Simple things make the difference

by Giannis Valavanis

Today it has no cigar brands, no whiskey and no rums. I am going to tell you some true events that happened to me during a trip to Cuba some twenty years ago. The funny thing about the whole story, incredible as it may seem, is that it all happened on the same day and over the course of three hours. Strange as it may seem, some of these situations in life make us realize that simple things make a difference.

So I’m walking around Havana on a sunny day in February 2000 and something, I don’t remember exactly, I’m out exploring with my friend Juan in the alleys of Havana. A common occurrence in Havana, since once you get there you acquire Cuban habits, all day on the streets and whatever comes up. I had long wanted to visit the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Havana and at the same time the monastery of St. Francis (Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís). After first visiting the holy church of St. Nicholas, which Fidel gave us permission to open in 2004, in the presence of Archbishop Bartholomew, we visited the monastery – mid-wall you see. Apart from the fact of visiting the monastery, which is very, very remarkable and a must visit for any traveller (it dates back to the 1600s), the funny thing is that we also made an acquaintance with two guards -women- so that your imagination doesn’t run wild, so we arranged an evening out and continued our day exploring Havana, to come to the end of the day.

In an alley a little further up the street as we were walking, we found a grandfather sitting outside his house on a small stall selling cigars and rum, as if in Greece we say “he sells eggs and tsipouro”. They were Lanceros-sized cigars, which he had rolled himself, and it was even then that I first saw the twisted finish on the end of the cigar, long before Behike came on the market with its distinctive finish. As he explained to me, in the villages when cigars were rolled like that, they were finished to prevent them from being opened. The glues and lids we moderns know… were unnecessary luxuries. Just like the rum they had next to plastic bottles of water, so were the cigars, about twenty or so of them in a water bottle cut in half.

But it was not rum, as he told me, but “aguardiente” (what we see in the Indian movies, water of fire for the Northerners, the same but with other ingredients for the Latins, alcohol or whatever). Distillation from whatever we can find, bananas, cassava, bamboo, plantain, mango, papaya and whatever comes in handy anyway. Of course, the most logical thing in Cuba is to have some sugar cane but I never knew that. It must have been around sixty degrees probably. I deduced it from the headache later. My friend and I got it all together and went to Malecon, beachside, with the ladies from the convent who had just got off work and spent a lovely afternoon at the friendly price of forty pesos all together. My grandfather asked for two bottles and twenty cigars twenty pesos, I left him forty and he had a party, about twenty euros then. And to repeat myself, as much as I sound graphic, in life it’s the simple things that make the difference.

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