When I got a call asking if I was available to mix a band for a one-off show at the Havana Jazz Festival and spend a week in Cuba, it took about 8 seconds for me to make up my mind and say, “Count me in, I’m there!”
Cut to 6 weeks later, and we arrived late at night to our hotel where Obama had stayed during his visit to the island earlier in the year. A couple of beers and a ‘mystery meat’ burger was all I needed for the night and I was off to bed. Next morning I met with our monitor engineer for breakfast and we concocted a plan to check out Old Havana. We had a rough idea of which direction it was in, and set off walking. About 5 minutes into our trip we were stopped by a local who asked if we were staying at the hotel, as he pointed back towards our accommodation. “Yes,” we answered. He told us he worked there and showed us his ID. We carried on walking with our new friend in tow. We got chatting and he figured out where we were heading for. He told us he lived in the old town and would take us there. We had a free local guide. Perfect!
Over the next hour (walking in the blazing sun), he showed us the Presidential Square where Fidel Castro’s funeral procession had recently taken place. As we got into more residential surroundings, he pointed out that each street has a Neighbourhood Watch type office; if anyone is suspected of breaking the law, the locals are expected to report the offender. Good, we thought. This is all above board… nothing to see here.
He eventually asked if we wanted to buy some Cuban cigars, to which we nodded. He excitedly told us that he could take us to buy some for a ‘local’ price, whereas the hotels would only rip us off. Next thing we knew we were being led deeper and deeper into winding streets with no idea which way to get back home. My compadre and I were beginning to sense that things were about to take a bad turn. We got the feeling we weren’t so welcome by some of the locals the more turns we took. Finally, we got to a narrow doorway and went up a couple of flights of stairs. Our new friend told us he’d do the talking and we were not to speak to whomever we were about to meet. He banged on the door in front of us and after a few seconds, it opened.
The man who opened it looked like he cited Mr T & King Midas as style icons. We noticed a camera jammed against the spy hole in the door which was heavily protected with a metal cage & a steel plate. What were we about to step into? Our guide seemed slightly nervous – which didn’t help our mood – as we were ushered into a small & sparsely furnished apartment. The door was closed and bolted shut behind us. We were instructed to sit on a low couch. It was hot and we were sweating as the 2 men talked for a minute in Spanish. Next, the gold clad doorman dragged over 2 large canvas bags, which were padlocked. He took a key off one of his gold chains and unlocked the bags. Either he’s very keen on safety or he’s running a pretty dangerous operation. We didn’t want to stick around much longer to find out which.
There were probably 100 boxes of cigars between the 2 bags. We quickly picked out a couple of boxes. Our knowledge of cigars is limited to around none, so the guesswork was in full swing, much like my desire to leave. We were shown a customs seal for the boxes and told not to break it until we left the country. We still had no idea how much this whole experience was going to cost us, so we asked. $100USD for each box. It didn’t feel like a bartering situation: locked in an apartment behind an armoured door, in Havana, where no one knew us and we knew them even less. $100 suddenly didn’t sound too pricey at all. I still have no idea if the hotel would have been cheaper. Cigars in hand, we were on our way downstairs and back into the public streets. Phew! 50 cigars each, all of our internal organs and thankfully, no mandatory gold jewellery.
We jumped into the first taxi we could find and got back to our hotel. Our gig went off without a hitch and our suntans improved during an unheard of ‘Roadie Christmas Holiday’.
However, after touching-down in the UK, it turned out that my 50 homemade cigars were not the only souvenirs I’d returned with… After 4 months of thinking I had a wooden splinter stuck deep in my arm – perhaps as a result of digging through cigar boxes in a rush – some kind of black parasitic worm worked its way out of my skin during a day off in Bristol.
Almost a year on, I still have the scar to prove it. That, and 49 cigars.