26 Mar 2017

Cumpleaños Cubano by abbieredmon

5/7

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Today is my birthday. Ascanio wants a rest day, and Cristian is sick. We lose two and gain one — Albina from Russia — and our group of five finds a taxi to take us to Competition Wall 2016.

We tumble out of the taxi at El Palenque, a bar built inside of a cave, and walk down the road to the right, to the limestone rock face awaiting us. We are not the only ones to have this idea today, but there are plenty of routes, and we climb alongside 10 or 12 other people, fighting the mosquitoes in the shade. The routes are fun, and the views from the top are great.

In the early evening, we walk back to El Palenque and stand by the road, sticking two fingers out every time we see a car come around the corner about three-quarters of a mile down the road. We are ignored by a couple of horse-drawn carts, a bus, and a few taxis that are already full before we finally hail a teal blue Chevrolet being driven in the opposite direction. The farmer agrees to turn around and take us back to town for seven pesos, so we throw our packs in the back and jump in.

The bench seats squeak as we bounce down the road, passing other ancient vehicles and two kids on bicycles leading a horse by the reins. Air rushes in through the open windows, and I close my eyes.

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Later, I rejoin my climbing amigos in front of El Olivo on the main drag — this group cleans up well, and the boys have cigars tucked into their shirt pockets.

We are led to a table in the back of the high-ceilinged restaurant and are given menus. However, our resident Italian takes charge of the food and wanders off to have a discussion with the chef. They proceed to collect our menus, and we wait patiently at the table with double mojitos — our only job is to consume whatever arrives.

And consume we do: rabbit, duck, lamb, steak, seafood stew, beef lasagna — we are carnivores tonight, and it is good. Each wielding a knife and fork, we pass the plates around the table, sampling everything until we’ve slurped all of the meat out of the crab legs and revealed the bones of the birds and other creatures they have brought us.

At the end of the meal, when we are impossibly full, someone insists on a candle for me to blow out, and as I don’t think birthday candles are very common in Cuba, I am brought a large candle in a glass jar, lit just for me. They set it down next to a pineapple pie and a small flan. I blow it out. Ryan Gosling asks if I made a wish — I forgot. He immediately ignites a lighter in front of my face and insists I try again, so I do.

We are ushered out of the restaurant somewhat unceremoniously as they close and the wait staff prepare to drive 30 to 45 minutes in scattered directions to their homes. Pouring out into the still-warm air, we weave through the festivities of the final day of el carnival — the street is covered with trampolines and a moon bounce, a rickety-looking tilt-a-whirl, miniature ponies pulling children down the street in wooden wagons, and the smallest Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen, cheap jewelry and plastic toys for sale, fried potato slices, rum cocktails, music pounding out of 30-year-old speakers at deafening decibels, and everywhere Cubans dressed in their favorite clothes.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but suddenly Ryan Gosling has removed his shirt and is getting Che Guevara tattooed on the center of his chest in airbrushed colors.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but suddenly we have all gotten Che Guevara tattooed on our bodies, and it is the perfect birthday present.

We leave the thumping sounds of el carnival behind and escape to the breezy balcony above my casa. Someone acquires beers, and the boys smoke their cigars.

It is these moments you always hope for: new friends and surprises, a balmy night and a nice patio. Viva Cuba libre, amigos.