Havana, redux. 🇨🇺

A return to the capital city for a few last Havana nights.

A postcard: Y— I am back in Havana after a week away and it feels like home. I’m staying in the same neighborhood, just across the street from my first casa, and its great to be among familiar sights and sounds. I love the bustle of central Havana, a significant difference from the tranquil valleys of Viñales, from which I have come. I can’t say enough positive things about Havana and Cuba. I fell instantly in love with the city and was sad when I left a week ago. My main consoluation was that I’d be back to day. And when I leave again on Monday . . . ?

I am sitting at La Guardia, a beautiful restaurant in Central Havana with high ceilings, russet walls, and lovely art on the walls. The steps up are what can only be called theatrical. The entire place reeks of another age. A famous film was once shot here, and I am looking forward to reliving Havana through it when I get home...

On the drive back to Havana, we had to pull by the side of the road for a sick passenger. I offer her my seat by the window and the entire car shuffles to accommodate the new arrangements.

In the city, I am again the last to be dropped off. We drive past Vedado, along the Malecón, and through Habana Vieja before finally turning onto Neptuno. Watching the street pass through the window of the car, I feel like I’m coming home.

Leo has found me a room for the night. The next night I will return to his home, but at present he is booked. I shoulder my bag, check in to the casa (just across the street), and shower. Rain threatens to fall in the afternoon and I grab my umbrella for the short walk to La Guarida.

I splurge, ordering a cocktail, entree, dessert, and coffee. I linger over the meal, updating my journal and writing a few last postcards, not knowing when they’ll be received. The food is good, but doesn’t quite approach the best meals I’ve had. Still, the setting more than makes up for it.

As I leave I ask when they close. I want to return for a drink on the roof. They tell me the hour is variable, depending on how many people are around and the amount of work they have left to do. I tell them I’ll see them later.

The stairway up and a parlor leading up to La Guarida.

As I step out into the street, it starts pouring. I walk around the block to my casa and grab a book from my room. I while away the rest of the afternoon on the verandah reading and watching the rain come down from the sky.

Once the rain stops, I walk to the Hotel Nacional to catch the sun set from its back terrace. It’s a Sunday night and people are just starting to collect on the Malecón. A wedding has just ended and I watch as a photographer leads the couple here and there for photographs. A small band walks from table to table playing songs for tips.

I luck out on the sunset. It’s the best I’ve seen in Cuba.

At night I walk the Malecón. The sidewalks are packed with young Cubans out to see and be seen. On the corner of Avenida 23, a small square is so densely packed it’s almost impossible to move. People spill out onto the street as they move from the city to the sea and back. Police patrol the area, their muzzled dogs barking at the crowds.

I am drawn back to the seawall where a guitar plays against makeshift percussion. A man sells flowers both real and made of fabric folded into glass bulbs to be used later for drinking. He demonstrates to a couple that look interested for a moment, then pass him by.

As I walk further east the crowd thins until I can find a spot to sit. A steady stream of traffic plys the Malecón: Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles from the 50s and the odd Coco taxi mixes in with the Ladas and the more modern Hyundais and Daewoos. I watch as they pass to and fro, stopping now and again to let passengers alight.

From top to bottom: Young Cubans step out to see and be seen along the Malecón; a classic American car passes a quiet block on the Malecón.

Turning my back to the sea, I head into central Havana. At a corner Amanda asks me the time; it’s past midnight. She asks me where I’m staying and I make a noncommittal gesture. “Have you forgotten?” she asks, smiling. She offers to have me over for tea and, possibly, a massage. I thank her for her hospitality and bid her adieu.

On the roof of La Guardia, I order a beer. The crowds have thinned and the bartender has started to clean his station. The waiter tells me not to rush; there’s plenty left for them to do. I find a corner table and stare out into the night. “Empire State of Mind” comes on the stereo just as I’m finishing my drink.

The smell of fresh bread lures me to a nearby bakery. It’s almost 2 in the morning but the doors are open. A man appears from behind a counter and hands me a warm loaf, which I munch happily as I make my way home.

The rooftop bars at La Guarida.

The next day it rains. I spend the morning reading on the terrace. From my vantage point I can look over to Leo’s casa. He waves when he sees me and asks when I’m coming over. When the rain stops, I tell him.

I’ve been reading a history of Cuba and the Bacardí family (of rum fame) and I take the opportunity to finish. I’ve been surprised at how tightly their histories were intertwined, and appreciate how the author used one to tell the other. After I finish I long to visit the original rum factory in Santiago de Cuba to see where it all began.

In the afternoon, I return to the Gran Teatro de la Habana for a performance by the students and teachers of the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet. The performance starts small, with solos and duets, before the evening culminates in a beautifully-staged excerpt of Le Corsaire.

Afterwards, people collect in the lobby and the outside terrace of the theater. It’s raining again, and patrons and dancers alike huddle to keep dry. Groups of young ballerinas and their friends take photos of themselves and each other and coordinate plans for the rest of the day.

On the walk back to the casa, I hear music blasting from houses all about the neighborhood. It’s father’s day and everyone seems to be celebrating, not the least of whom are my hosts, who sit on the terrace eating and drinking with their friends.

I duck into my room to change, and as I’m about to step out to dinner, Leo invites me to join them. I tell him I’ll stay for one, and soon find a Cuba Libre sweating in my hand. Leo’s mother-in-law has made tamales, and he offers me a fork, telling me to dig in.

Two of his friends work in the tourism industry and speak perfect English, and they regale me with stories about how things actually work in the country, how there’s a local economy that operates in tandem with the official economy. They are careful to talk about Trump until they suss out my position and then echo the disappointment I’ve heard from almost everyone. I find out they’re about to have their first child and I toast their good fortune. I don’t know how many drinks I’ve had; every time I put down an empty glass, I find myself picking up a full one.

I don’t make it to dinner. One by one Leo’s friends leave and soon it’s just the two of us. He laments how he’ll feel in the morning, but for now he’s happy to have spent the evening amongst friends. He tells me about them, how they met, where they live, what lies ahead. When finally I go to bed it’s past midnight.

In the morning I reflect on the weeks that have passed. Havana had been living in my imagination like Samarkand—romantic, mystical—and its image hadn’t diminished when confronted with reality; if anything it had deepened.

As I spent my final moments looking out over Neptuno, I think to myself: I haven’t yet left and already I long to return. 🇨🇺