Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The 'Real' Havana

Since we'd arrived in the city, Odalys and Odalkys had been doing our laundry, cleaning up after us and making all of our meals, I wanted to repay their hospitality by taking them out on the town. I just had one request, that we go out in style and see the real nightlife of Havana! They seemed to be in the know and I was sure that Odalys, being a professional dancer, would be up on all the coolest clubs. We tasked them with picking a venue and planned to meet up later after our farewell dinner with Pedro and Olivia.

Old cars outside El Capitolio...waiting to taxi away folks who eat too many shrimp at the nearby restaurants
After gorging ourselves on shrimp cocktails followed by shrimpy soup followed by giant plates of creamy shrimp in a restaurant across from El Capitolio we stuffed ourselves into a 'vintage' taxi and set off back to Vedado to meet the Os at their nightlife hotspot of choice. I was expecting a dark and seductive club, possibly something open-roofed, full of sweaty locals grinding and writhing to reggaeton. What I was not expecting was a hotel.

When we rolled up to the Melia Cohiba I felt a wave of disappointment wash over me. It had all the charm of an airport Radisson and was the exact opposite of what I had wanted to experience. A tacky white vinyl banner with blue lettering spelling out Havana Cafe hung over a doorway to the side of the lobby. I paced back and forth in front of the sign, willing myself not to cry. Juan, Pedro and Olivia were all watching me nervously, trying to figure out why I was having a sudden meltdown.

'I'm sorry guys. I just really wanted to experience something authentic. I feel like this is just going to be a stupid tourist attraction.This is not Cuba at all. It's just really not what I wanted. I'm sorry'

They continued to look nervous, suggested we give it a chance for now and maybe try something else later if I wasn't happy, offered up the possibility that I might like it once we got inside. I knew I was being childish but I couldn't snap out of the mood that had descended on me. When the Os arrived and we got inside, things just got worse. It was a weird Cuban version of a Hard Rock Cafe, my idea of hell, a mish-mash of stereotypes and nostalgia created for people who wanted to experience a country without actually going outside. There were at most 20 people in the giant room, mostly confused, pasty folks who also seemed to be wondering how they ended up in the theme park. Though when I slid my grouchy stare around the room I was clearly the grumpiest of all the grumpy guests.

The only old cars in Havana that I hated
We sat at a table beside the stage, watching scantily clad dancers work their way through all of the usual numbers of a Cuban Entertainment Show. Pedro and Olivia excused themselves halfway through, they had to work in the morning again and were equally uninterested in the performance. We saw them off with hugs and kisses and then headed back in just as the audience participation started. 7 international man were standing awkwardly on stage but they still needed a Cuban. When the host saw Juan and I walk past his humiliation dream team was complete. Juan was pulled on stage with the rest of the men.

One after another, the 8 men on stage were forced to show off their best dance moves to a variety of Cuban rhythms. Limbs flailed, joints cracked, beads of sweat formed, jaws hung open in concentration. When it was Juan's turn, the other men accepted that the competition was over. As he danced effortlessly to a Cuban reggaeton song, they sat back in defeat. However, the host had other plans. He knew it was too easy to just hand victory to the Cuban, so he plucked a Cuban woman and me from the crowd. She was to dance with an Italian who had exhibited decent dance moves and I was to dance with Juan. For our dance, the DJ selected a waltz.

The dance contest losers watching Juan defeat them
I tried to hide my face in Juan's shoulder as he pushed and pulled me around the stage, knowing just as little about waltzing as me but trying a little harder to fake it. I felt the tears from earlier forming again, this time from complete humiliation. I also felt dinner's multi-course shrimp extravaganza rising in my throat. Juan whispered to me not to worry, to just enjoy how ridiculous this was but all I could think about was how idiotic I must look on-stage, in front of this crowd, trying to waltz. When the dance ended I tried to escape back to my seat but the host was not through with us. He teased me about finding a Cuban boyfriend in Camaguey, wondered why I went all that way when there were so many available men in Havana (with a wink wink nudge nudge to indicate himself). The crowd laughed, I stared at the floor, waiting for it to open up and swallow me.

The floor did not open up. Instead a tie was announced, Juan and the Italian were both crowned dance victors and all the dancers from the show appeared around us dressed in white. Juan somehow slipped away to grab my camera and only the Italian and I were left on-stage, forced into some sort of hellish, never-ending chachacha circle. I kept my eyes on the feet of the dancer in front of me and mimicked his moves, swearing to myself that I would never again come to this city without a plan.

