Thursday, 26 April 2007

Once Again Unto the Breach...

Even as I write, my publishers may be talking about The Joshua Files at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. The Editor told me all sorts of exciting things about their plans...

Fingers crossed that the reaction isn't the big So What...

Who knows, within a few weeks I may be able to refer to the Publishers by name!

Anyway, there's not much for me to do but to get on with another book. That's why I went to Cuba, to prepare the next project, which I'm codenaming 'Jaguar'.

I went back to the plot I'd reworked after an early discussion with Agent Cox. Added a few new elements that I've gleaned from my trip to Cuba. Checked against a list that would be telling. Added Ingredient X...muhahahahahaha.

Now to see what Agent Cox thinks of it...

Great Things About Cuba

Well mainly it would have to be the people, the music, the historic buildings.

Example: chambermaids at Hotel Sevilla make animal shapes out of towels and leave handwritten notes to guests, welcoming them to the hotel.

The people who deal with tourists display no envy, no resentment at all that these yumas get to enjoy life in a way that's denied to them. Even when they are asking you for something, they are keen for you to take something from them. A woman in Santiago begged me quite insistently for clothes of my five-year old daughter's, who she said was the same age as her own daughter (L). But by then I'd given away half of what we brought to give away and the rest was all promised. I'd asked L if I could give away her dresses and promised to buy her more in the UK, but L wouldn't hear of it. She's very attached to her clothes and I wasn't going to upset her - she wouldn't understand the argument of need. So I told this woman 'sorry, but no'. "Please," she said. "Or you give me something of yours," she said, "and I'll give you something of mine."

We were given salsa CDs, books in Spanish, necklaces made of seeds and beads, pottery ash-trays, little wooden dolls. Nobody took a thing from us without giving us something in return. The couple we befriended in Havana, Alicia and Giovannis, were desperate to take us to Coppelia, Cuba's favourite ice-cream chain (3 flavours!), where they insisted they'd pay for all of us (tourist money isn't allowed there).

Hotel staff, people in the street, everyone treats visitors well. It's a contrast with Mexico, for example, where tourists are also very important, but won't feel all that special.

Then there's the music.

It's incomparable and ubiquitous. Any band wandering the street is better than any so-called 'Cuban band' I've seen in most places, except top-notch Cuban restaurants in London and Mexico City. They'll play any Cuban tune you can name. In Santiago we asked for 'Donde Vas Domitila?' (the song played by the trio which follows Ralph Richardson everywhere in 'Our Man in Havana'). Well, those old geezers had never had the song requested, but they made a fair pass at it, improvising words for the verses.

It's awe-inspiring, such talent. Yulieski, the chisel-featured Santiaguero, a young salsa singer-in-training was the only uniformly cheerful Cuban we had dealings with. It was pretty obvious that he had music running through his head the whole time.

And then there's the gorgeous legacy of the Spanish - similar in grandeur to what you find in Mexico, but in the Oriente it also has a French twist that makes it all a bit New Orleans.

C'est magnifique!

Bad Things About Cuba

It's easy to fall in love with Cuba as a tourist. Cubans make you feel very special. As a tourist, you represent the best chance for every single person you meet, for the chance, even a tiny one, at a shot of something better. If you give them a dollar (a CUC), maybe they can buy something that would otherwise be out of their reach. That's why, like the guy who drove us to the airport the day we left (a former professor of English) and our bell-hop (tall, white, perfect English, I guarantee he was a former engineer or scientist), the poorly paid intelligentsia quit their jobs for a shot at a precious job in tourism.

Here's a country that has screwed up so badly that being a chambermaid beats being a doctor.

But I don't want you to think, reading this blog, that I'm infected with the sort of romanticism about Cuba that has the some people ga-ga for Fidel. (Mentioning no names, but has anyone noticed how many notable writers and actors have reported that they've been yacking to Fidel on the phone lately? It's a wonder he has the energy to recover, what with award-winning actors and novelists after him day and night on the phone...)

Walking the streets of Havana, you don't see well-dressed people. People wear cheap-looking, ill-fitting clothes, simple skirts, jeans or slacks with T-shirts. Cheap shoes, falling apart. No sunglasses, in a country where the sun shines brilliantly most of the year. The only women who have much make-up are the ones who work in tourist places.

