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by Mad Dog
(Based on an
article originally published in
Planet, Richmond, Virginia)
The showers are great, the soap sucks, they
want a $400 deposit on the room to cover telephone calls, and they change the combination
to your room almost hourly.
sitting in a bar at the Nassau airport waiting for a man named Garcia to show up. It would
be gloriously James Bondian except Im drinking cerveza instead of a martini
and I know better than to shake or stir it. If we were any nationality except
American we wouldnt have to be doing this, but we are. Everyone else in the world
can waltz into Cuba with a passport and an "¡Hola!", but not us. We need
to find this Garcia guy so we can hand him an envelope full of cash and get a stack of
visas drawn on the London Tourist Board along with plane tickets in return. Of course when
youre sitting near the Cubana airlines counter every man who walks by could be named
Somehow we hook uphow did he peg us as
Americans?and find ourselves on a Russian Yak-47 where we get treated better than
the Delta flights before itcandy, peanuts and free rum drinks vs. a cracker and a
Coke. Before you can say "¿Donde esta el baño?" we're in sunny Havana.
Ciudad de la Habana is the capital of Cuba, the largest
island in the West Indies. Cuba is nearly the size of Pennsylvania and has 2,500 miles of
coastline, which beats the Keystone state by 2,500 miles. Havana is made up of 15
municipalities; more than 2 million people call it home. The city is clean, the buildings
are beautifulthough generally rundownand the Cubans are extremely friendly.
What strikes me most on the ride to the hotel is
how much the island looks like classic photographs I've seen: men and women standing in
front of faded Spanish/art deco buildings with a 1957 Chevy at the curb. It still looks
like that. There's not a lot of automobile traffic as we make our way along Ave. de la
Indepencia. Bicycles are the main means of transportation, heavy duty clunkers with
big tires and baskets; not a fancy-ass mountain bike or pair of spandex tights in sight.
What cars we see are either nondescript Cuban/Russian boxy things or 1950's American cars.
Lots of Chevys. Lots of Plymouths. Very few Fords. None of them newer than 1959. We see a
1950 Kaiser, a 56 Chevy woody wagon with a roof rack, cars that before this were
only photographs in coffee table books on the discount table at Barnes and Noble. There
are a lot of motorcycles tooall with sidecarsand "camels", which are
buses pulled by tractor-trailer semis, so named because of the hump where the bus part
hooks up to the cab.
Our confused cab
driver had to go on a wild goose chase through some pretty shaky parts of town, causing
our new friend Carmen to look out the window at one point and mutter, "Uh oh".
As bad as my Spanish is, I knew what she meant.
|| We stay at
the Melia Cohiba, one of the newest and nicest hotels in Havana. The showers are great,
the soap sucks, they want a $400 cash deposit to cover telephone calls, and they change
the combination to your room almost hourly. We learn to stop at the front desk whenever we
come in so we can have our keycards recoded before going upstairs.
The first night we eat at La Cecilia, a restaurant of covered patios where three women
serenade us tableside, a touch that would have been infinitely more romantic had we not
been an all-male group that night. We dine on grilled lobster and smoke freshly made
cigars that were hand rolled as we watched. You cant go to Havana without smoking
cigars. The staunchest anti-smoking Senator would smoke there. You have to. Its
Havana, for Christs sake.
They make the worst margaritas in the world at La Cecilia. Why
I ordered one is beyond me, except old habits die hard. Remembering Im in Cuba and
not Mexico, I start drinking Havana Club rum like everyone else. Well, everyone who
isnt drinking cerveza. At many places you order a bottle by age. The older,
more expensive, darker rum you sip; the newer, lighter rum you mix. They put the bottle on
your table along with glasses, ice, and a couple of colas. Its like being in the old
west and sidling up to the bar and asking for "whiskey" and they plunk the
bottle in front of you. This is how drinking is supposed to be done.
Cuba libres are popular, especially with the girls in
the clubs, but mojitos are the drink of choice. By the time we left Cuba the debate
was roaring over who served the best mojito. The ingredients are the same in every bodega
sugar, water (sometimes soda), bitters, mint and as little rum as they can get away
withits the proportions that are different. Except the rum, which is always as
little as they can get away with.
I felt like a piece of
meat. I understood what women feel like when guys are cruising them. The difference is
Ive never walked up to a woman in a club and asked her to give me money for sex.
|| We ate at La
Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway's handwritten testimonial "My mojito
en La Bodeguita. My daiquiris en el Florida." hangs on the wall and horsemeat is on
the menu. We found the Restaurant Ranchón, an outdoor pavilion where we drank rum while a
salsa band played. And I hate to admit it, but the triple-decker Cuban sandwich at the
hotel's poolside restaurant made of pork, ham, tomato, cucumber and a sunny-side up fried
egg on top was a hit. Just about every place we went served the same complimentary
appetizer: fried pork rinds. Theyre no relation to the bagged junk we get in the
states that George Bush the elder loved so much. These were good.
