Cuba: Coffee that Tastes Like Coffee
March 28, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — I've never understood people's addiction to coffee. I
love its smell, and I find it delicious with milk or cream, but it's
almost impossible for me to drink it by itself.
No matter how much sugar I add, there's no way for it not to be
unbearably bitter to me. That's what I thought until this past Sunday.
Now I think I might become addicted to that black nectar.
That evening, a few of my Havana Times co-workers and I met at the El
Aljibe restaurant with two professors and several of their journalism
students from the United States.
The students wanted to meet writers from HT to learn about our work on
the website and our diverse vision of life here on the island.
None of the four of us who attended the meeting (Veronica Vega, Yasser
Castellanos, Francisco Castro and I) had ever eaten there before – nor
will we probably do so again.
Actually, we didn't even know the place existed. Can you believe that I
had to send an email to the US teachers asking for the address of a
restaurant in my own country, in my own city?
Despite transportation difficulties, the four of us managed to get there
on time. In fact, we got there too early, a half an hour early. When we
have arranged to meet with someone from abroad, we Cubans do our best
(more than usual) to arrive early.
Among us, foreigners are known for being on time (especially Germans).
Perhaps it's easy to be punctual in their countries, here it's an
odyssey. Because of this, if you have a meeting with someone from here
and you're late, you can expect them to understand and wait for you.
Sometimes the reason for our delay has nothing to do with
transportation; but that's our excuse, and the other person will believe
you since transportation problems are our daily headache.
As it turned out though, the teachers and students from the US arrived
half an hour late, when I was about to suggest we leave. In fact, I had
already started doing something that's become customary with me in the
wake of some recent events in my life: speaking poorly of "Americans."
They arrived fearing that we had left and apologizing that their plane
had been delayed. They had barely had time to drop off the luggage at
their hotel before heading out to meet us.
In circumstances like these, sitting at the table in an expensive
restaurant, one runs the risk of forgetting who you are. Since the food
situation is so difficult for most Cubans, normally we wouldn't think of
going to a restaurant like this. But there suddenly appeared a noble
soul that refreshed our memory. Who? Another Cuban.
It was the Cuban guide who accompanied the US group. He explained that
everyone was going to get a welcome drink, adding that they could also
have another included in the meal price.
I made the mistake of asking if the drink contained any alcohol, so the
guide explained that the welcome drink was for the group (which didn't
include my friends and I). What was I thinking? This was a welcoming
toast, and I hadn't come from (or gone to) any place outside this country.
In the end, though the waiters also offered us drinks, but I didn't want
Outside of this insignificant incident (and another one later on, when
Veronica saw that the driver of the bus for the Americans, also a Cuban,
didn't wave back or respond when we thanked him for dropping us off in
Vedado), the night was very pleasant.
Our hosts were friendly, young, and intelligent, plus each had sense of
humor. They were eager to learn about Cuba: the society, sports,
culture, fashion… and bad words.
We also liked the food a lot. The specialty of the place is chicken, but
Veronica, Yasser and I are vegetarians. Nevertheless they prepared a
rich dish of rice with vegetables for Veronica, while Yasser and I ate
some wonderful black beans.
Just when I was thinking it would be worth returning to that restaurant
if only for the beans, they brought us some coffee. I decided to try a
sip of Yasser's, which was a strong, frothy, very aromatic espresso with
a slightly bitter aftertaste. Divine.
What's rationed monthly in our neighborhood stores for the subsidized
price of five pesos (about 25 cents USD), is one four ounces pack that
obviously doesn't last the month. Therefore people are forced to pay ten
or fifteen pesos per pack on the black market, though this coffee has
nothing to do with what I drank on Sunday at the restaurant.
What we get is a bitter drink that almost scratches your throat. It's
the chicharo (crushed peas) Veronica explained to me the next day.
Generations of Cubans have become so used to having this chicharo in
their coffee. It's to the point that when their cup doesn't have any,
they actually miss it.
It might seem that I'm using coffee as an excuse to criticize the
government, that the writers for HT do nothing else, and that we spend
all our time looking for something to attack.
But no. There are much more serious issues, more important demands to
make on the government than to think about something as insignificant as
coffee that tastes like coffee.
What happens is that when you realize you've never drank coffee, or
quality coffee, in your whole life, and that your wage doesn't permit
you to buy it — much less consider inviting your family to a restaurant
like El Aljibe even once a year — you wonder what you can aspire to in
your own country.
I always remember that question Eliecer Avila posed to Ricardo Alarcon
in 2008: "How long are we going to have to sacrifice?" Now I wonder: For
what? Why did my parents work? Why do I work?
Some people might think that we Cubans are fortunate. We have the luxury
of complaining about coffee when there are people all around the world
who have to settle for one meal a day – if they're lucky.
They would be absolutely right if the political elite in power hadn't
boasted for years with comparisons about our being at the level of
developed countries…or if that same elite that demanded sacrifice and
austerity in the nineties didn't enjoy the privileges from which we are
so far removed.
I don't know if there's true equality in any society on this planet, but
they promised it to us. That was the society that our parents believed
they were building.
I can understand that to achieve such a society it was worth giving up
the freedom of the press, speech, association, and being subject to the
leadership of a single party in the name of unity. But now that that
bright future has faded on the horizon, what's our goal?
Did I need a sip of good quality coffee to think about these things? No.
After all, there are people who love coffee from the bodega, as well as
people who don't drink coffee. It's a matter of taste.
But it happens that routine sometimes makes us forget that we're second
class citizens in our own country; that our aspirations are increasingly
reduced to daily bread, and we're used to it.
Something relieved me: I'm not going to become addicted to coffee like I
feared on Sunday. This is for the simple reason that it's going to be a
long time before I'll be able to afford the luxury of having coffee with
the flavor of coffee.