Monday, November 23, 2015

Our Woman in Havana

I was undecided about what to do with my final day in Havana. Obviously there would be walking, but i wanted some sort of loose destination. Musing over my morning cigar, i discovered that every Sunday afternoon there is an area with live rumba music. Good enough. Little did i then know that the destination would be even better than live music. I set off through Havana Vieja, past Parque Central, down Calle San Rafael for many blocks, until tourists thinned out and were replaced with local residents doing their daily activities. I tried not to be too obvious as i snapped photos.

I found my way to my destination - Callejon de Hamel - wondering where the live music would be and whether i would even be able to find it. It wan't hard. The short street, closed to cars, is lined, crammed, and towered by art. Graffiti, sculpture. Benches made from painted, repurposed bathtubs, courtyards filled with scrap metal totems, the sides of buildings covered with murals...even some art studios, open for visiting. 

There were a couple of cafes/studios which were filled with an acceptable mix of locals and visitors. Most of the locals were afrocuban and spoke good english and were happy to tell me about this neighborhood, the artists, and the free programs for autistic and disabled children provided there. I had the local drink - a Negro (like a mojito but with basil instead of mint) - bought a couple of cds of rumba music and took in the sights.

At noon the bands started to play. All percussionists, singers, and dancers. All but one were women and they played the most infectious music. The crown pressed in and climbed up the sides of the buildings to get a prime view. I stayed until the rains started and then headed back to old Havana for an early dinner.
I did of course, stop off for a final cigar at the Partagas Factory vip room.
What glory! Back in old Havana i found a restaurant that served pizza! Not the barely warm white bread covered with a whisper of sauce and tasteless white cheese that is ubiquitous in Havana, but actual crispy, chewy pizza with tasty sauce and four vegetables. It was great. I celebrated by having a glass of wine and pair of Ramon Allones robustos. I enjoyed a chat with a couple of local travellers from Germany and listened to some decent jazz from the band on the corner. 

I have to say, the food has been better than i expected in Havana. Everyone told me that as a non-egg-eating vegetarian i would have nothing to eat, so i packed granola bars, almonds, and cranberries. True, there is not a great variety for vegetarians and the food is bland, but there is lots to eat.

When the evening came i went to the Hotel Inglaterra where, despite its gorgeous appearance has dismal service and drinks, i met with Stripes' friend Rosalita. Rosalita had mentioned the other night some no-longer-in-production Limited Edition Cohibas she had a line on. Stripes was leaving but i agreed to meet up and get the coveted cigars. I felt like a drug buyer as a sat on the patio, trying to look casual as i stirred the sugar at the bottom of my watery mojito and eyed the crowd for Rosalita's  face, looking at my watch occasionally. The covert nature of the transaction was entirely necessary as Rosalita could spend years in prison for selling us the cigars, as could the person she bought them from.  I smoked a comically large cigar, which did nothing to help the invisibility i was seeking. Finally she showed up, sat down, and ordered a beer. We chatted for a bit about tattoos and the availability of American music in Cuba before i asked, "Do you have the cigars?" She nodded and, just below table height, opened a satchel just enough for me to look in and take a deep whiff of the leathery, barn-yardy smelling cigars. I slid an envelope of money to her across the table. She passed me the satchel of cigars under the table. We finished our drinks, i declined a drive, and i made my final way home, finishing my cigar just as i put the key into the lock.

Havana has been a good trip. Not particularly different or exciting, but enjoyable and relaxing. The best part was the cigar culture and cigar experiences and having some friends there to share that with and to open doors to experiences that i would not otherwise have had. Oh, i decided to keep count of the cigars (not counting cigarillos) i smoked and coffees i drank - for no particular reason other than curiosity. 9 days, 31 coffees, 40 cigars. That adds up to a good trip.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Casablanca, Havana

Saturday morning in Havana started a bit late, due to the late night spent smoking in the park the night before. With Stripes and Noodles en route back to Canada, i was on my own. After my late breakfast i walked down to the water and caught a ferry across the water to Casablanca. By "ferry" i mean a simple, standing room only open sided boat that takes people across for a fee (half a peso). The ride was pleasant and gave nice views of the old city across the water. It was all locals on the boat, except for me and one guy from Chicago, with whom i chatted on the way. 

