HAVANA TIMES — The fact the train left on time was truly out of the ordinary. It departed at exactly 4 in the morning. I didn’t know whether it was an unwritten rule followed by the Ministry of Transportation or negligence on behalf of those responsible for the railroads, but nearly all trains in Cuba always left late.
The train made slow but sure progress down the tracks. Trains were notoriously slow, in addition to being uncomfortable, filthy and noisy. We gradually put Bayamo behind us. We went past Guamo, where the train crossed the Cauto, Cuba’s widest river. This was one of the trip’s highlights. We arrived in the municipality of Jobabo, in Las Tunas, at around 5 in the morning. There, the train made a brief stop to pick up more traders (smugglers, to be more precise).
The train whistle announced we were setting out again and we departed once more. We were all talking about what we’d do with the money we’d get selling the coffee. Dargelo suggested I put aside the money I wanted to invest in the business. Conversing this way, we arrived at the municipality of Marti in Camaguey. This was an important place, for this was where the nationwide railroad lines met.
This is where trains arriving from Havana departed for other destinations. Some would head towards Las Tunas and others to Granma. When we arrived, we saw an enormous train parked on the tracks leading to Las Tunas. We immediately recognized it as the special train. This train went from Havana to Las Tunas and vice-versa. It was one of the best means of transportation in Cuba, with air conditioning and good meals. This is why it was known as the “special train.” In contrast to our filthy train, the special train was inspected by the police, and thoroughly.
Ironically, the special train’s locomotive had broken down and was stranded at the Marti station. I laughed when I found out the “special train” had broken down and our small, rickety train was still kicking.
Immediately, Dargelo cut my laughter short, saying:
“Don’t laugh! They’re probably going to hook up their wagons to our train, and, if that happens, we’re screwed because the police traveling on the special train is very likely to inspect ours.”
“What? Crap!” I said.
Of course, I stopped laughing immediately.
In effect, Dargelo was right. They began the maneuvers to latch the special train’s wagons to our train. When they did, we continued on our way. Now, we were all between a rock and a hard place and our hearts coming out of our chests. We were very vigilant and scared. Not fifteen minutes had gone by when the door leading to the wagons of the special train opened and two police officers walked past us, heading for the first wagon of our train.
We were traveling on the last wagon of the smuggling train. When I leaned over to see what the cops were doing, I saw them going through people’s belongings in the distance. “They’re checking people’s belongings!” I told Dargelo, frightened. The train was arriving at a small town in the province of Camaguey, called Siboney. It was slowing down.
Dargelo’s friend, our contact for the sale of coffee in Florida, grew desperate and headed over to a wagon in the special train to go into the bathroom and begin hiding the 20 pounds of coffee in his clothes. When he came back, he had his bag tucked under his belt and he naively asked: “Can you notice it’s there? Is it too obvious?”
We burst out laughing. He looked pregnant. You could tell he was hiding something under his shirt, around his waist, a mile away.
“No way, bro!” I said.
“They’re not going to take my 40 pounds of coffee from me. I spent the last bit of money I had and I won’t go back to being penniless after all the work we’ve done to get here. Over my dead body, I’ll jump out of the train!”
The cops were reaching our wagon. I got close to the door. The train had already slowed down considerably and it was easing into the station. First, I put the sack on the ground while the train was still moving. Surprisingly, it didn’t tip over. Then, without thinking it twice, I jumped out of the train (showing off the dexterity I had acquired as a kid, when my friend Froilan and I would wait for the trains to arrive at the Bayamo terminal, hop on and, after a brief ride, jump off while it was moving).
I jumped and saw the train move away from me and stop at the terminal. When it came to a full stop, a chain reaction was set off. People darted from the train at an incredible speed. It looked as though someone had beaten a beehive and the bees were flying off in different directions. I still remember this vividly.
Out of harm’s way, I sat at a bench in a small park near the station to wait for Dargelo and his friend to show up. I prayed they hadn’t been caught. Suddenly, I saw them approaching me, smiling. When they arrived, they told me they had caught some people. One had been caught carrying beef and another with powdered milk and marihuana. Luckily, nothing had happened to us. Those other two were likely to rot in jail. It was 8 in the morning.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Well, we need to head down to the main highway, which is about two kilometers from Siboney,” Dargelo replied.
“We picked up our sacks, flung them over our shoulders and headed towards the main highway. I recall we went down a narrow road that led away from the town, almost in front of the train station. We saw the train departing and, with the sun beating down on us, said: “Our only ride out of here is leaving!”
