The truck was rugged, loved, and loud. It burped through the potholed streets, cruising along in duck-taped stability from the airport toward the city. Our guide chatted inaudibly in the back seat, while I sat quietly beside the driver and the grumbling engine twice my age. We weren’t alone: the roads were filled with similar friends. Cruising around in the same cars I imagined my parents had loved, it was strange, it was wonderful. I rolled down the window and let the wind through my fingers.
Havana rose up slowly around us. First, as dusty bus stops with tired lines, then as gas stations and convenience stores, and finally as apartment buildings and traffic. We didn’t mind the wait (or the noise); at 80 and sunny, the afternoon was perfect. Our casa particular lay in the center of the city, giving us the ideal distance from those damned Europeans but access to the action. Their apartment was on the second floor — they had run a cord from the top of the stairs to the bottom so they could unlock the door without having to descend. We’d grow familiar with this kind of ingenuity during our stay. The hostess greeted us with a warm smile, and a newborn in her arms. She seemed relieved and encouraged when I spoke Spanish. Ushering us inside, we walked through the high-ceiling apartment, whose hallway spilled out to the open sky, creating a court-yard of the space between rooms.
Around their apartment were paintings of La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, alongside pictures of family and Che. Her husband was inside, preparing us coffee, a staple of hospitality. I don’t think we were ever invited anywhere without also being offered at least one cup. Cubans make their coffee with a small three-piece kettle on the stove: a bottom chamber is filled with water, then a tray of grounds placed above it, before the apparatus is screwed into the filling pot. They like their coffee strong and with plenty of sugar. Produced on the island, it is is served in small ceramic cups like espresso and consumed frequently.
She was a Spanish teacher; he was a grocer. They had a six year old boy wearing a Minion shirt whose energy matched the impending stupor of the caffeine we were sipping. We settled into a separate wing adjacent to the kitchen, which had a pair of twin beds pushed together, a covered porch for smoking cigars and air-drying laundry, and a bathroom with serendipitously tepid water. The apartment was cozy and inviting; we would quickly adapt.
Before departing for the heart of the city, we conferred with our host over a map. The city was divded into three parts. To the east was Old Havana, we were in Centro, and to the west was Vedado, the wealthiest and most suburban part of the city. Then we solicited a little advice: “Best beer?” “Cristal if you want light, Bucanero if you want dark.” “Best rum?” “Havana Club, 7 Años.” Okay, now we were ready to adventure.
We walked from Centro to El Capitolio, lying adjacent to crowded Parque de La Fraternidad. The building looked as American as it sounded. Continuing east, we tried unsuccessfully to exchange CUC at a hotel, then followed Calle Obispo into a boutiquey tourist area where we ended up in a courtyard restaurant listening to live music and enjoying our first well-deserved mojitos.
Although the government is very strict about drug possession and usage, alcohol consumption is relaxed and abundant. We delighted in finding ourselves in a culture where public consumption was the norm. The state-subsidized ron (“rum”) industry is everywhere. The most popular brand is Havana Club, which can easily be drank straight, mixed with a cola, or slipped into a fresh fruit juice. Also popular is drinking ron straight from what appears to be a juice box. The government sells that, too. There are about five lager-y beers of decent quality, perfect for the hot days. Out at restaurants and clubs mojitos and (frozen) daiquiris are king, though cuba libres and caipirinha are almost as popular. Imported spirits can be price-prohibitive for many locals; we found them generally agreeable. A gin & tonic can be the most expensive cocktail on the menu; tequila and vodka are nearly absent. Special status is reserved for Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal.
We wandered the old city, equal parts Spanish colonial and romantic nostalgia. The close-quarter streets bustled with life, most of it foreign. The stunning Plaza Vieja for more coffee…out to the waterfront to enjoy the harbor and the night…back to find someplace to eat. Venturing from Obispo a few blocks south, the streets maintained their architectural flair, but the cobblestone road was swallowed by dirt. We felt more comfortable moving here…leaving the congestion behind, we worked our way through the dimly lit streets. Dogs roamed freely, and the occasional shadowy figure dipped by, but never once did we feel unsafe. We were here; we were part of the community…