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Havana on Nine Cigars a Day

| By Peter Weller | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

I'm headed to Havana. I was invited. Fully hosted. Two birds with one stone. The 30th anniversary of Cohiba cigars, and, more importantly--if there is a thing more important than a good cigar--I have just directed a film, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Gold Coast for Paramount/Showtime. Gold Coast is set in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, against an opera of secondary expatriate Cubano characters. I want source music to be the real deal: rumba, mambo or salsa. From Cuba. Not Puerto Rico, Panama or Miami. So, I accept an invitation to meet Cuban musicians with the intention of using this remarkable music on my soundtrack. I jump a rickety prop plane from a French island and land in Havana, where I'm ushered into an eerie dead-of-night, Third World phosphorescent scene. I've seen it before, throughout Southeast Asia and East Berlin--The Third World Land of the Cheap Electrical. The airport terminal looks like a military landing strip from the '50s: one drab main building with soldiers lurking everywhere, lounging against the glass entrance door, scrutinizing everyone who arrives. The baggage area is a Graham Greene cop station, replete with plainclothes guys and Formica-top tables and the ever-present phosphorescent lighting. Bags are indiscriminately searched. Outside, there is no hotel representative, just a convoy of 1940s Chevys, Russian motorcycles with sidecars and a boulevard adorned with...phosphorescent street lights.

A petite blonde approaches me and, in English, offers a ride to the Melía Cohiba hotel. Usually, my one axiom of traveling is, if anyone walks up to you when you've got baggage in your hand, it's a scam. This isn't. She is a travel agent and her expected clients were not on the plane. She also asks if I will be going on the tour of the new Cohiba plantation out in Pinar del Río tomorrow, along with the rest of the 300 invited guests. Going with 300 people anywhere is my idea of thrombosis. I thank her for her kindness as the van pulls up to the Melía Cohiba and dumps me into what will be a five-day excursion among jugglers, aquatic jongleurs, singing doctors, Bahamian hustlers, salacious salsa dancers and a wacko Neapolitan photographer, named Gianfranco, who drives a Toyota left over from the great plague, all shrouded in the smoke of multitudinous cigars. Forty-five cigars, to be exact.

The concierge tells me there is a smoking room on the mezzanine. I move through the lobby and bar, crammed with puro collectors from Iceland to Singapore. It is a world convention of aficionados bound by obsession. To fly thousands of miles across the world to a Caribbean outpost, just to schmooze at a dinner, fund-raiser for a hospital or no, one must be mightily hooked on some anathema. In this case it is the "stick," the "heater," the "gar," the "stogie." The Cuban cigar. In the smoking bar, in the midst of my remedial Spanish with the barmaid, a beautiful Cubana named Sandra, someone taps me on the shoulder and it's... oh, let's call him "John." John is a walking tutorial on every cigar in the world, arguably one of the three most knowledgeable aficionados of this life or the next. John and I light up a couple of H. Upmanns, Sir Winstons. A great Churchill. Personally I prefer the kick from a Bolivar Corona Gigantes or El Rey del Mundo Tainos, but the Sir Winston is a nice surprise. The first, but not the last surprise of this trip.

My man in Havana, John tightens me up. I should blow off the trip to Pinar del Río and zip around town with him and Gianfranco, the Neopolitan, to visit the back rooms of cigar shops and factories.

I live part of the year near Naples, Italy. And I've driven in Bali, Malaysia and Mexico City. But I will not drive in Naples. And shoot me before I ride anywhere with Neapolitans, a passionate people who believe physical assault was the sole reason for the invention of the automobile. But I'm tempted. Although I say, "I must meet salsa bands here. Most of these guys don't start until midnight. If I'm back in time for the music, I'll go with you."

"The day is ours, the night is yours," says John.

Next morning the ringing phone sounds like a fire alarm. It's 7 a.m. and I went to bed at 3:30. "Ready?" growls John. In the VIP breakfast room on our floor he has a Churchill-sized stick waiting for me called Bauzá. Bauzá was an old Cuban company, moved to Miami, and adopted by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic. On that popularity alone, the original cigar was reinstituted in Cuba, solely for Cuban consumption.

"Nice 'top-of-the-morning' 'gar," says John.

"I've never smoked a Churchill and certainly not a Bauzá before granola."

"When in Rome," John ripostes.

