March 2009

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Sooner or later everyone in Havana ends up at Bodeguita del Medio, no doubt the most popular bar in Habana Vieja. I have never been in there when the bar, which isn’t much bigger than normal-sized living room, wasn’t jammed (and unbelievably, there’s usually a group playing in here as well).

It’s such a body-pack that usually people worm their way in the door, order a mojito, and suck it down in just a few minutes. Which is probably just fine with the management since it means the turnover (and drink orders) is high.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Some people think that daiquiris were invented at the Floridita and mojitos at Bodeguita. The first may be true, but the mojito is one of the oldest cocktails around and predates Bodeguita, which transitioned from a food shop to a bar shortly after WWII, by at least a hundred and fifty years.

Lots of celebrities—Nat King Cole, Brigitte Bardot, Errol Flynn—have dropped in on Bodeguita for a mojito but the guy that made it famous, of course, was Ernest Hemingway. There’s an old stained sign, in large script handwriting, above the bar that says, “My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita. Ernest Hemingway”.

Of course, he never wrote any such thing. So sue them.

Now, I have to say that the mojitos at Bodeguita are not that great. They use lots of mint, which is good, but way too much watered-down lime juice which is diluted even more by being topped by mineral water. Plus, like almost all mojitos in Havana, they use way too much sugar. I prefer to taste the rum in my mojito, not sticky-sweet cane syrup.

Surprisingly, the food is pretty good here as long as you stick with the Cuban classics like the roast pork served with fried plantains and what they call “sleepy black beans,” which just means they’ve cooked for so long they’re practically pureed.

Be sure and bring a black marker so you can write something on the graffiti-filled walls. I wrote something near the stairs and will send four Bodeguita mojito stir-sticks to anyone who can find it and tell me what it says.

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I brought Hardy a little gift from California: a box of Nicaragua cigars. Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle. But these weren’t just any cigars. They were Casa Magna Colorado Robustos which had just been rated by Cigar Aficionado magazine as the number one cigar in the world.

He appreciated the gift but that didn’t mean we were going to skip a visit to the Partagás cigar factory, which just happened to be almost directly across from our hotel, the Saratoga.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

This is a very cool place and if you hit it just right (as we did three years ago), you can take a guided tour where you’ll end up in the “golden” room, on the top floor, where some 300 torcedors (cigar rollers), mostly women these days, sit at long wooden tables rolling out Cohibas, Partagás, Ramon Allones, Montecristos, and some two dozen other brands. There’s a pecking order in the room; the newbies sit in back and the guys that roll the Cohiba maduros sit in front (it takes at least seven years experience rolling cigars before you can even think about being a Cohiba torcedor. And for the pleasure of being the best in the world at what you do, you make all of about $20 a month).

On the main floor of the factory is La Casa del Habanao, one of the finest cigar shops in Havana. They carry so many different types of cigars it’s just mind-boggling. Particularly the first time you visit. So the thing to do is strike up a conversation with one of the employees on the floor, like Abel Esposito, the manager. If Abel likes you and thinks you are serious about the cigars (i.e., that you’re going to drop a couple of hundred bucks on a box of something really nice like the Montecristo No. 4 Reserva which goes for $375 for a box of 25), then he might invite you into the smoke-filled VIP room in the back where you can sit in the leather lounge chairs where Cuba’s Comandante en Jefe hobnobbed with Steven Spielberg back in ’02 (he was there, at Cuba’s invitation, to attend the premier of Minority Report with Tom Cruise) and Abel will fire-up a free house cigar and offer you a glass of 7-year-old rum—even if it is barely 10 in the morning.

You don’t even have to smoke a cigar to enjoy the flavor. There’s so much smoke in the room that you can sample a chocolaty Cohiba Maduro or earthy Bolivar Royal Corona just by walking around (when the smoke gets too thick, even for Abel, he flips on an industrial fan to momentarily clear the air).

But do have a breakfast rum with your smoke. It will smooth out the harsh edges. 

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The Disney characters of Havana

The first time you walk around Havana, you might be surprised to come across these really, really authentic looking characters who just scream “Colonial Cuba.” Like the old women wearing Aunt Jemima do-rags and chomping on foot-long cigars.

Damn,” you think. “I’ve got to get a picture of them.”


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

And so, being the politically correct American tourist you are, you go up to one of them and say, “Puede I tomar su foto, con su permiso?” And she nods and smiles and so you take a few quick snaps and thank them. At which point they hold out their hands, palms up.

Just like Disneyland, Havana is full of colorful characters that you’ll want to take photos of. Unlike Disneyland, these people expect to be paid. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll usually see some piece of laminated I.D. attached to a lanyard around their neck, identifying them as some sort of “official Havana-character-to-be-photographed.”

Which means that they’re licensed by the state and so the tips you give them—a convertible peso or two—are shared with Fidel and Raul. Who says the Castro bros hate capitalism? (Did you know that Forbes magazine placed Fidel in 7th place on their list of “Fortunes of Kings, Queens, and Dictators” with an estimated wealth of about $900 million?)

The first time I encountered this, I gave a huge tip to one of these old colonial mamas and was rewarded with a perfectly placed kiss on the cheek. Which left lipstick. Which she then suggested I might want to photograph as well. For another peso or two.

One afternoon when I was standing outside a café next to the Baroque Catedral de San Cristóbal, listening to a very good jazz band, an extremely reedy hipster sidled up to me, be-bopping along to the music. He wore a black fedora and bow tie, and a filtered cigarette dangled from his lips. I took his picture and then he opened up the old valise he was carrying, which was full of coins, and I dropped one in as if it were a wishing well.

Hey, everyone’s got to make a living, right? And it’s harder in Havana than most places, so I don’t begrudge these odd Cuban Disney characters their gig. It beats begging (which really pisses Fidel off; hard to get a cut, no doubt, from panhandlers).

