“Don’t be worried. The first part of the house is not very nice looking, but the restaurant upstairs is beautiful.” We have trusted our Cuban guide this far, so we emerge from the bus expecting the best. It’s our farewell dinner, after all. The door at 418 Concordia is large and old and imposing, but we are not really prepared for what awaits us—a haunting mansion where we might not happily take our chances in any other city on earth, each floor of the magnificent staircase revealing a little more of the story of decline in the once thriving Havana. Here, we throw away our caution and try to commit every decaying detail to pixels. This early twentieth century house, owned by Enrique Nunez del Valle, was the setting of Cuba’s 1993 Oscar-nominated film, Fresa y Chocolat [“Strawberry and Chocolate”]. The rooftop supports La Guarida, a privately owned restaurant, known as a paladar, likely the best in Havana. La Guarida lives up to its claim to be an “emblem of Havana.” It is the epitome of my experience in Cuba this week—a mass of contradictions that continues to function, if only just barely on the fumes of capitalism now seeping into Fidel’s dream of revolution. La Lucha (the struggle) informs nearly everything you try to do in Cuba. Entonces, I enjoy the drama.
Like everywhere else I went in Cuba, at La Guarida, I was drawn into the encounter by the hips of my senses, ignoring stray warning signs. Traveling with a group of photographers, I am infatuated with this building and its drama. We are difficult to herd on a normal day, and this restaurant/residence proves the greatest challenge of our week together. There is never enough time! The tricky light on the stairs requires attention, but so does every wall, every drop of paint, and every stick of wood I pass in this building where Fidel Castro himself is rumored to have lived. A fan has left a tribute on one landing. A red light beckons from an apartment below. At the top of the building, memorabilia and photos of famous guests cram the walls, and there isn’t enough time to look at everything. Havana. As if 1955 met 2000 and made a country. In the outdoor dining room, we are surrounded on three sides by the moonscape of ruined and reviving Havana at night, the beautiful glass stairway tower and frosted glass wall on the fourth. January 11 is the night before the full moon, and the blue hour is exquisite.
Havana. Really? While we are enjoying a delicate tasting of pumpkin soup, eggplant caviar, delicate, tiny tacos, and lobster risotto, according to a recent report, the people on the streets below may not have anything to eat. Will the gamble on tourism pay off? La Esperanza es todo.
The meal at La Guarida was flawlessly prepared, served to 15 people graciously, and capped with a delicious diminutive signature chocolate torte, topped playfully with a strawberry meringue accompanied with a crushed lemon pie. Everything is accomplished with our cameras constantly clicking—thanks to our host’s precision, we will be in time for our reservation at the bijou landmark, Cabaret Tropicana and all its pink smoke and over-the-top production values…but this is a place to linger, and we have certainly fallen in love.
But, here’s the thing. The choreography of our visits seems shaped by some unseen hands. I have lived with and captured contraventions this week. As I offered a man in a starched white shirt a coin for his photo in front of a bell created in the 17th Century, he wept, hugged me and said, “We have been waiting for you, America.” To thank me, he exchanged one of mine for a coin with Che Guevara’s likeness. His melody I heard from many Cubans. Should I be doubtful? Another night, a Cuban woman lambadas suggestively with the men on the tour. “Check your wallets,” someone mutters, disbelieving the argument of her hips. Tourism dictates: Americans first. Cubans can wait. We are frequently shamed into silence when we register what has happened in the years since America left. How we benefit now. Cubans are proud without arrogance, and yet we see many are hurting. Propaganda exists everywhere, but people seem more concerned with survival and creativity than politics. At least the people we see. We marvel at the artistic productions—our university-educated guide observes that perhaps people are more creative when they have to be. Necessity, that classic mother of invention. But not always of hot water. So, salsa.
School children in our government-approved sites are happy and fed, and many speak English flawlessly. Arts and sports have a place in their lives. I envy that priority. But the challenges are there. The beautiful ballet discipline of Alicia Alonso flourishes, for example, in her daughter’s studio, but Laura Alonso tells us that she hopes to have enough money for toe shoes for the company. At 94, Alicia still directs the Ballet Nacional. Traditions persist. But…The Internet intrudes with its crazy quilt of statements, fake facts, and censored sites. Nothing is for certain except for the sound of music in every corner. Everyone is selling a CD. Everyone is trying to survive. Pink smoke and rum make it all seem possible. Quizas! Quizas? Quizas!
© 2017 Deborah S. Greenhut