We didnt eat anything from the multitudes of people selling food from their bicycles
on the side of the road. Neither did we get to try the Madrid, a restaurant we were told
about which turned out to be closed, though we didnt find that out until after our
confused cab driver took us on a wild goose chase through some pretty shaky parts of town
trying to find it. I knew we were in trouble when our new friend Carmen looked out the
window at one point and muttered, "Uh oh". As bad as my Spanish is, I caught her
You dont go to Havana for the food, and although I
didnt realize it until I got there, you go for the nightlife. Our first night there
we went to Aché, a disco located in the hotel. It opens at 10:00 p.m., gets rolling about
1:00 a.m., and doesn't close until 5:00. It's a surreal scene. While a DJ mixes the Best
of the Bee Gees with some vaguely Latin pop disco music, a steady stream of women cruise
the perimeter of the club eyeing the guys. I felt like a piece of meat. I understood what
women feel like when guys are cruising them. The difference is Ive never walked up
to a woman in a club and asked her to give me money for sex.
As soon as we ordered the first round of Cuba Libres for
the nice young ladies with the pretty smiles the bartender clued us in that they were
"working". They have an interesting modus operandi. First they ask you to buy
them a drink. A little while later they ask if you want to go up to your room. If you
don't, they hit you up for a few more drinks, dance with you, then ask for $5 so they can
take a taxi home. Its prostitution as a hobby.
We had to go to the Tropicana. After all, this show club has
been running continuously since 1939 and is the show Las Vegas has been copying ever
since.. Set in an outdoor amphitheater, it features a huge cast of dancers, singers and
showgirls who wear incredible costumes on the stage, on the hill behind the stage and in
the aisles. Yes, there was even a number where the dancers wore headdresses made of
chandeliers. And they lit up. The headdresses, that is. Well, much of the audience did
too, but thats a testament to Havana Club rum.
Aside from the guided tour, one of the the best excursions was an impromptu
decision to explore a street by running down it as fast as we could when the policia
broke up the black market cigar buy Lawrence was trying to make in a dark hallway.
After the Tropicana we split into two groups. Some went to dance at the Copacabana
discowhich got pretty lame reviewswhile two of us ended up at the Palacio
de la Salza with a couple of the Tropicana dancers. Im still not sure how that
happened, but we danced until 4:00 a.m. in Havana's hottest salsa club (located in the
Riviera Hotel) to the music of Issac Delgado et su Gruppe while the Cuban menMason
and I being the only two non-Latins in there wondered what the hell we were doing
with these statuesque black Cuban women. It was hot, sweaty, loud and absolutely perfect.
And yes, after we bought them breakfast we gave each $5 so they could catch cabs home.
Im not one for guided tours, but since ours was
included in the price of the hotel I dragged myself out of bed one morning to take it. The
4-hour tour covered a lot of ground, from a ride along Ave. Washington Malecón's
seawallthe site of July's Carnivalto the Plaza de La Revolución with
its monument to José Marti and the government building with the eight-story portrait of
Che Guevara. Revolutions are big business in Havana, probably second only to prostitution.
The signs are everywhere. Literally. Walls and billboards are brightly painted with
revolutionary slogans like "¡Venceremos!" and "To serve
Fidel". But theyre all rather professional looking, not what youd expect
from someone caught up in a fit of revolutionary fervor. "¡Spray paint no! ¡Art
The tour bus took us to Old Havana, which was built inside the walls on Havana Bay. New
Havana is just as old but was built outside the walls. Go figure. As we get off the bus at
the Catedral de La Habana, groups of children converge on us, asking for pens,
selling us beads and drawing crude caricatures of us for a dollar. A little later the tour
guide points out the old capital building and explains that it was patterned after ours in
Washington, DC except theirs is larger. It's not. Not by a long shot. But the South
American tourists dont know this, so they nod and smile. We see the stark towering
Russian embassy which is, well, stark and towering, and the U.S. Interests Section which
isnt an embassy but is rather, well, we aren't told what it is. Our tour winds down
with a dour guide showing us through three rooms of a museum which is dedicated to Cuban
athletes who were reportedly shot down by an American spy plane in 1981. And now for the
propaganda portion of our tour.....
Aside from the guided tour, the best excursions happened when taxi driverswho
drove as fast as 100 km/hrgot lost, when we wandered around the area by the Hotel
Nacional late one night looking for a restaurant we never found, when we made am impromptu
decision to explore a street by running down it as fast as we could when the policia
broke up the black market cigar buy Lawrence was trying to make in a dark hallway, and the
last morning of the trip when four of us rented bicycles and took a 2-hour ride around,
well, we're not really sure where we were but it was a great way to see the back streets
of the city.
My only regrets are that I didn't bring more shorts to combat the heat and humidity,
that we never got up early enough to take the tour of the countryside and that we didn't
follow Carolina and her friends, who wed met by the pool, back to Colombia. Oh well,
there's always next time.
©2000 Mad Dog Productions, Inc.
"Havana Good Time, Boys?"