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Rolling In Cuba

(Originally written for Saveur Magazine)

This was a once in a lifetime. Twenty four hours in to Cuba to see the Rolling Stones!

Our jet opens. verdant perfume seduces me. Thick Havana air kisses my cheeks and waves my hair. We are ushered to a red and white ’57 Chevy convertible, which parades us through town.

Havana’s red earth and wide palms remind me of Vietnam; as does the low slung architecture with its molded, crumbling plaster and chipped, faded paint. Streets are brimming — people walk in every direction. Men sit chatting curbside, as if at an imaginary cafe. Women in brightly colored leggings saunter. Little girls make mud pies. No one here is rushing or looking down at their phone. Instead, they smile brightly and flutter their hands to welcome us.

Architecture shifts, becoming more and more grand. Large, manicured lawns lead to ornate villas of a bygone era. Earlier in the week, the Obama Family stayed at the U.S. Ambassadorial Residence, just up the road — the first U.S. Presidential visit in 88 years. This is the Cubanacan neighborhood; formerly home to Cuba’s elite; abandoned during the revolution; now all government property. Trees canopy the street as we stop at the ornate iron gate. Open Sesame — the crown jewel of Havana architecture is revealed. Built in 1930 for Mark Andrew Pollack, tobacco mogul and painter, La Mansion is an extraordinary example of neoclassical design, expertly crafted by Cuban architect Leonardo Morales y Pedroso. Under the porte-cochere, Sarah, the head house keeper of 32 years confesses she often feels Mr. Pollack haunting the13,000 square foot, two story masterpiece. With its coronal fountain in the central courtyard, balconies, soaring terracotta brick ceilings and cathedral-style stained glass adorning the curved marble staircase, it is easy to vibe the decadent parties that must have gone on here.

A wardrobe change and we’re off. Sweet sea air fills my head. We pass The Riviera Hotel, built by mobster Meyer Lansky in 1957 and famous for Hyman Roth’s birthday in “The Godfather”. It looks bleached by time. Heading further, streets narrow and colorful buildings stack like crowded, rotten teeth. Some look bombed out. Yet beyond the crumbled facades, children play and people live. Power lines tangle the blue sky. Fruit vendors and pedestrians turn and smile at us in our vintage chariot. In spite of its decay, the sensuality of Cuba starts to bloom before me.

“Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman's face.” - The Rolling Stones, Time Waits For No One

San Cristobal is a famous paladar, boosted by Obama’s recent visit. The owner is prideful and gracious. Antique clutters of culture surround us: Cubano album covers, wax-dripped candelabras, an Al Jolson painting and a shrine to the patron saint of this private home-turned restaurant. Embroidered linens set the stage for antipasto of smoked salmon, olives, cheese, and jamon. Bursting mint mojitos balance out the salty prawns soaked in spicy tomato sauce. Whitefish with garlic and lemon is the chef’s specialty, but my favorite is the whipped potatoes. Oozing with traditional ingredients, it ascends to divinity with a hint of nutmeg. Our sweet staff is happy as we accept a shot of aged Cuban rum, the perfect precursor to our Old Town Walking Tour.

While hearing about its history, the promise of a Cuban renaissance is evident on every corner. The immaculately renovated square, with chic cafes and shops, surrounds an intense and wonderful sculpture by Roberto Fabelo. A woman, proudly naked, except for high heels, straddles a giant rooster and carriers a huge fork. It’s positioned in the very square where Africans were once traded. It’s an intimation of what a woman will do to feed her family. Our guide reminds us that with increased tourism, comes increased illegal commerce.

Don’t you know the crime is going up up up up. To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough tough.— Rolling Stones, Shattered.

1.2 million gather in the Ciudad Deportiva Sports Park, for this unprecedented concert. We are beckoned through multiple checkpoints and ushered from back stage through an artery into the very heart of this ocean of fans. Joining Jimmy Buffet and Richard Gere, on a gated sound booth perch, we have a perfect view of the massive stage and colossal video monitors. American, British and Cuban flags fly. Energy is palpable but orderly. There are no concessions or tee-shirt vendors — average pay here is $20/month — and there are no joints burning. The crowd is cool in the heat. Security is present but relaxed.

The Stones explode with Jumping Jack Flash and a video kaleidoscope of Cuban icons. The roar of the throng is contagious and as Mick greets us with “Hola Habana!”, we instantly loosen, unwinding with each song until we become a rocking hoi polloi. It’s vastly different from when Stones fans hid their music, deemed “ideological deviation”. The band looks tremendous and at the top of their very long game. Mick purrs Spanish throughout and marks this deeply-felt, historic event with a briefly worn, full length, red feathered cape which sticks to his sweaty body in the steamy night air. The Harlem Boys’ Choir joins the finale’s soulful reminder “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and for the encore, the rock gods slap us with “Satisfaction” inspiring us to keep reaching for it.

Whisked back to exit through the audience canal, the energy is magnified now. It’s atomic. As we make our way towards the front lip of the stage, I feel it — and turn to face the mass of roaring fans, breathing it in… like a rockstar.

Our black Mercedes parts the exodus, and we head back into town to have dinner at another extraordinary paladar —La Guarida is as famous for the Oscar nominated Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate”, as for the residentially occupied building it inhabits. Lower floors are cobwebbed with clotheslines and wiring. Broken, graffitied walls and cracked stairs lead you past residents settling into their nightly rituals. It’s a four flight climb to the oasis of the best restaurant in “Habana”. This multi-room flat feels like your chic grandmother’s house: packed with art and mismatched antiques, large doors opening to balconies. It’s romantic and comfortable, like its guests. The stunning Crowned Princess of Greece, Marie Chantal, is at the next table with her family. Australian model, Ashley Hart celebrates her sister’s birthday at another. Here the cuisine is sophisticated: Oxtail risotto bathed in red wine saffron broth. Succulent tenderloins of beef drizzled in three sauces: Béarnaise, blue cheese, and a true dark chocolate that was an unexpectedly religious experience. For dessert— an espresso rum bullet — Cuban coffee.

Sexy bodies groove on the rooftop of the Saratoga Hotel, for the Stones afterparty. Mick is here and I get to say hello. I tell him I love his cape. He says he loves it too and beams me that million dollar Jagger smile. My night is complete. I know its only rock and roll, but I like it.

Time waits for no one. I rush to my waiting car and head for the airport. In Havana’s dawn, I see smiling faces in the fresh sunlight. Cuba gets under your skin. It gets in your soul. I am not ready to leave. 24 hours is not enough. But I know it’s just a kiss away.

Keith Richards

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