The rusty red lada sped through the bustling Havana streets. It was dark, I had no idea where I was, and I had just given my last pesos to a prostitute and a couple of young men. Another story not to tell my mother I thought as I sat back and the four of us drove off into the night.
I blame Alex, an old friend who had schooled me on the purchase of quality Cohiba cigars. I must buy from a hotel. No alleyways, no friends, brothers or uncles who work in a factory, no stands in the market. Straight from the factory, or in a hotel gift shop. This was serious business, and I couldn’t fail him.
The Cohiba calamity began earlier in that day, my last day roaming the streets of this bustling city, a riot of colours, car horns and whistling men. My feet ached, my camera tugged at my weary neck, and very unfortunate odours assaulted my senses. I couldn’t be happier.
I had just been scooped off the streets by a man wearing crisp white linens, and a promise of salsa music and mojitos. “Do you like Buena Vista Social Club?” he asked. “You will come meet my friend, he played with them, we will dance!” What more did I need? More pesos, apparently. I had been a budgeting superstar the entire trip. I had exactly enough to take a cab back to my hotel, grab some dinner, and the promised box of cigars. The pesos were quickly spent on mojitos instead, as I sat mere inches away from a worn looking musical legend. Cuban men danced around me, moves that had me convinced that they lacked a skeleton. I was simply going to burst with joy, cigars be damned.
Once my host realized I had spent the last of my pesos and couldn’t buy us more mojitos, I was quickly excused and sent on my way. I dug deeply into my travel wallet, fingers crossed and praying, until I found it, my emergency $20 stash. In a flash I was counting my poorly exchanged pesos, grateful for a little more
Havana adventure. Back on track for the cigar purchase.
My trusty guide book had plenty to say about getting around in Havana. Tourists must always use the bright yellow taxis designated for tourists. Never take the bicycle taxis, they are only for locals. And totally fun, I tested several of them. You could use the coco taxis, bizarre little scooters with a big yellow ball to sit in and hold on tight. Fun indeed, but priced for tourists. Never take a ferry… I took four ferry rides. Avoid the trains – how could I resist? And certainly never get into cars loaded with locals, called the taxi collective – the average car had about 8 passengers. These cars, straight from 1952 and held together with wire coat hangers were a total crap shoot. Wave one down, hop in and pray it’s going the direction you need it to. Completely random and always an adventure.
I had met another Cuban friend as I roamed the streets. I had asked him to take me to these forbidden collective taxis and he looked at me in disbelief. “You cannot take those, you need to take the yellow ones” he chided. “I’ve been taking them all week, and have the bruised ass as proof” He laughed. “Ok, brave girl, but have you tried the bus?” I had been coveting the bus ride. Completely unsafe tin cans, crammed tightly with as many people as possible plus 17 more. They would take you across town for about a penny. Guidebooks pleaded their avoidance, the nice ladies at the hotel forbade them. How could I resist? We ran to the nearby bus and did our best sardine impression. No need to hold on, we simply couldn’t move if we wanted to. The Cuban version of a seat belt. I was overjoyed. My chaperone saw me safely back to my hotel, we swapped emails and a hug.
The hotel ladies quizzed me on my day, shocked by my complete disregard for behaving like a tourist and so blatantly immersing myself into their everyday reality. I shared my new vocabulary with them, they laughed and corrected my untidy spanish. “I need to go get some cigars at the big hotel by the beach, is it too late to walk down the main road alone?” They said I would be ok, but would be much better if I took someone with me. It seems the night host had been too shy all week to approach me. The front desk ladies became bold, spilled his secret, and made mad attempts to set me up with him, under the guise of a gentleman chaperone. I would have none of it, I had met my two date quota for the day.
“Wait, I’ll take you” offered a beautiful young woman who had been watching the exchange. I had seen her before, she worked at the hotel, but not for the hotel. She had been a surprise gift sent to one of the Canadian men also staying at the there, someone I had become friends with during my stay. Her English was poor, so he was able to discreetly convey to me his need for rescue. “ I have this gift, that I don’t want to open,” he hinted. I lingered and flirted with him until she got the message and sought out her next client.
Another night over dinner on the patio, I caught little snippets of her conversation with an older gentlemen. I strained to hear while pretending to read my kindle. “Oh, oh, I misunderstood,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, let’s just stay here and enjoy our dinner” Her flirty giggles turned to poisoned teasing. “oh you’re such a baby,” she pouted, “but you could be my baby, I’ll take good care of you. Come on, or are you to old to have some fun?”
She was persistent, insisting that she walk me to the cigar hotel. “It’s not safe unless you’re with me, and I know where all the hotels are, in case this gift shop is closed” I bet you do, I thought….
What do you talk about with a prostitute as you wander the streets of Havana late at night? The same thing all girls talk about, boys. We compared our misadventures, crushes and calamities. She gave me trouble for not partying my nights away while there, refusing my 5am wake ups as an excuse. (I omitted the story where I woke up passed out on the cold tiles of my bathroom floor after too many mojitos and salsa dancing a couple nights before…) She was also the second person in days to ask me if I was a lesbian… apparently if you’re not having wild sex with Cuban men, you must be into women. Perhaps she was looking for another client?
Sadly, the gift shop at the big hotel was closed. We wandered from hotel to hotel seeking cigars. She offered to make phone calls, connect with friends in alleyways, find someone’s cousin’s uncle who would have them, “he works in the factory” she offered. While I ignore personal safety warnings in the guidebooks, I seem to hold their advice dear when it comes to authentic cigars. Go figure.
We stopped at yet another hotel where she declared they have good music, even better mojitos. Could we sit for a while? I clung to my precious few pesos a moment longer, then slid them across to the waiter who brought us pure rum mojitos. They were delicious and all kinds of trouble. Worth having a second one, as I watched the cigar budget dwindle, and we tried to unravel the mystery of boys. Our path back to the hotel seemed to wind and twirl a bit, streets that had been straight the day before, had suddenly become rather curvy and somewhat challenging to navigate. We stopped by a candy and rum store and stocked up on both. Prostitutes like gummy bears too.
We walked by a couple of guys sitting out on their front step, she called something out to them, and in a moment, she and I are sitting in the back of their decrepit Lada, racing through the streets. “Just give them your money, and they’ll take us to the hotel…” she assured me. Apparently rum evaporates any good sense, but sure enough we were soon back at my hotel. The boys looked crestfallen as we simply thanked them and walked off. My pesos were gone, I had no cigars but was well stocked up on rum and gummy bears. I thanked my new friend, and quickly scampered off.
Upon my return, Alex arrived in my office, eager for his cohibas. “I’m sorry Alex, I couldn’t bring you any cigars back from Havana. I spent the last of my pesos on rum and a prostitute”