• Henry Miller


There's lots of reasons people go into alleys, to buy crack, maybe get a hooker, sometimes to move from one major street to another. Heaps of people go into alleys. Hobos, crack addicts, commuters, one of those people is me. Here are a couple of quick stories about times that I went into somewhat sketchy alleys for, in the grand scheme of things, very innocuous things.

Last year, my good buddy Max and I went to Cuba. Cuba is famous for two things, communism and cigars. So naturally we had to partake in both but buying cigars was higher up on our agenda. The second day we were there we decided: it’s time to buy cigars.

dThe main way of buying them is through the government. In their overpriced stores you could end up paying upwards of 200-300 CUC (Cuba’s artificially maintained currency for tourists, 1:1 with the US Dollar/Euro/British Pound etc) per box. Our kind hosts warned us against this method, partly because of the price and partly because the Cuban government are a bunch of meany poop faces and you shouldn’t give them money. So we went in search of a more grassroots method.

Going in, our plan was to haggle hard and try our very best not to get scammed. We had already failed the latter immediately off the plane but this time was gonna be different. However, this is a somewhat difficult proposition since we both are obviously tourists and our grasp of Spanish was tenuous at best, we were such easy prey. After scouring the city and turning down several obvious scams we eventually decided to cut our losses and try another day. After hailing a taxi we took up a conversation with the car driver that had decent English. We decided to take a final shot in the dark and asked the cab driver for advice to which he replied, “my uncle sells them, I’ll take you there now”. We responded with reluctance along the lines of, “No, no, no, we’re just curious. We’re going to try another day.”

He made a sudden left turn into an alley, eventually arriving at a relatively quiet row of dilapidated houses in the middle of Havana. After exchanging some apprehensive glances we both stepped out of the car and cautiously followed the cab driver into a cramped slot of a home. The front door opened into a small living room where we met a bulky Afro-Cuban man with his posse whom the cab driver introduced as his uncle. He then led us into another alley full of caged chickens and scrappy looking dogs. At this point I think both Max and I were thinking the same thing, “My mid-western politeness won’t let me take a stand and refuse this, so I guess we’re going to die here”.

Not the actual house, but it's close enough

We entered into a small bedroom where the uncle pulled out an enormous collection of cigars. Surrounded by his posse he slowly and patiently took us through all of the options, from the Montecristos smoked by Fidel Castro, to the Cohibas smoked by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. He offered us a deal of two boxes of different cigars for $200~. I was nervous and ready to roll over but Max had other plans. I guess he figured we had come this far, why stop now? He bravely haggled and bargained despite my nervous attempts to communicate with him via nudging and eye darts. I think we eventually wound up paying $120 for 2 boxes I think. Good job Max.

Everything worked out great, we left with cigars in hand got ferried back to our house all good, no problems.

This second story is a little more recent. I was teaching English for two weeks in a small city in the countryside of Java, Indonesia called Cianjur. It’s around 4 hours south of Jakarta. Cianjur is very conservative and has a particularly large Muslim population. As a result there’s no booze to be found, much to the surprise of many foreigners. I was somewhat relieved at this fact since Vietnam and the latter half of Cambodia had been pretty debaucherous and I was tired of burning the candle at both ends.

The volunteers consisted of myself and an Austrian couple fresh off the plane. It didn’t take long for one of them to ask where we could find some beer, classic. It was then that they were informed that Muslims aren’t supposed to drink alcohol and so it would be particularly difficult to find booze. I think he was surprised more than anything. That night we went out for coffee and met some of the students around our age. This is where we learned from one of them (we’ll call him Ryan) that he knew a guy that could get us some delicious, nutritious, homebrewed, local wine. It sounded like we were buying something that would end up with us being blind but we agreed anyway.

The next night Ryan and Ryan’s friend pick us up on motor bikes to begin our wineventure. Cianjur is a pretty small town, but it still has like 250,000 people that live in the city. We turn into a small, empty, unlit alley with no one in it and park outside a muddy patch of grass. We follow Ryan through some narrow pathways to a small seemingly unlived-in house where we’re greeted by an old Indonesian man. Ryan negotiated price in Sundanese, after which he disappeared behind a curtain for a good while before reappearing with 2 glass bottles of red wine. I think we ended up paying 100,000 Rp ($7~ USD) per bottle and we returned home uneventfully...

But how crazy is that? It’s a like a drug deal down there! You gotta know a guy and stuff...

Anyway, the wine was terrible. Saccharine sweet. Like Welch's grape juice. Horrible. But it was like 19%. We ended up pouring half of the second bottle down the drain before someone’s mother found it in the fridge.

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