As we belt down the autopista from Jose Marti airport towards
Havana centre, crammed into our Soviet-built red taxi, this long
hidden corner of the world opened up before us. 1950 Chevrolets
and Cadillacs ploughed past us as our driver effortlessly dodged
the bustling crowds huddled around nuclei of domino games set up
in the slow-lane. Like moths the people of suburban Havana were
waking from their siestas and heading out to the lights of the
motorway. We pulled up outside a crumbing building in a warren of
apparently deserted streets just off the seafront, and it took us
a moment to realise that this was our destination, the Hotel
Lido, gloriously sold to us in the brochure. Stepping out into
the dark humidity of the street we were mobbed by a crowd of kids
who had been playing football in the shadows and now smelt
profit. They showered us with questions: Where you from? You want
dinner? You need a room? In our first few days in Havana we were offered every product
or service imaginable. The large numbers of police no doubt
controlled over enthusiastic sellers but most of the time they
sat on steps with the same people who offered goods, often
sharing a cigar. A casual “You want a cigar?” would be
thrown at us by every passer-by to such an extent that it became
an expected greeting: “You want a cigar?”, “No,
gracias.” The sellers soon became part of the background scenery of the
bustling city and indeed were vital for a little greediness of
our own. Large boxes of cigars even in Cuba went for $120 in the
shops, in the UK this price trebled. On the street, however, the
same boxes went for $30 and searching out the best bargain became
a game that we indulged in with glee. The dilapidated area around
our hotel proved to be a heavily populated and classy area of the
city full of large houses with paint-pealing facades, balconies
and high–ceilinged rooms, not great for dodgy trading. One thing that we soon learnt about Cubans was that they loved
to play gangster with elaborate code words, pick-up points and
hidden store rooms commonplace. Soon we were following, as
instructed, a scruffy local lad who scampered 30 metres ahead of
us through the winding alleys of one of Havana’s more
salubrious quarters. This was the standard game to avoid being
spotted by the police who, in truth, didn’t really care that
the legality of the trade was questionable. Eventually reaching a
little bar we were subtly directed with a veiled nod from the
waiter through a curtain at the back of the shop. Two of us were
then told to follow while two waited for ‘security
purposes’. We were led ever-upwards along a maze of walkways
that circled the interior of the building and led into a room on
the sixth floor. Up to this point I will admit we were scared, and these cigars
were beginning to seem just that bit too expensive. On entering
the little room, however, all fears were dispelled: three kids
sat on a plush sofa watching a pirated copy of Stuart Little with
Spanish subtitles while Grandma baked in the kitchen before
offering us a couple of beers. Before long we were well settled,
sipping beer and watching TV on a Sony widescreen: good times in
a cigar smuggler’s den. Enlightened by the amiability of our
first deal, the street traders took on a whole new aspect: no
longer irritants, they were now colleagues. To the west our quarter faced the sea, bordering the famous
Malecon, the seafront of Havana and one of the most photographed
views in the Caribbean. The regular hurricanes that rush through
this area, on their way to more profitable grounds further north,
have beaten the houses along this road in a beautifully haunting
vision of faded glory that no amount of designer distressing
could ever have achieved. The endless noise of the capital and the pollution soon forced
us into the countryside and we managed to secure an illegal
private taxi to take us south-west to the sugarloaf- shaped
mountains around the small town of Vinales. Our driver was a
middle aged tobacco picker named Armando who procured a bit of
extra income driving his car to Havana and back every week.
Despite the excruciatingly long list of animals that he managed
to run over along the way, Armando was an honest and genuinely
friendly guy. He sold us nothing but the taxi ride and even then
refused to accept a tip from students. Two days later he returned
to take us to a little beach he knew where we spent a day on a
boat catching jellyfish, smoking cigars and discussing American
foreign policy. As we entered customs at Heathrow on our way home, grubby,
tanned, with bottles of Havana Club and boxes of Cohiba stashed
in our backpacks an official asked us if we had anything to
declare and without thinking we replied, “No, gracias,”
before sharing a last cigar on the pavement outside.ARCHIVE: 2nd week TT 2004