On the other side, for being so close, Casablanca had a slightly different feel, a little less precious, quieter. I walked up a hill toward the giant statue of (surprisingly) Jesus on the hill. 

And from there down a pleasant road bordered by attractive army buildings and rockets, missiles, and planes on display. I paid to go into the fort - the one that is always visible across the water from Havana. 

The fort wasn't very interesting really, but the views and breeze were nice. After a bit though i was satisfied that no sight was left unseen and i boated back across. This time the fare was twice as much but i didn't care enough to complain.

After a great nap, i decided to visit the bars on my street (Calle Brasil) that i had not yet visited. I went to a couple of cool ones that played rock music and featured abstract black and white photography or showed awesome adult cartoons on tvs. I had a mojito (i don't actually like mojitos, but i don't drink beer and mojitos are cheap and seem Cuba appropriate) and a plate of yummy olives, cheese, bread. These bars were cool and not just Havana cool; they would be awesome haunts anywhere.
I also stopped on a block unlit by street lamps and filled with off duty bicycle taxi drivers and avocado sellers and watched people in a small store, leaning on a counter and shooting bebe guns at rows of empty soda cans on the back wall. There didn't appear to be any prizes, just the fun of shooting things. I waited around for a turn, but the men shooting had no interest in giving up their guns, so i wandered down to the Plaza De San Francisco for a virgin Piña Colada and cigar on the square and watched the throngs hanging out in the cooling air.
(You would think i might be tired of cigars in plazas by now, but i'm not even close.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Cigar Dinner Long Con

Friday was Stripes and Noodles' final day in Cuba and they were keen to spend the morning taking full advantage of the inclusiveness of their all-inclusive and we agreed to meet in the mid-afternoon in Havana Vieja, so i had the morning to leisurely stroll about the city. It was good. I could walk without aim, stopping where i liked to drink coffee or take photos. I smoked a cigar while i walked (well, more than one), which attracted calls of "Cohiba!" "Puro. Bueno!" In addition to the usual calls of "Lady!", "Linda!", and various variations of that, accompanied with comments on my tattoos. Difficult to keep a low profile in the non-touristy areas, but i still got some decent photos. 

I loved walking past the empty bodegas with little to sell and the anemic produce stalls, and counters selling endless sandwiches of pork on yellow bread. As touristy as parts of Havana are, it is very easy to find areas with none at all, and i was thankful for that.

Meeting up with Stripes and Noodles, we had come coffees, cigars, and drinks at one spot and then another, killing time in the pleasantest of ways until it was time for the closing dinner of the Partagas cigar festival. Noodles went back to his hotel to change and Stripes and i fixed ourselves up as much as possible (there is only so much i can do with the same sweat-soaked outfit i've been wearing all week) and caught a rusty, red Lada to the far edge of Miramar to, i don't know where, some hotel. 

When we arrived we joined the crowd, most of whom were wearing their finest, complete with sparkles and bowties. We were given a cigar each and a sickly sweet green cocktail and we did some hasty mingling before going inside to the air-conditioned dining room, which was stunning, like the wedding i never wanted. The crowd really was from all over the world, with every continent represented, like a Miss Universe pageant of cigar smoking men.

