In a previous life, I heard Jimmy Buffett sing this song and vowed one day that I would see Cuba …
… Ceilin' fan it stirs the air
Cigar smoke does swirl
The fragrance on the pillowcase
And he thinks about the girl
Spillin' wine and sharin' good times
She sure could make him smile
He pays her well but what the hell
He'll be movin' in a little while
Boy he's just dreamin'
His life away
During a visit to that same island, Mariel Hemingway granddaughter to the famed writer Ernest, is reported to have said: "Cuba has three icons – Che, Fidel and my grandfather."
Was she right? I'm not sure, but those three icons dominate the island – one is aware of their presence all the time – but Cuba is so much more than just history and sanctions…
I am officially exhilarated, but also tired from the trip … I shouldn’t be surprised as the getting there was a mission in itself. I guess it would have been easier in Hemingway's days.
After special and lengthy dispensation from the US Government, a colleague and myself were visiting Cuba on a brief work assignment, to conduct some market research. We were travelling out of his home base in Florida.
We arrive at the airport at 3am, but take 5 hours to process through customs and get out of the USA on the plane to Havana. The check-in queue funnelled into one person checking our paperwork to see that we were authorised to travel. After that, weigh our luggage and pay $4 per kg for anything over 20 kgs. Then a dude x-rays your luggage – give him a good tip and you move faster. Finally you are at the actual check-in desk … normal process with normal check-in clerk. Then, because our small group was early in the queue, we had to wait 3 hours until the boarding gate opened at 6 am.
Immediately prior to boarding, our passports and boarding passes are checked again, x-ray the carry-on luggage again. And then sit in the stiff seats lounge until the plane leaves at 8:00 am. All this, because of one person from immigration checking the documents – great system … let's not make it too easy, otherwise too many folks will want to visit Cuba!
Flying down over the Florida Keys … beautiful spots of green, sand and clear blue/green water. Then we’re over Cuba. Viet Nam to me was always about pristine natural beauty, and Florida was still unspoilt in the 1920's.
But Cuba … absolutely drop-dead gorgeous! The land is rich dark brown topsoil, not like the sand of Florida. I remind myself to stop making comparisons.
And the coast line is dotted here and there with human communities, not villages, not cities, not condos … just the odd small communities with miles and miles of pure white sand beaches between them. This was Hemingway's Cuba – at last, scenes from Old Man and The Sea spring to mind.
We get closer to the ground of palm tree heaven. Then we're on the ground, disembark down the stairs from the single class Boeing 777 no-name brand charter job. On the one side is parked a Russian Tupolov of a Ukrainian airline, on the other side is an Ilyushin of the local airline, Cubana … neither of which I'd fly far without a parachute.
In the terminal now to be faced with a long line of people. About 7 immigration booths, checking closely the Cuban/American exiles coming back to visit their relatives … but letting us 7 white skinned gringos through with no problem, no hassle and a welcoming, "Welcome to Cuba" smile.
Another big wait – about 1½ hours to get the luggage. Couldn't see the airside, where they're unloading onto the conveyor belts, but have to guess they just didn't have more than one baggage cart, or were maybe x-raying each piece of luggage individually and thoroughly. In the baggage reclaim area, just two conveyor delivery carousels. I guess time doesn't mean too much here. Cuban guys spending a lot of time pulling off bags of folks still back in the immigration queue. So had to watch the conveyors for your bag and the same time you are checking the floor for it! Once we got the bags, put them on a trolley and went outside, where we immediately meet the tour guide and van driver. Nice new 9 seat Ford van.
Driving into the city, we see old buildings – like Viet Nam and particularly Hanoi, all with a desperate need for paint. But no, and I mean no trash. These poor people keep their streets and yards clean!
We tell the tour guide the purpose of our visit … we want to see where people shop. She said no problem, but spent the time until we got to the hotel pointing out the statues of old, dead heroes like Che; the University of Havana, which although big, still needs paint; the community park where everyone goes to buy ice cream; then through the tree lined streets of Havana until we hit the road along the Malecón, the sea wall holding back Havana Bay. Moderate to low traffic on the streets … lots of well kept 1940/50's American cars, a few bikes, fewer motor bikes and lots of new small Asian cars. The pedestrian traffic was heavy in the city but dwindled to nothing along the sea wall, with a few young couples hanging out, sitting along the wall. The tour guide told s that this is where the young people come of an evening to socialise and chill. I can visualise the scene, the sun setting over the water, the music playing and young women and guys getting to know one another – takes me back to my youth! Biggest surprise: NO LITTER, NO TRASH. I mean not only were the streets clean, the people appeared to be reasonably well dressed.
