Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Havana's Magical Nights

In Havana , as night fell over the city, an automobile ceased being a form of transportation, to become an exciting instrument of pleasure. I learned this secret when I was barely a child --and it was through these endless car rides that I started loving Cuba.

A car was the ideal conduit to explore the city, discovering its many 'recovecos' , mysterious dark corners and centuries-old, narrow cobblestone streets. A vehicle to discover the inexplicable appeal of some of its most humble neighborhoods, which always seemed to drip sensuality -- a 'chiaroscuro' of images, their streets overflowing with people, music coming from every bar and every corner, illuminated by thousands of the brightest lights imaginable.In Havana people would go “for a ride” -- 'a dar una vuelta'-- to enjoy the simple pleasure of cruising the city, up and down the wide modern avenues, as well as the beautiful colonial 'paseos', its streets filled with old fashioned gaslights-turned-electric-posts, hundreds of arcades, small parks and the widest of sidewalks, where orchestras --including one integrated only by women!-- played in the open air cafés.

A car would become a magic flying carpet, taking the 'habaneros' from neighborhood to neighborhood, across rivers and bays, beaches and mountains, all so close, so near --- while so different from each other. A study in the most marvelous contrasts, the city unfolded its sensual beauty at night, dressed in the darkness of the blue sky and perfumed with the intoxicating fragrance of evening-blooming-jasmine or 'galán de noche'.

I remember my older cousin Purita –the family’s undisputed beauty queen—who in the 50’s enjoyed the best of the Havana nights, when all the women dressed up and looked marvelously beautiful, while the men wore the smartests suits --and the city seemed to have been created to show off her splendor and offer everyone a wonderful time! With a small group of friends she would start the evening with drinks at the club, then dinner at Monseigneur or La Roca, and afterwards a show and dancing at the Casino Parisién of the Hotel Nacional, or at Montmartre, where there was always a great show with Edith Piaf, Katyna Rainieri, Josephine Baker or Tongolele. If the evening lingered, they would go to a bar called 21 and have breakfast at 5am at Las Culebrinas, a terraced café near the ocean, on the way to Miramar – and very close to the mysterious high-fenced house of the eccentric Loynaz del Castillo family (Federico García Lorca’s hosts when he visited Havana in the 30’s) which had an intriguing hand written sign: "No Tiren Perros", begging people "not to throw dogs" over the high cement enclosure.

Their outings were typical of young well-to-do couples, but less lucky ones also enjoyed the city to the hilt, dressing as best they could, the women's skirts tight and pulled-in to enhance the 'derrière' and every curve of their voluptuous bodies -- the heels high, the perfume intense. Together with men in guayaberas -or very clean and starched short sleeve cotton shirts- and baggy pants, falling over spotlessly clean shoes, they all rode the crowded buses to downtown Havana to dine in its many hundreds of inexpensive 'fondas', or family-owned cafes and restaurants. Or to have a beer and dance in a bar, while the 'victrola' played the latest musical hits, or a guitar totting troubadour spontaneously serenaded the multi-racial clientele. Or they simply walked around the city, sat on the ancient rod-iron and wood benches of its many parks, ---or on the Malecon's concrete seawall, where the bursting cool mist of the ocean waves brought a welcomed freshness to their bodies.

My evenings were of another nature. I was filled with love for my city-- in complete awe of my birthplace-- and spent many nights amassing what one day would be my best memories, as I explored it with my parents -driving around Havana after dining at some of the out of the beaten path places my father loved to 'discover' (maybe a new Chinese-Cuban restaurant, or an out of the way Spanish café filled with all the cheeses, olives and sausages he loved). Or enjoying a night at the theater, since my mother never missed the new plays of the many different tiny theaters around town. This way I learned to love Alejandro Casona as well as Garcia Lorca, Tennessee Williams and Jean Anouilth-- and after the performance we would go to a nearby café to discuss it all, while eating a 'bocadito' ( a savory and slightly larger version of a tea sandwich) accompanied by a coca-cola, or 'café con leche'.

Other evenings I went out with my friends, and it was a thrill to ride around in Marta Larraz´s green Cadillac convertible -with the top down!- as men in nearby cars raced us as we laughed and flirted, speeding away along the boulevards. Since Havana at night was always breezy and cool -marvelously inviting for 'a night on the town'- we also loved the La Rampa area, where 3 or 4 couples -and at least one chaperone- would have drinks at pitch-dark bars like "La Gruta" or "La Zorra y el Cuervo".The first time I visited one of the tiny lounges (in Cuba there were no age-requirements to be served alcoholic drinks, so this happened when I was barely 13) it was so dark I thought the lights had been turned off by mistake, and immediately was surprised and fascinated as the 'maître' took us to the table --flashlight in hand!

Sometimes we would all go to the 'roof' of the St. John Hotel and sit around the piano-bar while listening to Frank Domínguez's already legendary ‘boleros’, which overflowed with 'feeling', were an intimate part of the enchanting Havana nights.Rumor said married-man Frank's most sexy composition "Tu me acostumbraste" (You Got Me Used to It) was dedicated to his first male lover. Disturbing and provoking rumors of ‘carnal forbidden pleasures’, in complete contradiction with our conservative values, and the eternal battle between “good and evil”.

Havana's evenings had a marvelously relaxed 'tempo'. Not a drop of stress in the city's 'vaivén', its unique sensual rhythm untouched by hastiness; as the night unfolded and people went from place to place, delighted, contented, without much hurry, undulating from here to there, from there to here, traveling slowly along the ocean road, the sky almost black but always filled with stars -- as they rode the streets illuminated by the colors of its many neon signs and bright lights.