John's cohort, William, arrives, and we jump in a taxi, a 1958 Chevy with side fins, for Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), in the heart of Miramar, the grand old neighborhood of Havana where once lived the aristocracy of the New World. Along the boulevards there is a striking array of turn-of-the-century villas, Italian or Mediterranean in style, replete with lawns and gates. The country's broke, so almost all of the buildings are wasting away in the salt air and sun: peeling paint and falling concrete, chipped Corinthian capitals atop crumbling pillars, doors ajar, and rusted gates. We stop at a grand old house, enter a lobby of old Holiday Inn furniture on a ratty rug, and walk up the stairs to a small hallway. At the end of the hallway is a walk-in humidor, which forms part of La Casa del Habano, one of Havana's premier cigar shops. I'm handed a 1985 Davidoff by the shop manager, Enrique Mons. Hard to beat. After the Bauzá and halfway through this Davidoff at only 9:20 a.m., my head begins to feel like a yo-yo. I head to the terrace to focus on the Havana morning. Humidity and diffused sun bounce off broken terra cotta and tired asphalt. A girl on the boulevard flags a ride on a motorcycle. Busted buildings and grandeur long gone. As I sit there, I wonder what it will be like, in 10 years or less, when McDonald's restaurants adorn hotel-chain golf courses and strip malls. So much is unique, unfettered and unblemished in this time warp that is Havana, a part of me whimsically hopes this fastidious decadence--of aging villas and pot-holed streets where '49 Chevys bump along, backfiring over salsa--never changes. Then again, it's easy for me to say.

I finish the Cuban Davidoff on the way to lunch, and am handed a six-year-old Cohiba Siglo I, the strongest cigar I've ever smoked. Five minutes after I light one up, I'm praying we get out of the car soon, lest I'll be humming in tune with the ringing in my head. Mind blowing. Before lunch, no sooner have I stubbed out the Siglo I, then I'm offered a Partagas Lusitania. My fourth cigar and it's only 11:30 a.m.

Following an after-lunch Cohiba Robusto, my mouth feels like a Bunsen burner. I go for a jog along the Malecón, past once-beautiful gutted town mansions that face the sea. I run past a street party that blares three different sources of salsa simultaneously. Lovers everywhere sit on the wall over the ocean, some on the other's lap, many entwined in a kiss. Havana is a blistering image of sensuality. If you can't leave, and you can't play a get-ahead game in the commercial market, what else would you do except wrap your arms around someone wonderful and kiss in a tropical sun? Or dance. Love and music are the spine of Havana, believe it.

The cement of the walkway is seared black from the smoke of cheap Eastern European gasoline that's burnt the rings out of most of the public automotive engines, belching exhaust into the air here for decades. I jog past throngs of street vendors, cooking everything from beans to fish, and the old Hotel Nacional. I can see Batista's terrace where he would throw his parties and show off in front of a crowd that would eventually spit in his face and run his ass and his stolen millions all the way to Spain. I jog as far as the old fort that the pirate Henry Morgan conquered in his assault on Cuba in the middle seventeenth century, Castillo de la Punta, at the end of the Malecón, some three miles out.

After the run, I join John and William by the hotel's massive pool for Bolivar Belicoso finos. As we sit, an athletic-looking blonde sashays past us in stretch pants, glares at me, turns up her nose. She returns, and in a quick repartee we end up with an invite to her ballet performance at 9 p.m. by the pool. In my room, I torch a Sancho Panza Belicoso, and it amazes me that I can taste its richness. I shower, change, and join John and William at the bar. At dinner I'm offered my eighth cigar of the day, a Cohiba Esplendido, and smoke it through the meal with the boys and the hotel manager, Carlos Villota, from Pamplona, Spain, already my friend for life. The ballet is an aqua-dance to Bizet's Carmen and the weirdest deal I've seen executed in a swimming pool with clothes on. I watch while working on a Cabinet Punch Double Corona, smoke number nine.

At midnight, I'm off with Carlos and the boys to the middle of a Havana suburb called Vedado to hear salsa. An old notorious watering hole, Johnny's Drink--now renamed the Rio Club--sits on a corner dead in the middle of the residential neighborhood. Johnny's Drink was the great after-hours hangout during the Batista regime, and it puts forth some of the best salsa in Havana. As we walk in, we are blitzed with the screech of trumpets and congas and the chant of Afro-Cuban musica Latina!--and no one is sitting down! Everywhere, people are moving. If they're not dancing while buying drinks at the bar, they're swaying, chatting with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Whatever they may be doing, they're dancing at the same time, oscillating, circling, grinding to the beat of the most infectious, compelling music I've ever heard.

On a postage-stamp dance floor 60 dancers spin and melt into one another without so much as bumping into anyone else. It's as if everyone went to dance school and someone choreographed the thing. Then again, they've all probably been moving like this since the womb, so why wouldn't it look choreographed. The distinction here is that all the partners are looking at one another, all blatant sexual enticement through flashing eyes. If they are standing at the bar, whispering in corners, walking to the restroom, or just hanging out like us, watching the dance floor, no one is standing still. You can't not dance to Cuban salsa. And it is definitely erotic. I've never seen anything that comes as close to choreographed public concupiscence as Cuban salsa dancing in Havana. The women are smiling, spinning, bumping, rubbing in perfect unison with languid men, who seem as slyly remote as the big bad wolf doing a sashay. If the women aren't dancing with men, they're dancing with other women or alone. Several have a leg hooked up on the banister of the mezzanine, flashing caramel thighs, while their hips gyrate in double time to their shoulders rolling back and forward. Congas and more congas ever louder, compelling every person in the place to move.

