I never cease to marvel at the subtle sleight of hand that Cuba manages practise on my mind. I have mentioned it before and am well aware of it, and yet some very cunning legerdemain manages to manipulate my cynical mind into being happy to travel there and equally happy to come home again.
I would like to say that I am writing 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 breakfast buffet of almost embarrassing bounty), smouldering Cohiba clamped in my jaw, the babble of mendicants and hustlers, taxi drivers and peddlers of counterfeit cigars rising from the square below. But it is under the steely grey light of an early-onset winter in Shepherd’s Bush rather than the azure skies of the Caribbean that I am pounding the keyboard; having returned from my annual visit to the island.
I have been going to Havana for almost 20 years, and, as someone who grew up in the chill of the cold war, my first visit in the mid-1990s was a genuine thrill with a touch of the clandestine about it. As a child in the 1970s, I remember that hijackings were a particularly bothersome aspect of international travel, and the Castro family’s tropical island paradise became such a common destination among those seeking asylum from the capitalist west that “Take me to Cuba” became a catchphrase. A friend of mine had a vintage clothes shop that he called Cuba, simply so that he could have the pleasure of giving this instruction to London taxi drivers. Somehow, “Take me to East Germany or failing that Romania” never quite caught on in the same way, although I am sure that this was only to do with the particular purity of the socialist principles practised in Cuba, and nothing to do with the sun, sand, cigars and señoritas.
My first arrival, although less dramatic, was nonetheless idiosyncratic. Disinclined to take the Cubana flight, I flew instead to Miami and then boarded a plane that should not really have existed, a charter between Miami and Havana intended primarily for expat Cubans living in Florida to return to visit relatives. It was an Aerolíneas Argentinas jumbo, and my travelling companion and I were upgraded to first class for this short flight – I still do not know why, but suspect that it was because we were both wearing blazers tailored by the peerless Terry Haste.
My experience at the arrival hall set the tone: there was a fair bit of corrugated iron roofing involved and a great deal of seriousness when it came to entry requirements, José Martí airport is not a place to crack the “Have you anything to declare? - Only my genius” gag.
While visas and passports were being scrutinised, held up to the light and otherwise minutely examined, a wall-mounted television showed a film of a man, a Cuban comic possessed of a Jacques Tati brilliance, whose trousers were ablaze. Every time he put one leg out the other erupted in flames, and then, when that had been extinguished, the seat of his trousers caught light. How we laughed.
The rest of the week passed in a haze of cigar smoke and rum fumes; for some reason it seemed to me that it was a revolutionary requirement to drink the stuff with everything from your Rice Krispies to your nocturnal cup of Horlicks and, wary of giving offence, I naturally submitted to this custom. The result is that my recollection of that first visit is the mental equivalent of one of the less distinctly delineated canvases of Claude Monet, a blur from which occasional memories present themselves: the blaring noise and riotous atmosphere of the vast underground (figuratively and literally) Palacio de Salsa; the unlikely presence of someone I had been at school with and who, following expulsion, had found success as a tax lawyer in the Caymans; and the sight of a Cuban soldier arm wrestling with a US marine in what was rather optimistically called the departure lounge, while I smoked a Romeo y Julieta Fabulosos, a telegraph pole masquerading as a cigar that has subsequently been discontinued – presumably because you needed a rest of the sort used by early Musketeers to smoke it.
Normally, following such a trip, I would be inclined to consider a country fully visited and not requiring further investigation – however, the effect has been the opposite, and almost every year 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 the ineluctable allure of the place. This year was a typical visit: I did the rounds of the cigar factories; met a man who had made a cigar for the Duke of Windsor; paid a call on Nelson (not the man who sold me cigars on the Malecón during my first visit – see Swellboys passim – but the Nelson who is the Turnbull & Asser of guayaberas); drank a lot of TuKola Light (the local diet beverage has supplanted rum); and played restaurant roulette (along with wildly varying standards, visitors to Havana’s eating places have to cope with power cuts and fluctuating gas supplies).
I was with my usual travelling companions, the legendary Edward Sahakian of Davidoff and Uma Thurman lookalike Jemma Freeman, managing director of the UK cigar importer Hunters & Frankau (at one point an entire factory of rollers burst into spontaneous applause when her name was mentioned over the loudspeakers). Moreover, this year, as happened a couple of years back, a kind friend flew us down in his plane, which certainly enhanced the looking-forward-to-going-home feeling that normally sets in by about halfway through day four. In fact, I must try and persuade him to come again next year – as well as being great company (and you really get to know someone when travelling together in Cuba), if we were fortunate enough to take his plane once more I would be able to fulfil a long-cherished childhood ambition: to stride purposefully into the cockpit and utter the deathless words “Take me to Cuba!”… while wearing a blazer, of course.