For the record

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Saturday, February 24, 2007

I've been obsessed with collecting record albums for the past year. I've driven my family nuts with the hobby. The crimes of my passion should have been irrelevant to this travelogue, but when I read in the guidebook that a couple of places might have old 33s, a bit of that obsession got brought down to Cuba with me. Visions of the carry-on that was filled with diapers on the flight down being stuffed with albums for the flight home keep me plotting at night. Cheap and exotic albums! Records full of the sounds that have captivated me for the past six weeks.

Since returning to Havana, I've been asking cab drivers and casa owners about record stores. Until now, I've only seen CD shops, but rumours persist about a store, some say on Obispo, others Neptuno or Avenida de Italia. The good advice from our current host, Manuel, is just to hit the streets and ask questions, so I finally venture out on a hunt about 3 p.m.

At the confluence of old and central Havana, just north of the Capitolio, I start to get warm. A security guard has a few records he'll bring in tomorrow. He also suggests a private house somewhere on Galiano, just north of Neptuno. The department store on Av de Italia, mentioned in my guidebook, comes up empty, but a nearby bazaar on Rafael looks promising. Tourist trinkets, automobile gaskets, kitchen appliances... each table has some disjointed focus. Three stalls away from some booksellers (who are the best place to ask for albums), I foolishly mistake a hustler for someone useful, and volunteer I'm looking for records. Now I've got a tout, who walks me to the bookseller I was already heading for and now considers himself in line for a cut from any of the records I buy.

It's all bad quality Salvation Army-grade stuff at the first place, with the difference that it's mostly Cuban artists, not Herb Alpert. At 5 Cuban pesos each (about 20 cents), a few less-scratched disks become possibilities. I set these aside for the moment to check out the more promising stack at the next stall. By now, three guys are in tow, all confident in the belief that pointing to a pile of records I've already seen is going to get them a cut. Tout #1, to his credit, is really working for this, offering (needless) comments on various records, dusting off a cover for me.

I confirm with the seller that these are roughly 5 pesos a piece as well, and get a first cut of about 20 albums. Around this time, he mentions that an Elvis album he's got may be a bit more, about 8 convertibles... Convertibles?! Aren't these all 5 monedad nacional? No, senor.

I point out that his records are 25 times more than the stall next store, which are in Cuban pesos. I rarely pay more than a dollar for records at home, so the idea of paying more in Cuba is mind boggling. There are 2 albums in the 20 I might consider paying more than 1 convertible for, so I set them aside and go back to the first stall to grab the cheaper disks.
"Cinco monedad nacional per disco, si?"
"Si, senor."

Then suddenly it happens. I don't know if gesturing goes on behind me or what, but in a few seconds these records also escalate to 5 convertible pesos each. Por que, I ask. Why? Oh, there's been confusion, don't I understand? It's different money. The tout actually pulls out a bill to demonstrate the difference between convertibles and Cuban pesos, as if I'm an idiot.

For the second time on the trip, I actually start getting mad, but this time I stay in Spanish. "Why did you say these were in monedad nacional if you want convertibles? In Canada, senor, I wouldn't pay a dollar for this record. Why would I spend $6 Canadian for it here?" About this time a more invested person would take a breath and do the negotiating that's required to bring the price down to something approaching reasonable. But I've really had enough of the whole scene and leave, fuming. I don't know if the tout is following; it's likely. I never look back, walking until I cool down a bit.

Obsessions have a bad reputation for a reason. Here I am in the tropics, walking down streets alive with music, with people who make less in a year than I make in a few hours. Where did my perspective go? The crowd around the Casa de la Musica on Av de Italia ends my bad mood; the energy is so high and anticipatory. I'm painfully unaware of current Cuban pop stars and have no idea who the poster is of. There's a music store next door, so I try them for info, only to find a great selection of Cuban CDs, all for about 3.5 CUs. I also hit gold on my record quest. There's a store on Neptuno, a block from here! The cab driver from Varadero, of all people, was right!

In the back corner of a former department store, I find the few tables that constitute the store. The stall contains a collection of about 3000 records in non-mint condition, averaging about 80 Cuban pesos ($4 CDN). In the face of that many records, at that price, I realize I need a better idea of what to buy. After weeks anticipating Cuban records, I end up not buying anything. There's a certain amount of thrift-store bargain-hunter pride going on here too. Buying discs at a record store just seems to be cheating in some way. I get his card and confirm his hours before setting off through central Havana towards the hotel.

The streets here are a bit rougher than even Consulado, our first address in Havana, and there is zero police presence. I wouldn't say I get nervous, but I'm more alert. Without Jonathan along for the ride, few Cubans volunteer an "hola" or "buenas tardes." I become aware of Julie's comment, that in this ballcap, I look American.

At the hotel, everyone is still stuffed from lunch. We laze around in Rosemary's room watching television, have a last drink with my parents on the terrace before they go up to pack, then we head off to put the kids to sleep.

Mom and Dad leave here at 1:40 a.m. tonight, so decide to just stay up. After settling my family at our casa, I bring over a bunch of our stuff for them to take back, then the three of us set out by taxi for a 10 p.m. farewell walk through Old Havana.

I've been yearning to do this venture all trip, picturing an almost New Orleans-type energy. But for a Saturday night, the crowds in the Plaza de la Catedral are surprisingly sparse. Streetlights reach down the deserted, dark streets, luring us toward Obispo, defining each edge of each cobblestone. We retrace our steps from the first day's walk, passing through pools of music from bars and restaurants towards the traffic around Parque Central and up the Prado. It's a lovely warm night, with enough bodies around to make people watching interesting without ever being crowded.

We're dressed well enough to duck into the NH Parque Central hotel and steal the view for a few minutes from their rooftop pool and bar. The sounds of the city are distant this high. The orange floodlights define the statues of the Grand Teatro and the dome of the Capitolio. Havana feels like a world city from here, a place where moneyed people talk too loudly on cellphones to family back home. I may not feel part of this 5-star way of life (although by Cuban standards I guess I am), but it's part of the city's future. A model in the lobby promises a new hotel, doubled in size.

I like the street-level life of Havana. When we walk back into the warm night, every car horn, every voice in the night, is a confirmation that people live here, that this is so much more than a setting for a nice vacation. I've become accustomed to the sweet, faint taste of decay in the air, to the smells of this living city. In the taxi, we chase the shadows from streetlights back across town, feeling the street rough under the wheels. It's midnight. The sea stretches away in darkness on our right. The tired and reborn buildings blur by on our left. People or ghosts stand in doorways, like curious witnesses.
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mbgower on

Re: Used record stores / stalls / markets in Havan
I have been unable to locate the business card which gave the correct address. I will continue to try to find it, but I can give a fairly accurate location without it. Travelling west from Parque Central on Neptuno, go about five blocks until you cross Av de Italia (near La Casa de la Musica Centro Habana). In the next block of Neptuno, on the north side, is an old department store building with a bunch of table stalls set up. The record store is in the back of this. He's open to offers. Happy hunting!

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