|Photo courtesy of Sheila Wilson|
Now I like to think of myself as having been good at geography from an early age. Even at 11, and living in Northern Ireland, I could have told you that Peterhead was noted for its fishing industry, Derby for lace and Redditch for needles. But Cuba? I fear I have always been shaky on Cuba. I associate it (rightly or wrongly) with cigars, sugar cane, and bananas. And waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay. And whirring ceiling fans and Mojitos. Not forgetting photo shoots featuring vintage Cadillacs in eye-popping shades of pink and powder blue, parked in front of crumbling mansions - the perfect backdrop for that models-draped-on-bonnets-style of ad campaign and calendar. And as it happens, I have been to Little Havana, but it is in Miami, so doesn't count.
Okay, so I know my perception is rather superficial and cliche'd, even if I am right about the bananas, which is moot. Obama announced that his historic meeting with Raúl Castro marked the end of the Cold War, but I gather from the news that his discussions with the Cuban President were at the far end of the full, frank and robust spectrum. For ideologically the two leaders are poles apart, and life in Cuba under a Communist regime is no picnic for its citizens. That said, an online article from WSVN News last August points to changes afoot...
|Where are the pink ones? ~ Source: calautomuseum.org|
"Since the Cuban government began to allow residents to open businesses, there has been an explosion of restaurants, vendors selling handbags, art and jewelry in the capital city."
The article goes on to mention a couple called Javier and Shona, who opened a Californian cafe recently, but have difficulty getting hold of food:
"We'll have days where there won't be any cheese...and there won't be any cheese anywhere in the neighbourhood."
Now there's a scary thought for a turophile.
|Habana 1791 ~ Source: lahabana.com|
So enter my former English teacher, Sheila, who, as you may recall, was the first to be featured in my perfume protege series. She went to Cuba on holiday the winter before last (I know, I know!), and wrote to me on her return:
"I did try to boost your blog readers - by one - in Cuba, but hit a wall when I realised that the young travel guide I was speaking to didn't seem to know what the Internet was and certainly had never heard of a blog. This is someone who spoke 4 languages and had a degree. That's Cuba. The reason I mentioned your blog was that I had managed at one stage to drag her into a perfumery away from the official government approved route she was determinedly following, from one statue or square named after a national hero to another. We had been headed for a museum of the guns used in the Revolution at the time."
|Photo courtesy of Sheila Wilson|
Sheila was pleasantly surprised to have chanced across the perfumery in question, given the dearth of shops generally in the city. Habana 1791 describes itself in fact as a 'perfume shop-cum-laboratory', and is housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion, complete with a striking collection of vintage perfume making equipment. Habana1791 offers 12 'ready-made colognes', many of which have their roots in Cuba's colonial past: Rose, Jasmine, Violet, Orange Blossom, Lila, Ylang-Ylang, Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood and Tobacco. Custom blends / mixtures of these scents are also available. Sheila mentioned a chocolate-forward scent as well - as with all the other ingredients, the chocolate was grown on the island, though local sourcing is reportedly not without its challenges. Oh, cocoa - a crop I forgot!
Much emphasis is placed by the owner, Angel Martinez, on the aromatherapy value of specific perfume notes - here are two examples:
"Rose oil is aromatic and intense. It is always linked to love and sensuality. It counteracts states of violence and aggressiveness.
Orange blossom causes a feeling of peace and relaxation. It is revitalizing and gives joy to the body and mind."
Oh, and they also offer massages with perfume oils!
In terms of prices, I read varying reports of the perfumes costing between $5-$20 US dollars each, which would still be out of reach to most Cubans, for whom the average wage is more like $15 a month.
Then the bottles - which the customer can choose - are very distinctive. Some are made by local ceramicists, others are imported, and they have a cork sealed in wax. Not unlike the raspberry gin my friend David gave me for Christmas...!
Have you been to Cuba? Would you like to go? Can you confirm or deny if they grow bananas?