Later on, when we got around town, no beggars! In the entire time we were there, I had one old lady beggar hit on me in a street-side cafe/restaurant – in a heartbeat the waiters had her out of there. Tour guide said they would lose their jobs if they allowed her to stay for a second. During the entire trip, maybe two poor kids asked for a hand out. But a “No” worked well and they were gone.
Moral to this story: these people have pride, take care and share the little they have with others who have less, practice hygiene and present a neat appearance. Even though they have far less than I have, I was never once asked to buy something from them to solve their problem. And the architecture in "Old Havana" is right out of the story books. Spanish buildings with balconies, lots of wide streets, cobble paved plaza's, parks with flowers and gardens. Even the roads had a median strip, not only was the grass cut, but the trees were manicured and the shrubs trimmed. I asked the tour guide "who maintains the gardens in the middle of the road" and she said there are people employed by the government to do it while she gave me a stare like, "why are you asking such a stupid question, you're from America – isn't your country as clean as this?" Having just come from Asia, I was comparing Cuba and Havana streets to Viet Nam and Cambodia – no comparison, particularly the latter. Apart from the obviously more modern architectures, It compares to Singapore in terms of cleanliness … only the buildings need painting, blackened and covered as they are by mildew, moss and mold!
As a group we arrive at the hotel and check into our respective rooms, agreeing to meet for lunch in an hour or so. But on inspection of the brown chugging slow trickle that emanates from our bathroom taps, we decide that we need to buy some bottled water from the nearest "Dollar Store" to at least clean our teeth with. A small posse is deputised to find such an establishment and is charged with the purchase of at least one large water bottle for each member of the team.
I go with two other guys and find a store where we buy said water. I was expecting the local grocery store to be one of those subsistence type ones, with only one item of each stocked on display, but surprisingly, it had plenty of everything.
I buy a couple of extra bottles for myself, but also pick up a bottle of Havana Club 7 year-old rum (dark stuff, like Myers) to wash my brain with. We return to the hotel, drop the bottles in the rooms and plan to regroup with the others for lunch.
I come down stairs first and go to the bar. Man, I know it's still before noon, but this dude wants to try his first genuine Cuba Libre. It takes a while to establish rapport and gain the Cuban barman’s trust. They're not intrigued with the American's chatter the way the Vietnamese were … no "glad to see you back”, ‘cause you’ve not been back yet.
I get my Cuba Libra and its $6 – man, these guys charge like a wounded buffalo! The day and the trip haven’t even begun and I’ve blown nearly $20 already. Working off Uncle Sam's rules of about a $100 a day in pocket money, I need to be cautious.
I finish the drink and go outside to smoke and to get a lie of the land immediately outside the hotel. The others are not yet downstairs – or so I think. One of the ladies (the most intelligent one) comes outside and finds me … they had been waiting for me inside the Hotel Victoria restaurant. There they are, all 6 of them seated at a nice round table, with white table cloth and Hillary Clinton place settings. It seems that the decision to lunch here has already been made – maybe they are afraid of something? But we do it anyway. Everybody except me ordered chicken of one kind or another. From my Asian experiences, I decided that I should stick with something that hadn't walked to lunch so go for a pasta dish, which in the event turns out to be a wise choice. Of the 5 chickens, two weren't dead yet, the remaining 3 obviously died of old age many years previously and were as tough as old leather. The group of unlucky diners finished off the fries and we left the Victoria restaurant, vowing not to return. Its early afternoon and we're due to meet our guides for the balance of our stay. The airport collection folks have been replaced – maybe they only know the airport run? Same Ford van, but the new driver is Rene and the tour guide Marisol.
The lack of a successful lunch reinforces my usual thinking about eating in a hotel in these 3rd world type countries. Either small local restaurants or street food are my usual targets, where normally the food and the prices are that much better, not to mention fresher. Reminded me of Thailand street food. I mention this to my fellow travellers in the van and suggest that we try to find a small local restaurant for this evening's meal. This is greeted with enthusiastic agreement and leads to a discussion about our respective backgrounds and travel experiences, particularly those relating to food.
We go back down to Old Havana – about a 10 minute ride or 30 minute walk from our hotel. Marisol is flexible, but she's obviously been brainwashed through the Communist Greeting Training Programme… show them the charming old historic stuff we're preserving for the tourists. She did however keep the chatter going about how the average Cuban can't afford the good life due to the sanctions. Maybe the gringos will go back home and write George Bush a "you're an asshole" letter!