They don't walk with the bounce and energy of people in a Latin country like Mexico. If you discount the energy which comes from anything associated with music, you begin to notice that the energy level of every person is low. When people talk to you about life, it's clear that just getting enough varied food to eat is a problem. People come up to you and beg you for spare sunglasses, sunblock, face-cream, clothes for their kids.

This does not happen in Mexico - beggars are happy with a few pesos. They can buy their own sunglasses etc - such products are available cheap in the massive, amazingly stocked and cheap supermarket chains. The energy levels of Mexico City are about a 100 times what you see in Cuba.

Crossing the island, two things impress:

1. The utter lack of any sign of the modern world. No traffic, the main highway is an almost uniformly lumpy thoroughfare that in Mexico would barely qualify as the 'libre' - the toll-free roads which meander across the country. Apart from the dreary communist/banana republic architecture (two storeys, long concrete blocks, often painted pink or blue, with shuttered windows, no glass, or lots of broken windows), you don't see any buildings dating after the 50s. Lots of nice art deco buildings too, but everything in a state of total disrepair. There are still lots of people living in tiny, weather board huts, and it isn't for reasons of olde-world charm, in case any visitors to the island have found this charming.

Near Havana you see lots of citrus orchards. These give away to sugar cane and bananas as you go east. The plantations don't look anything like as large and well-tended as what I've seen in Veracruz, Mexico, or the expansive strawberry fields of Irapuato. There's a marked absence of modern equipment. You might occasionally see a pathetic old tractor. Elsewhere, skinny men cut sugar cane by hand, stack it on their backs and carry it around. I even saw people carrying water across their backs, in two buckets.

2. The substitution of billboards advertising brands etc, for horrible, preachy communist slogans and propaganda. Photos of the eminently photogenic Che accompany slogans like 'Che- it's our hope that you'll all be like him', 'Socialism or Death', 'Imperialism - not even a tiny bit!' It's funny until you realise that this isn't a ubiquitous joke. Like citizens of former Soviet countries that I'm friends with, the people we met in Cuba just shrugged and told us that they ignore such stuff.

Well, not the enterprising rip-off merchant Daniru who took us for a very expensive rickshaw ride in Santiago. "Socialismo!" he cried, punching the air as we passed a poster of Che. "Socialism is the only way!" he yelled. Maybe he thought we'd come searching wide-eyed for a socialist paradise. But if he lost my sympathy, it was there. When it came to asking for money, Daniru demonstrated a perfect understanding of capitalism - the price of a thing is what someone is willing to pay for it, no more and no less.

Latino people are naturally pretty hot-blooded. How has an entire island of such people been suckered into accepting such a miserable existence. Is it really worth living like that, just to be able to boast that you're independent of the USA? Maybe I'm just a stupid yuma (Cuban equivalent of the term gringo, meaning foreigner, probably from the rich West), but I think Mexico's attitude to the USA is better, more practical, whilst also being ambivalent.

The only places you see Cubans looking really happy is in places where there's music and dancing. The world famous Casa de la Musica in Havana, which features in so many salsa songs, is only really accessible to upper-middle-class Cubans and those with links with tourists. The dance floor fills with a mixture of Europeans and Afro-Cuban salsa teachers. It's even worse at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago, which fills with middle-aged, non-dancing European tourists who have fallen for the world of Wim Wenders' film, "Buena Vista Social Club". Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if like us, you've gone out there hoping to mingle with Cubans dancing in their own environment, being crammed into a room with a bunch of white, middle-class European tourists to listen to Cuban musicians is not quite the draw is could be.

At times I actually longed for La Maraka of Mexico City, the most authentic latin salsa dance hall I've ever known. If only they played more Cuban music, it could be the best in the world!

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Daiquiri en Sancti Spiritus

Our barman in Sancti Spiritus - King of the Daiquiri!

We enjoyed a two-night break in the middle of the island in the lovely old town of Sancti Spiritus. This felt almost like Spain. Not a single person hustled us, or even gave us more than a very brief second glance. We stayed in a lovely little hotel where they had the most fabulous, smoothily frothy, frozen daiquiris. My friend Sally (we've been pals since primary school, where we took cello lessons together) and I had promised each other that we'd devote the evening to drinking ourselves into oblivion on daiquiris.

