Mojitos in Habana Vieja
On my second day in Cuba, I find myself in the notoriously touristy Bodeguita del Medio at 1 pm, studiously avoiding a German backpacker’s attempts to catch my eye and sipping on an overpriced and mediocre mojito as the band in the corner plays yet another Buena Vista Social Club cover. It’s not my kind of place, not remotely, but I’m following Hemingway.
The bar is one of the many destinations on the Hemingway trail: the legendary alcoholic himself famously declared that this classic dive bar was his go-to for mojitos. A little digging suggests that Papa Hemingway was never actually a regular, but I won’t find that out until well after leaving Cuba. And you can’t blame the owners for capitalizing on the story.
The duo of paunchy, middle-aged bartenders—one named Rey, and one whose name I don’t manage to catch—are visibly bored by their work. They keep dozens of half-made mojitos under the heavily-graffitied wooden bar: tall glasses full of wilted mint, bottled lime juice, and sugar, just waiting for ice, a generous pour of Havana 3 Year Old, and a token splash of soda water. I have a drink in my hand less than a minute after I walk in.
“You must get tired of making these,” I say. The barmen shrug.
“No,” Rey answers. “It’s where the money comes from.”
Once they realize I speak Spanish, their dour expressions brighten a little and both bartenders turn out to be incredibly friendly. I ask them about the bartending scene in Havana and they tell me about the best rums (Santiago, not Havana Club) and the bars Cubans actually go to. The crowd of tourists waxes and wanes and they polish off over two liters of rum before I finish my drink.
“I prefer tequila,” the man who isn’t Rey tells me. “But it’s hard to get here.” He tells me about a friend of his, an American doctor, who always brings a bottle of 1800 when he visits. I make a mental note to do the same if I come back.
They’re surprised that I’m in Cuba alone. To be honest, it’s not the easiest place for it—after months of solo backpacking, Havana is the first place that actually makes me feel lonely—but Cuba is well worth a little social discomfort. “It’s not so bad,” I say. “I’m just excited Americans can finally come here.”
“We love Obama,” the tequila drinker says. “He’s the beginning of the end of this idiocy.”
He’s referring, of course, to the embargo and everything that goes along with it. The conversation drifts to the messy presidential race going on in my own country. Like nearly every Cuban I speak to over the next several days, both bartenders are praying for Hillary, horrified by the idea of a Trump presidency. The bad blood between our countries, as far as they’re concerned, is ancient history. “We don’t hate Americans,” the tequila drinker says. “We’re neighbors.”
This sentiment, too, is one I’ll hear throughout my stay. I finish my mojito as yet another wave of tourists hits and Rey starts doling out the next round of cocktails. I’m getting my wallet out to pay when he sets another mojito down in front of me. This one has a healthier sprig of mint in the bottom, though the taste is pretty much the same. “This one’s on us,” he says. “Welcome to Cuba.”