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The bakery and the bar, El Caribeño, reside on the ground floor of a generic three-story apartment building whose corners are splotched with black mold. There are usually more people on the building’s stairs than in the bar: when there’s a flash rainstorm and people wait for fifteen minutes for the sky to clear, when no one has money for a drink or a TuKola, when apartments are hotter than streets. Russian Ladas are parked in the Partido Comunista de Cuba Parqueo next door. There used to be a small sign outside El Caribeño, palm trees curling parenthetically around the bar’s name on the street corner, but it’s been taken down. It was always easy to miss amid the much larger silver or neon signs for bars, restaurants, cabarets, music, music, music, attractions in this tourist-heavy neighborhood for visiting crowds of Canadians, Italians, Brits.
Here in Vedado, dark jazz clubs are lined in wood and velvet or mirrors. The ocean cups the malecón just down the hill from hotels where gangster Meyer Lansky hosted starlets and singers in the fifties, and white curtains billow around columns at restaurants in twenties sugar baron mansions. Vedado is casually suspended in the country’s nostalgic past, shot through with swing, Cuban slang for charm, personality, style—even the slang reinforces the illusion! Sinatra could have sipped a daiquiri right over there, the palm fronds that crinkle in salty breezes seem to whisper. There are mansions with florid moldings and thick palm trees shading front yards, apartment buildings with porthole windows and delicate cantilevered stairs, broad balconies over which middle-aged women lean, squinting into the sun and smoking cigarettes that silk the street with Cuban tobacco. Some neighborhood structures have seen facelifts and paint jobs; others are scabby with patches of flaked-off paint that spread weekly.
The building that houses El Caribeño fits into the latter category. Water-toting tourists who poke their heads in usually don’t enter. The Hotel Nacional’s seafront patio with its rattan loungers, freshly cut lawn, and burbling fountain, with the wall of previous visitors like Naomi Campbell, is a block away. El Caribeño is open-air, too, but it’s lit by fluorescent lightbulbs and furnished with sticky metal chairs instead of rattan and it’s on a busy street across from the gutted high-rise Hotel Capri. A tang of metal hangs in the air from ongoing renovations at the Capri and the ocean is lost amid washed-out faces and scaffolding and persistent dust. The radio plays reggaeton or local pop, not the Buena Vista Social Club, and the only pictures on the wall are posters for local Cristal beer. But this place usually hosts at least a patron or two. Mojitos cost five pesos in the moneda nacional in which Cubans receive salaries, or 20 cents in Cuban convertible pesos, the Cuban tourist currency that’s pegged to the U.S. dollar. Here, in a downtown area that caters to CUC-wielding tourists pleased with the price tags on $3 drinks, is a bar that locals can afford.
To be sure, they are not great mojitos. Bow-tied bartenders scoop four (five? six?) teaspoons of sugar into a glass with harsh peso rum, a squeeze of lime juice from a Tetra Pak box, an anemic stalk of mint, and a top-off of tap water. At least that’s what composed my very first mojito, which I drank quickly at age twenty while pretending to understand my conversation with the two charismatic men who’d brought me and a friend to the bar and whispered the only phrase I did catch, that mojitos here were very cheap, just one dollar each. A long time later, I’d frequent a back table with a University of Havana alumna named Lucía and rotating clusters of students thrilled to pay someone to make them a drink. And a while after that, Adrián, a young jazz musician who lived across the street in an apartment owned by the (Che)
Guevara family, would smirk when I suggested coming to El Caribeño for a quick drink after one of our interviews. There were so many other, better spots opening since Raúl was in charge, he’d say. I would mostly walk past it, too, after I’d moved to Havana and started serving drinks at the apartment I rented, or stopped drinking mojitos altogether.
Havana reveals itself in snippets that build, one atop another, in a constant waterfall of places and scenes. Drink prices prove negotiable. The cluster of people outside a gas station or at a bus stop is an inflexible and enforced line. The Russian Lada or old American jalopy—a chugging Ford or Studebaker, with a mismatched door or hood ornament—is a taxi. That heavy stroller lugs not a husky baby but five dozen cups of black-market yogurt sold door-to-door from beneath a lace blanket. Consequently, the supermarket is the worst possible place to buy food, but gas stations are the most reliable spots to purchase cheap wine, except for the few months when the businessman helming the wine company dies under questionable circumstances and there’s a diplomatic inquiry and production halts altogether and there is no cheap wine anywhere on the island.