Well, we were so tired after the 12 hour bus ride (and it's not very far at all!) that two cocktails each pretty much did the job.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Hero Pursued in Santiago

One of the charming (not!) billboards that plague the countryside of Cuba, reminding everyone how what a wonder the revolution is, what great things it's going to achieve. Cubans must wonder what happens when the revolution goes wrong, if a successful revolution leaves a Latin-American country, once a jewel of the Spanish Empire looking something like an impoverished African country.
This one says: Santiago - in the past - rebellious. Now - hospitable. Always - heroic.

It's no secret that I'm planning to set my next book in Cuba. (Well, it isn't now...) Not one of the Joshua books, something new. Well this is the story of how one Cuban received the proposed plot of the book I'm calling 'Jaguar's Realm'. (whoever publishes it - if anyone - may well change the title).

After the son lesson, we'd invited Yulieski and his girlfriend to join us for dancing at the Santiago Melia's fancy nightclub, the Santiago Cafe. Well, it's another shiny, cheesy latino nightclub where they play salsa for about half an hour and then solid latin disco music, just like most latin dance clubs in Mexico and apparently Cuba too. The setting is quite nice - an ersatz square in old Santiago, with reproductions of famous city spots, like the Casa de la Trova and a well-known bar. Yulieski turned up 30 mins late - sans jeune fille! I wasn't entirely convinced by his having apparently misunderstood that our invitation had extended to the girlfriend too. I figured she didn't like son but might like a fancy nightclub. "I thought you were just inviting me and the dance teacher", Yulieski said, all innocence.

The dance teacher had quite rightly turned up his nose at the invite. "That sort of place," he muttered, "is not really my scene."

Yulieski seemed keener. We agreed to keep quiet about the fact that he'd been out with us. I guessed that he had his reasons - didn't buy the mix-up. There was a live band playing son. They were good but not as good as the guys we'd heard in La Trova. Yulieski was keen to try out what he'd seen the dance teacher show us. He picked it up quickly, but was too shy to dance on the main dance floor.

Between dances he smoked and asked me what stuff I write. I told him a bit about Joshua and then told him I was planning another book, possibly a series, the first book of which would be set in Cuba. I told him the plot. Years and adult sophistication fell away as he listened. "And then this could happen...he said, jumping in with a series of suggestions. Pretty good ones too, but using a plot device which I use in Joshua 2, so that, I explained couldn't be used.

"Your story," he observed, "is the story of all boys in Santiago. We dream of crossing the island to Havana and finding a way to get to Florida. And like all Cubans, your hero is pursued in his own country."

"So it's a metaphor for the Cuban experience?" I said. Yulieski nodded. "I hope they let me back into the country if it gets published," I said. Yulieski's eyes widened in sudden realization. "...True!"

Yulieski kept making trips to and from the bar. "Maybe I'll stay on for a bit," he said as we got up to leave. "There are other girls to dance with," I said, looking around. Iran blushed and covered his face. "There are. But it's a secret, okay?"

Not anymore, pal.

Salsa al Contratiempo en Santiago

Santiago de Cuba as seen from the balcony of Sandra's house. We had a similar view in a house where we were taught by one of the most wonderful dancers I've ever seen - a young Afro-Cuban called Yoannis (it IS his real name - he deserves to be famous, he is AMAZING!)

Here's a clip of Yoannis dancing his smooth, Santiago-style salsa.

We met him in the Casa de la Trova, where the world's best son cubano bands perform. This is where Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa and those Buena Vista old guys used to play. It's an old house just off Parque Cespedes, the main square in Santiago. On the second floor, with an open balcony which overlooks the nearby alleyway, wooden ceiling fans fail to cool the air. By the time theyve danced a few numbers, all non-Cubans are glistening with sweat. The Cubans, however, wear white, stay cool and glide effortlessly across the floor, dancing in their unique Santiago style. We watch, mesmerised as old couples take the floor to the music of 'Los Jubilados' (the Retirees). In the hall next door, Yulieski takes me for a spin. He dances beautifully, quite unlike the Habaneros. It's graceful, his left arm stays rigid in the ballroom hold and he guides me around the hall. Before long, I'm totally converted to the Santiago style.

