Back in Havana

Havana, Havana: you rose around us once more. We crawled through traffic into the city, this time heading not for El Centro, but Vedado, the animated voices of the French bantering happily as I took my girlfriend’s hand and opened the window. To the driver, we were just another fare to be dropped outside another corner, but in our eyes, this moment was our glorious return to a city we’d already fallen in love with. It’s hard to say whether or not we were more excited this time; it hardly mattered.

Having failed to navigate the sea of extranjeros waiting about in pointless patience at Viñales’ cyber-cafe, we were back in town without accommodations for the night. We’d asked the driver to deliver us to Hotel Presidente, where our guidebook had promised internet access. The wide, green streets raced toward the harbor that opened up in the distance. As we pulled up to the curb, my girlfriend bade farewell to our French companions. We collected our bags from the trunk, and then I made my way to the passenger’s side of the car. With a giant smile, I waved goodbye and said, “bonjour!” suspecting, as the syllables left my stupid lips, that that wasn’t quite right. The French looked at me curiously, then at each other, then erupted in laughter as the car pulled away: “au revoir!

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Vedado: a different side of Havana.

The elegant Hotel Presidente turned us around at the reception desk. Our guidebook had been wrong: there wasn’t enough bandwidth for everyone, unless you were a paying hotel guest. We extracted trite revenge by using their lobby bathrooms and then strategized. All of our hosts had been so accommodating and friendly — there had to be a network of casas, friends looking out for friends, where someone would be able to connect us. We summoned just a bit more faith for our guidebook, and lugged our heavy bags on our sunburned backs to the nearest casa particular listing. Tanner than I, my girlfriend was doing better with the flaky skin situation than I was.

Our first attempt didn’t have any availability that night — but she knew somebody who might. She invited us inside into a grand parlor where ceramic plates and paintings lined the walls. The place was magnificent, and we were momentarily regretful that we were only visitors. Yet two phone calls later, we had arrangements. Even if this stranger had only been looking out for her friend, there was comfort in knowing that a couple of wandering gringos could be invited inside to sit and find respite from the herculean effort required to tote those bags on that sad, scalded skin. We parted amiably with profuse thanks, and followed her directions down the street.

There was a man waiting outside a gate, and he pulled us into the courtyard of an equally splendid house. We were met by our hostess and her son, and within two minutes, were sitting around exchanging pleasantries over a hot cup of café. They’d take us on for the night, and pass us on to a friend tomorrow. Each host was proving kinder than the last; it was hard to feel like a foreigner here. After gathering their advice about the area, the man (her husband) led us around the corner to an apartment building. We ascended a flight of stairs to an enormous flat, complete with a balcony overlooking the streets, and as our beautiful luck would have it — we’d be their only guests tonight. They were booked solid for the next few weeks, but there we were, serendipitously stumbling into a place of our own.

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Our first casa particular in Vedado.

After settling in, we strolled around Vedado. Compared with the rest of the city, the area felt suburban, more relaxed, with vast, clean streets, foliated walkways, and fewer tourists. We first sought out Coppelia’s, a huge, open-air ice cream parlor loved by the locals that consumes a whole city block. We claimed our spot in one of the lines that formed along each face of the square, and gradually, small groups were let inside. In the middle of a weekday, our wait was simple — we’d pass this same spot later, and see hordes lining up around the compound, spending their afternoons and/ or evenings in the hope of sweet icy refuge. After being seated at a table with two other guests, a server appeared to take our order. We followed the examples of our new companions, placing an order for three different scoops of ice cream. Our waitress retired and we waited like children on Christmas morning. When she returned, we discovered our second lost-in-translation event of the day: following the example of our two new friends, we hadn’t ordered three scoops of ice cream, we’d ordered three bowls, each of which had five heaping balls of frosty goodness, garnished with little cookies and a caramel sauce. Well, there’s no sense in seeing anything go to waste, right? Shamelessly, we shoveled all fifteen scoops into our greedy mouths, the whole affair having cost about $0.70.

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No regrets.

We walked around the block (several times) and then sought out an open-air market wedged between two street corners on our way home. A few hours and a dinner at home later, we set determined to get a better taste of the nightlife. We’d settled on a favorite haunt called La Fabrica de Arte (FAC). The former warehouse is shoveled into the far west of Vedado, a stone’s throw away from the water, where anyone walking around after dark is presumably in search of the same venue. Taking the advice of our host family, we arrived early (around 9pm) without expectation to find the space already filling. With its multiple floors, abundant bars, galleries, outdoor spaces, exhibition halls, projectors, live music, and dance floors, neither of us had ever seen anything quite like FAC. We paid 2 CUC to get in, and were given a card to keep tally of any tab we wanted to run up. Early on in the night, the energy of the venue was directed at the edgy Cuban art, with tourists and locals alike meandering through the halls and conversing animatedly about the Cuban art that graced the walls. The displays were brilliant, unrivaled, and disturbing, meriting a trip in their own regard; the bars offered selections more encompassing than anything we’d found; the DJs changed by the hour, playing music that spanned the interests of all the clientele as fashion shows or old movies were projected onto the massive factory walls. 

The following day, we woke up to eat the rest of our dinner and then moved to a new casa particular down the street. Instead of having an entire apartment, we found ourselves sharing a cramped room with only a bed and a curtain that separated the space between our pillows and the toilet — but the old colonial house with giant ceilings had another host who welcomed us with open arms, palpably delighted to have us as guests. Our single goal for the day was to find a local juice called guarapo, a sugar cane juice vended on the streets juice we hadn’t yet tried. We walked along El Malecon into Havana Vieja, stopping at castles, museums, and a camera obscura show over the Plaza Vieja along the way, venturing south through the touristy part of the old city into crooked, dusty streets. By the time we’d made it past the train station to the favorite guarapo place, they were closing up shop. We promised ourselves we’d try again tomorrow.

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We ate on the balcony of a French-fusion restaurant that night, where a three-piece band played Buena Vista Social Club and an Australian toddler at the next table rocked her huggies off. After dinner, we head across the street to a bar called Submarino Amarillo, a Beatles-themed joint with live music nightly. In the midst of all the Cuban music we’d heard, it was strange, at first, to find a place like this with a heavy rock focus. In contrast to the exclusivity of the island and the cultural gulf that separated Cuba from the US, the (amazing) show we saw spanned from Gimme Shelter and Cocaine to Mr. Jones and Uptown Funk. The venue was filled with locals in band shirts and hipster hair, all belting out the words to the Clapton song without regard to the government’s attitude toward drug culture. Reflecting on their difficulties with travel, maybe it wasn’t surprising: like the casa particulares hosts who shared their homes and their hearts, the commoditization of counter-culture music expressed a clear desire of the Cuban citizens to live vicariously, or at least taste, the lives of elsewhere…

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