We sat for a bit with two guys from Detroit - a CEO and his attorney - who had flown in on a private jet. They were quite pleasant, but they moved to a different table for dinner, leaving us three at a table for seven. And this is where the con came in. Goddess-height models began distributing gift bags of cigars, one per guest. But with two extra place settings already disturbed, we decided to create two characters who were conveniently away from the table when the bags were doled out, so they left two extra bags for our absent friends. All evening, as they handed out more and more fantastic Cuban cigars, i kept saying, smoking that my husband (Eduardo Pachanga) was in the bathroom, and they kept giving me two of everything. Of course to keep this up, we had to nibble at the extra appetizers and entrees we also got and would move napkins and wineglasses around to keep up the ruse. But it worked and we got two sets of everything. Cheezy and juvenile? Sure, but i have all of my extra cigars to help with the shame.
After dinner, they auctioned off beautiful, one of a kind humidors sticked with cigars, that went for $10,000 to $20,000 to various, high-rollers. We wisely raised our hands only high enough to puff on our cigars.

We left before the dancing started and hailed a taxi back to Parque Central with our bags of cigars and a mostly full bottle of Santiago de Cuba 20 years rum. We decided to have one more cigar to finish off our final night in Havana together, but none of the bars appealed, so we sat down in the park, on a bench, near a sleeping drunk, and smoked cigars and Stripes and Noodles drank rum from the bottle at the time neared 1am. The weather and surroundings were perfect and it a great way to end the day. At about 1:30, we went our separate ways.

Friday, November 20, 2015

La Casa Del Musica

Thursday was another lazy day. The only plans we had was to have dinner with Stripes' friend Ramón who is from Havana. I had a late start that day and then just went for a walk around the old city, stopping for a Bolivar at the La Casa Del Habana on Calle Mercaderes, which has a comfortable quartet of chairs for smoking and a another cigar and an espresso on Plaza de Armas. 

I met up with Stripes and Noodles at 3ish. We did a spin around the plaza and i bought a beautiful book from 1870 or so on adultery and one of those Cuban Revolution trading card books that they sell everywhere. Despite their ubiquity, i still think they are pretty cool. From there we walked down to the arts and crafts market where we bought nothing, save for Stripes and Noodles acquiring a couple of rum filled coconuts for sipping. On the way back to my casa to drop off my books, rather than walking, i insisted, over Stripes and Noodles' objections, that the three of us take one of the cute/cheezy coco taxis, which (barely) seats three. It was ridiculous, but very fun to zip through the narrow streets in a bright yellow ball on wheels.
We ended up at Parque Central, where we retired to the rooftop of the Hotel Parque Central for a few drinks, Cohiba Behikes, and the excellent view over the city.

We met Ramón at the Hotel Telegrafo for a drinks before we drove in his car to a restaurant in the Vedado area. Stripes had been there before and described it as "a hidden gem". Hidden no more, because as we arrived we saw a tourbus outside and the place was crammed with tourists. The restaurant was good, with a lovely atmosphere and good food (including vegetarian options), and ponds of colorfully lit fish. Over dinner, Ramón told us about the trials of operating busineses and buying and selling cars and property in Cuba and the role played by the government in all things. As do most things in Havana, dinner went late, so by the time we left it was after 11pm and Stripes suggested that we head to La Casa Del Musica in Miramar. (I wanted to go to the grittier one in Havana Central, but i was outvoted.) 

La Casa del Musica's opening act didn't start until midnight and the main act at 1am. We paid our cover and took out seat in the busy and freezing cold club. I immediately noticed one thing: no one was smoking. And then i saw flashing across the screen on stage (in Spanish) "no smoking". I was horrified. When i imagined myself in a Havana music club, i always saw myself with a large cigar. Apparently the policy at this club had changed very recently. So i sat there in the ice cold, too fresh air and stirred my mojito sadly.

Fortunately i was distracted when the opening act started: two singers, and a bevy of dancers in feathered brassieres and headdresses with a small band playing salsa music. Despite the lack of a real dance floor, couples all around us stood up and began to salsa and shimmy. I remained sensibly seated.

