Once we climbed off the bus in Havana we had a rare sensation on this trip: freedom. Every dinner that was included in the group travel experience was wonderful but this was the one time it involved the unthinkable travel experience of a hotel buffet dinner. My compañeras and I celebrated the opportunity to blaze our own trail, hailed the first cab in sight and set out for a more authentic Cuban experience near the Plaza de la Catedral.
I would never want my travel experience to actively try to direct someone else's journey to Cuba, except for this one tiny moment: you really, really should eat at the Paladar Doña Eutimia. Great location, amazing food, good prices and friendly service - and their laid back approach to welcoming you was a very nice break from the cram-a-menu-in-your-face-as-you-try-to-walk-past method of many home restaurants. It was the most authentically Cuban food we had on this trip, and one of the least costly outings. Plus, when the check arrived it came in this wonderful treasure box:
The peaceful view from our table.
What followed was a wonderful evening of just experiencing Havana, both the touristy side and the not-so-touristy side. We began with the intention of stalking Hemingway - his legend is everywhere in Havana, and it seemed appropriate since the next day would involve a trip to his home outside Havana. We started where every Hemingway tracker does: El Floridita.
I almost always avoid typical tourist draws but this one brings people in for a reason - like the Hotel Nacional, this creates a sense of timeless Havana. You half expect Gary Cooper to stroll through the door for his usual drink.
Just for the record, I would be just fine with a Gary Cooper sighting anywhere in history.
Legend attributes Hemingway with creating the daquiris that frequently flow from the red laminate bar of El Floridita but the story can be spun by fans and foes of the writer. To Cubans describing the place to tourists, it's the location where Hemingway formed a friendship with a great guy behind the bar and created a drink that would bond the two men in a lifelong friendship that lives on with each overpriced daquiri slid across the bar to visitors. To critics, it was Hemingway tossing out unrequested advice because he couldn't resist the chance to sip yet another drink before he headed home to his hotel. Either way, it's legendary and one of the few spots that brought people from all over the world for a rather cheesy, romantic experience that still holds the invaluable Cuban vibe that brought celebrities from around the world on a regular basis.
It must have been beginner's luck, because we managed to immediately find the three most coveted seats in the place: right next to our bronze amigo.
And that was when my most bizarre Cuban experience unfolded. I'd heard of the Cuban jineteros, whose activities range from pushy sales to outright prostitution, but had not been bothered by any of their antics throughout the trip. (That's not to say I didn't encounter them, because it's a fact that pretty much everywhere you go in Cuba you'll encounter some level of sales pitch - but it was a part of the experience and I'd become great at rudely ignoring them or, in a couple of cases, pretending to be deaf.) But as soon as we sat down to enjoy a conversation with the Bronze Ernest, two notably slimy looking young men hovered over us like gnats. Their requests were numerous: please take a picture of us with Hemingway, please be in the picture with us and Hemingway, why won't you talk to us, where are you from, where are you staying, we want to sit here...it went on and on and if it sounds oppressive, then I'm capturing the moment correctly.
And then the more obnoxious of the two stopped to look at me and said those words you never expect to hear in a foreign country: "Hey, I know you!" 'Tis true: this greasy man sat near me while I sat in the Hotel Melia Cohiba on my first night in Cuba. He looked entirely different there and never spoke a word to me - at the Cohiba, I thought he was a wealthy Spanish man and his Japanese companion was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. I will always be curious about that situation - was she his partner in crime? His conquest for the day? His probation officer? No idea, but the fact remained that now he was back on the hunt and driving us crazy.
We'd attracted an unfortunate level of attention by this point. This was still the ever-so-classy El Floridita so I wouldn't say it was "a scene," but people were looking our way with sympathy and curiosity. Thanks to a subtle, alert security guard/doorman and Afrodite's eloquent but short chat with The Gnats, they settled in a short distance from us and we were allowed to continue our evening in peace. Until the two left without paying for their drinks, which created one of the most entertaining scenes I saw during the whole trip. (Note: in any other circumstance I would have felt guilty about being amused by their problems, but these were truly annoying people who had tried to ruin my evening so I openly watched their predicament.)
The drama involved an indignant bartender, a watchful doorman, a young but very unfriendly-looking police officer and the tears of our two pests.
It wrapped up quickly and the two men were simply escorted out of the bar to go annoy tourists elsewhere. With the show over, the enjoyment of my El Floridita experience resumed - they have banana chips on the counter, and one of the best bands I heard in Cuba.
El Floridita was much more appealing than the other nearby Hemingway haunt, La Bodeguita del Medio, which brought to mind every reason I ever had for not being a typical college student. It's indescribably crowded, ear-piercingly noisy and if the never-ending graffiti on the walls is any indication, a place of questionable cleanliness. I visited several times but always chose to watch scenes like this one from across the street.
While Old Havana is beautiful by day, I loved it more at night. After the tourists leave, the peddlers stop drawing caricatures and the streets quiet to the sounds of normal people living their lives. Front doors are thrown open to allow in any breeze that may cool the hot summer night, friends call to each other as they pass and televisions cast dancing shadows through windows onto the cobblestoned streets below.
Window displays were rare but in the tourist-focused part of Old Havana we found something that looked suspiciously like the Pottery Barn of Cuba.
Now that I'm home I wish I would have walked around all night, but at the moment it seemed like a good idea to get some sleep. So we returned to the hotel after midnight for what was an "early night" to this fun-loving Cuban version of Beth.