We again set out, on the lookout for the police. As we walked, we saw a Giron bus, the old kind, approach. We signaled at it and the driver stopped. We got on, relieved. We could at least spare ourselves the two-kilometer walk with those sacks over our shoulders. We continued on our way, until the bus stopped to pick up more people. A police officer wearing a Ministry of the Interior uniform was among those who boarded the bus. This wasn’t the kind of police officer that inspected anything, but Dargelo and I still looked at one another, frightened, and gestured towards the cop. We were on the defensive after the terrible train experience.
We finally arrived at the main highway. To our surprise, we had ended up at the entrance of the municipality of Sibanicu. There, we tried to stop the cars that went by heading for the town, to no avail.
“We have to get out of here,” I said. “This is the entrance to the town. If we want to catch a ride, we have to head over to the town exist.” That was also dangerous. Cutting across Sibanicu carrying the sacks on our shoulders, risking being stopped by the police, who could take away our valuable investment. We made our way into town, stealthily and playing it cool. I was enjoying the small town surroundings. I was getting to know part of the country. We stopped to drink water at a gas station we came across on the road. I had already lost all hope.
“They’re probably gonna catch us and take our coffee!” I thought.
Suddenly, a truck loaded with people arrived. It was a truck hauling a trailer.
“Where is this heading?” Dargelo asked.
“To Ciego de Avila,” the crowd replied, all at once.
We picked up our sacks and climbed onto the trailer in no time. The other passengers let us squeeze in.
“What a stroke of luck!” I said. “Lucky this truck decided to stop at the same gas station we were drinking water at.”
“We’re almost there, Pucho!” Dargelo said to me.
We continued on our way until we reached Camaguey. We were very close. By this point, it was already almost 5 in the afternoon. When we arrived at the city exit, the yellow-uniformed transportation officials stopped the truck. “More cops.” They approached the truck as though looking for something. I pushed the sack full of coffee with my foot so I could say it didn’t belong to me in case they asked.
In the end, the cops were only seeing if there was space in the truck to get on. But they decided not to and instructed the truck to continue on its way. After this scare, which was the last, we arrived at the blessed municipality of Florida, at around 6:30 pm.
We got off at the town entrance and headed directly to the home of our contact, carrying our load on our shoulders. When we got to his house, his wife offered us something to eat. After resting a while, we went out to sell the coffee. “At last!” I said to myself. After that long, agonizing trip, we were just a few minutes away from selling the coffee and making a profit. We arrived at the house of the buyer and closed the deal without delay. We cordially said goodbye.
“I’ll be here,” the gentleman said, “in case you want to sell me some more.”
We left, happy and with money. In the end, the odyssey to Buey Arriba on the smuggling train had been worth it.
“We’ve got some stories to tell our children!” I said. Dargelo asked me: “What are you going to do now, Puchito?”
“Well, I’m off to Ciego de Avila to see my girlfriend, Nadiezka,” I replied. Now, I had a lot of money and, after that stressful journey, it was natural to want to relax a bit.
I parted ways with Dargelo and his friend and headed for the road. Luckily for me, things were downhill from there. Another truck with a trailer went by, heading for Havana. I got on and continued on my way.
Whenever I visited Ciego de Avila, since my girlfriend’s family didn’t approve of our relationship, things were a bit like the old saying goes, they chewed me but didn’t swallow me. I had to go to Julito’s, a cousin of hers who was our accomplice and would tell her I was in Ciego de Avila whenever I arrived. That was also a pain and extremely awkward. But, in the end, the effort was worth it. I would always end my journey at the folk music venue in Ciego de Avila, where they had opened their doors to me unconditionally ever since I first sang there.
That was my life for more than two years, taking coffee to Florida and Ciego de Avila, spending the money with my girlfriend at the folk music center in the city. I still have a lot of friends from that time. Sometime later, I started trafficking the precious beans into this province.
I was taking an even bigger risk because I travelled on the train that cut across Cuba, from Bayamo to Havana, carrying the coffee inside my guitar, which, of course, didn’t make a proper sound when played. If that guitar could talk, what stories it would tell! That’s why I get angry when someone, without even knowing me, says to me:
“You haven’t had to work hard in your life.” I don’t let anyone say things like this without knowing about my past.
I’ve sold fermented drinks, shined shoes, hooked, smuggled coffee and a lot more. All these things I did out of need and pressure.
Our experiences, from innocent childhood to conscious adulthood, make us the kind of people that we are.