We've told Yulieski that we want to learn to dance son, the old dance from which salsa takes many of its basic moves. He finds a guy he knows, a dance teacher - Yoannis - signalling to the young dancer that I'd like a dance. Yoannis looks me up and down very briefly. He stares at me archly. "Salsa or son?" "Son," I say. "The timing is different," and begins to move. "2,3,4...6,7,8. See? Not like salsa, on the 1." We begin to dance. He doesn't try anything fancy - dance teachers rarely show off with a dancer they don't know. And I asked him to I get the bored-but-dutiful act. Yulieski watches. He's from Santiago but he's never tried dancing son. "I think of it as for older people," he admits. "But it looks pretty good..."

Sandra and Odris, Yulieski's girlfriend, are there too, but only Pupa seems to be having a good time. Odris looks bored rigid. "There's a Casa de la Musica here in Santiago too," she hints. "They play reggaeton."

Reggaeton! The youngsters are all mad for it. No need for partners and no need to learn steps.

After the band finish, the DJ plays salsa and timba. People dance between the tables - the dance floor is too small. Yoannis takes a stick-thin Cuban woman by the hand as Adalberto Alvarez's homage to the orishas of the Santeria religion, "Y Que Tu Quiere Que Te Den" begins to play. They begin to dance - son mixed with salsa. It's a casual dance, improvised, but better than any performance I've seen, with the possible exception of Rafael di Busto and Janet Fuentes, the world champions of salsa. Once the chorus starts to salute the orishas - Yoannis and his partner break apart and begin to dance folkloric style - rumba and proper African dancing, laughing and joking, teasing each other. Our eyes are popping out at how amazing they are. The table next door is filled with European women. One of them leans over and tells us "He's our dance teacher. Why don't you get him to give you a private lesson?"

Later, trying to cool off on the balcony, I meet Yoannis and ask him for a private lesson. "How much do you charge?" "Have you got a thousand dollars?" he says. " much for two hours?" "Well...if you don't have a thousand dollars...then I charge ten dollars per hour per person."

We meet Yoannis the next afternoon and he walks us through the streets of Santiago, saluting pals on the way, to a house where he's borrowing the front room. There he spend an hour correcting some bad habits we've picked up in salsa, then we get down to the task in hand.

We've asked Yoannis to show us how to dance contratiempo - counter-time - the timing and movements of son, to the music of salsa. Proper Cuban salsa should mix son, mambo and rumba. But it isn't easy! He makes us find the countertime on a whole series of tracks.

Yulieski watches, and dances on his own. As we leave his eyes are gleaming. "Let's go out tonight and practice!"

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Sister in Santiago

One of the reasons that we got talking to Alicia was that she has a sister in Santiago. "Oh my sister, she's so talkative," Alicia told us. "You can't shut her up!"

Well, Sandra, the sister, wasn't all that talkative. She only had two or three topics of conversation - all sob stories. How sad and lonely she is to be a widow. How she wants her daughter, studying to be a psychologist, to marry a foreigner and leave the country. How broke she is and how hard life is in Cuba.

"Do you like Cuba?" she asked me, with genuine curiosity. Well sure I do. Cuba's great - unless you're a Cuban who has to live there. "What's not to like," I said, trying to be diplomatic. Sandra smiled sadly, wonderingly. She can only imagine what it is to experience Cuba the way we were seeing it. Eating a good restaurants, sleeping in comfortable hotels where everything works, going to the beach in taxis, paying street musicians to entertain us - even on the beach, drinking cocktails made freshly by obsequious bartenders, going dancing every night to the country's top live music spots. There is only one way for Cubans to get this kind of life - via foreigners.

Alicia and Giovannis had enjoyed the 'good life' with us for a few days in Havana. They managed to keep a straight face when they saw that the bill for our lunch at La Bodeguita de Medio was around 2 weeks wages for most Cubans. They didn't ask us for money - ever, not even by hinting.

Sandra was different. Maybe she's much poorer - she isn't a primary school teacher, but ekes out a living taking in clothes to repair on an ancient olf sewing machine. She wasn't all that interested in being treated by strange foreigners. Her 'sob stories' were immediately focused on the bottom line - money. No money to visit her sister - only a 30-dollar bus ride away. No money for her daughter's glasses. Yes, the wonderful free health system wouldn't deny anyone glasses. But in Santiago no optician had functional equipment. So everyone had to go to Havana.

I offered her the money for the bus ticket. I know what it's like to miss your family. Only later did I think through the implications - how would Alicia react to hearing that I'd given her sister money and not her?

