Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Out and about in Havana: In search of the co-op

I was awakened by sunlight streaming into our room through the sliding glass door leading onto the balcony. After a top-level breakfast at Sierra Maestra, we went down to the hotel lobby to explore options for our second day in the city.

We decided to start off with a city tour and opted for one of the Classic American cars parked outside the hotel. The problem, though, was that the person who solicited our business was not the same person driving the car. The person with whom we negotiated the deal spoke perfect English. Once we got into the car and engaged the driver, we realized that this was not going to work. The driver had very little English; a slight problem when you are looking forward to a narrated tour -- in English. We asked the driver to pull over and got out. We then went to plan B: the hop-on, hop off buses.

Hop-on, hop-off service is ubiquitous in tourist destinations around the world and is a great way of getting an overview of a new city at your own time and pace. The problem with the Havana service was the frequency (or, rather, the lack of same) and the paucity of information conveyed by the onboard "tour guide"(who also doubled as the cashier). After a frustratingly long wait, the bus showed up and we (wait for it) hopped on.

We began our ride in Verdado and traversed the entire length of the Malecón to Old Habana, with one or two stops along the way.

View of the Malecon with Straits of Florida in background

Sea wall and promenade of the Malecon

View of the waters from the Malecon sea wall

View Vedado to Old Havana

Hotel Nacional, as viewed from the Malecon
We disembarked at Central Park and immediately made our way over to the brightly colored vintage American cars that were lined up waiting for passengers. As we walked among the cars, we were constantly asked whether we wanted to take a tour of the city in one of the cars. Or if we wanted to have our pictures taken sitting in one of the cars.

The area was bustling with tourists walking among the cars, getting into cars at the beginning of trips, or getting out of cars at the conclusion of tours. As I stepped across the street to take a wide-angle shot of Parlo among the cars, I sensed someone coming towards me. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw him pause and look down at my socks (The tops of my socks displayed the colors of the Jamaican flag.). I could see the wheels turning over in his head as he sought to incorporate this observation into his approach. And then he pounced. He greeted me like a long lost brother. He loved Jamaica (I am not Jamaican); his Grandmother came to Cuba from Jamaica when she was 5 years old; etc., etc.

After this hearty opening, he proceeded to the lines of whether we wanted to take a city tour in one of the cars; or wanted to have our pictures taken sitting in one of the cars. Now he did not own a car. He was what I have previously described as a "steerer." When he realized that we were not interested in any car-related activities, he pitched going to the co-op where we could purchase cigars significantly below the price being charged at the hotel. This sounded interesting because I thought I would see some cigar production activities. And, according to my guy, the co-op was within walking distance.

We headed west away from Central Park and then turned south. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and we appeared to be swimming upstream against a mass of humanity that was hell bent on getting out of the area that we were going into. After walking for a little while I realized that this was the area that my wife's friend had pointed out to me from my hotel room as an area to avoid. Well, we were already in it.  My wife was cheerily taking photographs of her surroundings as we went along and I kept thinking "I know the crime rate is low in Cuba but I wished you had left that ring in the US."

We walked for a while. People looking at us because we were obviously tourists. Our "guide" hailed folks along the street and in some of the apartments which lined the street on both sides. He was as a big game hunter returning to the village with a trophy kill. Us.

After what seemed like an eternity, we turned into a dilapidated apartment building and walked down a hallway off which a number of doors opened. Living quarters all; and not very palatable. This was definitely not what I had expected when we set out on the "visit to the co-op."

There were a few other souls in the room perusing the cigar display. A woman was attempting to close a sale with a reluctant buyer so my guide launched into sales mode. Purchasing the cigars here would be helping these people and the price was significantly lower than at the hotel. As he went through the spiel, he was handing me different packaging options: Cohiba in bulk; smartly packaged Robustos; and a pocket-sized edition.

During the time that I smoked cigars seriously, Cohibas had always been my favorite. But there was an adage among Cohiba smokers: There are many more Cohibas sold than are made. There was no controlling for authenticity in this environment so I would not bite. My guide was not happy.

But he perked up when we said that we needed to have lunch. He knew just the place, he said. So we embarked on another long march to the other side of the old town. I will cover that experience in a subsequent post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

No comments:

Post a Comment