The pink cocktail umbrella garnishing my ice cream seems decadent in a country where toilet paper is scarce. The day is hot, but there’s shade on the sidewalk patio of the Inglaterra Hotel. A little over a century ago newspapermen sipped aged rum here and fabricated reasons for the US to enter the Spanish-American war. Today teenagers cruise by on homemade skateboards: planks of recycled wood with tacked on wheels that click on the concrete like a train.
Buicks and Cadillacs, some so cherry it’s hard to believe they are fifty years old, taxi around the city picking up passengers for a peso. Drivers smile proudly when I ask them to show off their engines, which boast perfect replicas of American parts sculpted from Russian scrap metal.
The faded elegance of baroque buildings haunts the wide boulevards. Pastel structures crumble, defying complex scaffolding and disregarding the families who hang their laundry on the balconies. Bottom floors have been converted to paladares - family-run restaurants that serve huge portions of fresh tangy fish, spicy beans with rice, and cold beer. Peppery smoke trails from cigars into the bustling street where eighty-year-old maraca players shake their hips next to teenage bassists. They wear purple satin shirts and croon about Che and lost love. Hotel bands play the ubiquitous Buena Vista Social Club repertoire, but the local hangouts allow newer songs, and I dance. Everyone moves, swinging with perfect one-two-three rhythm, while tourists stumble and giggle as locals teach them to spin “como una cubana.”
Outside of Old Havana, murals adorn the pedestrian alleyway of the Callejon de Hamel. Salvador, the painter, chats earnestly with onlookers, explaining how he built a vibrant playground in this forgotten neighborhood. He shapes Afro Cuban gods from red and blue oils, paying homage to Santerian saints. He tells us that on Sunday there’s a rumba festival here; all are welcome to join the crowd that will pulse and sweat to the hypnotic drumming.
Around the corner a hundred people file into the Copellia, a park dedicated to ice cream. The sun burns and voices get louder in anticipation of a scoop of frozen sweetness: chocolate, spiced almond and coconut. I follow the walkway that swirls around the park and ends at a row of people sitting at a counter shaded by a structure reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland.
As evening falls I return to the Inglaterra for a strong Cuban coffee and watch as a pair of young black women approach two Italians. The tourists are tipsy from the salty sea air and syrupy mojitos. The girls are beautiful with white spangled scarves wrapped around their heads; one wears a miniskirt and smiles. She runs her fingers through the hair of the drunker boy, convincing him to buy her dinner. Later they will stroll along the Malecon where waves from Miami crash over the walls and flood the slippery sidewalk, splashing lovers and soaking kids who play in the spray to stay cool.