I turn to William, but before I can speak, he turns to me wide-eyed and yells, "I have never seen or heard anything like this." Carlos smiles. "It's the best! No?" Indeed.

The day is over. There will be four more days, no less enriching: a private visit to the newly renovated Cohiba factory; an evening at the Tropicana for the 30th anniversary of Cohiba, where it finally behooves Fidel to take the stage, and where later I am captured by the beauty and charm of a Tropicana dancer named...ah, but that is another story. Or the drive by the single most hideous building ever constructed in the history of the universe... the Russian embassy. Looks like a dart gun on its side next to a grain silo with a golf ball on top, draped in gray concrete of a federal prison. Stunning. Then there was the Partagas factory downtown in glorious Old Havana where I enjoyed the privilege of a double corona-sized perfecto of which there were only one hundred boxes ever made. Is Old Havana run down, quaint or antiquated? It's an anomaly of time for sure. And on to El Floridita, the home of the Daiquiri and Ernest Hemingway's favorite hangout, followed by the cardiac arrest of riding shotgun in the Toyota, Gianfranco driving like a true Napilitano all the while complaining about running out of gas.

"Why in hell are you driving so fast if we are indeed running out of gas?" I ask. "To get there before we run out," he retorts. Never doubt the logic of a Neapolitan in Old Havana.

All shrouded in the smoke of wonderous cigars. And every afternoon I break up the smoke with a run along the Malecón before the daily rehash heater by the pool with the boys. And every night it's salsa.

It's midnight again. We're waiting for the salsa singer known as El Medico, the Doctor of Salsa. After a dinner at a paladar, a private home that doubles as a restaurant, we're off to the Hotel Capri and its disco in the lobby. We are greased past the security and shown into a nightclub-sized dance hall with long Formica tables surrounding a dance floor in front of a stage. We take our seats at the back of the club on a mezzanine level, and pull out Bolivar Belicosos. In the next three hours we will finish the Bolis, Cohiba Siglo I's (yes, the rocket launcher again), Cohiba Robustos and be on the downside of a wonderful Hoyo Double Corona before we call it a night. A big salsa band appears and starts wailing. The instant they begin, the dance floor is filled with dancers, eternally spinning, stuck to one another like Velcro. Everyone is instantly out of their seats, and with no break in conversation, the hips swivel and the shoulders twist. Even the band dances as it plays. In Cuba, you never get the feeling that musicians are playing just another gig. Everyone on the stage is swinging, laughing, yelling or shaking in accompaniment to the fiesta on the floor.

A truly gorgeous young woman with a very short summer dress is pointed out to us. She is pasted to a man of equal distinction, and they seem to dominate the floor. The room is filled with Cubanos and Cubanas of all ages. But the handsome couple are the king and queen of the place, due in no small part to the very high hem of the woman's dress, spinning around her in counterpoint to the grace of her amazing legs, stepping oh-so-carefully between those of her man. As soon as the first tune is over, he shakes hands and walks away, and we realize that this girl isn't with this guy at all. She begins a dance with someone else. The congas swell and women everywhere in the club dance by their tables, against the wall, with each other, or with the proverbial leg hooked up on a rail. Everyone is laughing, smiling. The dancing is precise, choreographed, perfect.

The first band leaves, and on comes Manuel Gonzalez "Manolin" Hernandez--El Medico de la Salsa.

El Medico is a great-looking young man, with a small crooning voice as opposed to a large operatic one, the usual style of salsa singers. His band contains about 15 pieces, and he launches into a sultry lament about traveling the world from Paris to Italy but finding true love in "HAVANNNNNA!" The dance floor is packed, everyone singing the words to the song with him. John, William, Carlos and I stand on our mezzanine and rumba in place. Women hand El Medico large placards with his picture on them; he autographs the pictures, all the while smiling at each girl, while the band blasts and the singing segues into a two-step with his backup singers.

By 4 a.m. we are escorted through curtains to a cavernous room to meet El Medico. His wife, he tells us, just delivered a child that day, and he's very happy. With joyous hugs all around, I explain to his manager that Paramount Pictures will contact her about the use of his music. He insists we come back to Cuba and spend time with him, an invitation we accept.

I'm out the next day. There's a ride to the airport. My mouth has turned into an ashtray and I'm not about to smoke. The plane is yet another out-of-date jet that makes weird noises as it starts away, and I'm considering the justice of ending my life in an explosion on a runway on an island that my country refuses to recognize. Would it be like the Bay of Pigs?

Would the spooks tell my mother, "he disappeared somewhere in the Caribbean scuba diving for colonial gold"?

"But he was in Cuba," she'd insist.

"Never heard of it," the spooks would retort. "Besides. There's no gold there!"

"Cigars, not gold!" she'd plead. "He went for salsa and cig..." CLICK

Peter Weller is a movie actor, director, writer and jazz trumpeter.


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