The main act, Bambaleo, took the stage at 1:00. We were fading at that point, but i insisted that we stay for a couple of songs. The 16 member ensemble dazzled the audience with tempting salsa beats and vocals. It was good, but my eyes were heavy and the hour late, so we left after two songs. As we left, groups of what i was told were prostitutes entered, dressed festively, in search of visiting men.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Smoking not Eating

Yesterday i was super low energy, as i was suffering from a mixture of mild food poisoning and sleep deprivation. Nevertheless it was a good day. I shuffled my way over to the Partagas factory to meet Stripes and Noodles at the vip room for some Cohiba Behikes and coffee. We chatted with El Jefe a local photographer who showed us his work, and a doctor from Canada. After a couple hours there we went by taxi to a Casa del Habano run by the son of Alejandro Robaina, which was a treat. Noodles and El Jefe had lunch; Stripes and i, having no appetite, stuck to smoking. We has some piña coladas, more Cohibas and a Robaina torpedo. The humidors there were exquisite, featuring many cigars i had not seen in years. We sat there for hours smoking, and drinking (me mostly water). It was very relaxing.

We were going to catch a taxi back to Havana Vieja and call it an early night, but we saw a beautiful restaurant and decided to check it out. It was in a grand 1930s house but had opened as a restaurant only 11 days earlier. We settled in for more cigars and snacks. Surprisingly, the food was cheap and amazing. The food in Cuba is not good, but this was a welcome exception. I even managed to eat a few nibbles of cheese, bread, and olives.
From there we hopped into a 1950s chevy (not a taxi, just some guy's car) and went to the Parque Central hotel for one final drink (me, more water) before Stripes and Noodles caught a taxi to their far flung hotel and i walked home for much needed sleep.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Exploring Havana

Yesterday I opted to spend the day solo, leaving Stripes and Noodles to stay poolside at their hotel. I started out at the Plaza de Armas, which is my favorite plaza for coffee drinking and people watching. It is leafy, has several nice cafes and is perfect for looking out at the sellers of books, Cuban posters, and antique cameras and odds and ends.

After that i walked to a nearby Casa del Habano, which was lovely. I picked out an H Upmann Magnum 50 and sat inside, smoking and marvelling at the vast selection of cigars.
From there I went on a walk along the sea and chatted with a fisherman before turning back into the city to look at the incredible number of 1950s American cars and street art.

I then went to the large Cuban modern art museum, which had 3 floors of mostly excellent modern art. A lot of great abstracts and political art, as well as a number of statues of Jesus being maimed and impaled by swords and communist sickles. (No photos allowed.)

From there I walked through an area devoid of tourists to La Epoca, a department store, where I went to the basement, which houses a supermarket. The shelves were pretty sparse and had little variety (other than rum, which was plentiful). 

I then walked to this large arts and crafts market, which was a delight to look at, though there was nothing I wanted to buy.
I finished my wandering at the Plaza Vieja at a wonderful cafe that actually had a good vegan sandwich (a rare thing here).  After that I went back to my casa to shower and get ready for the big Partagas festival opening dinner.

The Partagas dinner was at the Hotel National. I went there by taxi to meet Stripes and Noodles. Stripes, as it turned out, was quite sick and had to stay at his hotel, so it was just me and Noodles for the evening. The setting was lovely and the crowd was impeccably dressed - except for me. I tried to cover up the fact that I was wearing the same sweaty outfit by putting on earrings and lipstick. The attendees were from all over the world: North and South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan. We sat at a table with a group of men from Switzerland, which turned out to be perfect because they were very reserved. Other tables erupted into spontaneous salsa dancing and whatnot which would have made me feel quite out of place.

The food was mediocre, but the service perfect. We were given an array of limited edition cigars, endless wine and rum, and were greeted by various cigar dignitaries. There was also entertainment: colorful couples of salsa dancers and locally famous singers. We saw many familiar faces from our past few days in Havana, including El Jefe, who made the rounds, never missing a photo op. The whole thing went on for hours. I knew it was time to leave when around midnight a conga line broke out. Noodles and I had a final piña colada on the outdoor lookout, where the sea was lost to darkness but the stars were exquisite.