Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Havana Snippets

 Señorita Magnolia
Right in the border between El Vedado and Centro Havana you will find a small, brightly painted townhome with a sunny green door. As you sniff the heavenly confections of the bakery next door, you reach for the doorbell and forty-five seconds later the door opens with a dry, metallic snap, thanks to what used to be a piston mechanism in a clothes washer. Several dozen marble steps later, you arrive to a modest, yet immaculately clean living room with two rocking chairs and a dining table. Welcome to Magnolia’s.

In the good company of Wilfred, a man more German-looking than a U-Boat captain, and Lucy, the minuscule yet affectionate family dog, Magnolia runs a little $5 hostel that is home to backpackers and genuine travelers of all creeds, colors and purposes. From a massive New Zealand winemaker to a Japanese food journalist, there is no shortage of interesting characters to spark good conversation and lasting friendship!

Magnolia herself is a 5-foot piece of dynamite in her early 50’s. She knows the city like the back of her hand and can pull out any amount of useful resources straight out of thin air. Here eyes are bright and astute: they can read past any lie and judge quietly, yet they will not hide the comfort of excellent company and genuine interest on every traveler’s needs. Just like everybody on the island, she is another tired sufferer to Cuban bureaucracy, yet despite the stifling procedures by the incompetent –yet impeccably dressed– officials, she will manage to pull out of it all –with a smile– through sheer wit in what would resemble a tournament of chess-talk.

The view from Magnolia's, a line for the bakery and a 50's Edsel belonging to one of the bakers. Photo by Balint Toth.

One Institutionalized Scam

In Cuba you will find two kinds of currency: the CUC (Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuba Peso). Each CUC is worth about $1 USD and it is equivalent to 25 CUP. For 20 CUP, you can get a hugely satisfying mini-pizza, or invite four people to five scoops of ice cream each. However, many people take advantage that Cuba is one of the few places where two currencies can be valid simultaneously, and always try to steer tourists in the way of the CUC, from street sellers to policemen. At Coppelia, the government-owned temple of ice-cream, there are two obviously separate sections: one for payments in CUC and one for payments in CUP. What makes it unfair? Well, the same ice cream can cost you 5 CUP for five scoops, or 3 CUC (15 times more!) in the “tourist” section that the uniformed guards will insist on as your sole alternative to have these sweet confections –especially if you look like an obvious foreigner. Always keep in mind an average month’s wage in the island is about 20 to 30 CUC!

You can bet the Bodeguita del Medio charges in CUC. $7 for a Mojito! Photo by Balint Toth.
Callejón Hamel

Wedged between Aramburu and Hospital Street, parallel to San Lazaro avenue and close to a local school, hides a narrow alley worthy of Willy Wonka’s craziest blueprints. From a post covered with brake master cylinders to benches made of bathtubs cut in half, this little corner of the world would be a killer setting for one of the Mad Hatter’s tea parties, a psychedelic haven for minds in love with color, shape and distress. Just short of a hybrid between Yellow Submarine and Antonio Gaudí, this crazy passage is guaranteed to be one of the favorites of any Burning Man lover, a complete, raving LSD experience without the cursed sugar cubes. Every Sunday, to top it off, dozens of people assemble to jam, drum, drink and dance to their heart’s content, in a spicy carnival cocktail of motion, hue and sensorial stimulation that the atypical traveler must not miss.

The crazy textures of the callejón are just short of an acid trip. Photo by Balint Toth.
Dance, music and color intermingle every Sunday. Photo by Balint Toth.

Walking Western Trio

One good afternoon, I decided to accompany my friends Balint and Paola on a walk to the Historic Center to find some good second-hand books. We resolved, however, to try to sing some songs as we strode past the run-down streets of Havana Centro, from popular melodies to classic rock. Tune after tune, laughter after laughter, we walked on proudly, disconcerting many locals, and evoking many smiles from the quiet elders sitting at the doorstep of their homes. We marched loudly and proudly, announcing our presence to the empty windows, the money-hungry taxi drivers, the cuddly lovers by the ocean. As the sun set, I proposed a new twist to our singing, and we kept our parade going through the Malecón, whistling many of Ennio Morricone’s memorable compositions, mimicking horses, with the beat on our feet and in the claps of some random bypassers. Our group would suddenly become quiet upon the appearance of a real musician, plucking a few notes off his guitar with dexterous fingers: we were obviously acknowledging a higher talent. And so, perhaps looking more like drunken tourists than brave cowboys, we trotted on back home wearing our best grins. I do not exactly remember, but I think we did buy some books.

