Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Havana cigars


Well, here we are in Cuba on honeymoon and I have already come across a strange local custom - the walking taxi. And it is all down to my new 'friend' Nelson.
Mrs Rippers and I met Nelson outside our hotel, the Nh Parque Central in Havana. He was touting for custom. "My horse awaits you," he told us, grabbing us as soon as we stepped out onto the street. At first we ignored him, but were unaware we were being double teamed. Across the road a smiling 'Bob' - can't remember his real name - offered us a tour of the city in his horse and carriage. He was so persuasive, and his English so good, that we could hardly refuse.
So we jumped on board and the next thing we know 'Bob' announces: "I'll get my partner". And, lo and behold, it is Nelson.
Still, the excursion was a very pleasant one and Bob was a brilliant tour guide, showing us the sights of Old Havana on a steaming hot day. We learnt much about Cuba, the communism, the music, religion and the heroes of the country who had freed them from the shackles of the Spanish back in the late 1600s. We also got the full lowdown on Fidel, his mate the bloke Mrs Rippers refers to as K, and the revolution in 1959. There are old Russian tanks and planes on display all over the city, each having played a big part in Fidel's liberation surge and the subsequent Bay of Pigs in which his gang crushed a CIA-backed coupe in Playa Giron - a place we hope to visit later.
After an hour and a quarter in the steaming heat we finally arrived back at the hotel. Although we had been quoted 25 cuban pesos for the journey we decided it was worth more, particularly as 'Bob' explained that he was licensed by the government but poor old Nelson wasn't. Nelson got 10 pesos for his trouble.
This is something you find in Cuba - everyone expects a tip from the toilet attendant to the many musicians hanging around street corners playing Guantanamera. I think I may get sick of that song. As far as the tipping goes Nelson had the whole thing off pat, hence the walking taxi. But more of that later.

We flew out here on Wednesday. It was a 10-hour flight from Gatwick and though we tried to get an upgrade with Virgin we failed miserably. Still, we did manage to purchase some extra leg room with some of our honeymoon money (thanks wedding guests) and everything went on schedule.
First sight of Havana was a bit of a shock to the system - the place is falling apart! But you can feel the history among the rubble and the teeming streets bought an air of excitement as we made our way to the hotel.
The Parque Central really was quite beautiful and our room was massive, complete with one of the biggest king-sized beds you could possibly imagine. Mrs Rippers and I would be sleeping in different postcodes, which was fine with her as it meant she would be able to get respite from my snoring. The night we arrived we had a pleasant meal in the hotel and enjoyed cocktails in the bar - I had a mojito (compulsory) while she had a Daquiri. I enjoyed a Montecristo No 4 cigar, too.

After the horse and carriage trip with Nelson he was becoming a bit over-persuasive. I find you always meet these people abroad. You become 'friends' with them and the next thing you know they are inviting themselves to tag along with you at every opportunity and finding some way to extricate the holiday money from your pocket. A few years ago when I went with my mates Stu and Scotty to Barbados for the Test match we managed to end up sharing the entire fortnight with some young lad we barely knew. He had weedled his way into our lives by selling Stu some rather strong herbal stimulation early in the trip. The next thing we knew he was inviting himself into our flat, turning on MTV and sitting there relaxing while we ate dinner.
Every time we wanted to go somewhere, he would have a 'friend' who would provide us with a taxi 'cheap'. And at the end of the trip he produced his piece de resistance. Though he was only about 16 he bought a small child into the flat, claiming she was his daughter. I reckon sister was more likely. He was trying to give us the impression he was a poor young West Indian lad having to bring up a young daughter. Yeah, right. Cynic I may be but I realised what it was about. Stu, being a big softy and certainly to blame for this extra member of our holiday party, was prepared to take him at his word.
Anyway, long and the short of it was the end-game worked. He managed to walk away with the contents of our fridge - no good to us, admittedly, as we were heading home the next day. A good fortnight's work by the young man.
Then there was a taxi driver in Crete that Janey and Pete hired for one trip who turned up every day afterwards at the crack of dawn offering them a ride to all sorts of glamorous places, including his cousin's bar. Keep it in the family, I say. You have got to admire the ingenuity.

