Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t accept a mozzarella stick from a Cuban street pimp, but honestly, I was starving. We had been waiting in line for over two hours at what we were told was one of the best restaurants in Havana when I strayed down the block in search of a public bathroom. Giving up, I turned to see the wiry man leaning against a crumbling concrete pillar, sweat glistening on his ebony forehead in the fluorescent street light and a wide grin revealing a shiny gold tooth. “Where you from man?” he smirked.
“United States. Utah,” I said.
“Ahhhh. I love America! You like Cuban girls?” he replied, getting straight to the point.
“No. Well, yea, just not in the way you mean, though.”
“Okay, man, okay. You want one of these?”
He presented the greasy packet of fried sticks, and without much hesitation I plucked one and took a bite. My tastebuds said cheese but my eyes suspected something more like fried liverwurst. Forcing a swallow, I raised the remainder of my mystery stick to the pimp as a cheers, and sauntered back toward the restaurant. I had avoided Chlamydia, but e. coli might be right around the corner.
We were spending a few days in Havana at the end of a two-week climbing trip to the rural, limestone-studded valley surrounding the small town of Vinales, and although we had some great meals at our rented casa, the bland, never-changing combination of rice, beans, and roasted meat had begun to wear on all of us. As our gracious host Elisa had told us, “En Cuba, there is no variety.”
We had hoped our arrival back in Havana would bring some gastronomic enlightenment, but in Cuba it seems that the fresh food stays in the country, where it’s grown. Coffee and fruit are the only things all of us have consistently eaten in the past two days. No wonder toilet paper has become more valuable than the local currency.
The restaurant turns out to be a disaster—stale fish disguised in a fried coating, chicken drier than the Sahara, a simple dinner salad botched beyond comprehension. In the past, many of my most vivid travel memories have been associated with food, but the culinary events of the past 24 hours have me wishing for a case of amnesia.
Wandering the city streets between meals, we are all gripped by sensory overload after two weeks in a small country town. Leo and Henri, two young Cuban climbers we befriended during our stay, have come to Havana with us for a rare trip to the city, and although they are unfazed by the food, they seem just as disoriented by the bustling metropolis as we are.
The pungent stink of garbage and overused deep-fryer oil permeates the heavy, tropical air. Massive plumes of exhaust and pulsing reggaetone beats pour out of every vintage car on the street. If it weren’t for the bedazzled denim, flattop fade haircuts and the occasional modern bus, it would be easy to imagine this place as it once was — a colorful, ornate and bustling city by the sea. The Las Vegas of the Caribbean. But now the paint flakes, a thin veneer of dirt covers nearly everything, and spark plugs and toilet parts are sold next to neon-colored bras and knock-off jewelry at the local market. Tire-patching shops are open 24 hours a day and people of every color imaginable entwine in perpetual motion.
Things seem to operate beyond the boundaries of common sense, yet everything flows on, a vibrant labyrinth of organized chaos.
Foodwise, people sure don’t seem to be picky — hot dogs in neon-yellow buns for breakfast, sandwiches made from a hunk of festering pork that has clearly been sitting for hours and now has flies buzzing around it. You can buy beer, soda, and some kind of electric fruit drink at countless street carts and bodegas, but water remains an elusive find. Fried items seem to be the safest bet, yet the contents of those are sometimes questionable, as I already had learned. After nights of dancing to salsa and avoiding the incorrigible prostitutes, we buy small, questionable ham and cheese pizzas from roadside ovens for a dollar and hastily devour them. Do you have to be drunk to eat in Havana? No. Does it help? Probably.
In the morning at our rented casa, we share the breakfast table with a gray-haired, chain-smoking Norwegian named Peter. He is here for a few months, popping in and out of the city to see different parts of the country. Everything about him says sex tourist. Peter asks us questions in coherent English, yet he fails to comprehend the most basic responses in the same language. I fork some papaya and bring it to my mouth, but it’s intercepted by a plume of stale smoke from Peter’s third cigarette. I push the scrambled eggs, gelatinous ham and “toast” (bread microwaved until it reaches the consistency of Styrofoam) around on my plate to make it seem as if I actually ate. Again, coffee and fruit.
On our last night before flying back to the States, our friend Courtney takes us in search of a Chinese restaurant that a friend of hers had recommended. By the grace of the unbreakable bond that is Communism, Havana has a large and very thriving Chinatown. Eggrolls? Moo Shoo? Anything but beans and plantains. We wander the trash-strewn alleyways below sputtering neon lights, and finally arrive below a dragon-festooned entry way. Asian women in kimonos buzz around the restaurant. We sit, and soon our table is covered in heaping platters of fried rice, lobster stir-fry, wontons and kung-pao chicken. I lean over the plate and inhale the rich, fiery steam. Something so foreign has never felt so familiar.
Partway through the meal, our Cuban friend Leo motions in curiosity to the small bowl of hot chili sauce that the waitress has placed in the center of the table. “Tomate,” I say, spooning a generous heap on top of his rice. “Es bueno.” I thought the lack of salsa in Vinales was puzzling, but now I realize Leo is completely unfamiliar with the concept of “kicking it up a notch.”
Before he can detect my subtle grin, he forks a huge bite and downs it. Almost instantaneously his eyes grow big and along with some stray rice kernels, he lets loose a girlish shriek. “Ooooooowwwwhhh!!!!”
The table erupts in laughter. Henri is giggling so hard he nearly falls out of his chair.
I can’t decide if I’m laughing because I’ve just sandbagged a 22-year-old into eating spicy food for the first time in his life, or because here we are, seven Americans in Cuba, having the best meal of our trip at a Chinese restaurant. Maybe the food doesn’t have to be good to be memorable.
Andy Anderson is a content editor for Black Diamond. Photos by Emily Polar
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.