This is a book trail via a train journey and what a thrilling ride it is –
It has all the ingredients of a good travel guide and an insight into not only cuban society and history but also the Spanish language spoken in Cuba. Language, travel, and humorous moments featured in one book. What more could I ask for?
Peter Millar, a journalist starts his trail from the the crumbling town of Havana on his way to the now infamous town of Guantanamo. One of his first observations on Havana is:
“I stroll out into the warm sticky afternoon heat to reacquaint myself with a city that is forever being built and forever falling down.”
This journey is one of sights,sounds, smells and tastes as the author takes us around the bars, clubs, museums and streets of the various places he stops off at. Due to the extreme heat, sweat and a chicken peeing on him, it may not be a journey you would want to take yourself but the beaten of this book is that you can get the best of it whilst sitting in your comfy armchair.
Even if you are not interested primarily in the politics or history of Cuba then you will at least be familiar with some of the more Western images of it – Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, the cigars, the rum and of course Buena Vista Social Club. This book does give a brief history lesson but it is much more than this – the history is merely a backdrop to a much more fascinating insight into a misunderstood country and its people.
It also shows us that sometimes our perceived perceptions of something are not always the truth or that the hidden story is often the most interesting. There are a lot of ‘well I didn’t know that moments as well about other Cuban facts such as the origins of the Hershey train – the same Hershey of the chocolate kisses fame.
Although never having been to Cuba, I identified with a lot of his travelling experiences and the comedy characters you can meet along the way- the woman dressed in a tent trying to smuggle banana milkshake, the frustrated train travellers, the over excited tour guide and of course the drunken stranger who insists on giving advice or in this case singing Phil Collins songs.
A particular strength of the novel to me was the linguistic story – Cuba is Cuba which comes to mean so many different things as the book progresses. There are many linguistic insights – such as how the Cubans don’t seem to like the letter ‘s’ or to pronounce things in the same way that they do in the Spanish spoken in Spain.
And there’s the humour, the music, the different way of booking a train ticket, of queuing and finding a place to stay.
Everywhere is different but in a lot of ways everywhere is the same – the characters, the pride, their instinct to survive and the love they have for their country and their traditions. I would have liked to have met these people and have a chance to talk to them too – like many of the people I met on my own travels, they are what I remember and who made the trip what it was.
The end of the book – when the author reaches Guantanamo is interesting as it is where we learn of the name behind the headlines and what it means to ordinary Cubans. I don’t want to give anything away but it a very interesting last chapter of the journey.
If you want to learn a little about the history and culture of Cuba then read this book. If you just want to go on an amazing journey across the island on a series of trains which are just as much a character in the story as are the humans, then read this book. If you are want to find out about something you think you know already, then read this book.
The title may say ‘Slow Train to Guantanamo’ but it is anything but slow. If anything it’s too short and only a snap shot of one man’s journey in a long line of trains. It leaves you with the feeling you’re right there with the author himself. You feel as if you’ve stepped back in time and then at the end are thrust back into the present with the immortal line someone shouts whilst travelling with a mobile phone
‘Hiya, I’m on the train’
This book may be about a country stuck in the past but it really shows snippets of a country slowly changing and moving towards the future.
Let’s hope the trains get there too.
Cuba is Cuba after all.