As owner of Singapores largest private collection of Cuban cigars at one time it has been my dream to attend one of the annual Habano festivals in Cuba.
I finally made it! I attended the XIII (13th) Festival del Habano from February 21 to 25 but it was no dream, it was more like a frigging nightmare.
It took a year of planning to make it to Havana, but honestly, thinking back, I should have spent all that precious time doing something else.
Who needs the grief?
Yes, after a year of planning, I finally arrived in Havana on February 20.
The year of planning that culminated in my arrival included the following:
a trip to Jakarta just to obtain the visa
almost got cheated because I was being directed to fake websites
very ineffective and unproductive telephone calls to Cuba (it is probably easier speaking to aliens in outer space using a string and a tin can for a phone)
emails that never get replied (I know for sure if I speak to a wall Ill get an echo back, but communicating with the Cubans via email is worse than trying to communicate with my dead ancestors)
spending a lot of money for business class airfares (Singapore/London/Singapore on Singapore Airlines cost me more than S$8000/- and London/Havana/London on Virgin Atlantic cost me £3,000/-)
In addition, participation at the Festival required paying a fee of about €1000/-.
Upon arrival, the immigration process took about an hour – at least three planes have landed at the same time, dont ask me why Cuban air traffic control didnt schedule this a bit more intelligently, this is one of the many questions I will ask Fidel when I meet him – and when I stepped into the baggage retrieval area to look for my luggage I thought a plane had crashed there! It was total mayhem! The hall was literally littered with thousands of bags just offloaded from all the planes that have just landed! Bags of all shapes and sizes and all looking so similar were simply dumped and thrown into the hall for passengers to recognize and pick. It was like relatives looking at dead bodies to identify their loved ones! That process in and of itself took a very long time.
My adventure had just started!
Grisel Blanco, the representative from travel agency Havanatur, was supposed to pick me up but she could not be found. This was the same woman who had asked that a cellular phone be brought as a gift for her – yup, a complete stranger asking for a mobile phone as a gift. After considerable effort, she was finally located and I was driven to the Hotel Parque Central, supposedly one of the best in Havana.
Upon checking in, I was told that I was at the wrong wing. This meant having to trek from the old wing, go down a spiral staircase, walk along a dingy passageway and climb up another spiral staircase to get to the new wing. (I didnt know at that time that I was to do this for all the six days that I stayed at the Parque Central, since all car pickups and drop-offs would be at the entrance of the old wing. Never mind, a little pain in my already-injured left knee, I thought I could tolerate.)
There were more to tolerate. At dinner that night, I ordered a rib eye medium rare and my traveling companion Prof Pathma ordered a lamb chop well done but he was served a steak instead. His lamb chop eventually arrived but it was done medium rare and when my rib eye was served, it was well done. We ordered Mojitos – THE drink to drink in Cuba – but they never arrived.
We went to bed hopeful that the next day would be better.
Oh how wrong we were!
We learned that foreigners could only use a special currency that is not available or legal tender outside Cuba. They call it the Pesos Convertibles or CUC and is about the same value as the Euro. Talk about daylight robbery.
(Local Cubans use something called the Pesos Cubanos. One CUC is worth 25 Pesos Cubanos – which explains the number of beggars in the streets. An average Cuban is paid about 300 Pesos Cubanos a month, which is about S$20/-, but the state-controlled stores – and all enterprises are state-controlled – will only accept CUCs if any citizen desires to shop for goods. Pesos Cubanos are only good for paying for utilities, bus fares, etc. Yup, you get the picture, the ordinary Cubans are in a poverty trap they can never get out of off, like a mouse on a treadwheel that will never stop.)
(We also discovered if we use credit cards – and they must NOT be American Express or anything issued by American banks – there would be a 12% surcharge.)
More adventure ensued.
On February 21, (day one of the Festival), I was told that someone would pick us up at 9am. Well, it didnt happen till 10am.
This was to be the pattern for the rest of the Festival.
Also on day one, when we went to the Convention Center to pick up our participants pack, they couldnt find our names though we have registered online prior to leaving Asia.
On my birthday, February 22, (day two of the Festival) – the day of the tobacco plantation visit – the bus was late by half an hour.
The visit to the plantations at the Vuelta Abajo region at Pinar del Rio was so-so but the six-hour round trip was spoiled by a group of young men in the same bus with us. They were a group of camel-fucking Arabs – actually Jordanians and Iraqis living in Canada – traveling with a Russian prostitute, reeking of cheap perfume. (The prostitute is based in Dubai apparently. She is obviously one of those thousands of hookers who would travel to, descend on, and converge at international events such as this, the F1, etc.)
