** Continued from Writing & Dancing Through Cuba Part 1
After staying out untill nearly 3am the night before, Friday morning came rather quickly. Havana wakes early as clamoring in the courtyard and footsteps down the hall started not long after sunrise. I had slept well in my private room and rose already pumping with adrenaline for the day. I debated with the thought of taking a shower and decided against it. Water is scarce in Cuba and they were currently experiencing a shortage. Even though Magela advertises her apartment as a casa with hot, running water at all times, I had caught a glimpse of a water siphoning system hooked toward the guest section of the house. The personal water tank on the roof is what allowed me this luxury and I didn’t want to be that person who drained it. From then on, I kept showers reserved for before bed and used just enough to get clean. I had also made sure to bring my own soap, shampoo and conditioner from home. Though Magela provided this as well, soap is just one more product rationed to locals by the government. Even toilet paper is a commodity in Cuba, which I also brought from home to keep my presence in the home of my host as minimal as possible.
I made my way to the kitchen where a coffee and crisp bread with soft butter were laid out for me. I sat and an older woman with some of the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen served me a plate full of fruit: guava, papaya, mango and pineapple. Fresh guava juice was blended and accompanied by another plate of eggs and ham. I gawked at how much food laid in front of me but devoured every last bite. As I ate, Magela’s 2-year-old daughter peeked out from behind the door. She was all smiles and curls as she waved at me, giggling.
// La Salsera
I had to be in Centro Habana by 11 am. One of my biggest motivators in coming to Cuba was to dance. I’m no pro, but I love it. I have a certain lack of shame on the dancefloor and in that I think I’m a pretty good dancer. I wanted to make dancing a huge part of my Cuban experience thanks to a romantic notion placed in my head by the second installment of Dirty Dancing and enrolled in 3-days of proper salsa classes through AirBnb Experiences. I plugged the address for Mily’s Dance School into Maps.me – aka. a navigational savior when abroad – and stepped out the door into the Havana streets.
As I pushed the door open I was immediately greeted by the brightness of the sun and the free-for-all that is an average day in Havana. Gypsy taxis peddled by carrying passengers. Long lines formed outside convenience stores and bus stops surrounding El Capitolo. While stoplights halted traffic at intersections, people crossed wherever they pleased. I took this as the usual and descended from the sidewalk alongside a father and his child to cross Avienda Reina, undisputedly one of Havana’s busiest streets.
Later that day, while touring with my dance instructor, Francoise, I would place my arm out to stop him as a bus barreled down the street a bit too close for comfort.
“No. In Havana, you step out and don’t worry they stop. No hesitate. Just go.”
Glancing at the map on my phone, I walked down Dragones. A giant archway marked the entry to Chinatown which was a whole other peculiarity in and of itself. Hintings of tourism dissipated as I wove through the grided neighborhoods unfolding scenes of daily life. Men perched on steps outside houses, a young woman peddled flowers through the streets while others purchased produce from an outdoor grocer pressed within the space of a vacant lot.
Throughout my trip I would discover markets sprung up in remnants of old buildings; roofs and walls enforced with plies of wood, backrooms caved in still being cleared. I walked a good 15 minutes out of my way before realizing I had flipped the 8 and the 4 in the address and had gone too far – not that I minded.
I made it to Mily’s dance studio just in time. Steep steps of marble led to an open living room and balcony. A group of ten had already gathered, fanning themselves on leopard and zebra print couches.
“I pass you on the street. You are German?” a young Cuban man asked me.
“American,” I replied.
“American? Really? If you say so,” he shrugged. I silently took it as a compliment and we began. “I am Yasiel, one of your teachers.” Mily emerged from the top floor as Yasiel took roll and introduced a third teacher, Francoise. Mily began to tell us about the history of salsa using a combination of Spanish and English. I followed along the best I could. Next, we went through the basic rhythm of salsa. Ta, ta, taaa, ta, ta, taaa. We practiced the beat over and over and over again. Matching it with basic steps while we remained seated to work the moves into muscle memory before moving to the studio.
A third – and even steeper – staircase brought us to the top floor where a small studio towered over the narrow street below. A cross breeze streamed through the bars on the windows and across the studio before exiting the other side. Two corner fans did their best to keep out the heat – only semi-successfully. We put the steps into motion and I was lucky to be in a class of not only solid dancers, but a group of laid back, go with the flow types. We quickly moved into turns, mambos and other styled movements. Any mess ups were met with laughter and a little innocent jesting from the teachers, who would then help you do it right.
Three hours later, we’re all huddled together in front of the fans, entirely drenched in sweat, chugging waters and absolutely starving. There’s one other solo female in the class, Yara, and we decide to venture Cuba together in search of a good meal. Ends up, a friend of hers from college is in town and on his way to meet us. I meet Gio and we wander into a restaurant our dance teachers recommended, Casa Miglis. A Swedish flag hung on the door commencing into a small bar area with quirky decorations. Bar stools made out of chairs and wicker furniture hung on the walls of the intimately lit room. We were ushered into a more traditional setting and I ordered some nectar of heaven drink made of rum, basil, strawberry and a chili pepper to pair with my gazpacho.
Over lunch, I learn Gio and Yara grew up in the same town in Oregon but didn’t meet until attending Washington State. This trip to Cuba was their first time seeing each other in ten years.
