I was so excited to go to Cuba in 2011, I created a bucket list of all the things I wanted to do while I was in the country. Before I left to attend a satellite conference hosted by the Social Sciences division of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), I watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode that featured Havana. Much of what he experienced contributed greatly to my bucket list. I fulfilled almost everything on my list except attending a baseball game. This post is four years overdue because my Ipad died and took with it all my notes and bucket list entries. By chance, I came across this list while looking for an email (Go me!). My next post about Cuba will discuss my observations regarding information technology and freedom of access in a communist country. Until then, please check out the monograph, Open Access and Digital Libraries /Acceso Abierto y Bibliotecas Digitales Edited by Rudasill, Lynne M. and Dorta-Duque, Maria Elena featuring subject matter from the satellite conference. As you can imagine, there are a lot of updates needed for the next post due to the passage of time and changing political climate.
Smoke a cigar
I don’t smoke. I usually hate the smell of cigars. However, I was, as Samuel L. Jackson would say, in mother f**king Cuba. So of course, this was a significant task on my list. All I wanted was a single cigar- just one cigarillo. Part of my search included bringing a Cuban for my cigar smoking Dad (Ok- I guess the term is smuggling). A Cuban colleague suggested I buy myself a Cohiba Mini Cigar and my father a larger Cohiba cigar. It turns out that single cigars were more difficult to find than I realized. Many places didn’t sell single mini cigars so it wasn’t until my last night that I found a place that did. Even before I smoked my cigarillo, I wrote about cigars my first night in Havana. At the time I wrote:
“As I’m smelling the sweet aroma of a Cuban cigar I think: It had to be rolled on the thighs of a virgin. It smells so much of a sugary nectar, a nice compliment to my buzz..”
(Buzz? Ok, so the first thing I did on my bucket list was drink a Mojito. But doesn’t my dad look smooth?)
Write a fictional piece while in Hemingway’s Bar
The name of the bar is La Bodeguita del Medio which roughly translates to “the store in the middle” because its in the middle of a long narrow street. It is known to be the place where Hemingway started his Mojito hazed days. The bar is small and filled with the scribbles of people who flock there to be in the presence of his ghost. The bartender sent me air kisses and made one of those cat calls. All I wanted was to buy my cigarillo.
Went to Hemingway’s bar
To buy a Cuban cigar
But instead all I got
Is a whistle and kiss
Adios little bar in Havana
(Hey, I had like three minutes to compose this while I was in the bar. Don’t judge me.)
Go to a baseball game
Baseball in Cuba is an addiction. I love the ambiance of a feverish sports crowd and was really looking forward to eating bad food and warm beer in the seats with the die-hard fans. Sadly, I wasn’t able to go to a baseball game as the season was done. It was one of the major items on my list. So instead, I just talked to Rafael, our driver, about baseball in his pidgin English and my non-existent Spanish.
Drink a Mojito
I think I must have done this bucket list item at least a half-dozen times. How often does one get to drink this succulent cocktail on the cliffs overlooking the ocean in Havana?
Kiss a Cuban
Other than too many romance films, I don’t know why I added this to my list. From my notes I wrote:
“You need a caballero?” Yes the Cuban men love me. Of course they love any female, but it’s nice to feel like you got game in a foreign land. I suppose kissing a Cuban will be an easy thing to knock off the Cuban bucket list.
As I predicted, it wasn’t very difficult to find a Cuban man who would let me kiss him on the cheek. I won’t kiss and tell, but I did get this done and a few wedding proposals to boot!
( I didn’t take up the offer from these men to be my caballeros but I did ask to take their picture. It may have been the shirt.)
Put my toes in the ocean
We went to Veradero Beach and not only did I get my toes in the ocean, but I got all the way in! The water was beautiful and in the crazy heat, felt amazing. I felt bad when little kids wanted to charge us for taking pictures of them but when you live in a country like Cuba who can blame them.
Take a picture of a classic car
Not only did I take amazing pictures of classic cars but I got to ride in one! I was totally shocked to learn that most of the old cars are just “classic” on the outside. They have been spliced together with various parts and whatever else they can use (I saw Duct Tape!) to keep them running. Check out the inside of our touring vehicle. These pictures are the exterior and interior of Rafael’s car the Garcia Gallion. I pray that the first imports from the US are original Pontiac and Chevy parts.
(The back seat was from a Chinese manufacturer and virtually nothing inside these cars is original anymore)
Eat at a Paladar
Paladar is the Cuban name for privately owned restaurants. They take Cuban Pesos (CUP) instead of the tourist currency called Convertible Pesos*. I was eager to eat at a Paladar. The fish and meat were served in ample amounts. The prices were equivalent to $5 a plate for a meal we would normally pay $25 for. This included the wine. It was a small place but the staff were thrilled to have a gaggle of librarians come eat at their spot. I only wish we had tipped more. It’s the cocktail waitress in me I guess.
