(NOTE: This posting is peppered with gratuitous images of Havana folk who may or may not have anything to do with the writing. Probably not. Oh, and the chronology of events may have been altered by run punch. And Spanish coffee. And Cristal beer.)
It was the day after Easter Monday and the 24 hour bar was still open. My daughter and I were in Veradero and getting ready for a tour into Havana, and the only way to get ready for anything in Veradero is to head directly to the 24 hour bar and acquire two steaming glasses of Spanish coffee (a magical mixture of rum, liqueurs and freshly ground coffee). We were still a little shaky after being attacked by rum punch crazy towel and blanket swans wearing my daughter’s hats, but we had our Spanish coffees in hand and we were ready for anything.
We were at the pickup point on time but the bus, as usual, was running on Cuban time, which is a tangible entity measured at the personal level by every citizen of Cuba. Cass and I have a lot of respect for Cuban time…it gives you plenty of space to finish your Spanish coffee. We like to think of it as a mental health thing.
This was going to be our second trip to Havana and we were looking forward to shopping at this giant indoor Craft and Souvenir Market and then to Hemingway’s La Bodeguita del Medio bar to get shit-faced before the ride back to the hotel. We were also looking forward to the halfway stop along the highway where they sell the best pina coladas in the world…everything cut, juiced and chopped fresh before your eyes and served in the pineapple used to make the drink.
Things, unfortunately, were not going to go exactly as planned.
We got our world’s best pina coladas on the way but, when the bus arrived in Havana, it took a wrong turn into a museum where we were herded into a courtyard surrounded by galleries and history and not a single bar in sight. No Spanish coffee. No rum punch. Wtf.
I don’t even remember the name of the place. It was that historical.
What I do remember, though, was the peacock from hell. Some sick-minded asshole set a giant peacock loose in the courtyard. People were oooing and aahing and pointing and taking pictures. Gathering around the damn thing. Too close. Way too close. The thing suddenly shot its head out and closed its mammoth beak around the head of a little girl in a red sundress, pulled her off her feet and started tearing her to shreds and eating her. The parents, thinking this was just some old Cuban tradition, took pictures for the folks back home. “Yes, our lovely Julie was a big hit with this old Cuban tradition. The crowd loved her. We’re so proud of her. Oh, and by the way, that red jacket of Julie’s that Amy always loved. Well, it’s Amy’s now.” Everybody was taking pictures and saying shit like, “That peacock certainly does love that little girl.”
Damn bird ate two more children, burped and went to sleep. People took pictures of it sleeping.
Then the tour got all messed up. First, we went to the Hemingway bar before the market…and they gave us just fifteen minutes go guzzle beer. I slapped a bunch of rejection slips that I hadn’t wrapped in fish and sent back to the editors onto the counter and was just about to challenge anyone in the house to show a bigger pile when this large old guy with a full beard slammed an even bigger pile down on the bar and started raving about this story he was writing about a guy who catches a giant fish that’s bigger than the boat he’s in and refuses to give it up even though keeping it is probably going to get his ass killed. I told him, “Good luck with that one, old man…but it’s never gonna fly.”
We managed to guzzle three beers before the Change of Attraction Horns went off across the city, signalling the start of a new adventure and we were praying that it wouldn’t be another damn museum. But it sort of was…it as an outdoor courtyard area surrounded by historical buildings that looked like they would never survive another winter. I mean, some of them were worn down more than the steps inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I almost got lost in those canyons many years ago, and I think that’s why they don’t let people into the Tower anymore. Too many people were falling into the steps and never seen again. But some of these buildings reminded me of the worn down wall art you see in pictures of really really ancient civilizations, so ancient that their wall art looks like stone with bird scratchings. That worn down.
Then I was attacked by the same cigar lady who tried to hit me up for ten pesos last year when I gave her only five. “Biff,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you. Right here. All this time. Do you have my other five pesos?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a big wad of Canadian Tire money (I always carry Canadian Tire money in my pocket, along with a roll of duck tape and a can of WD 40) and pushed it into her outstretched hands. She looked at the bills and smiled and said, “Gracias, Biff, you sexy bald guy.” And sauntered off into the historical courtyard distance.
