360 West November 2015 : Page 134

Destinations I Story and photos by Michael Hiller t’s a sunny afternoon in Havana. I peer over the second-story balcony of a dilapidated building in the faded Old Havana (Habana Vieja) neighborhood and watch as young kids kick a black soccer ball. A man in gray coveralls scoots under the frame of a Soviet-era Lada automobile. A ’58 Ford sedan wheezes by. On the ground floor below, two middle-aged men lean deep into a square doorway, interrupting their conversation every few minutes to wipe the heat from their brows, drag on cigarettes and pop their heads into the foyer to chat with a young man sitting on a low marble ledge. He wears lime-green Crocs and is busy texting, oblivious to the faded murals on the two-story walls around him: Fidel Castro with the Cuban flag and the script of “ Por Eso Decimos Patria O Muerte ,” Castro’s “homeland or death” speech. Two floors above, up a rickety iron and marble staircase, sits not a paean to Communism but a nod to capitalism: La Guarida, one of Cuba’s best privately owned restaurants, or paladares . While ordinary Cubans punch ration cards and eat beans and rice, wealthy tourists and Cuba’s elite dine on impeccably fresh snapper carpaccio, warm yeast rolls and pan-roasted plantains. “A revolution is not a trail of roses,” Cuban leader Fidel Castro asserted in 1961. “A revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past.” Fidel Castro’s “homeland or death” speech fills a crumbling wall in Old Havana, an echo from an another age. The fine dining restaurant La Guarida is at the top of the stairs. Cuba is changing, but it’s a slow process. Are Americans ready for the real Cuba, and is Cuba ready for them? Fifty-four years after President John Kennedy ordered his staff to get him a thousand Cuban cigars, then promptly signed a decree banning cigars, rum and every other Cuban product from being imported into the United States, the Cold War between the two nations 90 miles apart is thawing fast. Last December, President Barack Obama puffed on a Cuban cigar and then lifted many of the trade and travel embargoes that have locked the island nation in a time warp of economic and industrial isolation. It has suddenly become a lot easier for Americans — including the president — to get their hands on a box of Cohibas, a bottle of Havana Club rum and a plate of snapper carpaccio. I travel a hundred miles from Havana, to Cuba’s tobacco-rich Vinales Valley in pursuit of cigars. There I meet Luis Suarez, a third-generation tobacco farmer. Suarez, a young man with green eyes and skin the color of cafe au lait, shakes my hand and smiles. “ Buenos tardes , hello,” he says, smiling broadly, and then escorts me into a thatch-roofed shack where I shoo away chickens. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a green cotton jacket, Suarez isn’t the least bit fazed by my iPhone or fancy camera or Nikes. Except for his crowing rooster and saddled horses out back, he’d fit in fine in Miami. 134 November 2015 360westmagazine.com

Destinations

Michael Hiller

It’s a sunny afternoon in Havana. I peer over the second-story balcony of a dilapidated building in the faded Old Havana (Habana Vieja) neighborhood and watch as young kids kick a black soccer ball. A man in gray coveralls scoots under the frame of a Soviet-era Lada automobile. A ’58 Ford sedan wheezes by.

On the ground floor below, two middle-aged men lean deep into a square doorway, interrupting their conversation every few minutes to wipe the heat from their brows, drag on cigarettes and pop their heads into the foyer to chat with a young man sitting on a low marble ledge. He wears lime-green Crocs and is busy texting, oblivious to the faded murals on the two-story walls around him: Fidel Castro with the Cuban flag and the script of “Por Eso Decimos Patria O Muerte,” Castro’s “homeland or death” speech.

Two floors above, up a rickety iron and marble staircase, sits not a paean to Communism but a nod to capitalism: La Guarida, one of Cuba’s best privately owned restaurants, or paladares. While ordinary Cubans punch ration cards and eat beans and rice, wealthy tourists and Cuba’s elite dine on impeccably fresh snapper carpaccio, warm yeast rolls and pan-roasted plantains.

