The 12:39 to Matanzas

A relic of the pre-Castro era, still running in Cuba.

The Atlantic Monthly

September 2009

The sugar train to Matanzas started with a trundle and a high moan from the horn, pulling away from the suburbs of Havana with stateliness rather than speed, pursued by stragglers who hopped aboard like hobos catching a freight. The cars had wooden seats and windows open to the tropical breeze. They rattled through the industrial outskirts of the capital, past refinery tanks and banana trees — and then, for no good reason, the train rolled to a stop. In this staccato fashion we moved along the north coast of Cuba.

Edgar, a conductor who had the day off, sat across from me. He was headed to the town of Matanzas to deliver money for his son. Matanzas was an old slave-and-pirate port, Cuba’s second harbor city, graced with Spanish colonial buildings around the square but very quiet. “Compared to Havana, it’s tranquil,” Edgar said.

On the platform, he’d given me advice. After the 8:30 train arrived — three hours late — he explained that it would leave immediately, but headed for Canasí. “Don’t get on!” he said. The 12:39 to Matanzas was on its way.

But the 8:30 train didn’t go to Canasí. It pulled off a few yards, sat for maintenance, and pulled back into place an hour later. Now it was the 12:39 to Matanzas. We were told to get on.

This ramshackle electric “Hershey Train” is an anachronism, the sort of train you’re supposed to ride in Cuba only as a tourist or a local from one of the villages east of Havana. It’s the slowest machine-powered way to reach Matanzas and the best way to see the countryside. The sugar fields, the ocean, and the quiet hills of northern Havana province all heave into view from the railroad, looking largely unaltered from the turn of the 20th century. Revolution, it seems, also has the power to stop change.

Travel to Cuba is still illegal for most Americans, but assuming relations thaw in the next handful of years, a ride on the Hershey Train can serve as a reminder of how much the two countries have in common.

Milton Hershey built the line after he bought a sugar plantation in 1916 to sweeten his chocolate empire. It used to ferry his workers to the fields in brown cars labeled Hershey. Castro’s government kept the train line in place to serve this part of the country. In 1998 the government replaced them with green-and-white, ’40s-era rolling stock from Spain.

A skinny white man came to lean against the seat and chat with Edgar. He wore blue overalls and said his name was Juan. “Good to meet you,” he said to me. “I’m the engineer today.”

The train, by then, was moving fast. I gave him a questioning look.

“There’s someone else in the cab.”


We picked up speed and hauled through sere yellow farmland. The train screeched and rocked and reeled, and the engineer let loose with the horn. Gates lowered; horse carts and old Cadillacs waited at the crossings. People on farms quit working to watch.

Soon a beautiful Cubana sat near us with her mother and a small boy. She looked innocent and proud, with calf-like brown eyes and a posture like Carmen Miranda’s. She had café-con-leche skin and black hair pulled straight up on her head, almost like a pile of fruit. Edgar and Juan flirted with her. At first she resisted Juan’s overtures. But when she spoke, she had an insouciant and unpracticed glamour that belonged in a Hollywood film.

When she stepped out the exit where Juan was gallantly manning the door, she pecked him on the cheek. He came back in a buoyant mood.

“Buenas tetas,” he said.


“They’re probably silicone,” said Edgar.

“Really?” I said. “Fake?”

“Cuban women love to have big tits,” he explained.

I wanted to ask whether the government paid for that — maybe silicone breasts were one triumph of the Revolution — but my Spanish wasn’t nimble enough.

About 40 kilometers east of Havana, Hershey built a “model village” like his factory town in Pennsylvania. The Cuban version, also called Hershey, had a baseball field, a cinema, a medical clinic, workers’ quarters, and a company store, all clustered around a tremendous sugar mill. I was startled to learn the mill had stopped grinding cane only in 2002, because the structure I saw, with its yellow-brick smokestacks, was a spindly hulk with shattered windows.

The train paused for only a few minutes at Hershey, then pulled off about a hundred yards and promptly broke down. A group of overall-clad mechanics emerged from a workshop near the dilapidated mill, with enormous wrenches over their shoulders. They squinted in the sun like extras in The Grapes of Wrath.

Cubans avoid talking politics with strangers, but you can always stitch details together. Edgar, a meaty, gentle Afro-cuban, was wearing a USA Athletics T-shirt. “His girlfriend’s French,” Juan told me. “He’ll be living in Paris in a year.” Edgar’s occasional jokes about the sugar train matched his enthusiastic jokes about the government. None of them were treasonous, but after a while you realized that both Hershey Train and revolutionary government, capitalist relic and Communist state, were, to Edgar, in the same sorry shape.

“You speak French?” I asked. As far as i could tell he spoke only Spanish.

He shrugged. “I’m learning.”

The train jolted to life. We trundled along for another half hour before it developed that we wouldn’t make it to matanzas after all. The track ahead needed fixing. The trip would have to end in Canasí.

“Can I still get to Matanzas?” I said.

“I will show you,” Edgar promised.

So in Canasí we said goodbye to Juan. We crested a hill through town, where a number of lean cattle stood in fields between concrete apartment blocks. Edgar walked me to a highway and we waited on the meridian for an air-conditioned bus to Matanzas.

In the bus, on a seat, he found a newspaper and laughed at the headline. Hugo Chávez had just paid a visit to Havana. I’d already heard about the meeting, a mysteriously quick one, with few of the photo opportunities these state affairs normally permitted.

“But no photo with Fidel,” I said in Spanish.

Edgar gave one more of his large, comfortable laughs. And then he said, in perfect English: “Maybe he’s dead.”

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He’s been a visiting professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and UC Riverside. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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