Next stop was this off-the-beaten-track dining room that was a fav place for American movie stars, gangsters and politicians way back when the Havana cars were new and had the original engines in them, back before the embargo that gutted half the buildings in Havana. But this place was still around and still serving freshly made pina coladas and that was just fine with me and Cass. Even the food was good, not that I can remember what it was, but I do remember the melba toast. It looked so good in the basket, and I was the last one to reach for a piece and when I did, I bit in hungrily and knocked a tooth out of my head. Right in the front, course, so pardon me if I don’t smile as I write this. Wouldn’t want anyone to fall into that gap while they’re reading and never be seen again.
WARNING: When in Cuba, don’t eat the melba toast. And stay away from peacocks.
A few more pina coladas later, we were on the bus again and off to Morro Castle where they sell cigars and have lots of cold Cristal beer. The castle is massive and was built in the 1500’s to keep pirates and the English (who were at war with Spain) out of Havana. We’d been here the year before and tried to buy some cigars in the cigar shop but gave up under the pressure of a mob of crazy tourists shoving money at the too few clerks, yelling, “I want these cigars! I want these cigars! Here’s my money! I want these cigars!” Stick a fine cigar under a Canadian’s nose and see where the Mr/Ms. Nice Canadian goes. This year, we avoided the cigar shop and found out later that the crowd broke out into a big ol’ NHL fist fight. A fist fight.
The entrance to the interior of the castle was blocked by a woman demanding pesos and another, elderly, woman asking to trade a Looney for a peso. I said no to both. Cass and I had our destination of choice chosen…the bar. The cold Cristal beer. A chance to sit in the Veradero heat and just relax while the Cigar War waged on in the battle field across from the bar. After a few quickly guzzled beers, I felt a strange stirring in my bowels and left my camera with Cass while I went off in search of the potty.
Unfortunately, the potty was inconveniently located beyond the woman asking for pesos and the elderly woman wanting to trade Looneys for pesos. Convenient for them. I asked the woman asking for pesos if I could visit the potty to make a deposit. She looked at my strangely and then pointed at the elderly woman. Being wise in the ways of elderly women with Looneys for pesos, I gave her a peso and declined the Looney. This brought smiles all around and a third, portly, woman gestured for me to enter the interior of the castle.
We walked out into a courtyard and into a street that wound through walls of rock with doors and windows and people sitting in the doorways and leaning out the windows. It looked like they lived here. I wondered…cigar makers? Canon operators waiting for the English and the pirates to attack? Holy Guardians of the Toilets? Anything was possible as the portly woman led me down another street as the folks in the doors and windows kept close watch over me. The street widened and it seemed hard to believe that we were actually inside a building, but it was a gargantuan building constructed of solid rock and so convincingly immune to the English and the pirates.
However, I was beginning to lose my bearings as we turned down another street and I started wondering how many tourists had ventured down these streets with the portly woman, never to emerge from the bowels of the castle. I wondered if some of the people watching me were former tourists who’d journeyed so long and so far into the castle that they’d forgotten who they were and just lived out their lives in dazed non-remembrance of their previous lives as they stared out the windows and doors or Morro Castle. God, I thought, I hope Cass doesn’t drink my beer.
Just as I was about to give up all hope of ever seeing my daughter, my camera and my beer again, the portly woman stopped by a door, unlocked it with a large silver key, opened it and gestured for me to enter. This was it, I thought, this is how they do it. You walk through the door and they slam it behind you. Years later, you’re staring out a window, watching the victim after victim being led into Morro Castle oblivion. But nature was churning inside me and about to take things into her own hands so I walked in. And I sure as hell didn’t expect to see what I saw.
It was one of the most modern potty set-ups I’d seen in ages, like the 21st Century time travelling to the 16th Century. And, of course, the inevitable table with discreetly folded portions of toilet paper for the bargain price of just one peso. At that moment, a hundred pesos would have been a bargain. I bought two portions and headed into the immaculate stalls.
On the way out, the portly woman smiled at me and nodded approval. Guess I did a good job. She accompanied me out and locked the door behind her. I just wondered off quickly, hoping that I didn’t make any wrong turns along those castle streets and end up wandering around for life.
Back at the bar, my beer was still sitting on the table. Cass smiled and nodded approval. Damn…word gets around.
(BTW, our tour guide was almost eaten alive by a baby under the evil influence of the peacock.)