“A revolution is not a trail of roses,” Cuban leader Fidel Castro asserted in 1961. “A revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past.”

Cuba is changing, but it’s a slow process. Are Americans ready for the real Cuba, and is Cuba ready for them?

Fifty-four years after President John Kennedy ordered his staff to get him a thousand Cuban cigars, then promptly signed a decree banning cigars, rum and every other Cuban product from being imported into the United States, the Cold War between the two nations 90 miles apart is thawing fast.

Last December, President Barack Obama puffed on a Cuban cigar and then lifted many of the trade and travel embargoes that have locked the island nation in a time warp of economic and industrial isolation. It has suddenly become a lot easier for Americans — including the president — to get their hands on a box of Cohibas, a bottle of Havana Club rum and a plate of snapper carpaccio.

I travel a hundred miles from Havana, to Cuba’s tobacco-rich Vinales Valley in pursuit of cigars. There I meet Luis Suarez, a third-generation tobacco farmer.

Suarez, a young man with green eyes and skin the color of cafe au lait, shakes my hand and smiles. “Buenos tardes, hello,” he says, smiling broadly, and then escorts me into a thatch-roofed shack where I shoo away chickens. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a green cotton jacket, Suarez isn’t the least bit fazed by my iPhone or fancy camera or Nikes. Except for his crowing rooster and saddled horses out back, he’d fit in fine in Miami.

CUBA ON THE CUSP

A stack of long wooden dowels lines the wall to my right. To my left, a 10-foot line of golden-hued tobacco hangs like laundry from a dowel suspended from the rafters. Below that are more wood rods and a shelf strewn with tobacco scraps. An old table silvered with age sits by itself, positioned to catch the afternoon sunlight that spills in through an open door. A pile of tobacco leaves, a pair of 8-inch sewing scissors and a woven basket half-filled with brown clippings clutter the desktop.

Suarez’s gaze falls on a basket of wrinkled leaves. He slides an old, slatted wood seat behind the desk, clears a spot on the desktop for a wooden board whose surface is worn smooth and then rummages through the tobacco for three soft leaves. He pinches their stems together between his thumb and forefinger and then fans out the broad leaves like palm fronds.

“This is the finest tobacco, from the very top of the plant,” Suarez tells me in broken English peppered with words that don’t exist. “The same tobacco that we use for Cohibas.”

He smooths the leaves on the wooden board and then asks me to time him on my iPhone while he rolls a cigar. Forty-two seconds.

He clips the cigar, dips the end into a jar of honey, then hands the cigar to me to smoke.

“That’s the best way to smoke it,” says my English-speaking guide, Fidel “Pototo” Lopez.

It’s a stunning cigar, sweet and earthy, with notes of toasted walnuts and cocoa. I mention to Lopez that I’d like to purchase a few cigars from Suarez to take home, but since the government owns nearly everything in Cuba, I’m not sure it’s possible.

“Yes, it is possible,” says Lopez, because the government allows farmers to set aside 10 percent of their crop for their own use or private sale. Lopez pulls Suarez aside to negotiate a deal. I buy a dozen unbanded Cohibas and Montecristos for about $4 apiece. New customs rules allow Americans to return to the U.S. with $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 worth of Cuban cigars or rum.

“Change is everywhere in this country, and it’s coming fast,” says Lopez, a 59-year-old Cuban who traded a meager salary as a university physics professor for a freelance career as a full-time tour guide for Western tourists. It’s a refrain I hear often during a weeklong visit cobbled together by Access Trips, one of several U.S.-based tour operators that offer turnkey visits to Cuba. But I’m not sure how fast is “fast.”

“Many more Americans are coming here than ever before, especially since Obama changed the laws in January,” Lopez says. “The days of prying eyes and spying neighbors left in the 1990s,” replaced first with the open curiosity of Americans and then open arms. A week before my visit, America reopened its embassy in Havana. “Thanks to tourism — especially Americans — the private economy is improving everyone’s life here,” says Lopez.

