HAVANA, CUBA Romance vs. reality

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HAVANA -- If not for the embargo, I probably would have been no more motivated to vacation in Cuba than I am to go to Puerto Rico or Guadeloupe or any other Caribbean hot spot.

But when a friend suggested we hop down to Havana, I was instantly enthusiastic, excited not only by the promise of a warm sun but also by the taste of forbidden fruit. It would be a place, yes, but it was also an exotic idea.
 
Now, having gone and returned, I have to report, sadly, that for me the reality of the place overwhelmed the romance of the idea. Yes, there is natural beauty, and there is the faded beauty of so many crumbling haciendas, but what I will remember most are hustlers: the prostitutes, the gypsy cab drivers and especially the black marketeers.

The standard travelers' advice has long been to stay out of the local black market. It is illegal, potentially dangerous, and all the merchants are by definition lawbreakers, so how well can they be trusted? All good points, but I've always taken them lightly, in the way, say, that I'll cross the street against the light. Sure, it's against the rules, but any idiot being the least bit careful won't get hurt, right?

After a week in Cuba, I'm reevaluating.

In encounter after encounter, we saw and experienced life on the sly, where the fear of being caught has outmuscled right and wrong as the guide for living.

(An aside: You might think that I lost my right to cite right and wrong the minute I set foot into the country, since everyone knows that US law prohibits our going there. But the law lists exceptions, and one is for journalists. True, I was there every bit as much for vacation as for a story, so my situation was moderately shady. In Cuba, that meant I fit right in.)

We didn't seek the underside, but we entered it within hours of our arrival, and we didn't leave it until we boarded the plane out. In Havana, unlike in Mexico, Venezuela, Egypt or a half-dozen European points I've been to, the enticements to cross the line are around every corner.

This is no more true than among the drivers of particulares, cabbies licensed by the government but forbidden from the tourist trade. Drivers can't sit in front of hotels, for example, so they troll the sidewalks, whispering, "Taxi?" And once you've connected with a driver you like, you just meet him around the corner.

In Cuba, they're very big on meeting around the corner.

After dropping our things at the hotel, we bounded out onto the sidewalk and soon had met up with Alexis. For $10, half of what a tourist taxi would charge, he would take us to Santa Maria Beach, almost an hour eastward.

We walked onto the sand, hungry and thirsty, and were immediately met by some operators who offered us a table, drinks and a small menu. While one compadre went for the food and beer, another thoughtfully planted an umbrella to protect us from the fading sun. After only a few minutes, we were joined by three women who quickly, crassly, made clear they had other commerce in mind.

One told me I had nice legs; I don't, which was my first clue that something was up. Shortly, she asked me to remove my sunglasses, so she could see my eyes, she said. Then her friend asked me to remove the sunglasses, so that she could have them.

The friend also wanted my mineral water, my pizza (even though it was dinky and stone cold) and my beach towel. Each time that I declined, she said I was no fun. Eventually, the women gave up, but soon enough, Plan B ensued: A young fellow we appraised to be their pimp came by, offering us cigarettes and telling us that when we returned the next day, we should look him up; he would take care of us.

But after this encounter, we had no intention of returning. We only wanted to pay the check and get away. Oh, the check: For the pizza, water and two beers, 20 bucks. Twenty bucks? Well, of course, senor: There was the rental of the table, and the fee for the umbrella and for the service. Friend Richard called it the price of a lesson learned.

Soured on Santa Maria, we set our sights for the next day on Varadero, a beach town 2 1/2 hours' drive eastward. We would meet Alexis in the morning. Around the corner.

Alexis said he had only received his particular license a couple of months before, and he seemed quite simpatico, quite genuine, which is to say I believed him. But it is also to say that when we were set upon by black-market cigar sellers before we had even parked in Varadero, he wasn't very savvy.

They started us out at $50 for 25 Lanceros, the best of the best, and I had thought I was pretty slick when I got them down to $19. The boxes had the government seal, and the cigars were so fresh they could be folded so that head met toe, which Alexis said was the way to know they were authentic.

When we had opened the box, however, there were only 24, not 25. Hmm. And when I lit one up, the draw was near impossible, and brought a certain bitterness. But what did I know from Cuban cigars? Everyone knows they're the best, so this must be what the best is like, I figured.

(It wasn't until several days later when we encountered a fellow in Cayo Largo, a resort off Cuba's southern coast, that we learned the five ways in which one could detect fakes. We had failed all five.)

Back in Havana that night, we met up with driver No. 2, Aldiberto, who knew the angles much better. We started out just wanting a ride, but he could do so much more for us. We gave him the name of a restaurant, but he said he knew a better spot, which turned out to be true, and I began to think we had met our man in Havana.

He waited in his particular while we ate, and then we went off to find one of Hemingway's haunts. On the way, we got to talking. We were going to Cayo Largo the next day, and could he recommend lodging for our return?