The only time it’s ever bothered me was when I came across a santería priestess with an altar for Changó, the king of the orishas, or santería gods, outside a Catholic church. She too was posing for photos. Which just isn’t right on so many levels (including that it is very bad voodoo to take photos of real santeros or babalawos. I don’t know if it’s supposed to steal their souls or whatever but you’re just not supposed to do it).

So I had to be very careful when I snuck a quick photo of her. I hope Obbatalá, the hermaphrodite orisha who is the protector of the head, didn’t get pissed off. 

But my favorite photo of a Cuban Disney character is this shot of an old guy wearing an Old Navy t-shirt and smoking a pipe. He’s the same guy that’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba. Only difference is that they Photoshopped him so that the star on his beret is red (you know, in case we didn’t get that Cuba is communist) and they made the plain door behind him green.

I like my shot better.


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Cruising around Havana

“From now on,” Hardy said as we passed slowly along the Malecón, “I’m always taking a buggy in Havana.”

They are pretty darn charming. Although I think they’re better for tooling around the old section of Havana than going for long rides, as we were doing, out to Vedado, a trip that necessitated we change buggies at one point because the carriage we first got into didn’t have any brakes.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

We passed by the Hotel Nacional, the Art Deco gem once run by the mobster Meyer Lansky (who, reportedly, was the first American to put a hit on Fidel following the Revolution; the CIA soon followed with dozens of their own attempts. Some of the more creative, revealed in declassified CIA documents last year, included putting botulism in his cigars and contaminating his diving suit with tuberculosis bacilli and a fungus that causes a rare skin disease called madura foot. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up).

A few days ago, after Hardy and I had spent a long afternoon roaming all over Havana, we decided to grab a buggy around Plaza de Armas, where they usually hang out, but there weren’t any. So then we walked a ways up Calle Obispo until we found a little park where several rickshaws were parked. They wanted twenty convertible pesos to take us back to the Saratoga. Hell, you could get a carriage to take you all around old town for two hours for that, so we told the guy to forget it, figuring we’d find a more entrepreneurial rickshaw owner along the way. Which we did. But something odd was going on here. None of the guys wanted to take us to our hotel, even though it was only a five-minute ride at most.

I think these rickshaw drivers all have their own little districts and there are unwritten rules about picking up passengers and you get in trouble if you go into some other guy’s district. (I’d also heard that rickshaws were no longer able to carry tourists, just the local Cubans, but I’ve seen plenty of tourists in rickshaws so I don’t know what that’s about).

Instead of hoping in a rickshaw, you could also take a cocotaxi, those odd three-wheeled egg-shaped scooters that look like they belong in Disneyland. They don’t cost any less than a taxi but they’re kind of fun for short distances (like going from bar to bar).

But while I like the carriages well enough, my favorite way to get around Havana is still in one of the old ‘50s era cars. It just feels so right to be sitting in something like the old two-tone Pontiac we hired the other day from Ismael, our very stylish driver dressed in black pants and a white short-sleeved shirt with a red and blue striped tie. Cruising in that baby along the Malecón to the Hotel Nacional, where Fred Astaire and Walt Disney once stayed, you feel like it’s 1955 all over again.

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They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen.”

The Terrace Hemingway wrote about in The Old Man and the Sea was La Terraza, a fisherman’s bar in the small village of Cojimar, a 20-minute taxi ride from Havana. This is where Hemingway docked his boat, Pilar, and the bar, still there, is where he spent many an afternoon drinking with fishermen like Anselmo Hernández, an old man who was “thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.”

Hemingway and Anselmo Hernandez at La Terraza

Hernández was the model for Santiago—the old man of the sea. The young boy in the story, Manolo, was based on the young son of the owner of La Terraza, Manolito. 

I like La Terraza, even though it has turned into a bit of a tourist trap. As long as you don’t lunch there when one of the tour buses pull up and 25 or 30 sunburnt Scandinavians are directed to the long tables in the back of the restaurant  where they are served blue daiquiris and arroz con mariscos, it can be quite pleasant. The Cristal is very cold and the camarones al ajillo, fat shrimp cooked simply with garlic and parsley in olive oil, are delicious.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

The walls are covered in framed black-and-white photos of Hemingway in and around Cojimar or standing at one dock or another beside some monstrous marlin or a rare 82-pound “peto fish” (what we call wahoo). In the bar is a nice oil painting of Hemingway that looks to be roughly modeled on the famous 1957 portrait taken by Yousuf Karsh (the story goes that when Karsh went to shoot Hemingway at Finca Vigía, he wanted to make Hemingway comfortable. So knowing of Hem’s reputation as a formidable drinker, when Papa asked him what he wanted to drink—this was at 9 o’clock in the morning—Karsh answered: “Daiquiri, sir.” “Good god, Karsh,” Hemingway remonstrated, “at this hour of the day?”) Everyone likes to sit at the little wooden table beneath this portrait and have their photo taken.

After lunch you can walk along the Cojimar waterfront where a small stone fort, built in 1645, once led to the wharf where Hemingway kept the Pilar tied up. Apparently last year’s hurricanes destroyed most of the wharf. A few stone piers rising above the water are all that are left.

Opposite the fort is a small plaza named after Hemingway with a monument featuring a bronze bust of the author. It’s a reproduction of a larger Hemingway statue leaning against the bar in El Floridita. They say that after Hemingway died, the fisherman of the village wanted to build this bronze bust but couldn’t afford it. Instead, they collected old anchors, props, and tools until they had enough metal for the casting. I don’t know if this story is true or not but the idea that an old anchor or two went into making Papa’s bust here in Cojimar, where he conceived of the idea for The Old Man and the Sea, just feels right to me.

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