The lush, mystical island of Cuba has beckoned Americans for some time. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was the most glamorous escape in the Caribbean. Now, in an increasingly small and globalized world, the idea of the island being “forbidden” has become part of an insatiable allure. Americans could eat Cuban food at restaurants, dance to the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club, puff drags off Cuban cigars — yet couldn’t fully immerse themselves in the spirit of the island.
I was compelled to explore Cuba due to the collective folklore most hold of this tiny Island, a mere thirty-minute plane ride from Miami. That such a small stretch of land could yield such influence on the global community, while the inhabiting residents’ stories so tightly controlled, was confounding to me; and the history, full of Castro’s communism — and America’s contention of it – remains a polarizing topic.
As travel restrictions between the countries began to ease, my best friend and I booked our tickets on a whim, knowing nothing of Cuba save for a limited narrative the media has continuously propagated.
Western media in particular loves Cuba. It relentlessly tells one of two stories. The first, led by a more conservative base, is to reject Cuba’s government, and thus its people, by calling for further isolation and the upholding of current embargos – tourism included. (As a financier on the flight to Miami aggressively told me, “One should never forget!”)
On the other hand, another media angle rests on a romanticism of a decadent past. The glamorous Cuba of the 1950s is now long dissolved, but easily reimagined through the stylish mid-century American cars that chug through blocks of colorful facades.
Yet Cuba, like any other country and its people, is exceedingly more complex than any one narrative.
Our chartered flight descended upon the island, passing green hills covered in a dense, humid fog. We made it through the long customs line, past security, and hopped in a taxi bound for old town Havana.
When we arrived in the city, it was barely past nine in the morning and our hotel room wasn’t ready — Come back in an hour, we were told — so we set off down the street in search of good coffee. We were directed to a very old and established café, where Europeans sat outside drinking frothy iced drinks while overlooking a square full of western shops. We lamented drinking such bad coffee, but did so anyway. A man sketched us on a napkin and passed it to us as we left.
We were staying at a hotel called the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It is a very pink, very old hotel where Ernest Hemingway once took up residence. Room 501, where he wrote part of For Whom the Bell Tolls, is now blocked off as a museum. When we finally made our way up to our room (after multiple promises of Come back in one hour!) we discovered that we were neighbors of Hemingway’s, sharing a wall with his history. At night I imagined hearing Ernest’s ghost typing away frantically at his typewriter, drinking heavily, perhaps taking drags of a tightly rolled cigar.
When I inquired at the front desk about good coffee, I was constantly directed to the same, terrible European café. So we ignored everything and continued to get lost amongst the achingly beautiful architecture. Not having access to any form of Internet, we wandered quite aimlessly, referring only to a paper map that we marked with pen every time we spotted something interesting. We had a formula, keeping an eye out for any type of crowd. Wherever there was a crowd of locals eating or drinking, we’d put an X on the map, to return later.
We turned down a particularly colorful street, the center of the road ripped up to the foundational pipes, the leaking water creating a sort of moat. We straddled the small stretch of sidewalk on either side of the abyss, stopping in front of a deep alley protected by a rustic wooden door, propped open to reveal another world. A woman, hidden in the shadow, cried out to us brightly from a window, “Coffee? Coffee? Come!”
We had just drank two cups of poorly prepared cappuccinos, so we smiled and waved as we passed, and promised each other that we’d return tomorrow to the magical alley for our morning coffee.
We had forgotten to put an X on the map, so the next day we roamed the streets, desperately trying to find the lady that had called out to us with promises of real Cuban coffee. We walked all morning in an oppressive heat, our clothes drenched and our faces continuously beading with sweat. We finally came upon the street, recognizing its colors and moats, and took it all the way down to its end. Had the alley disappeared? Had it been a mirage? We walked up and down countless times.
Finally, we discovered a bend in the road led to a hidden block. We found the alley and entered into the cool shade. The same woman immediately tended to us, shooing her family members off the only two iron chairs available and ushering for us to sit. We tried to decline but she insisted; she brought out two small glasses filled with no more than two ounces of strong coffee, bits of condensed milk floating to the surface. We drank the sweetness in a few sips, feeling alive.
The alley was a rabbit hole into an intricate world of crowded spaces, all teetering atop each other, clotheslines crisscrossing the open stairwells and wires hanging indiscriminately. Children ran back and forth as an older woman hung her intimates to dry. A blue façade was adorned with a hand-painted sign reading “CAFETERIA,” our Narnia of perfect coffee, and where we met our Claudia.