Thursday afternoon Mrs Rippers and I got lost in the teeming, mucky backstreets of Havana, then found ourselves on the Malecon, the long stretch of road bordering the Atlantic. It was pretty hot and we walked some way before coming across a huge, imposing building on the cliff opposite. It had two towers and looked like the most luxurious hotel you could imagine. Turned out it was the world famous Nacional, where the likes of Frank Sinatra used to perform - no doubt to please his Mafia pals during the days of the ultra-corrupt Batista regime. There was nothing for it to wander through its elegant, olde world interior and out to the terrace where we enjoyed cocktails in the late afternoon looking out to sea.
The taxi back was interesting. It wasn't one of those old Cadillacs you see in the pictures of Havana, this one came on two wheels, a sort of yellow bubble car. You squeeze into the back then hold onto the strap above your head for dear life as your driver winds through the traffic, cutting people up here and there. He, of course, has a crash helmet. You, sitting in the back, do not. Still, he got us back safely for the bargain price of eight pesos.
We stepped out of the cab and there was Nelson. It was like he had been waiting all day for us. "Hey, English, you want to go to private house for dinner. Much cheaper than restaurant," he asked. I had visions of sitting down in Nelson's front room while his mum served up beans and rice to me, Mrs Rippers and eight scrawny kids. "Um, no thanks Nelson, we thought we would go to the local restaurant 'Bob' recommended.
"Great, what time do you want to go?" he asked. "My horse will be waiting to take you - no trouble."
Um, right. Oh well, we weren't sure where the restaurant was so we agreed to the offer of a ride. "We're not eating until eight," I pointed out, "Won't you have gone home by then?"
"No, you are the only customers we have had for three days so my horse will be waiting for you when you come out."

Two hours later we emerged from the hotel to witness Nelson cantering up to us. I thought he was going to whinny and rear his head up, like one of the knights in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I half expected 'Bob' to turn up behind him, knocking a couple of coconut shells together. "You come this way," he said, and started leading us through the dark, slightly scary, backstreets of Havana.
"Hang on, Nelson, where is the horse and cart?" I asked.
"Ah, that," he said. "Police came along and Bob had to go quickly because it has no lights. Still, it's a nice night for a walk and it is good for you."
Hmm, thanks Nelson. Forget the fact that Mrs Rippers and I were quite capable of walking ourselves, but we were also dressed up for the evening and now had to stumble down potholed roads in the near pitch-black with an eager Nelson leading the way. I did wonder if we were going to end up in some quiet side street, mugged and left for dead.
Eventually, though, he announced: "We have arrived." He led us into the restaurant, shook hands with all the staff, and plonked himself at the bar. It wasn't his mums but I would bet some of his relatives were involved somewhere along the line.
Still, the meal was decent enough and after giving Nelson the grand sum of eight pesos (about seven quid, I guess, in our money) we bade farewell. Seven quid! For walking? Oh well, chalk it up to experience.


We arose bright and early - about 6.15am in fact - for a trip to the valley of Vinales. Why, I haven't a clue and, with hindsight, perhaps it might have been worth missing. Mainly because, though the views were spectacular and we travelled by boat through a picturesque underground cave, the journey along the most bumpy roads imaginable resembled more like five hours on a bucking bronco. Added to that we both came back with dodgy stomachs (quell surprise!)
So much so, in fact, that our very expensive planned trip to the Tropicana Nightclub in Havana had to be shelved for a quiet night in the hotel. Come all the way to Cuba, and miss the biggest tourist attraction of the lot - brilliant.
There was a lighter moment, though.
Those who know Mrs Rippers will be aware that she is a quiet, shy, unimposing person. However, if she gets on a roll she takes some stopping!
All the couple said to us in the lift was "It's hot here, isn't it?"
"Yes," said my lady wife. "Have you just got here?"
The couple confirmed they had.
"Well, we arrived on Wednesday. We got a plane from Gatwick at 11.45 then when we ..."
Mrs Rippers had taken the couple's innocent question and decided to tell them the whole story of the trip so far. A bit like this blog, I guess. Apart from the fact I am not writing this in a lift and we don't have to travel just five floors.
As we reached our destination and got out of the lift, Mrs R continued... "Today we got up at 6 and then got on a coach and went to..." She was still talking through the gap in the door as it slowly closed on her 'captive' audience. I could just imagine the couple sinking to the floor with relief as they moved on towards their destination.
Anyway, onwards to Varadero and the next excitement instalment...

1 comment:

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