HAVANA — Those infamous, old-school American mobsters who gallivanted around Cuba’s capital in the 1940s and ’50s would have disapproved of two things my girlfriend and I got ourselves into one night in April. Everything else, I imagine, they would’ve been cool with.
First, a 1954 Chevy Bel Air convertible chauffeured us west along Havana’s main seaside drag and toward a pink setting sun. The color of our ride was yellow, and I bet that would have been strike one against us. The gangsters likely would have viewed canary yellow as too conspicuous for their shady deeds.
Our driver then cruised down a palm-lined private road to the premier Hotel Nacional, the mobsters’ actual hangout more than 70 years ago. We strolled through the chandelier-lit lobby to the infinity patio overlooking Havana to the east and the Gulf of Mexico below.
I lit a Sancho Panza cigar and sipped a Cristal beer. My girlfriend had a couple drags off my Cuban and drank a mojito. It felt like we were living by our own rules.
After a steamy afternoon in the Caribbean, we were refreshed by sea breezes and tolerated the startling and sporadic shrills from the hotel’s resident peacock. That likely would have been strike two against us, in mobster terms. They probably would’ve wrung that bird’s neck.
It’s easy to imagine yesteryear gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano in Havana because the city remains very much like when they ruled before Fidel Castro stepped in as dictator. Our desire to see Cuba before it advances into the 21st century had prompted our visit to the island nation about 100 miles south Florida.
In 1946, gangsters may have gathered at Hotel Nacional under the auspices of a Frank Sinatra concert, but my girlfriend and I headed out to the concealed La Zorra y El Cuervo jazz bar a few blocks away. The tiny basement scene known as The Fox and The Crow is only accessible through a London-style red phone booth and down a staircase. After entering the cozy confines at around midnight, we found only one seat at the bar.
The trumpet player — the star of the band — was so impassioned and the venue so small that spittle could be seen flying off his horn from the back by the bar.
Many musicians rotated in a quintet, and when the star took a break, my eyes followed him off stage. He grabbed a bottle of the nationalistic Havana Club rum for a hearty pour into a tall, narrow glass and cut it with a few dashes of Coke, while the crowd full of tourists slurped up more modestly proportioned Cuba Libres through bendy straws.
Cuba is known for its jazz, dance, cigars, rum, classic cars, architecture, baseball and, of course, the Castro regime, which is now headed by Fidel’s younger brother, Raul. When former U.S. President Barack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba in 2014 and again in 2016, we started to explore a visit.
We were glad to get the five-day getaway in April, before President Trump declared a ban on tourism travel to Cuba in June. The end of allowing individuals to enter through “people-to-people” educational trips, the avenue we took, leaves the future for Americans traveling abroad to Cuba in doubt.
Cash is one of the many logistics travelers have to figure out before entering Cuba. The country doesn’t accept U.S. credit cards, debit cards can’t be plugged into ATMs, and U.S. dollars can only be exchanged at currency exchanges or banks. Cuba charges a 10 percent penalty and a 3 percent “financial transaction charge” on U.S. bills, meaning Americans receive 87 Cuban convertible pesos for 100 U.S. dollars.
So, before we left Minnesota, I exchanged U.S. dollars for Canadian bills, which aren’t subject to added penalties and charges. The recommended exchange of money at the airport for better conversion rates also provided a quick glimpse into Cuban life.
Although it was midday and midweek, no teller was working in the office. They were out to lunch, the security guard said. As other tourists grew frustrated and left their better spot in line, we found ourselves in front. When the teller returned to work, Cubans had gathered around us and were waved ahead. A minor insult to swallow when you’re able to exchange all your money.
About a third of Havana’s cars are old, not so much classic because they’re often far from mint condition. We wanted to ride in as many as we could during our stay, so we were drawn like mosquitos to a zapper when we saw a turquoise 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door cab at the airport.
Cutting through Havana, our driver Alejandro seemed to have a secret code with other cabbies in old cars. There were thumbs up, shoulder shrugs and intricate waves — all with knowing smiles coming from both vehicles.
Alejandro, and his one-sided laminated business card, took us to our Airbnb in Centro Habana — not “Havana” to the locals. It was a neighborhood adjacent to Habana Vieja, the old town core where the city was founded in 1519.
Centro Habana is strikingly poor. The dirt roads are filled with potholes, feral cats roam and the homes are minuscule. Despite that, we set up shop in a nice new room and tried to immerse ourselves. We never felt unsafe during our stay and enjoyed the small nearby restaurants.
We limited our stay to Havana because we wanted to settle into the rhythms of life here, maybe find a good outdoor coffee shop or take recommendations for a rooftop bar to listen to music. We didn’t want to tear away to some beach or jaunt to some other interesting city. Although, Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast and a Unesco World Heritage Site, would have been an interesting option.
The farthest we went was Finca la Vigia, the former home of Ernest Hemingway. A black 1949 DeSoto took us the roughly 10 miles to the writer’s palatial estate in the hills overlooking Havana. Hemingway resided there from 1939 to 1960, until he was advised to leave as Castro’s government was formulating.
Tourists can’t enter Hemingway’s house, but when the weather is nice, the doors and windows are open. Exotic animal heads from his famous safari hunts in Africa can be seen mounted on the walls as trophies. Drink carts appeared ready to serve the ghost of the heavy boozer, with books, magazines and newspapers throughout the home.
Hemingway had built a lookout tower adjacent to the house, where he was said to do most of his writing, including “Old Man and the Sea” and “A Moveable Feast.” Near an empty outdoor pool, his boat Pilar sat on display.
As other tourists darted from the house to the boat and back, we sat on metal recliners and enjoyed a Presidente beer under the shadows of palm fronds. A hummingbird pollinated a purple flower. The slice of peace amid the bustle showed me this would have been a good place to get some writing done.
Back in Havana Vieja, between coffee shops and outdoor restaurants on cobblestone squares lined by churches, sits La Bodeguita del Medio, a dive bar made famous by Hemingway.
It was packed to the gills with little ambiance, so we instead went to El Floridita, where legend has it Hemingway had somewhere between 13 and 16 daiquiris — all double servings.
Bellied up to the bar at the Floridita, we had two strong daiquiris apiece, a far cry from what Hemingway or even former Esquire writer Chris Jones drank. In 2009, he and his buddies reached eight drinks apiece and got kicked out.
“The waiter says the bar is closing, but my feeling is that it’s probably not,” Jones wrote about their ouster. “Sunday dawns with the realization that, in truth, it wasn’t Hemingway’s record that was saved, it was us.”
My girlfriend and I saved ourselves from a hangover and had a much better time at the Hostel Conde de Villanueva’s cigar shop. It was a boutique store with a good selection in built-in wood and glass cases. In the back, there’s a six-stool bar, lined with soccer scarves and green couches for lounging.
In the hazy room, some Americans advised fellow countrymen to read “Old Man and the Sea” before deep-sea fishing for marlin on their trip. On a return visit to the hostel, we met Max, a techie from Silicon Valley, who had navigated a big chunk of the country. We enjoyed his stories as we sipped Santiago de Cuba Anejo Dark Rum, but felt content not venturing far from the city.
After all, we were playing by our own rules.
Source : http://www.twincities.com/2017/08/26/a-midwesterner-in-havana-on-the-trail-of-hemingway-mobsters-and-a-good-cigar/