Full off a good meal, we were ready to continue a long afternoon of walking. Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Carlos Manuel De Cespedes, Plaza de la Catedral. If there was a plaza and it was in Old Havana, we hit it.
Gio still needed to purchase a plane ticket home the next day and I was on the hunt for a hand fan, so we looked for a hotel to make our purchases. Wifi in Cuba doesn’t come cheap, nor quickly and in abundance. A card must be purchased and a wifi zone located. Then and only then can you connect to some early 2000’s speed Internet at roughly 8 CUC an hour. A small hotel a little more out of the way will bring you better luck, with some people finding prices down to 2 CUC. We stopped into Hotel Ambos Mundos finding wifi cards for 4 CUC an hour as well as a wooden handfan for me – a well-used and highly recommended purchase.
I took this time to catch up on a little writing and I began to recount the day’s earlier events. The lobby, with wooden embellishments, shuttered windows, cool breeze and quiet atmosphere was like something out of a movie. It was a good place to write and ironically I wasn’t the only one to think so either. Ends up Ernest Hemingway thought (and said) the exact same thing, using Hotel Ambos Mundos as his first residence in Cuba and where he began to write, “To Have and Have Not” along with “For Whom the Bell Tolls” – currently occupying my purse.
For those looking to add a little Hemingway to their trip to Cuba, I highly recommend forgoing the overcrowded and underwhelming La Floridita in lieu of the Ambos Mundos.
Lucky for me, Nara had reservations to meet up with a group of Hemingway enthusiasts for dinner later that night at an off-the-path but very popular paladar adjacant to Plaza de Catedral – and I was invited. But after sweating through the afternoon’s salsa class and walking around all day in the dusty streets, we were all in need of refreshing. A jaunt home for a quick shower and we reconveined at one of the most popular spots to watch a Havana sunset, the rooftop of La Guarida. Though difficult to get dinner reservations, La Guarida is worth a stop in for its striking architecture and revolutionist wall mural of Camilo Cienfuegos.
We got to the roof just in time to find a table before thirsty crowds descended in search of refreshing Cuba Libres. While the restaurant was indeed busy, limited tables and its location hidden in Centro Habana keep it from feeling crowded. Delicious bar bites can be purchased from the rooftop and we shared a plate of pork tacos and sangria to tie us over. From the roof, we were treated to 360-degree rooftop views of the ocean with the dome of El Capitolo and the Jose Marti Memorial breaching the Havana skyline.
// Falling In Step
The beat of Havana changes depending on the time of day. Fast-paced daytime hours align with the rapid succession of rumba and mambo, where as the night jives and spins to traditional salsa. But in between the two is my favorite hour: the magic hour. The brief hour where life’s pace slows to the rhythms of the Spanish guitar and the sun sets stucco walls aflame.
Walking through the streets, the noise of cars has made way for families sitting down to eat dinner. Groups of men pull tables into the streets to play dominos and groups of young adults gather outside doors in preparation for evening’s affairs. Time suspended as I stared out overlooking Havana’s rooftops observing the shift from day to night. If only I could hold this moment for eternity, but alas, the cloudless sky shifted to midnight blue. The Spanish guitar lulled making way for the beat of the bongo and call of trumpets.
Nara and I met with the Hemingway fans in the Plaza de Catedral which took on a mystique now that it was night fall. It was quiet and its blue shuttered buildings cast shadows across the romantic cobblestone square. We joined two sets of couples, a young German man and a local Cuban woman, Lisandra, who organized the group.
Off the west side of the square is a small side street lined on both sides with paladars. Tucked in the back is Dona Eutimia. Our group went to town sharing orders of croquetas, frituras de malanga and sweetbread. We sipped on frozen mojitos to cool the night’s heat before diving into ropa vieja, beans, rice and pollo asado. It was one of those dinners you see in travel commercials full of laughter and the clinking of glasses. We passed food around in true family style, loading plates for seat neighbors as we relished in the paladar’s homelike atmosphere.
I sat next to Lasandra, who had just returned from her first trip abroad. Leaving the island as a Cuban citizen to travel is extremely difficult. Aside from having all your papers in order, citizens must obtain permission from the government and even then denials are high. Under Raul’s Cuba, things have gotten a little easier, only slightly – and Lasnadra was one of the lucky ones. She had spent weeks in Europe exploring Paris, Spain and Portugal.
“It was amazing! I have never left the island before and experienced much. I have many confused feelings now,” she recounted, pushing food around her plate but not really eating. I could tell she was lost in thought, still stuck on her trip. Confused feelings. The phrase stuck with me as I knew exactly how she felt. I’ve had the same mixed emotions upon returning from both short and extended trips. That’s how you know it was a good one. When a trip sticks with you and makes you question not only your life’s norm but who you are as a person. That’s when you grow.
The restaurant began to clear as other groups stood from their tables full and satisfied. We continued to chat when our server gifted us each with a shot of Santiago de Cuba Anejo 7 Anos.
“Salut! Prost! Cheers!” Us all sharing in the native toast of our language. It may not have been the fanciest rum but boy was it smooth. Peppered with spice, yet sweet on the tongue. Just like the day. Just like this trip. Just like life.
Just like Cuba.