Museo De La Revolución, Havana, Cuba :
Fulgencio Batista : “Thank you, cretin, for helping us make the revolution.”
Ronald Reagan : “Thank you, cretin, for helping us strengthen the revolution.”
Geroge H.W. Bush : “Thank you, cretin, for helping us consolidate the revolution.”
George W. Bush : “Thank you, cretin, for helping to make socialism irrevocable.”
Havana, Cuba : L→R : Soviet T-34 tank, Bay Of Pigs invasion boat, tail section of U-2 spyplane.
Pinar Del Rio, Cuba : we fly to Havana in a Russian Tupolev TU-204 jet. Later, I tell my friends this and they are unnerved by it, but it’s a nice plane, indistinguishable from any other 1990s airliner. The terrain below is an unbelievably bright, rich shade of green. There are no shopping malls, no highways, just little roads that connect little towns, farms, mountains. There are hardly any vehicles. It already looks like the 19th century, and then we notice something we’ve never seen before in our lives ; a steam engine, an old wild-wild-west-looking one, chugging along the tracks. Later, behind El Capitolio, we come across a junkyard full of them.
The return flight is a completely different experience. We board a vintage Yakovlev YAK-42, and I think, “uh oh, hell ride”, which turns out to be the case. The interior of this airplane has a stripped-down, almost military look, and everything is labeled in Russian. I’m 5’11”, statistically average for an American male, and I’m not large, but my knees are jammed against the seat-back in front of me, the top of which almost touches my forehead. I am uncomfortable, but I imagine that anyone on board who is taller or wider than me must be flat-out suffering. I decide that this is the Cuban government’s way of punishing anyone who wants to leave the country.
There’s a guy with a German accent sitting behind us. He is very loud and very gay, and he tells us that he lives in Alabama and goes to Cuba often. He spends the flight complaining loudly about the exchange rate (admittedly, it is terrible, and they really go for the throat if you’re changing American dollars), his knees, and the fact that the drink-cart never makes it back to us. This guy is either a spy or a sex tourist, probably the latter. It’s not a long trip and we are nearly at our destination when the plane falls for a second or two. I have no idea how far a drop it is, but it feels significant. I yell “mother FUCKER!!”, which is okay, because everyone else is screaming too. As I jump up and run to the lavatory to vomit, the German is laughing. “Woo hoo! We lost an engine!!” . I am content in the Russian restroom, which I notice has no toilet paper, and I stay there until it’s time to land. When I get home, I look up Cubana’s safety record and find out that it’s the worst in the world.
Havana, Cuba : We fall into the habit of going to the bar at a fancy hotel every late afternoon.
We are a pair of scruffy rocker-types with tattoos, cut-off black jeans, unruly hair – a species unknown on this island. We walk miles every day. There are aspects of this place that resemble more the landscape of my childhood than that of my present-day life and it is perhaps for this reason that I explore as my ex-self would have, resolutely hopping walls, marching through puddles. There are no emission standards of any kind here, and vehicles spew black exhaust, as do the smokestacks of the factories, and the air is full of soot and dust. I catch sight of myself in a mirror in the lobby and I look like a New Orleans bike punk. We are filthy.
Despite this, the staff is friendly. There is no money in this country, and anybody with a little decorum and the ability to spend 3 times the going rate for a beer (what’s the street-price of a beer in Cuba? $1.08, or about 10¢ if you’re a local. More on that later.) is welcome, even at one of the most expensive hotels in Havana. The bartenders are professionals. They know when to talk, which they do easily while polishing glasses and squeezing limes, and they know when not to ; you finish your drink and they glide over and raise an eyebrow. One of these guys even has an iPhone, the only one I see anywhere, which means that he probably does all right for tips. This place is a refuge from the relentless hustling going on outside, it’s cool, dark, and comfortable, but the real reason we come here are the toilets.
We can’t shit at the casa. The plumbing barely works and even peeing requires a couple of flushes. Most of the toilets we encounter are substandard, chinese-made, inefficient. Toilet paper is usually unavailable and when it is there’s a wastebasket and a sign : Por favor, no se podía tirar el papel. I’m a good traveler, ready for anything, but this is something that has always disgusted me wildly. We each visit the hotel’s men’s room repeatedly, marveling at the extra toilet paper ( which is brown and very rough, but which we have not seen anywhere else in quantities of more than one roll ) and the powerful flush-action of the sturdy American-made plumbing.
