Thursday, April 17, 2014

Drunken tourists

The idea of Cuba was spawned on an Australian road trip, which Kayo and I dubbed the World Problems Summit after debating all night over beers and rum on a verandah of rotten wood planking at a broken pub in the New South Wales mining town of Singleton.

This time I sat with Kayo in plastic chairs in a roadside bar by the Bay of Havana, shaded from the sun by a big blue marquee, drinking mojitos and Cuba libres for CUC$2 apiece (US$2). Classic cars from the fifties, Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets, parked on the Malecón and the drivers touted city tours—CUC$40 for an hour and a half.

"Come on. We're doing that," said Kayo.

I talked the driver down to CUC$25 and we hopped into a maroon 1953 Chevy convertible.
These old classics were all converted to diesel back when it was a cheaper fuel than gasoline, and today Havana stinks heavily of diesel fumes. The driver lurched down the famous Malecón seaside strip past the 1950s-era hotels of Vedado, like the mint green cubicle edifice of the Riviera standing unmolested by the kind of crowded, towering beachside development you see in Miami or Australia's Gold Coast.

The driver passed us his phone. On the display was a picture of his car with him standing next to Johnny Depp. We both remarked, "hey, Johnny Depp!" which was about the only mutually intelligible words spoken between us. Depp portrayed Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favourite authors, in the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson's drug-fuelled road trip with his Mexican attorney, Dr Gonzo, where they ruminate on the collapse of the hippie counterculture.

On the other side of Vedado is the manicured suburb of Miramar, housing dignitaries and their embassies, beyond which is verdant parkland of ivy-draped fig trees flanking the Rio Almendares. And a piña colada stand. So we stopped.

And in this fashion we went on, following the Chevy tour with the Hemingway circuit: El Floridita, known as the "cradle of the daiquiri," and La Bodeguita del Medio, famous for its mojitos. Given that I'd had better mojitos in Sydney than Havana so far (Sydney has its own "half a tiny wine cellar," though the name was changed, perhaps deemed too difficult to pronounce for Saturday night consumer bogans, to "The Cuban Place"), it was unfortunate that we only tried a few cervezas at the tiny, packed Bodeguita. We spent more time at the Hotel Ambos Mondos, Hemingway's lodging for seven years, where the piña coladas on the rooftop bar are criminally refreshing and joyously addictive. Several times we asked for double the rum, and finally the waiter came over with a bottle of white Havana Club and just poured it directly into our half-empty glasses. It fast became our favourite place to drink.

The Hotel Capri was too expensive to stay for more than a night, and we had since moved into a casa particular, a private home, where we had to ourselves a room and a balcony overlooking the time-worn and crumbling buildings on the edges of Old Havana. It was to this balcony we retired after a day of steady drinking, picking up a litre bottle of Havana Club for $12 on the way, to sit and deliberate on the problematic state of the world.

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