A Cafeteria is part of Cuba’s new wave of privately owned businesses. Cafeterias are dotted throughout the streets of Old Havana, casas and cafes in one. The licensed (and heavily taxed) proprietor essentially serves coffee out of their kitchen window; famous is the cortadito – a strong, single shot of Bustello-roasted beans poured over sweetened, condensed milk.
Claudia instantly connected to us — my best friend and I, two young American girls from New York. Cubans have been watching the headlines, as Obama, little-by-little, opens the rusty vault door that has kept Cuba and America from exchanging much of anything, including tourists. But we were the physical proof — young travelers not part of a sanctioned tour group. And we felt the buzz of newness everywhere we went: an excitement for freedom of exchange, culturally and economically, as well as a skepticism of America’s interests.
Claudia brought us a host of Cuban treats, like thick and sweet Mango juice, fresh-cut guava, another cortadito. We imbibed and ate drunkenly. She spoke only Spanish. My friend and I spoke a weird mix of Italian and English, since we mistakenly thought Italian could imitate Spanish (while some words are similar, it most often does not). We stumbled through conversation like an elaborate game of charades, where one usually gave up after the other’s futile attempt to understand simple concepts like, “Are you married?” (::Point at ring finger incessantly and make a heart with your hands::). There were many heavy but beautiful silences.
Claudia’s mother was a youthful woman who ran the café along with Claudia’s abuela, Isabella. Isabella cooked the food and prepared the coffee. Claudia, in her early 20s, was the exuberant face of the business, constantly running in and out to make sure our glasses were full. Her little sister, Mariana, couldn’t be more than ten and often ran through the alley with her jump rope. This was a female-driven enterprise.
We returned the second day for coffee, and we were met with kisses from the entire family. Claudia invited us to return that evening, as we understood it, for a home cooked meal, and later — what we assumed was the gesture for — fireworks. The city was having a celebration: the 26 Julio, the holiday of revolution. We understood to be there at ocho, and we’d let the night unfold.
The Malécon is a famous seaside boulevard in Havana, where residents come to see and be seen; young and old, groups stake their place on the seawall to gaze at passers-by, many playing music, some dancing. Waves crash in the background, making it a romantic spot for star-crossed adolescents to escape to.
We figured we were heading to the Malécon with Claudia for the party. When we drove right past the Malécon and through a tunnel, we watched as the city faded into the background. At that moment, we wished we spoke more Spanish.
We drove up to an old fort overlooking the bluffs surrounding Havana, where a festival was held, packed with Cuban tourists. Cuban actors dressed in Spanish colonial garb reenacted military marches, and vendors sold various trinkets. We arrived late, missing the fireworks.
After a while, Claudia asked us, “Fiesta?” Why not? “Mi amigo. Casa. Mango!” She had noticed we particularly liked the mangos in Cuba and ate them voraciously, because, who wouldn’t? They ruin all other mangos. We followed her down the hill and straddled the edge of a busy interstate to arrive at a bus stop. We boarded the bus – or, “Guagua!” as Claudia enthusiastically called it. It took off abruptly, barreling down the highway, shifting and shaking violently, full of crowded eyes illuminated by fluorescent green lighting. My eyes locked with an uncertain set belonging to a man in uniform, a fading emblem of the regime. I smiled to break the space of unfamiliarity, but he didn’t return the gesture.
Something about Claudia emanated trust. She would place her hand out like a mother when we crossed the street, protecting us from oncoming traffic. She often pointed at us sporadically while proclaiming, “Amigas!” She paid for our taxis and our food and vehemently refused our money, while simultaneously telling us that most things in Cuba, like sunscreen, were moy caro – too expensive. She was years younger than us, but she nurtured us. So we continued on with confidence.
About five stops later we stepped off the guaga in a rather nondescript neighborhood, far outside the city limits of Havana. The deep blackness of the night didn’t help us catch our bearings. We traipsed grassy areas under a few dim streetlights to a main thoroughfare, filled with a few shops. A hoard of people hovered outside a corner building – “WiFi… moy caro,” Claudia explained. People of every age clutched devices, video chatting to grainy images of loved ones or updating their Facebook status.
Claudia had no cell phone. So when we arrived at her amigo’s house in this unnamed neighborhood outside of Havana, Amigo was not there. My friend and I became a bit uneasy. The journey to Amigo’s house — through a myriad of dirt roads, past identical one-story houses — caused us to lose direction. After a while, I wasn’t sure if we had made a right turn or left; did we come from here or there? Unable to pull out a cell phone to locate us on the map or call for a car service, my friend and I looked at each other, mutually surrendering. Trust is a tricky thing without communication; Claudia smiled and shrugged her shoulders as we waited.
