For the past 5 years I’ve been an amateur documentary filmmaker, capturing fishing adventures on video. Inspired by storytellers such as Anthony Bourdaine, Doug Peacock and Ernest Hemingway I’ve traveled across America to fish rivers in towns like Netarts Oregon, Sun Valley Idaho and Seney Michigan, cooking over fire and sharing adventures with friends. To date the American Rivers Tour has over 20 films in the pipeline introducing viewers to fishing guides, small American towns and travel suggestions on the internet.
This adventure to Cuba required advice and direction of a new kind. I needed a Spanish speaking, walking guide with local knowledge of the streets in a different political system. While I wasn’t going to fish an American river I was going fishing with American anglers and Cuban guides on the days that followed our Havana walk about. For day one I set my focus on how to achieve a unique view of Havana’s color and flavor in the short time we had. Through an introduction via Estia regular Clay Sheff, I contacted a Havana “handler” named Yanier and we communicated via Facebook messenger several times prior to arrival.
Yanier met Simbo and I at the Victoria shortly after our arrival to initiate a tour of the area. First stop, a restaurant several blocks from the hotel called La Cocina where we devoured a plate of tostones, a combo empanadilla platter, a vegetable sandwich and a bowl of shrimp. Yanier had the pulpo (braised octopus) and a michelada served with Cristal beer and a cold glass with a salted rim.
When the bill arrived we realized just how limited American tourists’ payment methods are, no American credit cards are accepted, at this local cafe only payment in Cuban Pesos will do. We shuffled the pesos we had about, and with Yanier’s help the bill was covered. We quickly learned that there are different tiers of cash in Cuba. Euros are accepted in many hotels and restaurants, Canadian currency works as well but American dollars have no place here. The exchange rates vary greatly and hotels offer the worst exchange. I’d tried to exchange dollars for Euros 2 days before leaving but found that the banks in Florida require 4 days advance. Luckily Simbo had brought Euros and Yanier helped to exchange both my dollars and Chris’ Euros at the table.
After lunch, Simbo peeled off and returned to the Victoria while Yanier and I wandered the streets of Havana. It was a long walk, we had no real plan. He took me to visit a friend of his, an artist named Juan Carlos. The studio, located mid-block on a boulevard 3 streets up from the water near a large fort, had the afternoon sun shining through wrought iron grates onto the work table in the front room. On arrival we waited for about 15 minutes on the shaded sidewalk opposite the gallery because there was an emergency fire department crane in the middle of the street rescuing a woman from her third floor apartment directly above Juan Carlos’ front door. The woman being rescued was so large that paramedics couldn’t carry her down the stairs. Once we entered the studio, an older woman who helps in the studio explained the situation telling us their neighbor had been “infirm for sometime” and she was pleased they finally came to help her. When the crane began to come down from the top floor balcony, a large crowd on the street cheered.
Meeting Juan Carlos was a pleasure. He’s spent the majority of his life painting in the street side studio on the first floor, telling stories with his artwork. He explained that, while the majority of the paintings on the walls were his, he also sells the work of his friends. Yanier and I were honored with cards that had been made for and signed by Fidel Castro, Juan Carlos was proud to share the special cards with us, he smiled broadly.
Our stroll that followed to Old Havana took 3 hours and covered at least 5 miles, amazed by the old buildings, timeless street settings, weather beaten pastel walls and street life, I saw little out of place. No litter, no apparent homelessness, no disregard for the neighborhood. The Cuban people may have troubling times financially but they seem content as they look out their windows.
Happy children play street soccer in falling light. We arrived at Al Pirata for dinner after sunset, walking down dimly lit passageways with very few cars, local cats nibbled from bowls left on door steps, family life flowed out of open doorways, Cuban music filled the air.
We chatted with a man pushing a bread cart up the hill and bought a plastic sleeve filled with crackers, then continued on through Old Town where we met the Anglers from America for dinner. Yanier had arranged a Cuban dinner for 11 at his friend’s cafe called Al Pirata. We ate at 2 picnic tables outside the entrance on a cobblestone street. The group enjoyed a simple meal of vegetable soup, tamales, pork, rice & beans. The soup was outstanding, the main courses were enormous with Cuban style black beans and rice, roasted pork and tamales that were served out of the husk, more food than any of us needed but we were all aware of the good will and extra effort. Dessert reminded me of sweet French toast, bread dipped in egg wash then finished with brown sugar and cooked in pork fat on the plancha. Al Pirata’s signature cocktail made with Havana Club rum, fresh ginger juice, pineapple juice and lime was enjoyed by almost everyone.