating up back in the shop. One of them went out to get some cane cars, and a few of our members asked if they could ride along, and the crew said “Sure.” I think three of our people got to ride.

Adolf gave us a history of the various locomotives, and allowed us to look around.

Many of our members had been passing out Niles Canyon Railway trinkets to the local crews, and some gave candy to the kids that were everywhere (and the more we gave them, the more showed up).

Alan Siegwarth showed the local engineers (they are called “maquinistos” in Cuba) photos of the “vaporados” operating steam trains on the Niles Canyon Railway, so they understood they were qualified, and they let them all take the throttle! I finally got around to asking for a ride, and Henry Luna and me went out just for a spin. They took us down to a switch, and we waited for another steamer to pass us with a load of sugar cane cars. I’m videotaping and photographing like crazy.

We passed the hat while we were out in the fields, to pay the crew, and more importantly, the mill officials, who went out of their way, and risked so much, to entertain our desires. I’m pretty sure the mill will be a long time in forgetting that the PLA had been there.

Editor’s note: Henry Baum was one of about 30 railroad enthusiasts, most from the Bay Area, to make a nine-day trip to Cuba in early March. The travelers, members of the Pacific Locomotive Association which operates the Niles Canyon Railway in Sunol, came to watch the last of the steam locomotives working in and around Cuban sugar mills.

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