CUBA : Your Questions #1

|October 11, 2011 | Cuba, Photos By J.Yuenger, Travels

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Regarding my trip to Cuba of a couple of months ago, I’m asked the same four questions again and again, one of which is :

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Maduro 5

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Are Cuban cigars really that much better? One afternoon, in Havana, we find ourselves on a balcony overlooking the Calle Monserrate. I look at my cigar ( the band from this particular one is shown above ) and I think to myself, ” God DAMN, this is the best cigar I’ve ever smoked! ” – but, hold up, let me set the scene up for you. After a day of furious sightseeing which involves plenty of walking under a white-hot, angry sun, careening around in battered American cars from the 1940s, and breathing dust and diesel fumes, Cousin Ramón brings us to an imposing stone edifice that looks like a museum. He explains ( or, rather, he mimes – Ramón knows no English at all, literally not one word, and the smattering of textbook Spanish Kevin and I can speak is good for practically nothing, so there evolves between us a sort of elaborate spanglish grunt-and-dance that almost works, but not quite ) that we will be eating here. We look at each other and shrug as Ramón leads us upstairs, through marble halls, to a tiny L-shaped room decorated with soccer banners and pictures of sun-dappled islands. It’s a bar, where a few good-natured people are quietly drinking beer ( Cristal for the ladies, and the slightly heavier Bucanero for men ) and eating food that’s coming from a kitchen somewhere else in the building.

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This is a little odd ( imagine being at, say, the Field Museum in Chicago or the Museum of Natural History in NYC, opening what looks like the door to a broom closet and finding a groovy little drinking spot ), but it’s a cool scene, and just as I’m thinking to myself that I’d come here all the time if it was in my town, Kevin ( who doesn’t drink, even ) says, ” Man, if I lived in Havana I’d come here every day! ” We get to talking with the bartender, who explains that this building is not a museum but the headquarters of the society of descendants of Canary Islanders, and that we are in the society’s private bar. Ramón’s hook-up here must have something to do with his job at the society of Galician descendants, which we have visited the preceding day.

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The Sociedad Gallego is located in the Gran Teatro De La Habana, which we got to explore after visiting to the group’s beautiful offices and regretfully refusing the boxes of cigars Ramón’s boss was trying to sell us ( it seems to surprise people here when we explain that we can’t buy souvenirs – while it’s not technically illegal for American citizens to visit Cuba, it is illegal for them to spend money there, so anything they’re caught trying to bring back is liable to be confiscated, with fines levied on top of that ). The halls of the grand theater were filled with ballerinas, and the who the fuck are these guys? look we were getting from these girls indicated that we were indeed being permitted to do something special. After some haggling with a guard, we were allowed to go upstairs to see the grand ballroom :

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Teatro

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I digress. We eat spicy, hand-tossed pizza in the tiny Canary Island bar, and it is very good. Crazy-good. Maybe the best food we’ve eaten all week ( ha ha, more on that later ), and then we head out to the club’s outdoor terrace to smoke cigars. Kevin is quite laid-back about his straight-edge lifestyle, certainly much more so than I was when I was an insufferable 15-year-old Minor Threat fan. He’s not preachy, nor is he in recovery – he simply doesn’t drink, and given that he grew up in New Orleans, where the party never ends and the resultant wreckage, human and otherwise, is everywhere, it’s no wonder, really. I am respectful of this, as I am generally respectful of anybody’s abstentions, indulgences, religions, whatever-gets-you-through-the-nights, but at this moment I put to him, rather forcefully, that he has gone to a great deal of trouble to visit the land of his ancestors, and if he doesn’t at least drink a toast to them, I will be greatly disappointed. He agrees that this is reasonable. The sky is bright blue, flags flutter, palm trees sway gently in the breeze. We lean over the balcony and take in the Edificio Bacardi, the art deco former headquarters of the rum-making family that’s across the street. Vintage green, red, blue cars stream by on the avenue below, and I experience a moment of perfect calm. It’s not as if you could squint and sort of imagine that you’ve gone back in time : this IS the past. We proceed to put away a great deal of dark rum.

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I once heard someone, I think it was a chef or a restaurant critic, put forth an idea that I call the po-boy theory, which states that if an absolutely authentic po-boy sandwich were assembled in a place other than New Orleans ( this assumes that you’d be flying in bread from the Leidenheimer bakery, the one essential and absolutely indisputable ingredient – one could argue that Gulf seafood would also be necessary, but as New Orleans residents know, the best po-boys come from shabby corner groceries, which often use frozen seafood imported from somewhere else — that this tastes better than one made with fresh ingredients in a nice restaurant is something we’ll just have to put down to voodoo. ), it still wouldn’t be as good, because you wouldn’t be eating it in New Orleans. Certainly this idea applies to New York pizza and bagels : it’s the water, they say, and that may be true, but I bet it has a lot to do with the fact that you’ve just come up out of the subway and you’re at Famous Original Authentic Ray’s ( you might want to hop to it : St.Marks Pizza shut down a couple of years ago, which is still strange to me, and now the Ray’s on 11th St. & 6th Ave. is closed. What’s next? ) gobbling a slice that was shoved at you across the counter by a guy whose name is, for real, Vito, and you’re about to run around and do New York-y stuff all day. Is the gelato in Rome really better? Maybe, but you’re in fucking ROME, the astounding, beautiful, movie-set city. There are girls on Vespas and everybody’s like ” ayyyyy – ciao! “, and, say, this is some good gelato!

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Actually, I did learn that the Cuban Cohiba ( the brand I smoked, mainly ) was first made at the behest of Castro himself, and that the like-named brand that’s available in the U.S. is totally unrelated. Let’s just say that Cuban cigars are really good when you’re smoking them in Cuba.