There was a period, a couple of years ago, when I got really into mojitos, which were invented in Cuba. I drank them everywhere, developed my own recipe, and lubricated recording sessions in my living room with them. How’s the level in your cans? Do you want reverb on your vocal? How’s your drink? I order one and watch the bartender. As people sometimes do, he adds sugar instead of simple syrup, which seems wrong to me because sugar does not dissolve easily in a cold beverage. He tops my cocktail off with a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters, which surprises me totally. I like bitters. I went once to a bar in upper Wisconsin that has bitters from all over the world and serves them in shot glasses, and I had a fine time that day, but this is not good. A well-made mojito is a perfect combination of sweet, sour, and alcohol, and does not need another component. This man is a good bartender and an affable fellow, so I ask him very carefully if this is his own personal recipe. He assures me that In Cuba, mojitos are always made this way. Later, at a more modest drinking spot which we also frequent, I try another, and it is exactly the same. My recipe is much better.
* Shot glass
* Mixing glass
* Chilled pint glass, or solo cup, or any big cup. This recipe makes a strong drink, so don’t go putting it in a highball glass. I use an imperial pint glass, the official British kind with the crown on it.
* Muddle stick. I went and bought a dedicated muddler, but you can use anything. People often use the butt of the knife that they cut the lime with.
* Bendy straw
* Rum. I use Bacardi, which is pretty cheap and not too bad. You can use rum that’s more expensive, but you’re probably not going to be able to taste the difference. Do not use anything other than clear ( or ‘white’, or ‘silver’, or whatever they call it ) rum, and don’t use any sort of flavored rum, which is for girls.
* Simple syrup. ½ water, ½ white sugar. The simplest way to make this is to get a bottled water, pour half of it out, and fill the bottle back up with sugar. Shake the bottle every couple of minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved.
* Fresh mint
* Club soda
1. In your mixing glass, combine the juice of one half lime ( retain the squeezed-out lime rind ), two shots of rum, one shot ( I usually use a little less ) of simple syrup, and three or four mint leaves.
2. Muddle. Really, what you’re doing here is mixing everything up and tapping the mint leaves to release their essence. You don’t have to smash or tear the leaves, which will leave bits of mint floating in your drink, which you will then suck up with your straw, which is not cool.
3. Transfer the mixture to your chilled pint glass and drop in the squeezed-out lime half. If you want your mojito to be slightly on the sour side ( yum ), drop in the other, not-squeezed-out half of the lime as well.
4. Add ice, fill the glass to the top with club soda, and stir lightly. If you want, you can garnish with a lime slice and a couple more mint leaves, which will give your drink a nice tropical look.
5. Be careful. What you have now is an extremely tasty, very strong cocktail with a straw in it. Unless you pay attention, you will suck it down very quickly, which will be like doing two shots of rum.
Havana, Cuba. I looked it up, it’s Hungarian. Tone for days, I bet. :•)
Havana, Cuba : Cousin Ramón and cousin Augusto take us to the Plaza de la Revolución, which is a big, sun-blasted patch of blacktop where political rallies are held. We view the twin monuments to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. We have seen these in many photographs, but it is not like going to the Louvre in Paris and looking at the actual, original Mona Lisa, which can be underwhelming ( “ Yep, that’s the Mona Lisa “ ) – it is, as it’s intended to be, awe-inspiring. We have a Shit! We’re actually here! moment.
As we cook on the asphalt, cousin Augusto talks about comandante Camilo, who, here on the island, is often depicted along with Che and Fidel as one of a sort of ‘three musketeers of the revolution’. Che’s likeness is everywhere ( especially the Alberto Korda image that is turning into the most famous photograph in the world – for more on this phenomenon, see the documentary film Chevolution, which you can watch on Netflix ), on walls, tattoos – but, says Augusto, Camilo, a native Cuban who rose in the ranks of the revolutionary forces through his personal daring and effective guerilla tactics, is the more authentic heroic figure. In 1959, after some disagreements with Fidel, his airplane disappeared and his body was never found, effectively making him a martyr of the revolution.