She is taking us to the see the things in the places I usually like to see … but only right before I leave a country. The nice boutique Havana Rum store, where I load up on the free samples in the front and Cuban cigars for sale in the back. As is typical of this and other tourist stores around the world on the usual taxi drivers and tour guide's itineraries, it's a rip-off. The same rum I bought at the local store is $10 dollars a bottle at the boutique. I only paid $7 at the local grocery store, so am feeling good about my continuing self esteem and astute purchasing skills.
We decide to leave the van and Marisol, our tour guide, preferring to walk. She objects, telling us that she will get into trouble for letting us wander on our own. So we agree to let the van go and she can accompany us on foot in our explorations.
We pass by and look in a few art galleries, the odd local shop, enjoying just wandering along the cobblestone streets, with their old balconied buildings of Old Havana. As a vintage car fanatic, I'm fascinated by the old 1950’s American gas guzzling cars … we even saw a 1948 something Buick Roadmaster, black just my Dad's old one. In its day it would do 100mph – the first car that I travelled at what seemed to a young kid to be the speed of sound. It's like being an extra in one of those old black and white movie sets.
We are all keen to visit one of the bars made famous by Hemingway and knowing that at least one of them is here in Old Havana ask Marisol to take us to there. The Bodeguita del Medio Bar is nearby, down a small side street near the Plaza de Catedral. We are disappointed – the place is literally mobbed by tourists, although few Americans. We can barely look through the windows, let alone actually get in the place. It was here that Hemingway made the mojito famous and thousands visit every year just to remember and pay homage to the novelist. We decide that this is not what we signed up for, and carry on wandering …
Taking in the newly painted old buildings, we circle back to the Plaza de Catedral plaza where there are lots of outdoor and indoor cafes and bars. We find one that looks interesting, with a lot less tourists, the strains of salsa music coming from deep inside and go in. Drinks are $3 – a big difference to the hotel's $6 a throw! A small Spanish group is playing salsa music, accompanied by a female singer. We walk through the cafe towards the back, taking our drinks outside into an open courtyard set with tables, chairs and umbrella. Lots of stained glass and foliage, a parrot in a cage trying to sway to the rhythm. We grab a table, the music's good, the parrot a good floor show and the Mojito's are great. Tom Collins glass, half filled with ice, covered with sugar, then lemon juice mix, sprigs of fresh mint leaves, swirl it around, push 'em down, (muggle I believe is the correct term) and fill the other half with white rum, the 3 year old stuff, topped off with soda. The scene is atmospheric, the low volume Spanish chatter from nearby tables, the olive-skinned Cuban women looking exotic, the sunshine all add to the ambience. Hemingway institutionalised the rite of drinking mojitos here where they taste so much better against the background setting, the music and singing of the trio … I’m beginning to like Cuba!
We get hungry. Everybody's got raw or old chicken as memories. The smart girl, the one who found me outside before, has a tourist book. She gives the tour guide, Marisol, the address to one of the top 10 family run paradillos restaurants. These are families that have opened their homes to paying customers, usually small with maybe only 4 – 10 seats, serving local, traditional food. We drive around, it's getting dark now, and 20 minutes later find it. Marisol runs inside to make arrangements, and comes right back – the place has been closed for about a year. Hey, they tried. That's what capitalism is all about … just doesn’t work for everyone.
So, back in the van, we head West out of the city to a place Marisol knows – to another paradillo with seafood – a change from the usual and predictably boring Cuban classic of pork, beans and rice. We pass another Spanish fort with cannons overlooking Havana Bay. There’s one at either end of the 8 kilometre Malecón sea front.
Driving, driving, driving and now we are cruising through residential neighbourhoods. When the rich were rich, this is where they lived. Quiet streets, big Spanish style villa's, manicured lawns, not lots of activity (money is tight) but the faded romance and excitement of a once grand and exotic lifestyle still lingers. You know what I mean?
