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Havana '95
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.

      We’re sitting in a bar at the Nassau airport waiting for a man named Garcia to show up. It would be gloriously James Bondian except I’m drinking cerveza instead of a martini and I know better than to shake or stir it. If we were any nationality except American we wouldn’t 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 you’re sitting near the Cubana airlines counter every man who walks by could be named Garcia.

     Somehow we hook up—how did he peg us as Americans?—and find ourselves on a Russian Yak-47 where we get treated better than the Delta flights before it—candy, 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 beautiful—though generally rundown—and 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 too—all with sidecars—and "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 can’t go to Havana without smoking cigars. The staunchest anti-smoking Senator would smoke there. You have to. It’s Havana, for Christ’s 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 I’m in Cuba and not Mexico, I start drinking Havana Club rum like everyone else. Well, everyone who isn’t 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. It’s 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 with—it’s 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 I’ve 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. They’re no relation to the bagged junk we get in the states that George Bush the elder loved so much. These were good.

     We didn’t 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 didn’t 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 drift.

     You don’t go to Havana for the food, and although I didn’t 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 I’ve 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. It’s 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 that’s 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 disco—which got pretty lame reviews—while two of us ended up at the Palacio de la Salza with a couple of the Tropicana dancers. I’m 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 men—Mason 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.

I’m 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 seawall—the site of July's Carnival—to 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 they’re all rather professional looking, not what you’d expect from someone caught up in a fit of revolutionary fervor. "¡Spray paint no! ¡Art school, si!"

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 don’t 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 isn’t 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 drivers—who drove as fast as 100 km/hr—got 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 we’d met by the pool, back to Colombia. Oh well, there's always next time.

©2000 Mad Dog Productions, Inc.


Read more about Cuba:
"Havana Good Time, Boys?"


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