I am sat at the bar at the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana, Cuba. It is Christmas Day. I should be fighting for a seat. I should be paying through the nose for these mojitos. Instead I sit here alone, reading at leisure, not another soul sat here with me, and I am paying only three pesos a drink.
I had set out on foot at ten this morning. I walked the route I was careful to take note of three days earlier on an embarrassing tourists’ bus tour into the city. My hotel is located far from everything. I booked the tour to get my bearings and I did.
I walked right out of the Kohly hotel, took the first left, then the first right. I was to stay on this street for a long time and for many twists and turns until it became avenue twenty-three. I did this. It took me fifty-five minutes to arrive to Revolution Square. I took the same pictures I had taken the day of the bus tour but this time they were authentic. Then I continued on foot to the peek of the church that the tour guide had compared to the Note Dame in Paris. I could see the peek and knew it was en route to La Floridita and La Bodeguita and Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s old haunts, so I walked that way.
I got loads of great photos of the available graffiti and the crumbling architecture and what North Americans would call muscle cars but Cubans would simply call cars and the lime and cotton candy and summer sky and purple peeling paint on the decaying houses and la vie normale as I walked. It took me another almost hour to get to the church. Then my pace really slowed as I, impossibly, took even more photos. There was a woman sat on the sidewalk selling beautiful, hand-carved, hand-painted wooden statuettes of very black Cuban woman in very bright and colourful dresses. She sold these right alongside personal razors, Colgate toothpaste, and other everyday household items.
Finally, after three hours of beautifully walking, exploring, learning, I arrived to Kilometer Zero, a lively bar just an alley away from and facing Capitol Hill. Even though La Floridita was steps away, I decided to stop here to have lunch.
I ordered a Cristal and the seafood stew. Wow! For under seven pesos I got a large bowl nearly overflowing with seafood and without filler or too much sauce and including a giant lobster tail! It was delicious. It was divine! It truly was a meal fit for a queen.
After another Cristal and a short conversation with a Cuban boy who sat himself beside me as I ate my stew and whom was drunk and also, he told me, high, I made my way to La Poesia Moderna. I wanted a second copy of Laidi de Fernandez Juan’s novel « Bésame Mucho and Other Stories » as a gift for a special friend whom is sweet to participate in a two-person book club with me. I had walked in the day before and said « I want to read a Cuban author but in English. » « We have only one, » the signorita told me. « Perfect! » I happily took the book to the counter and just as I was paying, she came rushing back, and said: « Here is a new one, » and handed me the same book but still wrapped in plastic. I wish I’d thought at that moment to purchase both copies! But I didn’t. So I stopped by after my stew but it was closed. Though almost everything else was open, it was closed. It was Christmas, after all. Tomorrow will be my last day in Havana. I will have to pick up the book tomorrow. And come back for more of that amazing stew!
I spent the whole day in a relaxed reverie. I stopped at La Floridita and had a daiquiri. I ambled over to La Bodeguita and had a mojito. I strolled through Cathedral Square. The same two old black men who were sat smoking cigars on the side steps of the Cathedral the day of the bus tour were still sat there, still smoking cigars. I took their photo again.
I stopped at La Cubaña facing the Malecón and had a Cristal. I supposed it was time to head back to the hotel. But then I thought…why, on Earth, WHY?? So I headed back to Ambos Mundos. And that’s when I ordered the first of those three peso mojitos I mentioned.
The bartender and I talked about the « big news, » Obama’s announcement of improved relations between the United States and Cuba. He was untouched. « It means nothing until it filters down to my people. » As well, he said, « If, IF, there will be any change, it will take a very, very long time. » I asked him, despite the crisis and the state of things, are Cubans, would he say, generally, happy? » I asked this because they seem happy to me. He said, « They are happy, with a noose. » I understood. I liked this man a lot.
It was well past dinner time. I left Ambos Mundos and walked back to Kilometer Zero. I had another pot of the seafood stew! The band was great. The bongos, the flute, the piano keyboard, the moroccas, the singing. On the street, a small crowd was gathering. Old Cuban men and women, young people, kids, tourists. The crowd kept growing. People danced, people sang. They’d come and gathered together. It was a precious moment. I didn’t give a damn if I was there alone!
All the people in the street, the teenaged barback, the middle-aged bartender, everyone knew the words to all the songs. The band’s act was so polished! The girls swung their hips in intricate crazy eights and infinity loops! It was gorgeous. And I had ended up there amid it all. What a life!
Finally ready to head back to the hotel, I took one of those little yellow taxis called cococabs that are really just glorified scooters with big yellow bubbles plopped on top and a three-seat banquette fixed inside. No seatbelts! The open road zoomed right beneath my feet! I revelled at the petty danger in my slightly buzzed state. Back at Kohly, I had a double espresso on the terrasse before heading to bed. It was just after ten.
I thought, tomorrow will be my last day in Havana. Tomorrow I will get that book. Tomorrow I will visit Il Museo des Belles Artes (which was also closed for Christmas today). And tomorrow instead of walking into the city I will take a cab in and instead do the long walk out, all along the Malecón where I spotted a lot of wonderful graffiti I’d love to see up close and photograph.
As things turned out, I was asleep only a few hours, then was up with nausea, chills, weakness, aches, pains, and lotsa caca. Sometimes one just has to put things plainly! Finally at noon, I called upon every iota of energy I had in me (of which there weren’t many!) and got myself down to the nurse’s station. The lady was so good with me. When I took off my sunglasses, she saw my wet eyes and asked, « Why are you crying? » I said, « Because I am a wimp. » We both laughed. She gave me a painful massage deep, deep into the palm of each of my hands. Then she gave me some sort of seltzer with soda and then an envelope of salts for me to take « after caca. » I was to stay in this awful state for a full eighteen hours. Around dinner time I started to feel a bit better. But alas, there would be no last day in Havana.
And so, sometimes life is like that. And it’s okay. It is good to leave a little unfinished business in a place. It attaches a bit of you there. It calls you back.