When I got back to the table, the Os were grinning like fools. They were so excited after the dance performance and my 'participation' in the dancing. My angry glares had been making them nervous earlier but after seeing me onstage they were convinced that they had chosen wisely when they decided to bring us to the Havana Cafe. They knew it was popular with tourists, I was a tourist, ergo it would be popular with me. Seeing their eager smiles, and realizing that this debacle of an evening was for my benefit, didn't improve my mood but it did convince me to fake a better one. I dug up the best smile I could muster and told them I loved the show, that I was having so much fun, that I was so happy we were all able to enjoy this awesome place together.

Their smiles got bigger and they grabbed my hands, leading me towards the dancefloor that was filling up post-show. Juan followed close behind me and spoke quietly into my ear.

'Thank you'
'For what?'
'For pretending you're having fun. I know this isn't what you wanted. I guess they just didn't understand.'
'It's okay. They tried their best.'
'Still, thank you.'

With the warmth of his breath on my neck and two grinning cousins in front of me, I realized it really was okay. Maybe this wasn't the 'real' Havana I had hoped for but it was a real experience with real people. I let the last of my bad mood slide away and started to dance.


  1. Mr anonymous here again Veradis!Keep em coming!
    As i said,been to Havana 4 possibly 5 trips I must have been in most of the hotels for a drink,but not the Melia Cohiba,and said was going there on my next trip.Maybe not now!
    My favourite place is Cafe Sofia on La Rampa near the Nacional.A mix of locals and tourists,music almost all day every day.Great band called Brisas(forgot the rest) play often.Nice music,nice guys.Underrated.
    Gracias Veradis.

    1. You know that may be the place we ended up last time we were there! Sounds very familiar...but I'm terrible at noticing names!!
      I think if you're short on time and want to see a singing/dancing show the Havana Cafe could be a cheap/easy alternative to the Tropicana. For a drink and to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Definitely not!

  2. After many years in exile in Belgium since I was 2 years old and taking advantage of the recent changes in Cuba I decided to re-acquire and restore one of the old mansions that my family abandoned in the early 1960's. Now I spend part of the year in Havana and love exploring the city and the country in my 1958 Cadillac.
    I understand the frustration of many tourists and other foreigners when they are exposed to places like the Havana Cafe as typical of a Cuban experience. Although there are some more authentic establishments and folkloric spots in the city what most people do not realize it's that the culture of this country has many faces, the norm in Havana is “not” a thatched roofed locale full of sweaty shirtless people dancing to regeaton music, for the deep pocketed tourist and many Cubans it is the upscale night club scene or restaurant, you must remember that Cuba is not an African or a Central American country. For over two centuries Havana was one of the most recognized international cities in the world and it still wants to retain or recreate part of this status which has been somewhat lost in the las 50 years.
    Depending in your personal tastes, Havana offers a wide array of interesting activities especially in the cultural area, there are countless museums housed in grand historical buildings some dating back four centuries, the Havana Symphony performs weekly at the Amedeo Roldan theater which has a very nice bar at the top with a wonderful view of the Vedado section of the city, the all women Camarata Romeo holds concerts of classical and semi-classical Cuban music at the Saint Francis Basilica built in the late 1500's, the Opera season has top productions for very reasonable prices, you can enjoy one of the best ballets in the world at the historical Grand Theater of Havana (1838), if you desire more traditional Cuban sounds try the Gato Tuerto which occupies a castle looking mansion in Vedado, La Zorra y el Cuervo, located in a large basement at La Rampa (23rd St.) provides the best Jazz in the city. If you prefer a more sophisticated atmosphere experience La Torre bar-restaurant on the 35th floor of the Focsa Building (1953) with breathtaking views of Havana or have dinner at The Emperor on the first floor which also offers live romantic music. Other spots that offer great views are the Turquino Club and the restaurant on the 25th floor of the Habana Libre (Old Hilton(1956), most of the old night clubs with the usual Las Vegas revue are all open and audience participation is not a norm at these places, if you speak Spanish there are always several theaters offering excellent plays , from classical to burlesque and standup comediennes. (the Havana Film Festival is held every year at many of the enormous and opulent Cinema Palaces like the Payret Thearet built in 1887 as an opera house).
    If you like sports the Club Habana (fromerly The Biltmore Country and Yacht Club) has great golf,tennis, private beaches, very elegant dining which includes private dining rooms, Saturday night dances with a 40 piece big band orchestra etc. There they can also direct you to where polo games are being held in Havana during the season.(you can purchase a membership for the day)
    If you really want to enjoy the city I urge you to research and plan your next visit according to your interests and tastes and as a member Cuba's former aristocracy which was the largest in the Americas with over 300 noble European titles I can assure you that yes, you can enjoy certain typical Cuban things but it is very hard to simplify it's culture.