Sandra's daughter is dating a gorgeous, 24-year old music student, Yulieski, with the sharpest cheekbones I've seen on a Hispanic man. He must have some genes from one of those tall African tribes. Yulieski put some salsa music on the restaurant's music system and we danced a little. His girlfriend isn't much of one for salsa, but Yulieski wants to be a salsa singer. That's his plan for how to get out of Cuba and see the world.

Marry a foreigner, work for UNESCO or a foreign embassy, or become a star of the Cuban salsa scene: these are some of the only routes by which young Cubans can do what young people all over the world take for granted - travel.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba is home to many of Cuba's most famous musicians, like Compay Segundo. We were told that in Santiago you can't walk around the old town without hearing live music being played or practiced. It's completely true. Within minutes of being there we heard what sounded like a scrummy salsa band playing acoustic salsa in an old methodist church hall. We'd just been taken to a paladar for lunch - a private restaurant run in the home of Cubans.

Unlike Hotel Sevilla in Havana, our hotel in Santiago was a modern chain hotel - the Melia, catering mostly to tourists from el mundo latino. Very comfortable, lots of attentive staff, delicious sandwiches and cocktails by the three pools. It reminded me of being in Acapulco or something, but with old Cuban music piped everywhere. Boleros sung by Beny More by the pool during the afternoon - lovely.

There were no taxis at the Viazul bus station, but a couple of bicitaxis were quick on the uptake and had our cases loaded precariously on their old rickshaws before we could protest. What the heck, we thought. The hotel was just up the street. Up being the operative word - the poor cyclists were dripping with sweat by the time they got us up there!

"I'm Daniru," the boss of the three told us. "She's my niece," he said, pointing at my five-year old daughter. "We're your family here in Santiago. We'll take care of you, make sure you have a good time."

Right on, companero. For a price, I'll bet...

Sunday, 8 April 2007

La Guagua pa' Santiago

This is not a guagua...this is a camionetta.
They sing about 'la guagua' in lots of salsa songs. It turns out to be not a baby (Chilean slang), but a bus. I thought it was the crummy kind of bus they pack people into and that spews pollution. But no. That, in Cuba, would be the el camionetta.

La 'guagua' is a coach, the kind of luxury affair tourists and fortunate Cubans use to cross the island. Equipped with on-board loos and video screens that work some of the time, the VIAZUL buses are reckoned to be the safest way to travel in Cuba. (Until recently the British foreign office advised against internal air travel in Cuba). Safe because they are sleek and well-maintained and the roads are good?

Nope. Mainly because they travel slowly on the pock-marked main Cuban freeway that even in Mexico would be a B-road, and where other cars are rare.

Our overnight guagua was making excellent time between Havana to Santiago de Cuba - on target for 14 hours. In fact, at 7am I was feeling rather sheepish at having dreaded the trip. I had to see the Oriente, to research my next book, but I was feeling a bit guilty, like it was too much to have asked of everyone else. But at 7am, we'd all enjoyed top-notch cat naps throughout the night and were looking forward to arriving within another five hours.

And then the bus stopped. In a little, teeny little town named Marti, between Ciego de Avila and Las Tunas, we passengers were emptied onto the pavement.

We were the only non-Cubans on the bus. There wasn't a peep of protest from any passenger, nor the tiniest hint of apology from the bus driver.

Hey, this is Cuba. It's understood that a long bus journey might take longer than anticipated. We all settled down on the roadside, to wait.

Nearby, from a window, a woman sold omelette and fresh cheese sandwiches, and cold cola drinks. I took my only small bills - 3 single CUCs. "How much for a sandwich?" I asked. "One peso," she said, raising a finger. "Not dollars," another customer told me, flashing a wallet full of Cuban moneda nacional. "Cuban pesos."

There are 24 Cuban pesos to the CUC. "Okay," I said. "How much do you want from me for the sandwiches? I only have dollars." The woman shrugged, blushed. "I dunno..."
"Make it up," I advised, thinking it a good lesson in capitalism. It was, after all, a seller's market. The woman gave me a small heap of egg and cheese rolls and then insisted, "Take some sodas too." She refused to take more than 2 CUCs.