We reach the restaurant. You know what a "tree-canopied side street" feels like? Non-descript, but the damn street is right on the ocean with a row of villas opposite, overlooking the ocean. The van pulls into a long driveway lined with mature trees, its dusk so we can’t see too well past them into what looks like a small park beyond … no sign of human habitation, the place looks deserted. But we park in front of the house, baronial, is the term that I'd use to describe it, once obviously stunning in its coastal beauty, now the paint is faded and the tropical heat and humidity have taken their toll with black mildew patches of damp everywhere. We walk up the stairs on top of what I am sure once was, and maybe still is the owner's house (all are "managers" now … nobody owns shit in Cuba)
Pale green walls, heavy dark wood Spanish tables, on a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Quiet, not a light, not a boat, not a soul in sight on the water, just the nearly full moon, with a gentle sea-scented breeze blowing off the water to take the edge off the constant humidity. It’s like one of those old surreal black and white movies – Key Largo springs to mind, with Humphrey Bogart, Edward. G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall, set as it was in The Keys of Florida … all we needed now was a tropical hurricane to complete the movie's re-run!
The only other guests are three guys also out on the balcony, in animated conversation, drinking Cuban beer and eating dinner in the last light of the day.
Everyone is seated now. Marisol knows the guy running the place, who makes recommendations. With the memory of lunch still at the forefront of everybody's mind, we go with his recommendations and order drinks – Mojitos all round. The others wait. I can't. I'm back over at the rail of the balcony. I am at a new place, but a place I have been to before. The same paint salesman that did Hanoi did this place. I am looking down over the balcony rail into a clean and painted swimming pool, with no water in it. There are a few plastic tables and chairs spread out around the pool, with a poolside bar kiosk. With a guy tending bar… actually tending the counter. But there's no one there – but they're ready, they're waiting for the influx of tourists that they are convinced will come! I look to my left, to my right … more stucco beach villas with pools out in front. Some pools empty and gritty grey, other pools full of green algae water. All hold promise, but the one we're at, the guy saw the opportunity and grabbed it. His wife is cooking, his daughter is waiting table and his boys are cleaning with one tending bar … build it and they will come – he's got a head start.
We order dinner – nobody misses the chicken. I have lobster and rice along with a couple thousand more Mojitos.
Our group of strangers is starting to gel, becoming a group of cavaliers, real travellers. The Mojitos are doing their work, everybody is loosening up, and speaking at once, the excitement of actually being here in Cuba is finally beginning to hit home.
As the evening wears on, with the booze the inhibitions lessen and tongues loosen. Stories and backgrounds come out. And with each one is set to a view of a scene that was once vibrant and exotic, but now empty, all with a faded romantic tropical splendour overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the nearly full moon, the smell of the sea, the tropical humidity; all set to the low crooning of Sinatra singing Fly Me to the Moon. No lights, no boats, no noise. Just dinner of freshly caught fish, excited conversation, plenty of Mojitos under once-in-a-lifetime beginnings night sky. This is what I'd dreamed Havana would be like – and surprisingly the reality as good as the dream.
My fellow travellers were not experienced travellers, most of them coming here for either market research or potential NGO set-ups in anticipation of sanctions being dropped and the market opening up. They were fascinated by my travels and the fact that I had, up until a couple of years ago, been living in Viet Nam, but were puzzled as to how I had maintained a relationship with my family back home. I did try to explain how a distance relationship can work, but unsuccessfully it would seem. I could perhaps best liken it to telling somebody how to cook spaghetti bolognaise, but with them not knowing, or understanding what spaghetti was.
Two of us smoke … no health stories and no rabid Christians over the drinking, so I'm at home. The bill comes. Seven people, a decent tip of $2 each will keep the family alive for another year. We're out of there for $130 … less than $20 a head for a meal with a real historic atmosphere in a wonderfully unique setting. If I could get it in Florida, that would cost me $200 plus, complete with noise, the obligatory TV blaring and neon lights in the overhead and my waitron telling me “to have a nice day”.
When we finally made it back to the hotel, we bid one another "Good Night" and each retired to our rooms. Back in mine, I poured myself a 7 year old Havana rum and Tropicola, (no Coca-Cola or Pepsi here yet) light up a Marlboro and put the lights out for the night. I am finally in Hemmingway's Havana … my ass slept like the King of Havana.
Cuba and the evening reminded me of the movie, ‘Once Around’ with Richard Dryefuss and Holly Hunter, set in the Caribbean where Sinatra also sings "Fly Me to the Moon". The whole plot is about the life you could lead when you have all you ever wanted, but with the untidiness and unpredictability of life. It's as confusing, as unsatisfying, as frustrating, unruly and occasionally wonderfully, emotional – Just like Cuba. At the end of the day this is what life is all about.
As I surrendered myself to the arms of Morpheus, I was reminded of one particular line in the movie … one that I would like as my epitaph, "This is my adventure and nobody can take it away from me!"