In Havana you can't remove drinking from music. It's a city where you move through bubbles of music, all intersecting, overflowing, bleeding into each other; from bars, from restaurants, from the windows of homes played on scratchy vinyl and all just adding to the magic. A land of crumbling streets and cracked walls, where women with creased faces smoke cigars the size of a baby's arm on the stoops of their homes, and cars continue running purely on the power of prayer. A place that's not flooded with electricity, just enough to create shadow and mystery. The drink of choice here is Cuban rum, silky smooth and as complex as a Kardashian's marriage.
Drinking Havana is a tale of two cocktails, both proving that rum is capable of magic. The Mojito calls to you from its birthplace at La Bodeguita del Medio, where rows of glasses, filled with pungent yerba buena mint and lime, are produced conveyer-belt style for the endless horde who pack this tiny place, which, despite being smaller than my bathroom, comes complete with an enthusiastic six-piece band and walls scrawled with the names of past drinkers.
The Daiquiri, meanwhile, will lead you to El Floridita, which is dark and hasn't changed much since the Fifties, but then not much else has either. Here, as you sip your drink to the sound of whirring blenders, you're watched over by a statue of Ernest Hemingway himself, patron saint of cocktail lovers everywhere, cast in bronze and caught in what you'd suspect was a very good night indeed judging by the smile on his face. In fact Havana is as much the city of Hemingway as Oak Park, Illinois. Few drinkers in history have ever been quite as dedicated as him. Legend has it he was the first allied soldier to liberate Paris and solely so he could get an inaugural crack at the bar at the Ritz. When he decides to retire somewhere it should tell you all you need to know about it's liquid opportunities.
It's not just about the famous bars and the colonial hotels though. Hospitality is everywhere in Havana, lining the walls of the little plazas and squares which fill as the sun goes down with people talking, laughing, arguing about baseball (loudly), the residents in the balconies above unafraid to add their own opinion to the mix, and complete with mandatory old man dancing in the middle. I suspect at least one communist by-law says you can never be more than fifty-feet from a mojito. It's comforting to know they got at least one thing right.
It has it's dangers. You must be on guard for pushy prostitutes and Jinateros; dapper conmen with flawless English and lovely teeth, offering syrupy invitations to visit the famous Buena Vista Social Club, which would appear to be in an overpriced and out of the way bar for which they're paid for every unsuspecting tourist who walks through the door. For the record, the actual Buena Vista Social club closed 50 years ago.
You'll never get away from knowing you're drinking in a communist dictatorship, the signs are everywhere, the whole place is held together by duck tape, twine and sheer optimism. But when the sun goes down, filing off the hard edges and painting over the cracks, and if you can forget for a minute the big issues, you can enjoy quite simply the best place on earth to drink a cocktail. Once you've been there you will always dream of it. I dream of it still.
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