After two weeks of incredibly hot weather, finally there is a breeze floating off the sea. It is pleasant to take a breath again and not have to resort to drinking ice cold water all the time. A straggly two leaf cactus has by some miracle managed to produce the most beautiful large white flower which opened briefly this morning before closing when the sun slipped blind a fluffy cloud. This is hurricane season but fortunately Hurricane Isaac, after much fanfare on how much of the island it would destroy, slipped by without a murmur as it settled on the delights of New Orleans. Hurricane Michael also seemed unsure whether it was worth stopping in Cuba and passed by without doing any damage.
The avocado man is whipping his horses up into a lather as he trundles down the seafront of Santa Fe. I have never seen such large avocados in my life, fully 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. It is a joy to have something new to vary the bland diet of tasteless tomatoes and onions that are rotten in the centre. Lettuce has not been seen since before the Revolution – just kidding but is as rare as Cuban hens never mind hens’ teeth. The avocado man is followed by the peanut seller on his bike, a very pleasant, jolly black guy who sells peanuts in little paper cones at 5 cents a go. I always buy from him as the roasted nuts make a good snack with a Cuba Libre.
If transport is your thing then Cuba is not for you. Somehow it seems that the government forgot about it. After spending most of its budget on teaching the rural community how to read, education and of course the health service, there wasn’t much left in the nation’s coffers. Today you have 11.2 million people who seem stranded on an island within an island. Buses are erratic and when they arrive, dozens of Habaneros rush like a flock of vultures. It is a common sight on the main highway running west to eastern Cuba to see people waiting in the blistering heat for a lift.
However, recently the state decided to allow private taxis to operate in Havana. Hundreds of old Chevvies, Buicks, Dodges, in fact all of old Detroit , suddenly appeared on the city’s streets, the drivers shouting their destinations. These are colectivos in that they pick up passengers on the way and cost approximately 50 cents a trip. The good news is that tourists are now allowed to take these taxis thus saving a serious amount of Cuban convertible pesos by paying in Cuban pesos. The Yank cars are mostly in a bad state of repair and have transplanted their V8 engines for 4 cylinder Peugeot diesel motors to save on gasoline. It is like a scene out of a Hollywood film – where were all these gas guzzlers hiding? The occasional well restored or almost new Chevy can be spotted in Havana’s plush Miramar zone, speeding up Fifth Avenue with their drivers in Versace shades and the essential bronze, well-manicured chica by his side.
Cuba is like a mise-en-scene of the 1950’s. Miramar appears to be an American suburb frozen in aspic with its iconic housing sporting well kept front lawns. Drop over to the part of Havana known as Vedado, and most of the houses are 1920’s mansions with Ficus trees and their immense gnarled roots splitting the pavements. Its like something out of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Eden’ set in Savannah, Georgia – Havannah, Savannah.
Recovering from a good night out in Miramar. We trudged along to a new paladar owned by Sergio, an Italian Robinson Crusoe lookalike who doubled up as chef last night. Paladars are private Cuban restaurants that used to be subject to draconian rules limiting the number of guests to twelve at a time and only allowing direct members of the family to work in the family house where the restaurant had to be. All that changed about 18 months ago when the state allowed any Cuban to open a paladar employing who they wanted. This led to a rush of new businesses, some of them backed by foreign funds or money from their Cuban families living in the US. Some look surprisingly professional given the lack of resources and training to be had. There was no menu to be had at Corte de Principe, however. Sergio mumbled a few dishes that no-one had heard of. After some quite adequate bruschetta and meatballs, we ended up with something that resembled a cold pancake which was in fact a very thin slice of veal covered in a sauce of mayonnaise mixed with tuna. An Italian was celebrating his 33rd birthday on the next large table with nine other invited Cubans. They all looked a bit bored until Neil, my new English friend in Havana, suddenly got up, started jigging about and shouted ‘Come on Cuba – wake up!’ That seemed to do the trick and all the girls promptly got up and joined in the dancing.
I am sitting in my usual haunt on the terrace of the Telegrafo hotel in Parque Central square, old Havana. The habitual feeling of goodwill and bonhomie washes over me as I consume my second daiquiri and I am halfway through a Magnum 46 cigar. I count 20 old Chevvies, 5 gorgeosa mulattas and 3 beggars within half a minute. Its the best time, five pm, when everyone leaves work. Just a couple of buildings down is the Hotel Inglaterra with its raucous terrace overflowing with tourists listening to yet another rendition of Guantanamera. I prefer the Telegrafo with its burly security guard glaring malevolently at each passer by, willing them to pass through the six inch gap he has left to enter the terrace. Service is good by Cuban standards, the cocktails aren’t bad and there isn’t any music. Sultry senoritas glance into the terrace at any lone tourist male who looks as though he might have two pesos to rub together. Flirting in Cuba is fun, there’s none of the English girl’s ‘Whattya lookin at, you dirty old man’.
Its Monday morning but a Monday with a difference. Today, Frank and myself are heading out of Havana’s urban sprawl on his old Czech 1960s sidecar in search of rural splendour. We leave early and duck around all the school children dressed up in their quaint uniforms. Suddenly we are cruising along a country road, the sun is up and dragon flies dart across the lush green fields. Old timers stare from doorways and big Chevvies trundle by belching black smoke. We arrive at the sleepy town of San Antonio de los Banos, formerly a Spa and now famous for its international art school. Pulling up at the cigar factory we ask if we can look around. The two visible female rollers look grumpy and shake their hand in a no gesture. The security guard tells us to look for the office of ‘La Union de torcedores de tabaco’ (the union of tobacco rollers) in the town. The director shows us into his office but tells us that no-one can look round the factories without the permission of Habanos corporation or Cubatabaco, both in Havana. Nevertheless, I tell Frank lets go to the next town, Guira, to look for the fabled factory of Jose Marti Segui which was responsible for producing the special limited edition cigars for the UK to celebrate the Olympics. I am thinking it would be worth seeing the outside of the cigar factory.
We arrive and stand at the gate. The factory looks like a very large shed, wooden and homely. Frank talks to a few people hanging around the entrance when the head of production comes out to meet us. I say hello and that a friend of mine visited the factory to write an article for a UK newspaper. Surprise is that he asks us if we would like to visit the inside – would we! What follows is surreal – here we are being shown around what is supposed to be one of the most difficult factories to obtain permission to view in Cuba. It is rated as a mythical shrine for tobacco lovers who state that the best cigars in all the island are rolled here.