Theatre on Wheels: A Train Ride in Cuba

A train journey in Cuba is drama at its finest. This is immersive theatre like you’ve never seen it before, a combination of promenade, with hefty chunks of audience participation and improvisation thrown in. Relationships blossom and friendships are forged on this theatrical journey; just catch the train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba for a front row seat.

Curtain up coincides with one’s arrival at the train station. The set is a vast chamber with rows of metal seats and bare yellow walls. Cubans are draped over the metal chairs, squashed between bags and boxes, chatting animatedly with everyone nearby. There are families with young children, gossiping old ladies and cigar-puffing gentlemen. A group of young military personnel, dressed from head to toe in their olive green uniform, toy with a lively drunkard. This clueless jester blunders about, muttering wordlessly, as the friends repeatedly hide his belongings and routinely burst into fits of raucous laughter. In light of the ancient train’s broken engine and the subsequent delay, other people are quieter, listening for updates that gently crackle over the tannoy in indecipherable Cuban Spanish. After a three-hour delay, passengers throng towards the platform and pile onto the train.

Resolutely refusing to move, the old train sits in the station in Havana

Resolutely refusing to move, the old train sits in the station in Havana

The drama intensifies on board. Previously amicable relationships are left in tatters as tempers flare over seat numbers and overhead baggage space. Barely legible numbers have been etched onto the windows, but it is unclear as to which seats they refer. In the ensuing confusion, cheeky opportunists sneak multiple suitcases onto the baggage racks. They load what looks like the majority of their possessions onto the now cramped and crowded carriages. One shifty-looking man squeezes a cardboard box, pierced with holes, underneath his seat. Inside is a live, but dangerously quiet animal. At long last, the train shudders into life and trundles laboriously out of the station. The Cubans wrap themselves in blankets and settle down for the night.

A few hours later, an intrusive morning sun awakens the passengers and signals the beginning of Act 2. Before long, the carriage is buzzing with life as sellers march down the aisle, flogging a wide range of products: pate sandwiches, cream crackers, flip flops, pizza with questionable cheese, blocks of jam (bread not included), beach balls, cream cheese triangles, home made fizzy drinks, horoscopes and more. The cry of ‘dos por cinco, cincooooo’ fills the carriage as a young man selling fudge does his rounds. He is one of many marvellous characters. Special mention must also go to the elderly man sharing out his bottle of Havana Club rum and a young red-haired woman, whose portrayal of a thoroughly disinterested train guard was nothing short of mesmerising.

All the while, sugar plantations and grazing cows flash by. Small settlements are brought to a standstill as the train slices through the community. Lines of commuters on bicycles, horse-drawn carts and pedestrians wait patiently to continue their day. School children wave excitedly as we pass through. The battered old train has seen better days. Doors are missing and health and safety is non-existent. Leaning out of a vacant doorway is the perfect way to take in the scenery and watch more of the narrative unfold.

Rudimentary Cuban farming techniques

Rudimentary Cuban farming techniques

For all the excitement, there are tender moments too in this ever-developing spectacle. Two men leap off the train before it has stopped moving and sprint towards four or five family members on the grassy bank that is serving as a platform. Shrieks of delight greet their arrival and tears flow readily as the group greedily embrace one another. It is a touching insight into Cuban life.

The sun is beginning to set as the 19-hour journey comes to an end. The exhausted train splutters into Santiago de Cuba six hours behind schedule, wheezing and glad of a well-earned rest. The actors disperse rapidly, leaving their props behind. The stage is empty and feels bare without its performers, but after a little delay this theatre will roar back into life. Curtain down on a most entertaining spectacle.

Tears flow as a family reunites