One of the best things about visiting Cuba is seeing it through the eyes of friends for whom it is terra incognita. Even cosmopolitan people who have travelled the world are unsure what to pack: it puts me in mind of the advice I received from one old Africa hand and mining tycoon who told me that his hand luggage when travelling in Africa consisted of a bottle of classed growth claret, some sort of emergency blood transfusion paraphernalia and a loaded revolver. I mention the revolver because on this trip to Havana I was fortunate enough to have my friend Fabien Fryns along for a few days.
Born in Belgium into a firearms and hard spirits dynasty (his family manufactured the Mariette, a sort of hand-held 19th-century WMD with six revolving barrels), he still has a couple of sets of duelling pistols knocking about just in case, but these days he is a respected art dealer with galleries in Beijing and LA. He is about the best travelled person I know: educated in Belgium, Gstaad and London before enrolling for a postgraduate course at the school of life in Marbella. He has lived in Beijing since the mid-noughties; in the course of his work as part of the international caravanserai of the art world, he travels to wherever there is a biennale, an Art Basel, or a Frieze. He sought my sage counsel about what to take with him to Havana and what to leave behind: in particular, he kept asking me whether he should bring his own Tabasco, as he was assured by everyone he talked to that this was the thing that mattered most when travelling in Cuba as nowhere on the island could this fabled condiment be found. I suggested that Tabasco was the least of his worries and that he needed a mobile operating theatre, a portable gas stove, and a couple of tins of shark repellant. Honestly, you would have thought he was coming to visit me in Shepherd’s Bush.
Of course he was smitten by Cuba and adored it for its eccentricities as much as the climate and the cigars. Moreover, he even managed to get some work done. As well as visiting the significant cigar factories and making a trip up country to see a tobacco farmer, we seem to have visited almost every Cuban artist of note: the Damien Hirst of Havana, an engaging and ebullient character called Quintana; Capote, a sort of Marc Quinn in whose studio I was much taken with a pair of loudspeakers in bronze wrapped in chains that he had left on the seabed for six months as a comment on the freedom of speech; Diago, whose work appears on canvases stitched together like patchwork; and Baster, from whom I have a small canvas about the size of a letterbox depicting the Nacional hotel painted on Cuban domestic banknotes which are not valid at Cuban tourist destinations.
And the Tabasco? The island was awash with it. There was a Tabasco surfeit. It seemed that every restaurant, however humble its menu, was able to field a bottle of the stuff, while the best restaurants had hired specially trained Tabasco sommeliers able to advise on the various vintages of this peppery sauce that we might like to sample.