Swellboy on… Cuba

Various memorable – and not so memorable – visits over the years have only increased our man’s love of the country

Image: Brijesh Patel

I never cease to marvel at thesubtle sleight of hand that Cuba manages practise on my mind. I have mentionedit before and am well aware of it, and yet some very cunning legerdemainmanages to manipulate my cynical mind into being happy to travel there andequally happy to come home again.

I would like to say that I amwriting this on the terrace of my room in the Parque Central Hotel in Havana(which is a step up in terms of service from the Nacional and has a breakfastbuffet of almost embarrassing bounty), smouldering Cohiba clamped in my jaw,the babble of mendicants and hustlers, taxi drivers and peddlers of counterfeitcigars rising from the square below. But it is under the steely grey light ofan early-onset winter in Shepherd’s Bush rather than the azure skies of theCaribbean that I am pounding the keyboard; having returned from my annual visitto the island.

I have been going to Havana foralmost 20 years, and, as someone who grew up in the chill of the cold war, myfirst visit in the mid-1990s was a genuine thrill with a touch of theclandestine about it. As a child in the 1970s, I remember that hijackings were aparticularly bothersome aspect of international travel, and the Castro family’stropical island paradise became such a common destination among those seekingasylum from the capitalist west that “Take me to Cuba” became a catchphrase. Afriend of mine had a vintage clothes shop that he called Cuba, simply so thathe could have the pleasure of giving this instruction to London taxi drivers.Somehow, “Take me to East Germany or failing that Romania” never quite caughton in the same way, although I am sure that this was only to do with theparticular purity of the socialist principles practised in Cuba, and nothing todo with the sun, sand, cigars and señoritas.

My first arrival, although lessdramatic, was nonetheless idiosyncratic. Disinclined to take the Cubana flight,I flew instead to Miami and then boarded a plane that should not really haveexisted, a charter between Miami and Havana intended primarily for expatCubans living in Florida to return to visit relatives. It was an Aerolíneas Argentinasjumbo, and my travelling companion and I were upgraded to first class for thisshort flight – I still do not know why, but suspect that it was because we wereboth wearing blazers tailored by the peerless Terry Haste.

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My experience at the arrival hallset the tone: there was a fair bit of corrugated iron roofing involved and agreat deal of seriousness when it came to entry requirements, José Martí airportis not a place to crack the “Have you anything to declare? - Only my genius”gag.

While visas and passports werebeing scrutinised, held up to the light and otherwise minutely examined, awall-mounted television showed a film of a man, a Cuban comic possessed of aJacques Tati brilliance, whose trousers were ablaze. Every time he put one legout the other erupted in flames, and then, when that had been extinguished, theseat of his trousers caught light. How we laughed.

The rest of the week passed in ahaze of cigar smoke and rum fumes; for some reason it seemed to me that it wasa revolutionary requirement to drink the stuff with everything from your RiceKrispies to your nocturnal cup of Horlicks and, wary of giving offence, Inaturally submitted to this custom. The result is that my recollection of thatfirst visit is the mental equivalent of one of the less distinctly delineatedcanvases of Claude Monet, a blur from which occasional memories presentthemselves: the blaring noise and riotous atmosphere of the vast underground(figuratively and literally) Palacio de Salsa; the unlikely presence of someoneI had been at school with and who, following expulsion, had found success as atax lawyer in the Caymans; and the sight of a Cuban soldier arm wrestling witha US marine in what was rather optimistically called the departure lounge,while I smoked a Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos, a telegraph pole masquerading as acigar that has subsequently been discontinued – presumably because you needed arest of the sort used by early Musketeers to smoke it.

Normally, following such a trip, Iwould be inclined to consider a country fully visited and not requiring furtherinvestigation – however, the effect has been the opposite, and almost everyyear since then I have visited Havana, primarily to further my knowledge of cigars,but also to try and identify that mystery ingredient that accounts for theineluctable allure of the place. This year was a typical visit: I did therounds of the cigar factories; met a man who had made a cigar for the Duke ofWindsor; paid a call on Nelson (not the man who sold me cigars on the Malecónduring my first visit – see Swellboys passim – but the Nelson who is theTurnbull & Asser of guayaberas); drank a lot of TuKola Light (the localdiet beverage has supplanted rum); and played restaurant roulette (along with wildly varying standards, visitors to Havana’s eating places have to cope with power cutsand fluctuating gas supplies).

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I was with my usual travellingcompanions, the legendary Edward Sahakian of Davidoff and Uma Thurman lookalikeJemma Freeman, managing director of the UK cigar importer Hunters & Frankau (at one point an entire factory of rollers burst into spontaneous applausewhen her name was mentioned over the loudspeakers). Moreover, this year, ashappened a couple of years back, a kind friend flew us down in his plane, whichcertainly enhanced the looking-forward-to-going-home feeling that normally setsin by about halfway through day four. In fact, I must try and persuade him tocome again next year – as well as being great company (and you really get toknow someone when travelling together in Cuba), if we were fortunate enough totake his plane once more I would be able to fulfil a long-cherished childhoodambition: to stride purposefully into the cockpit and utter the deathless words“Take me to Cuba!”… while wearing a blazer, of course.

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