Look at these good people! From left to right, Paola, Romi, Balint and Chieh. Photo by Balint Toth.

The Magic Guayabera

As much as my spell-check tries to correct this original word to Graybeard, Guayaberas do exist. Back in the times of the plantations, these were the garments of the peasants who picked guava fruits, or guayabas –hence the name–, a shirt with tiny pleats covering each side of the chest, stretching vertically all the way to the back. These shirts are very stylish in their minimalism, with an air of retro 1950’s party lounge and Caribbean leisure.

I love my blue guayabera: I got it for $14 in and at this point it has paid for itself. Every time I throw it around my bony shoulders, it becomes a magic blanket of invisibility. As other foreigners get stopped by sketchy cigar sellers, promoters for restaurants, taxi cyclists and other miscellaneous touts, I breeze through the crowds like a shadow, with not one soul acknowledging my existence. Even in the busiest street, Calle Obispo, I glided with such grace I could almost swear I was on roller-skates. My dear guayabera has also given me hefty discounts in many a taxi ride, up to $10 from what a tourist would normally pay. During my stay in Havana, I did not hesitate to share the benefits of this treasure with my obviously-foreign-looking friends, especially those from Asian backgrounds, who would get shamelessly ripped off during the most mundane of errands.

Crazy colors? Yes, but still managed to be completely inconspicuous. Photo by Balint Toth.

Threatened Kiwi

Picture Bruce Willis in his early thirties, speaking with a heavy New Zealand accent, and you will have my friend Lorne (pronounced Lo’hn –loudly– for a more intimidating stance). Along with my San Franciscan friend Ari, a sensible, introspective man in his forties, and Mikhail, a talkative Greek backpacker, they went on what was promised to be a cool French train on an epic journey to the gorgeous landscapes of Viñales. The train happened to be an obsolete, barely-running wreck with broken windows and a sad light bulb dangling from where fluorescent tubes had been formerly… but for $0.60 for the ride, they could not be wrong. They settled in a farm for a few days, from where they would explore the gorgeous natural surroundings, eat some amazing foods and meet some colorful characters –amongst them, a spooky peasant with an oversized glass eye.

One day the three set on visiting one of the local caves to take a swim. However, upon arriving to the top, the guide asked them for an extra fee to access the cave, arguing on some dubious property line issues. Lorne got furious to the verge of almost punching the guide in the face, so, after some negotiation by the Greek guy, they all came down to the farm to talk to the boss. On the way down, the guide picked up a big stick and started to walk closer to Lorne. Ari, in his deep voice, called Lorne’s attention and told him to look behind him… and as Lorne noticed the man with the stick, he slowed down and picked up another big stick. The tense walk continued all the way to the farm, where the issue was solved. In the end, the three friends walked back with a different guide and the boss himself, armed with a machete… for the dense vegetation in the way, of course.

Ari, as he told me his experiences in the farm in Viñales. Photo by Balint Toth.
The Goodman Garage

During my search for the Gullwing in Havana Vieja, I stopped to ask in a mechanic shop in Muralla Street. The man inside had never heard of the car, but much to my surprise, he opened his own home to my friend Ari for him to use the bathroom, obstinate in not accepting any kind of compensation. “From what is mine, I live; and from what I have, I give”, he said with dignity. I was moved by his utter selflessness, a rare quality in the island.

A week later my good friend Chieh came to me, visibly upset. She had come to Cuba in search of true connections with people, but every person she had tried to talk to always wanted her money in one way or the other. I told her the story with Ari, and two days later we set on a mission to visit the last good man in Havana. She had to meet at least one before she left for the airport that same afternoon!

When we showed up at his address in Muralla Street, we found a locked door. “Well, damn. At least, if you peek through this crack, you can see that very nice mural in the back”, I said with an air of disappointment. She tried to photograph it through the door, and suddenly a woman came to open it. At the other side was the good man, who shook my hand with vibrant energy, and greeted Chieh with renewed enthusiasm. I told him about the purpose of this second visit, and he became quiet for a second. He immediately ushered us into his home, where he poured out two cups of the most delicious coffee I have had in years, and two tall glasses of homemade yogurt with natural cane sugar. He told us about the greedy people in Havana, those who struggle to get what they own and those who don’t, the simplicity of good things and the hard life he had. By the end, the three of us were on the verge of tears: him, for having someone admiring him enough to want to introduce his friends to him; us, for the miracle that his infinite kindness had remained intact through so much adversity.

