In his new book Havana, A Subtropical Delirium, Longtime Caribbean correspondent and award-winning author Mark Kurlansky mixes history, travelogue, recipes and hand-drawn illustrations for a unique, insider's view of Havana. He takes us to the city’s colorful streets and mojito swilling bars in this interview.
Longitude. You describe change as one of Havana’s fundamental characteristics and predict more transformation to come. What are some specific changes you have witnessed in the city over the past few years? Kurlansky. Contrary to what most Americans imagine there have not been huge changes in the last few years. There are more Americans but there were already millions of tourists. The big changes came in the 199os after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before that there was almost no tourism. Now there are shops restaurants and hotels and many of them are either partly or entirely privately owned. By the year 2000 there were more tourists in Havana than any year in the famous 1950s. Longitude. What has been the effect of the new U.S. administration and of Castro’s death in Cuba? Kurlansky. Fidel Castro’s death was long anticipated and arranged for. Fidel has not been a player for a decade now and in fact was seldom seen or heard from. When he showed up to meet the pope last year everyone was amazed that he wasn't dead yet. Like so many things that the Revolution has done this was an extremely savvy approach. There was no transition, nothing changed. The change was when he stepped down but that was a long time ago now. As for Trump, who in their right mind would try to predict him. Years ago he tried to illegally sneak around the U.S. embargo and open a casino in Havana. The Cubans, having a long history of sleazy Americans and their casinos, did not go for it. Campaigning in Florida, he tried, largely unsuccessfully, to get Cuban votes by saying he would take back Obama’s “concessions” unless there were human rights improvement. What he will really do is anyone’s guess, probably his too. Longitude. Your book is wonderfully focused on Havana culture. Are there other places in Cuba you recommend to travelers? Kurlansky. Yes. The colonial architecture of Trinidad and Santiago, the gorgeous landscape of Pinar del Rio, and check out the caves, some of the best sea coast in the Caribbean, incredible fishing… Longitude. How does the culture of the city differ from rural Cuba? Kurlansky. Havana is a big city with fast talking, cynical urbanites with a wicked sense of humor. Because in the centuries of slavery, until 1886 it was the center for free blacks, it is the center of African culture—music, religions, traditions, even ways of speaking. Longitude. What is your favorite Cuban dish, and where can travelers find the best iteration of the recipe in Havana? Kurlansky. To be honest the best thing in Havana, what will always linger as a memory, is drinks. The taste that tells me that I am in Havana is a mojito. It used to be that you could only get a mojito here. Now it is just the only place you can get a good one. Everywhere else it is the wrong mint, not the local spearmint, or it is the wrong rum, or it has too much ice. The famous place is the Bodeguita del Medio which also has good country style pork dishes and great bolero groups, but there are many other places with good mojitos. Longitude. You describe Habeneros as warm and open with a great sense of humor and love of political irony. Are there other cultural traits or aspects of Havana’s history that an outsider should be sensitive to? Kurlansky. If you are Americans or Spanish you should be sensitive to the fact that Spain and the U.S. have horribly abused the Cuban people for centuries. American abuse continued to the present day and Cubans are constantly reminded of it by the Guantánamo naval base that we took by force, use for torture and refuse to return. Cubans, unlike Mexicans, do not wear their grievances on their shoulder. They are too polite for that. But you can bet it is there. Longitude. Window seat or aisle? Kurlansky. No preference. But when you arrive in Havana try not to pet the adorable drug sniffing spaniels. Longitude. Outside of Cuba, where is your favorite place to travel and why? Kurlansky. I love all of the Caribbean as long as you stay away from the beaches with resorts. Just the greatest people in the world, and I love Basque country, one of the most beautiful spots in the world and a place where I have deep roots. Longitude. What books, beyond your own, do you recommend to the traveler to Cuba? Kurlansky. Read some fiction. Cecelia Valdez, the great novel of nineteenth century Havana. Read Pedro Juan Guttiérrez’ Dirty Havana Trilogy about life in Havana’s abandon buildings, or read Leonardo Padura’s murder mysteries that are all about Havana. All this has been translated into English. OR the works of the great anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, some of which are in English. If you have the time, read Hugh Thomas’ excellent 1,500 page history of Cuba, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. The subtitle is what Cuban history is all about. I spend a lot of time on bibliographies and suggest you check out the one in the back of my book.
Illustrations by Mark Kurlanksy
Author Photo Credit: Sylvia Plachy