Finally, Amigo appeared: A skinny, shy boy – from Angola, we discovered – in Cuba to study medicine; education in Cuba, including medical school, is free (yes, free) thus attracting people from all over the world. He introduced himself as Raoul, gently grasped my hand and kissed my cheek in greeting, then led us into the house.
A mantle of mementos – crosses, Madonnas, glass flowers – greeted us as we entered the door, overlooking a set of red chairs. Claudia ushered us to take a seat and pulled up an old fan, blasting us with lukewarm air. She turned on a vintage 1980s television set, settling on a channel thumping reggaeton music videos. “Mango!” she said, as she disappeared in the back with Raoul.
Claudia reappeared with ripe mangos in plastic containers, and handed us two very large knives. She smiled and mimed how to cut and eat the mango – ::Slice vertically and peel it off the skin with your teeth:: – and left us alone once again.
We hacked at the mangos amateurishly and broke into laughter. “Where are we?” my friend asked. “I have no idea,” and I bit into perhaps the sweetest mango I tasted in Cuba.
We were left sticky from mango juice. Claudia brought us through a doorway, past a kitchen, to the backyard. In the backyard, through the darkness, I saw Raoul reach into a vat with a large pitcher, gathering water; he brought the water over to wash our hands and mouths.
“Discoteca?” It was getting late. We mimed that we were tired. Claudia and Raoul walked us back through the neighborhood, past multiple block parties; women dressed in sky-high heels, men with faded haircuts, and groups of children danced to house music in the street. The spirit of night was free, the streets were the real discoteca. We joined in for a step or two as we weaved through the parties.
“Sylvia!” Claudia suddenly yelled across the street. “Mi familia,” she told us. A young family, with their infant son, crossed the street to shower us with kisses, of course, as if we’d all known each other in another lifetime. They also happened to be on their way to the highway, looking for a taxi into Havana. We continued our walk together.
Their infant son was born sick, she mimed, pointing to his heart. They were headed into Havana – a near 25-minute drive – for healthcare. My watch read close to midnight. Suddenly, the mother handed the baby to Claudia, who passed the tiny infant to my friend.
They spoke Spanish to us, and we nodded and smiled, understanding everything but their words. We walked along together, my friend’s eyes filling with tears as she held the sick infant in her arms. The barriers that exist between others, the ones we experience every day – in elevators, waiting in lines, on airplanes – did not exist in these moments. There was an openness among this family, one that couldn’t be perverted – because it was pure. How much did we all really know about each other? We couldn’t properly ask a question, we could barely share a story about ourselves. Yet they welcomed us so fully.
Eventually, our group divided into two vintage cars, Claudia and Raoul chaperoning my friend and I. We drove back to Havana with the windows open, reggaeton music blaring, the night’s air salty and warm. They walked us to the door of our hotel, then disappeared into the night.
The act of sharing coffee has always been more than the drink itself; it is a social act that crosses the boundary of culture and has the unique ability to truly connect. Claudia’s family shared coffee with us, extending a hand and ushering us into their reality. I can’t say exactly what connected us to Claudia so instantly, but she brought us into such a personal space without hesitation. Perhaps it was a desire to show us the real Cuba, unadorned by government implication’s or inauthentic representations.
My experience in Cuba was both mundane and extraordinary; for us, it was an unexpected connection, an experience of Claudia’s intimate, albeit normal, daily life.
We went back the next day to bid Claudia farewell, and for one more cortadito. We had a late flight, so she invited us to an art fair in the eclectic Vedado district, and later we had ice cream in one of the many parkside cafe’s.
Weaving back through old Havana and the tourist areas – full of vintage salsa music and freshly painted buildings – it all seemed world’s away from the pulsing life of Cubans living within the crumbling structures a few streets down.
Cuba wasn’t what I expected, nor was it what I wanted it to be. It is a country with a complicated and contentious history; yet creativity can be seen in every crevice of the Cuban community, from the brilliant and thriving enterprises on the streets of Havana, to the near perfect mise-en-scenes found inside every interior.
As Americans will begin to trickle onto the island, I hope all remember that Cubans are the architects of their future – it is not for us to dictate or conform. Explore the country deeper, notice the complexities and the discrepancies, their government and their history — but only within the fullness of Cuba’s greater context: The people’s enduring spirit.