At a New Year’s Eve party in Cuba, mojitos flow, inhibitions drop and everyone eats like there’s no tomorrow.
A year ago on December 28, my sometime girlfriend and I set off for Cuba with an English friend who had visited the island before. We hadn’t really thought through New Year’s Eve, but we knew we’d be in Havana and we wanted to celebrate in a big way. Since Julie and I had never visited the forbidden country, we were starting out with only the vaguest idea of what to expect there–but we had the phone numbers of many friends of friends and some of friends of friends of friends of friends, and Nicholas, who already had friends there, had said that the magic of Cuba was that it was a place where you could make anything happen.
Because Christmas had not been a going concern in Cuba until recently, New Year’s Eve had become something of a family-centered celebration. Nicholas suggested that we introduce a touch of our own culture by throwing a big party and putting together a buffet dinner for 40. We found a wonderful apartment in Old Havana, in a pretty rough area but with 20-foot ceilings and decorative columns and beautifully detailed ceiling moldings and a balcony looking out over the ancient buildings across the street. And Nicholas tracked down the utterly charming chef from his favorite restaurant, which had recently been closed down by the police. Another friend knew someone who played the guitar, and someone else knew where we could get flowers. The only candles we could find were marked “holiday” and had molded wax Christmas trees and snowmen on them; we bought a lot of these, as well as a dozen red plastic candleholders (which, we discovered later, had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire when the candles burned low). If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party: shopping, talking to cooks, getting flowers, deciding what to wear and trying not to violate the local etiquette.
The party started at about six, and we immediately began on the mojitos–the national drink of Cuba, made of rum, lemon juice, soda, sugar and lots of mint slightly crushed with a mortar and pestle. A gorgeous black lesbian ballerina named Marleni took my hand and led me to the center of the room. At Cuban parties, the dancing starts when the party starts. “Music is the most important thing there is for me,” Marleni confided. “It makes me feel things.” We were feeling things anyway: six Brits, two Americans and a broad range of Cubans (diplomats, doctors, artists, television personalities, foundation directors, musicians, hustlers, students), all gathered to celebrate our various ideas of a new beginning. The music was mostly salsa and rumba, and those of us who did not know the steps improvised or learned them. Julie and Nicholas and I soon lost our self-consciousness–the mojitos were very helpful–and started to relax into what we called the Cuba Gaze. While it is politically incorrect to generalize about nationalities, it is a simple truth that hip young Cubans have a frank and unaffected sexual quality that knows no match abroad. People do not drop their eyes toward your shoes; they take in all of you, and you feel as though they were looking straight through your clothes and perhaps your flesh and into your dreams. Through their eyes I saw an intensely erotic Julie and a diffident, sexy Nicholas, and I felt as though I too were in the throes of a highly satisfactory transformation into a polymorphic creature of infinite capacity.
And then dinner came out. The big kitchen table we’d pushed against the wall to make room for dancing absolutely groaned under its load. In Cuba, there are state-owned restaurants (which are all terrible), and there are individually owned paladares that serve up to (but not more than) 12 diners at a time. Good cooks open up these private enterprises, which are heavily taxed, in their own apartments; some of them mollify the officials and make the economics work, but many do not, and the paladares have a high turnover rate. The woman who made our dinner had missed large-scale cooking since her own operation had been shuttered, and she was ecstatic to be working again. She served us plantains fried with peanuts and raisins and several kinds of battered pumpkin to start; then spicy crab in salsa picante; then three kinds of chicken and several preparations of lamb, including a delicious stew with garlic and pineapple; then fried fish; and then two kinds of flan for dessert. Everything was heavy, everything was either spicy or sweet, everything was almost indecently delicious, and if you kept downing the mojitos, you could keep eating and dancing on and on and on.
Before midnight, we turned the music off to hear some traditional Cuban ballads. The guitar player was very handsome (he was subsequently to have romances with several of the guests at the party). Unfortunately, he could not sing, and after a half hour we were all overcome with the need to dance again. At midnight, we leaned over the balcony and poured buckets of water into the street to wash away the old year and welcome in the new. Everyone in the other houses we could see was doing the same thing, though some people had only sherry glasses and others had barrels of rainwater; someone even poured out a mojito. We put together a heaping plate of food and a drink to leave outside for the Santeria gods. And then we ate again, and then we danced until dawn, as everyone in the streets seemed to be doing when we stumbled back home at sunrise. And by the time we felt really like ourselves again, we were a good two days into 1998.