We are to meet at La Bodeguita, said to be one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts in Havana, Cuba. It’s packed, mostly with non-Cubans. I get a drink, as I – a little bored – have arrived a bit earlier than agreed. I retire to a corner, ostensibly to observe; in truth to shrink back a little, a shrinking violet tonight. The bar is marked in most of the guides – tourists arrive, look at the book in their hands, check the sign. Some move on, ticking it off the list – just to have been is enough. Others step through the door, to drink a mojito here, in the bar where it was invented.
I am happy the Mojito was invented. I am happy to be at the place, if not at the time, of its birth.
Hemingway’s words, written in his own hand – “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” – immortalised on the wall behind the bar. I find it hard to get thrilled by his presence. I love Hemingway, but have never liked Ernest. He is emblematic for me, of American writers of that era, who travel. Such strength in describing their own cultures, they romanticise others. They have to imbibe it, adopt it. It comes across as patronising, attempting to live and preserve a culture that they don’t understand, in the way they’ve heard it should be lived. Hemingway did it. Miller did it. Fitzgerald did it. The Lost Generation.
The Four have arrived. They are not filled with excitement by this place either. We leave.
We were pinning our hopes on La Bodeguita, and no one is sure what to do, or where to go. We wander Obispo a little, try one, try another, nothing quite suits. We come to another bar – if this one doesn’t work, we might just call it quits. Well – let’s at least sit down and have a drink, then maybe make a decision. The staff have seen us now, and have started shepherding us into the bar – three or four of them, almost linking arms and circling behind us.
The seats are at least filled by locals, and the band sound OK, so we decide to sit down for a drink and give it a chance.
The band are good. Really good, actually. The bass-player has a constant smile on his face all of them completely in the moment. They play salsa-influenced – I think – traditional songs, because the crowd sing along. Normally, I hate salsa, but this is good. There is a table of locals, up and dancing with each other, loud, laughing, ignorant of their surroundings but so involved as well.
Born into salsa, raised on a diet of it. Liquid, effortless it seems.
The place is brightly lit, too brightly lit. The building can’t hold the light in, and it spills out onto the darkened streets. At some point though, we turn around, it’s dark behind us, only the stage bathed in the light now. We can only sense the presence of other people.
Half in light, half in shadow – he has no instrument, but is playing along with them. Moments – spasms, reflexes – he is conducting them.
He edges out of the darkness, the band begin to notice him. They are at first amused – the bass guitarist thinks he’s hilarious. The old man seems to know his stuff though – he’s leading them into the breaks, pointing to the instruments and counting them back in. He’s not quite the eccentric we thought.
The drummer comes in for specific attention. The old man vehement with him, at times grabbing a pair of sticks and playing along, almost flicking the drummer out of the way with his hip. The old man unafraid to admonish him – quite publicly – when he feels he’s missed a pattern, or a break, or his timing is out. I’m amazed the drummer is able to keep a cool head, and remain on the stage.
He joins us later, the old man. He finds out I am a New Zealander, and does a very passable haka. I tell him I do samba percussion, and earn his approbation when I can’t keep up with the patterns he lays down for me.
I cannot drink & drum.
I am side-lined by my better coordinated compañera, and I watch – a little jealously – as she picks up the pattern quickly.
But I lose sight of him, as we – the five of us – engage one last time, because it is our last night.
And when we turn back, he has drifted off, away, into the night. And I find myself hoping that he has somewhere important to go, someone waiting for him. Or at least that he knows he is touching, affecting people wherever he goes, that he is an addition to the world.