Reverse-Cinderella novel set in LONDON
Travelogue set in Cuba (a train travelogue with missing consonants)
7th November 2013
Slow Train to Guantanamo by Peter Millar, travelogue set in Cuba
Above rusty nails sparks fly, crimson flowers fade.When will my train come (train-inspired Haiku penned by the author)
Ever dreamt of going to Cuba? Well, with the help of Peter Millar and Slow Train to Guantanamo you can! You can enjoy a travelogue via train right from the North to the South, with colourful stops along the way. This is a train line that stretches 1,200km and the average Cuban can travel the full length for the price of can of beer – it might take days in the decrepit carriages brought together from East Germany and Russia, but it is certainly value for money.
Cuba is by no means an easy country to navigate. Don’t even think of trying Castilian Spanish. This is truly the land of dropped consonants. Cua e’ Cua… Cuba is Cuba (the refrain when things don’t go according to plan, which is, well, most of the time). Want to use the local currency, the Peso Nacional? No, as a foreigner to Cuba CUCs are what you need.
This is a wonderfully vivid evocation of a hot, in parts tropical country, where the infrastructure is teetering on its last legs. This doesn’t stop the locals shimmying along in alluring attire, where women officials wear micro minis with fishnet stockings and the men burst through their T shirts with well-honed muscles. Yet, there is so much in everyday life that proves to be a real struggle, both for the locals; and for the traveller, who wants to explore something other than the gated hotel complexes, where most foreigners hole up. This is a country which once had a proud national railway, sugar cane plantations that seemed to feed the world (and mainly their pals the Russians when Communism was flourishing) and now a health care system that is free to everyone – but oftentimes the medication you might need simply isn’t available. Mango juice and cigars galore; but fancy a bit more than the staple of Arroz Moros Y Cristianos (Black Beans with Rice)? Then, well, you either have to fork out (pardon the pun) and trade in CUCs, or black market your way to something a bit more scintillating. ‘Meals in Cuba are seen as a necessity…’ writes the author and he seems to spend his time careening between undercooked pork and overcooked fish and beef, with, of course the ubiquitous black beans and rice. “Cuba’s gastronomic culture remains that of America circa 1959 when convenience food was considered the height of new age sophistication”.
The hospitable locals all seem to take the rickety economy and lifestyle in their stride, indeed with great aplomb in the face of adversity it would seem, although always on the look-out to garner some CUCs or share a beer that is only available to foreigners. Cuba has a truly aspirational culture! And of course, the thread of music permeates the journey, a genre that has assimilated strands from many different cultures to make it what it is today.
Peter sees many parallels between his stint as a correspondent in Eastern Europe (pre 1989), the Balkan Wars and what he observes now: “There are whole swathes of central Cuba that more than anything resemble the aftermath of war, the general state of disrepair worn down and denigrated by the tropical climate”. He captures the crumbling infrastructure depressingly well.
The book is so well written and peppered with interesting facts, which can only serve to enhance the reader’s appreciation of this exhilarating, yet extremely frustrating journey. Explore Daiquiri (yes, it’s a place as well as a cocktail) and observe the enclave that is Guanatamo at the southern tip of the island, whilst humming the melodic tune of Guantanamera (yes, that is originally a Cuban tune). Learn that 98% of the population can read (which beats many Western countries!) but understand that the Cubans are not free to read literature of their choice. Find out how Che got his name and discover more about the Hershey (chocolate) village, which mirrored what Bourneville was doing in the UK.
The cover (I cannot not mention it) absolutely reflects the content of the book, perfect choice from publishers Arcadia, with colour, vibrance, a hulking train, a balanced composition and of course, Che crowning the title.
This book is a true revelation. And as such one can overlook the proliferation of odd spelling errors that began to appear in our copy from the halfway point (different proofreader perhaps?), where one had to contend with ‘or’ when it should have been ‘of’, or where lack of commas made a sentence hard-going; or where (heaven forbid, but it happened in our copy) ‘their’ was used instead of ‘there’. Plus there is an incidence on the train when the author is pee’ed on by a chicken. Er not, chickens can’t pee, they can only poo out their pee (if you get my drift) – but the subject of chickens’ digestive systems is perhaps for someone else to pick up elsewhere… If you are heading to Cuba this will serve as your guide! (You could even possibly ditch the guidebook! No, I don’t mean it but you sure glean some insider information from this great travelogue that you probably wouldn’t find in a typical guidebook). Vale! Felices viajes (of course this is bon voyage in Castilian Spanish, it will probably be very different in Cuban!)
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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