A Cuban guy wearing an old-fashioned, gentlemanly beret offered to change some money for me (it's forbidden). So I bought 25 Cuban pesos and we had enough money to eat and drink for the next 8 hours. Four of those hours were spent just waiting in Marti. Watching boys practising baseball on the diamond opposite the bus stop, and talking quietly to the Cuban passengers from the bus.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Somos Cubanos

We met our very first new Cuban friends within minutes of sitting down to a drink in the secluded patio of the Hotel Sevilla.

All tourists to Cuba (especially those who speak Spanish) will find themselves at some time being asked for stuff - spare soaps, toiletries, clothes, makeup. Everything except food is in very short supply in Cuba and therefore sells for often outrageous prices on the black market or in dollar-only shops. Actually, even food is in short supply - anything but bread, rice and beans. The minimum salary - which most people earn - is equivalent to 225 dollars per month (paid in Moneda National, not actual Cuban Convertible Pesos -CUCs). Tourists are the only route whereby Cubans can earn precious CUCs - known as dollars, to which they are equivalent.

A very Spanish-looking woman started talking to my daughter, asking her in Spanish if she was someone whom the woman had been told to meet. Well, it was probably a ruse to start talking to us. But I was in the market to meet Cubans - we had brought plenty of spare toiletries and clothes to exchange for company and tales of life in Cuba. So we started up a conversation.

The woman, Alicia (not her real name - I'm not going to use real names for any Cuba,s cos they can get into trouble for talking to tourists), was nervous about approaching us. The ubiquitous hotel security guards who try to stop ordinary Cubans entering hotels and talking to tourists had their beady eyes on her. She looked Spanish, rather than Afro-Cuban, so didn't attract immediate attention. But she was still anxious, so we invited her to sit down with us for a drink. She accepted readily and then brought in her much more Cuban-looking boyfriend, Giovannis. They turned out to be from the eastern part of the island - Guantanamo and had relatives in Santiago de Cuba. Lucky for us -we're in the market for making friends in the Oriente, where we'll be in a few days.

Was Alicia a hustler - albeit a more sophisticated one? She is a primary school teacher, on medical leave in Havana where she's having some treatment. Yes, the wonderful health system of which Cuba boasts requires people to cross the island (a 18 hour bus trip) for basic treatments, after you've endured horrendous queues at the consultants office. 'There is hardly any tourism in Guantamano province', she told us, 'so I'm using the time in Havana to try to pick up some spare stuff from tourists...whatever you have left over.'

I got on rather well with Alicia - a well-read woman who quietly despaired to me about the trials of life in Cuba. We invited her and her partner to join us for a few days, going to the beach, around Havana, dancing at the world-famous salsa dance hall, Casa de La Musica.

'I'm rubbish at dancing casino,' Alicia admitted, shattering the illusion that all Cubans can dance salsa (casino is the Cuban term for partner-salsa). 'I prefer reggaeton. But Giovannis can do it really well.'

Giovannis and I danced to the small Cuban-jazz band ( who entertained us in the patio. He dances like someone from the Oriente (east end of Cuba) - small movements, more ballroom-style than the funkier Habaneros.

Behind the archways, the young sound technician danced alone, giving my teenage daughter the eye - any chance of a dance? Daughter gave her sleepy disinterested look. So I danced with him. Only eighteen but he had the confidence to stop me mid-dance and correct my style. 'Loosen up', he said. That's how you have to be to follow Habaneros in casino. Everything is shaking.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Oh-oh, La Habana!

So this is the city they sing about in all those salsa songs which cry out - 'Oh-oh, La Habana'.

We're on the sixth floor of the Hotel Sevilla with a view towards the sea and the Malecon, with the National School of Ballet next door. In the morning we can hear Chopin tunes being bashed out on a piano as the students are put through the paces. It's the only time of the day you don't hear the sound of salsa, rumba, conga or son.

Being here is something like living out a fantasy of being in Cuba. Here's me looking out over the skyline of Havana - the same skyline that appears at the beginning of the Carol Reid film of 'Our Man in Havana'. Here's me leaning out of a window and watching a salsa disco on the rooftop of a lower building. And now here we are walking along the Malecon being serenaded/ripped off by some charming old soneros who incorporate our names into an old we are sipping mojitos in La Bodeguito del Medio, where Hemingway enjoyed his afternoon tipple (after the morning's daiquiri in La Floridita)...singing along to 'Son De La Loma' as we're serenaded over fish, beans and rice.

As Larry David might say, prett-eh, prett-eh, pretty good. After all, how often do you get to live out your fantasies?