This group of noisy towelheads talked and screamed on top of their voices, told vulgar jokes (the Russian whore announced to everyone she was horny and she didnt mind having anal sex with all of those butt-fucking Bedouins). At one time they even sang loud Islamic songs in the bus. One of the most obnoxious shitheads in the group was an Iraqi who looked like a fat, greasy pig. These camel-shit eating scumbags also smoked their cigars in the bus – I was well aware that this was Cuba, land of cigars and the Festival Habano has just started, but imagine cigars being smoked in an air-conditioned bus, an enclosed space, shared with other passengers. The guide accompanying us that day – a Cuban brainless retard named Rafael who responded to every query by shrugging his shoulders – did nothing to abate the situation and eventually I had to tell the Russian bitch to stop screaming at the top of her voice.
Please dont get me wrong. I have nothing against Arabs in general. But those I encountered that day were real vile assholes. With such abhorrent behavior, these troublemakers should be rounded up, hog-tied and thrown to Rottweilers (if I had my way).
Day threes evening event was supposed to be the H Hupmann Evening – presentation of a new Habano of the Hupmann brand, El Laguito. The day before we tried to find out more details about this event – but Grisel (the same douche bag who asked for the phone) told us to check with one of the guides and when asked, a guide told us to check with the driver whom she said would pick us up at 6:30pm.
Fast forward to 6:30pm of day three. Nobody showed up. We waited till 8pm. Meantime frantic phone calls were made – we were given numerous conflicting information each time we made a phone call. At various intervals from 6:30pm till 8pm we were told that a bus would soon pick us up, that the bus is at a nearby hotel and that its next stop would be at our hotel, that the bus is well on its way, that no, no, it wont be a bus, it would now be a car that would pick us up, blah, blah, blah.
The event was scheduled to start at 7:30pm but at 8pm still nobody showed up and we decided to fuck it and went in search for our own dinner. Having paid €1000/- each for this event we were not about to hire a hotel limo to drive us to the H Hupmann Evening especially when it was no fault of ours that no one showed up. Several other people who were also waiting have by then decided to make their own way to the event but Prof Pathma and I decided that we had enough Cuban horse shit. There was already enough equine excrement in the streets of Havana.
Day three was also when Prof Pathmas hot water supply disappeared. (Mine disappeared from day four.)
Visits to Partagas and H Hupmann factories were scheduled for day four; pickup was at 9am. At 9:15am we were told that pickup would be at the new wing. So we trudged back to the new wing with all our photographic gear to wait, only to receive yet another phone call, telling us sorry, pickup would be at 11am instead. At 11:15am it was Grisel herself who showed up. No she didnt come to pick us up, she came to tell us that the bus was on the way. It finally came at 11:30am. The same Russian whore was in the bus, the same camel-fuckers were in the bus, Islamic songs were again sang, and cigars were again being smoked in the bus and the same Cuban guide, (that retard Rafael) was also in the bus and once again, he did nothing to stop those ass-wipe Arabs. To add to our ass luck, we were taken only to the H Hupmann factory – one factory visit instead of two as promised.
What was more shocking was this – at the factory I discovered that a couple of factories in Cuba make ALL brands of cigars. The belief that various brands of cigars originate from their respective factories is a myth and sheer marketing hyperbole!
By then Prof Pathma and I have decided to call it quits. We made a decision to forgo the activities of day five, which would include a Montecristo Gala Evening.
And the final straw? On the day of our departure, the car that was supposed to pick us up did not turn up although we have already paid for it. In the end, we had to spend extra money to take a cab to the airport.
This was XIII Festival Habano 2011 – Cubas 13th such annual event, the year that sees the launching of Partagas Serie E No 2 and Serie D No 5 as well as Montecristo Gran Reserva Cosecha 2005 and Hupmann El Laguito – and obviously the Cubans have learned nothing from past experiences: charging participants a bomb for attendance, ripping us off with the ridiculously-high exchange rates, not showing respect for customers by making them wait and wait and wait with total disregard for customer assurance and the comfort-level of customers, etc. I have been to many third-world countries where infrastructure is inadequate and customer service is an unheard-of concept, still, nothing is worse than this – Cuba wins hands down for being the worst country Ive ever had the misfortune of visiting in my entire life.
Although I paid good money to go to Cuba I did not expect anything extra; I did not expect special treatment – just the basics for an international – and expensive – event like this, no more, no less. Even that, the Cubans could not deliver. At the end of it all, we received no apology, nothing whatsoever to indicate that they cared about the people who bring money into their economy. Under the Bastita dictatorship, Cuba fell into the hands of the American underworld, and the country became famous for its prostitutes, its casinos and its cigars. Castro overthrew a dictatorship to make this a better country. Ill leave it to qualified historians to judge if this has worked.