Of course, mis amigos! But not just some hotel; he had a friend. A great spot, and cheaper -- much cheaper -- than a hotel. Even though it was well after midnight, he would drop us at Hemingway's door and go make the arrangements.

He returned triumphant. His friend's space was taken, but fortune had smiled -- on whom I'm now unsure -- and he had found someone else. So off we went, at 2 in the morning, to meet Rosa, our prospective hostess.

The building was beautiful, a tad tired but not nearly as faded as so many other Havana buildings, and was located between the hotels Capri and Nacional, two of the most main line addresses from the old days. The apartment was grand, with balcony views of the Nacional and the ocean beyond, and there was so much space that we would each have our own room while still leaving enough space for Rosa and her family.

The price? Unbelievable! A mere $25 per night. For three of us. The rate at our hotel, which wasn't all that comfortable anyway, was $70. What luck! We offered to pay the $50 for two nights on the spot, but she declined. Later, she said.

When we returned to Havana three days later and checked in at Rosa's, she did indeed accept $60. (We decided that at this price, we wanted to -- and could afford to -- be generous.)

The next morning, we set out to explore Old Havana, and there was Jose, waiting for foreign chumps like us in his red-and-white, '56 Nash convertible. Just as Aldiberto had eclipsed Alexis, Jose eclipsed Aldiberto, but not in a nice way. We could quickly see that he not only had all the angles figured, he had invented some of them. And, where Alexis was simpatico, Jose was just sleazy.

Before we had reached our first stop, he wanted to get our stories straight in case we were stopped by the police (for whom he had absolutely no use, he let us know bitterly). We were all just pals from Miami. We had brought some clothes over and now we were just visiting.

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Know what I'm saying? Say no more.

And it was good planning, for we were stopped twice during the day. We surmised that roustings weren't so uncommon for Jose, that maybe this was why he harbored such dislike for the police. Sure, his license to ferry passengers for hire did not extend to tourists, but why couldn't they just leave him alone?

We thought we were heading home after the second police stop when he stopped at a stand of particulares. With a few furtive gestures and glances, he made a deal for some black-market gasoline: 4 gallons, $10. We met up with the seller, around the corner, and then were on our way.

Several times during the day, Jose had mentioned a friend who could sell us the finest Cuban cigars, cheap. Burned in Varadero, we had put him off, but when he gave it one last try, we gave in. From our tutoring on Cayo Largo, we thought we could take care of ourselves.

After following Jose up a few dark flights of stairs, we met his pal and perused his wares. Yes, the cost was steeper, $60 for 24, but these met all the criteria and were cheaper than $220 charged in officialdom. OK, so we had again paid a price for a lesson learned, but it was paying off now. We'll take them, we said.

After we left the dingy apartment, Jose steered us upward, to a paladar, one of Cuba's ubiquitous homespun dining rooms, in which cooks set aside a portion of their homes for profit. We dined on lobster, and our plates had been decorously garnished with several sorts of fresh fruit, not the sorts of ingredients found at the corner store. (On the very few corners where there was a store.)

Some of the patrons were Habaneros, but most were foreigners like us. The large party at the next table had been escorted in by a government-sanctioned tour guide. With them, we swapped stories of how we had skirted the embargo just to get into the country. They had taken a ship from Miami, but it had stopped in the Dominican Republic first; we had come via Mexico City.

While we were eating, the paladar proprietor whispered to Jose, and he took off. When he returned about an hour later, he told us of his third scrape with the law that day: Police had towed his car, telling him they were concerned that someone might steal his cassette deck. That sounded pretty implausible; it seemed more as though this were just part of the game: They couldn't prove he was breaking the law, but they could bust his chops all the same.

When we left, we had to split up, skulk and loiter for 15 minutes or so, until there were no police around, and then make a run for it. It wasn't fun, and it sure wasn't what I had in mind when I had fantasized about forbidden fruit.

The next morning, it was time to leave. Aldiberto arrived, and we prepared our belongings and said our goodbyes. But wait, Rosa said. Where was the rest of her money? The price, she said, was $25 per night per person, and we owed another $90.

If something like this had happened at the beginning of our trip, it might have been more surprising, or even more upsetting and disappointing than it was. But even after a week, we knew that this wasn't a misunderstanding, this was Cuba. We paid up and slouched our way down to the car.

We almost missed our flight, in part because Aldiberto was pulled over by the police. Something to do with his ferrying foreigners, we assumed, though he wouldn't say.

Once on board, we encountered a fellow who said he was a writer for The New York Times, in town to do a story on the illegal importation of Cuban cigars into the United States.

When he mentioned that many cigars were fakes, I pulled our finely crafted wooden box from my bag and asked -- though I surely knew the answer -- if we had the real thing.

Oh no, he said a bit smugly, those are counterfeits. "Here's how you can tell," he said, but I had already stopped listening. I was tired, and glad to be on the way out.