Papa Hem's Havana

Eating, drinking and adventuring through the classic Cuban capital.

Havana fisherman on the malecón sports a SeaWorld backpack.
  • Havana fisherman on the malecón sports a SeaWorld backpack.

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.”

~ Ernest Hemingway

Primavera sculpture on the malecón.

Primavera sculpture on the malecón.

And so we did. At least that's how I remember we ended up in Havana, Cuba.

Okay, well maybe there's a bit more to it than that, but it didn’t take much more than a night of homemade mojitos to get these alcoholic bibliophiles ready to push the boundaries of political relations in the name of exploration.

Arrival in Havana via classic-car taxi.

Arrival in Havana via classic-car taxi.

Getting there

In true Hemingway spirit, planning this trip became more of a big game hunt on an African safari. We couldn’t simply book a “people-to-people” tour, stay in a fancy-pants resort, or purchase a cookie-cutter package.

That would be like shooting elderly buffalo from a jeep. Instead, we booked our own tickets out of Tijuana, and walked over the Cross Border Express (CBX) bridge for a mere $24 both ways - well worth it for the hundreds we saved by flying out of our neighbor to the south.

We stated confidently that we were traveling “on business,” and made it all the way to the Havana airport where we ended up purchasing visas from a prehistoric woman behind an innocuous desk in the corner.

“To hell with luck. I’ll bring the luck with me.”

Apparently we did, and before we knew it we were through customs and in the seatbelt-less backseat of a “Franken-car" on our way, to what we hoped, was our pre-booked AirBnB.

Airbnb living room.

Airbnb living room.

Again, the savings from which was astounding. Not only was booking an entire home with a rooftop terrace far more affordable than any hotel ($25/night), but it also allowed us to absorb the local culture without the filter that naturally crops up around tourist hubs.

Between sweating rum at ten in the morning, smoking cigars the size of a baby’s forearm, and reading from the author that inspired it all, we were ready to burrow into the vibrant Cuban culture teeming around us.

Fruit vendor in the streets.

Fruit vendor in the streets.

Havana life

Out in the streets, men and women pushed carts full of the most divine-looking produce that I have ever seen. I dropped my book, The Old Man and the Sea, and ran, barefoot after them. With no Spanish and only a few bills of Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in hand, I hoped to get just a little bit of everything, but instead ended up with at least 25 bananas.

As my partner in crime loathes these phallic fruits, I knew I would need to make another attempt at communication. We gesticulated and laughed and I was handed a half-dozen unknown fruits and mimed into taking a bite of each one on the spot.

I returned to the cool of the kitchen triumphant with mystery juice, sweat dripping down my face, and a grocery bag full of guavas and papayas.

It turns out that this is a daily practice — and not only for fruit, but produce of all sorts, mops, car parts, and anything else you may otherwise purchase in a store. You will not find a Target, Trader Joe’s, or CVS on any Havana street corners. I personally found the door-to-door economy a far more enjoyable experience.

Sufficiently fed and ready for the day, we left our place with cigars in shirt pockets, cameras shouldered, and a small black notebook. Of course we could have toured one of the many museums, experienced a salsa dancing class or taken in a gallery showing, but WWHD (What would Hemingway do?), so we headed down the guttural alleys in search of daiquiris, decay and debauchery.

“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”

Two of Hemingway’s old haunts, El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, were packed with sweating tourists drinking ubiquitous rum cocktails as fast as the bartenders could make them. Cameras flashed and rumba music pounded in our eardrums. If Papa Hem were to rise from the dead and shuffle in for a stiff drink and an arm wrestle, he probably would have left as quickly as we did.

Our favorite bartender.

Our favorite bartender.

Instead, just a few blocks off the main drag we found an unmarked bar with less than five people in it. All of them, we soon learned, were in one way or another related to the bartender. But what a bartender he was! I only needed to sip my mojito a quarter of the way down to have it filled again with rum alone. As my drink became better and better, so did my love of this slipshod establishment.

Boarded-up windows on a Havana building.

Boarded-up windows on a Havana building.

Our walk home led us through neighborhoods made up of captivating examples of urban decay. Buildings we would've thought must be condemned had wet laundry hung to dry between pillars; window frames were filled with pieces of old glass lacking a home.

As much as the buildings and streets were in disrepair, the occupants were all in good spirits. Soccer games wove through slow-moving motorcycles, and toothless old men posted up on sidewalks for a game of dominos.

Food and drink

In our ever-vigilant hunt for local flavors, we soon discovered what we affectionately came to call the “foldy-pizza.”

For three CUC (the equivalent of about three dollars), you can have a small pizza made, folded taco style, and hucked at you at an impressive speed. Despite the obvious European influence, it was evidently a go-to for locals as we stood in a small crowd of mechanics, college students and those about to hit the town.

Kids on the street.

Kids on the street.

When we weren’t dodging paper airplane–style pizzas, we were perfecting our technique of ordering off of menus without using any Spanish in private restaurants, as opposed to the many government-owned restaurants frequented by the hordes of tour groups. Our approach consisted of taking a sweep for any words we may recognize followed by pointing to the most interesting series of words — ideally, the more letters the better. It proved to be most effective, as there was no meal we didn’t enjoy.

Getting back

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

So I answered “No Sir” when asked if I had any cigarettes in my bag. Technically, this was a truthful statement, since I had a box of large cigars that never would have been mistaken for cigarettes. My co-conspirator also truthfully stated that he had no tobacco products whatsoever; they were all in my bag. We were feeling smug about not bringing more than small backpacks, as it was required to pick up checked bags and schlep them through customs with the rest of humanity. We were the first of the group and seemed to be the only ones traveling light.

Whether it was Hemingway’s so called “luck,” or maybe the disinterested customs agents of both Mexico and America, we sailed through borders without a glitch.

Co-authors at El Floridita, a favorite Hemingway hangout.

Co-authors at El Floridita, a favorite Hemingway hangout.

Just as short as Hem’s stories, our trip was over and we popped out the other side of the CBX bridge and back to the reality of fire-coded buildings, hot showers, and toilet paper without built-in wood chips or readable newsprint.

It's good to be back, but it will be even better to return.

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