As if to prove his point, the following day we visit a small organic garden and a private farmers market on the outskirts of Havana. Tables lined with carrots, onions, potatoes, lettuces and dozens of other types of ordinary produce are displayed for sale. Like the tobacco, a fraction of the produce is held back from government farms for private use, while other vegetables are grown on small plots of land specifically for sale at the market. Thanks to Raul Castro’s economic reforms, Cuba is now allowing this type of small, free-market economy to blossom.

Not many Cubans can afford to shop at private markets on their average monthly salary of about $20. That means owning a car, dining in paladares and purchasing imported luxury items like fancy soaps and cosmetics are also out of reach.

To help them make ends meet, Cuba provides its citizens with free education, free health care and ration cards that allow them to purchase limited quantities of staples including milk, some vegetables and a little meat each month from grocery stores. But when I pop into one, the refrigerated meat counter is barren except for a few blocks of cold cuts and Gouda cheese. Rows of other shelves are stocked with imported European canned vegetables, one type of dishwashing soap, one brand of generic toilet paper, but no fresh produce or dairy.

“No meat today,” the man behind the counter tells me. But if I had wanted rum, vodka, gin, beer or cigars, I would have been in luck — the store had plenty.

When I ask a taxi driver how his 1958 Chevrolet can support an air conditioner, he pops the hood to reveal the answer: a rebuilt Mercedes-Benz diesel engine.

THE DETAILS

Getting there The laws regulating tourist visits to Cuba are in near-constant flux. Americans must obtain a license from the U.S. government, and for now, only charter flights operate between the U.S. and Cuba. Clearing customs and immigration at Havana’s international airport is generally hassle free and easy to navigate in English.

Currency Because U.S. credit cards, ATM cards and cellphones don’t work in Cuba, you must pay for everything in cash. Dollars are not widely accepted but can be converted to Cuba’s currency (there is a 13 percent tax on the conversion).

Lodging Hotel rooms are sparse, but Airbnb, operating since last spring, has helped ease the shortage.

Tours The most popular way to visit Cuba is to join a “people-to-people” trip organized by a tour operator who works out your itinerary for you. Access Trips (accesstrips.com) offers tours tailored to different interests, including a culinary-focused itinerary with Fidel Lopez as a guide.

“These old cars you see don’t just look like cars from the 1950s; they are the exact same cars from the 1950s,” says Lopez. “They’re all Frankenstein cars — parts from everywhere and every brand. They run because Cuban car mechanics are the best in the world. They have to be.”

“Cubans are experts at making something out of nothing,” says my driver. “We make do,” with or without the government’s blessings.

In pretty downtown squares and artist districts, vendors hawk handmade souvenirs, photos with street performers and rides in pedicabs. At museums, guides are quick to press you for a few coins. Musicians stroll the busiest streets and cafe sidewalks, playing for tips. Sneak up a side street, though, and you’re unlikely to spot someone plucking an upright bass or strumming a guitar.

There aren’t many jackhammers hammering or construction cranes craning. A block from Plaza Vieja, a shady, restored square whose buildings date back to 1559, hundreds of oncegrand buildings are crumbling from neglect, their twisted rebar skeletons rusting in the salty Caribbean air.

“When the government is your landlord, buildings deemed less important are often left to fall apart,” an English-speaking Cuban tells me. “You might own the space inside your apartment, but the walls belong to the Communist Party.”

In the U.S., everyone says they want to visit Cuba “before it changes.” But for Cubans, change can’t come fast enough. They are fully aware that they live in a land that time forgot.

Though change is headed to Cuba, you probably don’t need to rush to beat it. Despite new U.S. laws relaxing corporate investment there, the Communist government’s approval process “is gummed up with molasses and coconut fronds,” a waiter in a government-owned beer brewery told me when I asked if he was concerned that a Starbucks might spoil Havana’s culture.

“Nothing is going to change quickly because nothing ever moves quickly in Cuba.”

Read the full article at http://digital.360westmagazine.com/article/Destinations/2309410/278353/article.html.

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