‘After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution…” says Rainer, with his usual reflexive patriotism, or, more likely, the fruit of years of state-sponsored indoctrination. But this time, he peters out, perhaps sensing that this is neither the right opener to get our attention, nor relevant to what he wants to tell us.
He tries again: “The bartender here is my friend. He makes very good piña colada.”
Oh ho! This is exactly the right opener to get our attention, and also provides us with the kind of problem our group knows just how to nut out.
One option is to jump right back on the bikes and carry on to our destination for the next two nights, the town of Viñales. It’s only 10 kilometres of hills further on down the road.
The second option involves not doing that quite yet, in favour of a sweet cocktail made with rum, coconut milk and pineapple juice, usually served either blended or shaken with ice.
For your information, and critical to our decision-making process, is that such a cocktail may be garnished with either a pineapple wedge, maraschino cherry or both.
In the interests of international co-operation and possibly also because of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, we decide to stay and meet Rainer’s bartender friend.
It turns out to be a very good decision. The guy — Estavan — knows what he is doing. Also in the interests of international co-operation, etc., I am happy to share with you the two-fold secret to making the best piña colada in the world:
1. Cuban honey drizzled in a spiral on the inside of the glass.
2. A lot of Cuban rum. More than you’re thinking. More. More… Good, stop, that’s perfect!
Thus fortified, the remaining 10 kilometres to Viñales go remarkably well. What I remember of them.
Viñales is a tidy town doing double duty supporting the surrounding agricultural sector and a growing tourism industry.
It is a dramatic landscape, with huge, jungle-covered limestone mogotes rising out of the flat red plain like ocean behemoths. They are what is left of the ocean shelf here that over much time was lifted up, then eroded away to the flat country now covered by tobacco farms.
To my eye, the big, green mogotes most look like teenagers on a Saturday morning: great lumps covered by a blanket.
José Martí: poet, revolutionary, Busty McBustface
There are two common sights in every single town, village and hamlet we cycle through (three if you count the mangy stray dogs — who clearly don’t count in Cuban society the way that dogs in Victoria often displace people’s children and friends).
The first is a central square, by which I mean a bare patch of earth with several benches and a non-functioning fountain.
The second is a bust of the Cuban poet and revolutionary, José Martí (1853-1895), somewhere within the square.
“After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution,” says Rainer, “The hero José Martí is everywhere. More than 10,000 of him.” Had I not seen dozens of Martí busts already, that number would seem crazy. I mean, it IS crazy — the bust-in-every-square thing is completely bonkers — but the huge number is plausible because the guy is everywhere and has been for a long time. In fact, the symbolic custom of erecting a sculpted Martí to inspire national memory among Cuban school children and their families precedes the 1959 Revolution.
Rainer says this is partly because of Martí’s influence on Latin American literature, and partly because of the effect of his writings and political activity on Cuban independence from Spain in the 19th century. Fidel Castro hailed Martí as the “intellectual author” of his armed uprising that led to the Cuban Revolution, despite Martí dying in a hopeless, one-man charge against Spanish forces 66 years earlier.
There is another possible reason that Cuba is now the Land of 10,000 José Martís. Castro’s Cuba very much subscribes to a cult of personality. That is to say, the regime uses propaganda and other methods like government-organized demonstrations to create an idealized, heroic, and almost worshipful image of its leaders, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.
What’s interesting is that, despite this, Fidel Castro — in a move contrary to best practice among Banana Republic dictators — would not allow any statues or busts of himself to be erected. Whatever his personal reasons, Castro needed somebody to inspire national identity, and Martí was made to order. The moral of this story? One people’s suicidal goofball is another’s romantic hero.
It’s a small, possibly drunk, world after all
Working with tourists for his beans and rice, so to speak, our guide Rainer comes into contact with peoples from all over the world. I take the opportunity to ask Rainer about how Cubans view the rest of us. Alas, he begins with Canada: “Canadians like to drink a lot. And you start very early in the morning.”
This cultural stereotype goes against the grain, but I decide to take the high road, and do not protest his damning Canuck assessment. Also, it seems like a good time to ignore my wife’s arched eyebrows, which are angled in such a way as to suggest that my daily early morning tumbler of Havana Club is somehow responsible for this less than stellar review of our countrymen.
Sensing he is on a roll, Rainer let’s fly with his personal assessment of other United Nations member states.
• Chinese: drunks
• Russians: rude drunks
• Venezuelans: cheap, rude drunks
• Americans: no comment, accompanied by impressive eye-rolling and hand gestures
• Germans: very nice people
Huh. So the Germans get a bye from our Cuban friend? The people who invented Oktoberfest and enshrined the Reinheitsgebot (German beer purity) in law, get a bye from any damning reference to alcohol? Huh. (I later learn that Rainer’s mother is of German stock, and because family is still very important to Cubans, give him a bye despite of his pro-Bismarck bias.)
Smoke ’em if ya got ’em
Cigar Aficionado is a New York City-based magazine “dedicated to the world of cigars.” Celebrities with smug grins — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Jordan — grace its covers, always with a big, fat stogie in hand, somehow suggesting a brown, poo-shaped object is what everyone should put in their mouth and then light on fire.
A quick search on the word “Cuba” in the magazine’s archives yields a surprising 1,430 articles, covering everything from Best Smoke of the Year (Cuban) to how Trump is affecting Americans wanting to travel to Cuba (poorly). Clearly, cigars go with Cuba like cigar aficionados go with pomposity.
That is to say, an international mystique has grown up alongside Cuban cigars. That’s really saying something, because Cuba has been growing tobacco for hundreds of years, and producing cigars since the time of King Phillip of Spain (1527-1598). Today, the cigar industry is under direct government regulation and quality control, ensuring that every cigar leaving the factory is well made, properly rolled, and does not contain any flaws.
On the outskirts of Viñales, we stop at a tobacco farm to see what the big deal is all about. After locking the bikes up, we gather in the dim light and quiet of a drying shed, a rough barn walled and roofed with palm fronds to shelter the curing tobacco leaves from Cuba’s baking heat and torrential rains.
A handsome old man, possibly Ricardo Montalbán’s father, sits in a chair beneath low rafters crammed with drying tobacco leaves. Row after row of what looks like dessert plate-sized brown bats hang just above his hat. Naturally he is smoking a cigar, unconcerned with our certain death by fire. Without ceremony he reaches up and grabs one of the fifty million leaves, then… rolls it into a perfect cigar. That’s it. He makes it look easy.
I imagine that the editorial board at Cigar Aficionado would disapprove of this simple demonstration of cigar rolling. Simple does not impress people with lots of money and a keen desire to be seen as part of something mysterious and exclusive.
The tour is not over, for it has not officially begun, and that has to happen before we are allowed to leave the farm. We shuffle out of the drying shed to a tidy, whitewashed building where we are formally welcomed by an enigmatic bear of a man with tobacco-stained teeth. He says little but smiles much as he shakes our hands and then pours us shots of rum and espresso, and hands out cigars.
Nobody seems to know what is going on, apart from: hey, free rum-laced coffee and cigars!
And so I find myself on a wooden porch overlooking the red soils of Cuba, puffing away on a freshly-rolled cigar, drinking fortified coffee, and considering that maybe there really is something to the international mystique of this place and its tobacco.
Next week: Exploring the caves where Che Guevara played thermonuclear chess.