Friday, 15 March 2013

The Dark Heart of Old Havana: scent story 10

The story

It was 1998, and I went off on hols. Costa Rica first, then Cuba. It was my birthday present to myself, and I decided that the best way to get to know some genuine Cubans was to go somewhere I could learn to dance. Oddly, my bicycle taxi man decided to take me to the Caseón del Tango, not your usual salsa place. I went there every day for a lesson with Ketty Angel and a man called Felix, and at the end of the week I was invited to what I thought was a little party. My Spanish wasn’t all that good, and it turned out that I was performing on stage in front of 200 elderly Cuban tango fans. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, not chickening out when Iight dawned. Afterwards I was hugged and kissed by all 200 of them, just for showing up and having a go. There’s a picture that goes with it. I’ll see if I can find it.

Havana was intriguing, with a permanent sense of insecurity. People are prepared to do almost anything to part you from your foreign cash. You can try to stay in the tidy bits with your tour manager, or you can stray off the path and visit the darker parts. I ended up one evening in a tiny apartment - built from breeze blocks with another forty like it, stacked up on top of each other inside a former grand villa - eating rice, beans and fresh lobster ($5 each right out of the sea, I paid) with a bunch of elicit ‘banana cigar’ sellers and rent boys. We had a great time, although they’d have been arrested for talking to a tourist without a license if I’d been found there.

They have tobacco, sugar, rum and fruit. They don’t have much of anything else. And there’s ingenuity, humour, fatalism and sweltering heat. And this is the way I remember it smelled, walking through Old Havana to the Caseón del Tango at night. 

There are three versions: ‘tourist’, ‘dark’ and ‘now I’m really scared’. I went with ‘dark’ and its heart is made with the scary version.

The materials

In its intense heart, there are vanilla, tobacco, jasmine, toffee and tonka, with extra added dirty. For the abundance of fruits I went with oranges, peaches and grapefruits. Vanilla, labdanum and synthetic musk bring it back from scary to dark, and I put in some black peppercorn for spice, because that’s just the way Old Havana is.

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