We ride an American-made 1950s Westinghouse elevator to the top of the José Martí ( absolute number one Cuban hero and martyr ) Memorial, the highest point in Havana. We enjoy the view of the Plaza and the headquarters of the Communist party and we bask in the industrial strength air conditioning. There are giant black birds circling the structure, and when one lands on the ledge in front of us, we see that these birds are, in fact, vultures. Big, nasty, red-headed vultures. Havana is totally alien and this is one of about 100 strange things that I’ve seen today, so I take it in stride.
Cousin Augusto is engaged in an animated conversation with a young guy who looks like a janitor. Their rapid-fire Cuban Spanish is too thick for us to follow, but Augusto repeatedly mimes walking and shooting a rifle. Later, he tells me that the guy was actually a member of the secret police and was interrogating him as to why he would tell foreigners that Camilo ( who with his bad-ass long-hair-and-beard jungle-fighter look is starting to seem like a rock star to me ) is more popular with Cubans than Che. Augusto : ” I say that when they are fighting in the jungle, everyone else is hiding on the ground, but Camilo is walking and shooting, because he has giant cojones, man!!” — apparently, the guy liked this a lot and decided not to arrest Augusto. Camilo’s not the only one with big balls.
Before I went to Cuba, I had this idea that there are a few old cars that are kept in working order so tourists can ride around in them or whatever. In reality, 1930s, 40s, 50s cars and trucks are absolutely everywhere, in hard daily use, held together and kept running in all sorts of ingenious ways, belching oil and black smoke. For more info, see David Schendel’s documentary Yank Tanks, which is on Netflix.
Havana, Cuba : hey, pretty sneaky, right?
San Francisco De Paula, Cuba : We take a taxi ( a battered 1970s Russian Lada ) to Finca Vigia, the home of Ernest Hemingway from 1939 to 1960. You can’t go inside, but the windows are wide open so you can look in. Famously, everything is exactly as it was left when the government siezed the house in 1961. We admire the taxidermy ( Hemingway shot a lot of animals ), the hi-fi and record collection, typewriters, books. There’s an original Picasso on the wall in the living room and I wonder if it should be soaking in the moist, hot air. Kevin pretends to skate the swimming pool where Ava Gardner is supposed to have swum naked. Later, when we’re waiting for our cab back to the city, we ask if we can go mess around in the woods out back and we get that “ sure, whatever “ shrug that we’re getting used to. We eat the fruit off of a mango tree. Hemingway’s mangos.
Havana, Cuba : A 1952 Mercury Monterey, one of many fantastic old American cars we get to ride around in.
In this particular taxi, on the way to the beach, cousin Augusto points out dormitories housing Ukrainian victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, who are living here for free, courtesy of the Cuban government.
Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba : I notice that there are dead, headless chickens everywhere, and my guidebook says that Santería is practiced in up to 50% of the households on the island. I have always thought that Santería is the same thing as voodoo, but I take the time to read up on it and find that it is in fact quite different.
We go to Kevin’s family’s house on Calz Del Cerro and see that there are a couple of Santería altars there with rum, cigars, the whole bit. I ask cousin Augusto about this and he laughs, ” No, no, that’s not me, man! ” — Later, Kevin tells his Mother, who was born in this house, about the altars. She is not pleased and says that her parents would be spinning in their graves if they knew such things were being done in their home.
A guy from Ecuador shows up at our casa particular. He tells me that he’s come to Cuba to study the religion and take part in some rituals. He is in his early 40s, chubby, and definitely has the skeevy vibe of a sex tourist. He eyes the teenage hookers in front of the casa while we talk about the ritual sacrifice of chickens and goats. I’ve been in Havana for a week and I’m getting used to it to the extent that none of this seems terribly unusual.
Reina street, Havana, Cuba : a battered 1957 Cadillac Eldorado we see around Centro Habana a couple of times. We take in the chunky tires and coating of dust and decide that this is the kind of vehicle you want for stealing bodies from graveyards. We envision a skull shifter and The Cramps playing nonstop on the old tube radio.