While the food was tasty, this was the first of many meals that left me wishing I brought my travel-sized bottle of Tapatio. I tried to ask for spiciness in every Spanish variant I could think of: Salsa picante, jalapenos, even the shaking motion a bottle of hot sauce. Every time, I got a dog head tilt as a reply. Alongside Costa Rica, I had to add Cuba to my list of Latin countries that have not discovered the culinary necessity of chili peppers. If I could start a business in Cuba it would be a Sriracha hot sauce plant.
Visit a library
As it turned out, I visited many libraries in Cuba. The Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí is where our conference was held. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations so other than the presentation rooms I didn’t see much. I visited a large public library and archival collection both located in the middle of old Havana. El Buro de Homicidos was the best book title of the trip. I also met librarians who worked diligently to meet the needs of their patrons. Their passion for librarianship matched those of their American counterparts. Meeting and speaking to them about their experience providing information to the public was a highlight of my trip. In Cuba there are also underground libraries with collections made up of “subversive literature”. I wish we could have visited these as well to get an accurate representation of information access and censorship.
Oddly enough, my two favorite libraries were both abandoned. They were near the Paladar El Horno and were catercorner from each other. The sign Biblioteca is definitely the coolest library sign ever made. It was apparent the second library had been vacated for many years. If you peaked through the windows, you could see books that had been left inside. The holes in the ceiling let in light and birds used them to fly in and out of the open spaces. Ironically there was a placard on the front of the library commemorating the first time that International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) visited Cuba.
Take an iconic picture: Plaza de la Revolución
The Plaza de la Revolución is perhaps the most historically significant place in Havana I visited. Castro addressed millions in this Plaza. You could almost imagine being there when standing in the center. From the José Martí Memorial, I was able to see get this view of the plaza. I consider it my “iconic photo” of Cuba.
The Enrique Jorrin Orchestra was my soundtrack for this bucket list item. Enrique Jorrin is long gone but I guess these bands stay together and use the original name in perpetuity. He is said to be the originator of the Cha Cha Cha. The band performed in the foyer of the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí. While we danced we had an endless supply of Mojitos and Cuba Libre available at the information desk. Needless to say, I danced. Many of my readers have been on the French Quarter and witnessed drunk librarians. Yes it was like that.
(The front man was muy suave. Don’t you think so too?)
Go to Mass
I must be hanging out with my dad too much. I am not even Catholic but Catholic churches are usually one of the first things I want to see when I travel (OK- well maybe not in Saudi Arabia). I wanted to go to an old Catholic Churches in Old Havana but didn’t recall one of the basic tenets of communism: Religion is the opiate of the masses. So of course religion isn’t a dominant aspect of current Cuban society. While there are still Catholic churches, most of them have been converted. The San Francisco de Assisi in old Havana was converted into a concert hall.
Visit a bar.
I went to many bars but the coolest one was what I called “Bar of memories” in my notes. Upon further examination it is a bar located within a section of the hotel that is known as the Hall of Fame. The hall was a nostalgic look at the notorious and famous guests who stayed at the Hotel Nacional . This list included gangsters, movie stars and sadly even the Backstreet Boys. Glass cases held programs, old casino chips from the pre-Castro years and other ephemera. So many primary materials. It was a librarian’s wet dream for sure. The history of the hotel is romantic and worth checking out. The Bar attached to the hall is where I finally found my tiny cigar. Since it was my last night in Havana, I was scrambling to complete my bucket list. I hit two birds with one stone as I completed a additional task on my bucket list: Drink a tumbler of Cuban Rum – neat.
Eat at a street vendor truck.
Whenever I travel, I try to eat where the locals eat. In St. Thomas the best meal I had was from a food truck. My first day in Havana, I saw a lot of food vendors near the Malecón and decided to eat there one night. It was another thing on my list that I didn’t complete. While I could see the vendors from my hotel room, I never made it out to buy food. I got sick from water I bought on the street toward the end of my visit, so it is probably a good thing I didn’t!
While looking at the Malecón, I could see the people hanging decorations on the light poles. They were also setting up large floats that later had bands and dancers all over them. After a few Mojitos, we ventured down to the festival and had another amazing Havana night. The closest I got to buying local food on the street was purchasing a beer for $.50 that would cost $4 at the hotel. The empty street in the picture with the float was later crawling with people, soldiers and librarians .
(I wish I had quality shots of the floats but thanks to Apple’s inability to make cameras on iPhones that work at night you get a picture of me and my librarian friend Liz)
Watch the sunset on the seawall
This was the view from taken from my hotel the first night in Havana. It was this breathtaking. What is probably more awesome than this image is the fact that I could hear the Bee Gees blasting from the market tents below. Surreal.
I really enjoyed my time in Havana and I hope to go back and visit again soon, My dream is to assist Cuban libraries as they transition into a connected society. When I visited in 2011, internet access was limited and there was no online catalog or inter-connectivity between libraries. My smart phone was the equivalent to a tablet on the Flintstones. As US-Cuban relations relax and increases, I foresee an increased need for digital and information literacy for the population. Anyone in Cuba reading this feel free to send me an email when the time comes!
* I was happy to find this BBC article which notes that Cuba is changing their dual currency system.