Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Empty Platform

The Empty Platform / Yoani Sanchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sanchez

The small train station bustles with life starting early. Students in
the tightest uniforms pass by, and a newspaper seller announces the
boring Granma every day. There are paper cones of peanuts, workers
selling soft drinks, and several people who have slept all night on
cardboard on the floor. The place — despite its insignificant
architecture — could be a train station in any city in the world. There
is only one thing missing from the scene, something that stands out by
its absence: there isn't a train in sight. The rails are empty and no
locomotive can be made out, not even the sound of a whistle in the
distance. At mid-morning a lone coach limps in, with the initials DB
(Deutsche Bahn) still painted on the side. Passengers board with
reluctance, although the odd child still greets them smiling from the

Cuba had the first railroad in Latin America, inaugurated in a November
like this one 175 years ago. The Havana-Bejucel section was created a
decade before Spain — then a metropolis — began operating trains in its
own territory. But it is not just a question of dates, but that on this
Island the rail lines spread out across the country like a backbone from
which sprouted infinite branches. Life in many small towns began to be
measured between the coming of one car and another, between the arrivals
and departures that appeared on the notice board in each station. The
everyday smell came from the "aroma" that arises from the friction of
the metal of the wheels on that of the rails. But little remains today
of that prominent railroad. One day we said goodbye from the platform to
the last train where we felt comfortable, and from that moment climbed
aboard another that was an uncomfortable, difficult and distressing

Although in the past year repair work has been carried out on the
routes, and the cargo moved along them has more than doubled, the damage
suffered by the Cuban railroad system is of a seriousness that cannot be
quantified in numbers. The main problem is not the lack of punctuality
in the departures, nor the deteriorated cars, nor even the bathrooms so
filthy they can't be called sanitary services. Nor is it the systematic
theft of the passengers' belongings, the mistreatment of the clients by
many of the employees, the constant cancellations of departures, or the
alarming lack of safety reflected in frequent accidents. The greatest
deterioration has occurred in the minds of Cubans, for whom the railroad
has ceased to be the inter-provincial mode of transport par excellence.
Those millions of people who no long measure the rhythm of their lives
by the whistle of the locomotive, who no longer proudly salute from the
window of a car. The hackneyed scene of the goodbye kiss in the station,
the handkerchief waving from the empty platform, the decades long
absence of the principal protagonist: a train about to leave, a long
iron snake ready to travel the backbone of this Island.

20 November 2012

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