Havana initially captured my imagination because of its pervasive drama and uncertainty, but also because of what I’d initially thought of as its layers. The bars I hadn’t recognized as important, the informal mechanisms for traversing the city and procuring food, the people whose diversity and revolt emerged in well-hidden fragments—these details enticed and enthralled.
Because not only was Havana romantic and steeped in drama and history and humor, but it was inexplicable and strange and split from every cliché I’d heard or read about the city. The fact was, there was tremendous diversity, rebellion, and sophistication among the young people I met. Some danced salsa sinuously, though they couldn’t afford to go to concerts at the Casa de la Música, the city’s main tourist venue for salsa and casino. Others preferred to headbang in dilapidated amphitheaters on the outskirts of town among self-described anarchists. Nearly everyone wore jeans, not the threadbare Lycra shorts that news stories had cited, and none of them drove old cars. Months after trust had built around study sessions and then drunken evenings and then political debates, I saw that these Cubans passed around frayed copies of People or Spanish political rags, USBs loaded with Portishead or Daddy Yankee, carefully preserved copies of The Unbearable Lightness of Being between brown paper covers for discretion.
Long after I’d discovered that you could buy five mojitos for a dollar at El Caribeño, not just one, I would spend a year traveling back and forth between Havana and Mexico City, conducting interviews that began just after Raúl formally stepped into the presidency in 2008. Then I would move to Cuba to spend yet more time there. I wanted to collect the stories of today’s young Cubans in this fragile pillow of transitional time; I wanted a hint at what their Revolution could resemble.
And long after the romance of being a stranger in a new land rubbed off, after gypsy cab price negotiations and black-market food purchases became frustrations indicative of larger ills, after I’d listened to so many stories of privations and indignities borne during the worst days of post-U.S.S.R. poverty and matter-of-fact recounting of families fractured across the Florida Straits, after I’d watched unexpected roadblocks smack down along carefully laid paths out of Cuba and even paths to better lives inside the country, after I began to suspect that I didn’t know who surrounded me or what their intentions were, and after I started to yearn for something that simply was what it professed to be, without revision or footnote, grace remained. That grace was entirely created by the people in the following pages.
Adapted excerpt from The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014.
The Other Side of Paradise
“This irresistible gander at Cuba today features the liveliest prose and the sharpest eye for detail. The contradictions and improvisatory adjustments within this strange society are brought home through a series of vital portraits by the author, Julia Cooke, whose sympathy never gets in the way of her search for the elusive truth.” —Phillip Lopate
“In a series of nimble profiles, Cooke expertly documents what is likely to be the last generation of the lost youth of Cuba—the teens of the transition, with all their contradictions, sorrows, and calluses. The Other Side of Paradise is a tear-through read, full of vitality and compassion.” —Deb Olin Unferth, author of Revolution
“With top-notch reporting and an eye for detail, Cooke dives deeply into post-Fidel Cuba to deliver an intimate, exuberant, poignant account of lives spent waiting for change.” —Elisabeth Eaves, author of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents
Julia Cooke writes for Virginia Quarterly Review, Conde Nast Traveller, and various channels of The Atlantic. Her international reporting has appeared in Monocle, the Wall Street Journal, and Metropolis, and she’s written personal essays for the Paris Review Daily, The Christian Science Monitor, and Guernica.
She’s written about her experiences buying gourmet food on Havana’s black market, covered Mexico City’s first and only sex fair, profiled the most prolific design writer in the U.S. and a young prostitute in Havana, and explored the urban planning woes that led to Mexico City’s sprawl. Julia is the recipient of fellowships from The Norman Mailer Center and Columbia University. After five years in Mexico City and Havana, she currently lives in New York City, where she teaches writing at The New School.
Her first book is The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, narrative nonfiction about youth culture in post-Fidel Havana. She also (sometimes) writes Rum & TuKola, a Cuba blog-let.
www.julia-cooke.com April 2014 This article formed part of the April 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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