The Good Man (notice the capitals now) soon had to make a delivery at a local hotel, so we all stood up and walked to the door of the chocolate museum, where we waved each other goodbye and he offered us to come and stay in his home anytime. Chieh and I were deeply touched, and still remember this miraculous man –the only good man in Havana, as we called him– with profound fondness to this day.

How many T-Shirts do you think have been printed with this image? Photo by Balint Toth.
Two Cheap Delights

Taking it where the story where the previous one left, Chieh and I set to have some good food before her departure. We started off ordering a cup of hot and cold cocoa at the Chocolate Museum, accompanied by two solid butter cookies and some of the most deliciously rich foam I have ever had on any drink. The total cost? $1.50, expensive by Cuban standards, but more than fair for the Western visitor. We moved across Calle Obispo, early enough not to find a single person waiting in line at the Sociedad Asturiana. Located right in front of the Capitolio, this discreet crumbling structure houses three restaurants in one: Creole-Cuban cuisine on the first floor, Spanish-Cuban on the second, and Italian-Cuban on the third. I told my friend to choose, and we found ourselves on a surprisingly upscale establishment with thick cotton mantelpieces and lavish service. I feared for my wallet, until I opened the menu… a few minutes later, we had gotten a photogenic salad and a massive, mouth-watering, extra-tender lamb leg that fed the two of us to our utter satisfaction. Portions are massive –I went again to have some pizza, and oh my God–, so for a little over $10 for two people, be sure that your belly will be so full you will start questioning whether men can get pregnant or not.

Chieh and I, in the quest for a delicious meal. Photo by Balint Toth.

Castro’s Limousine

It all happened by accident, but let’s start with some facts. Internet service, as well as anything related to telephones, is controlled by the Cuban government –surprise– and it is scarce, slow and furiously expensive. On average, one hour of internet use in any Havana hotel will cost between $7 and $10 per hour. Steep, isn’t it? Well, I soon found that for $10 one could get 12 hours of wireless internet at the Hotel Nacional, which seemed to me like the best deal in the whole island. They give you a little card, you scratch it like a lottery, and you type your data to get access; the only catch is that you just need to bring your own laptop to the hotel.

One fine day, as I was going for an Internet run, I found a large, menacing black car right in front of the Nacional. As an automotive nut I could not resist getting closer and noticing that it was Russian –ahem– Soviet. I asked the driver, who revealed the identity of the car: it was a Chaika, in mint condition, that had been commissioned for chauffeur service on May of that year. There was another one like it, but this one was in such good shape, I was not surprised to head that it had been Fidel Castro’s official car. The driver proudly popped the hood and I found a familiar sight: a Mercedes OM602 diesel engine with Ssangyong badging. It was a non turbo, which I thought would make the two-and-a-half hulk the biggest slug in Havana. It also had an oversized, dual-circuit braking system, which must have made put an extremely frustrating –abrupt, yet efficient– end to the victory of slow acceleration.

Out of curiosity I asked how much he would charge for a ride to the airport, and surprisingly, he said $25 –about average. My eyebrows raised and a mischievous grin spread across my face as I took his business card. As soon as I got to the Hotel’s cyber-center I could not resist telling everyone the news. My friend Balint was impressed, and since he was leaving in two days, the two of us ran back outside and made an appointment with the driver right on the spot.

The day of his departure, we walked to the main lobby of the Hotel Nacional, where our friend Paola pulled out a bottle of cheap rum. We walked ceremoniously towards the threatening vehicle, and I opened the door graciously for the two young VIP’s. They slipped into their velour and fake zebra wood interior, and we pulled away from the Cuban landmark… slowly. The car rode excellent, quiet as can be, with a fuel range of over a thousand kilometers. It was a true Soviet tank, navigating the three of us –two of which were enjoying the rum in the back– to the airport through what felt like a runway of butter. The driver was courteous enough to return us back to the hotel for free after dropping Balint at the terminal. What a glorious, soothing machine! What stateliness, in the disguise of communist intimidation!

Two days later I tried to hire the same car, but a fellow taxi driver reported that the Chaika had broken down. Oh, how short-lived are the pleasures of life!

Wait, wasn't Mr. Bezhnev coming?

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