Travel Tip: While it may seem generous, thoughtful and generally appreciated when you leave your unfinished ½ bottle of rum and laminated map of Cuba with your Airbnb host (to share with future guests!), consider writing down the precise address of your final stop in Havana first. You know, to give to the overeager taxi driver, whose English is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. There’s no Wifi, so Google searches and iPhone Maps, which you’ve come to rely quite heavily on back home, are not an option.
Thankfully, the Cuban people are very friendly, open and smiling with American tourists, who have money to spend. Cubans are also willing to ask for help, and directions, even from a stranger on the street. Three times the taxi driver pulled the car over, cut the ignition (to save on expensive gas costs), leaned across his buddy in the passenger seat, and shouted through an open window, to a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hoping to be pointed in the direction of Cuba Libro.
Opened in 2013, this cozy and welcoming spot is the Island’s 1st English-language bookstore. As the taxi made a few final sharp turns, driving the wrong way down another one-way street, we were deposited at the bookstore’s front door, just ahead of its being open for the day. Before the driver pulled away, he reassuringly insisted that he’d be back in an hour or so, to take us to the airport – he knew how to get there! He could be as much as 10 – 15 minutes late, he cautioned, and we should not be worried. He’d be back!
Cuba Libro’s Facebook page describes it as: “The coolest place under the Cuban sun. Great books and magazines in English, killer coffee/tea/juice, quality conversation and music and superlative humans. Come early for a hammock in the garden.”
We were a bit too early, so we asked for directions to someplace within walking distance, where I could purchase Cuban coffee beans, to take back to the States with me. I actually know more people who wanted me to bring back coffee than I do those who requested Cuban rum or cigars. While the owner took a few minutes to decide where to send us, because many of the places that sell coffee are known to sell out, and she didn’t want to send us on a wild goose chase, another group of Americans poured out of a taxi.
The small group of 20-somethings wanted to look around, despite the store and café not yet being open. When they were told that they were welcomed to look around, but they wouldn’t experience the café with its typical atmosphere until it was opened, they declined, and returned to the curb, where their taxi was still waiting. In stereotypical American tourist fashion, it seems they simply wanted to see the place, say they had stopped there, perhaps take a selfie for their social media outlets, and hurry on to the next “landmark”.
We were looking for a bit more than that, and had brought a dozen English-language books to donate to the shop, so we spent a half hour, or so, wandering through the Vedado district. The temperatures were in the upper 80s, and we were hauling around backpacks filled with books, but we were on a mission to track down coffee that would live up to what was served at the Airbnb breakfast table. (Note: Books can be heavy – next time, perhaps I’ll bring something a bit “lighter”, like trashy, romantic paperbacks, tabloid magazines or the owner’s manuals for major kitchen appliances. But, what’s the literary value in that?)
Upon my return to Cuba Libro, I was greeted by Toby, at the front gate. He is a former stray, who has found his forever home, and is now the “shop dog”. He has a big bark, for his size, and a big personality!
My backpack was loaded down with coffee, so I had to dig to the bottom to retrieve the books I’d brought. Sweat was pouring from. . . well, everywhere. . . and the bag had been resting in the small of my back. The pages of the books were a tiny bit moist when I pulled them out, but they were accepted with gratitude, and would find a place on the bookshelves that lined the walls of the main reading room.
The reason stated on my Cuban visa, allowing entrance into the country, was “Journalistic Activity”. With a stop at Cuba Libro, it felt like this trip to might also fall under “Humanitarian Projects”, “Educational Activities”, or “Support for the Cuban People”.
Cuba Libro engages in multiple efforts to support and develop the local community, from the donation of more than 11,000 condoms since they opened 3 ½ years ago, to dog & cat rescue efforts. The shop provides space for chess tournaments, and hosts a traditional Cuban dinner in the garden (Cena Mambi), where the food is organic and local, served on ceramic plates created by local artist Hugo Socarras.
Socarras has his work on display at the bookstore, and recently opened a space of his own, just around the corner from the shop. Care for the neighborhood, and building a sense community, inform much of what goes on in this space.
A Dec. 17th post on the Cuba Libro Facebook page reads: “Another beautiful moment between Cuba Libro and our community: a 1st grader from Portland, OR told his class he was coming to Cuba. Inspired, his classmates decided to collect books for donation to a school in Havana. Here, shots from the wonderful kids of the Tomas Romay Chacon elementary school a block from Cuba Libro, receiving their books. Gracias to the little donors in Portland, Teacher Marta and school administrators. This is one for the memory bank.”
All of this is extra – in goes beyond primary benefit of there being a space like this in the first place. Here the Cuban public has access to books and magazines written in English, and a relaxing space to flip through them, while drinking some of that Cuban coffee I’m so fond of. Education, literacy, and community are what drive the bookstore’s efforts to operate in accordance with ethically and socially responsible principles.
As you’d expect, some amount of political content finds its way onto the premises.
There’s also a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor going on, it seems. Visit the bathroom, where there is a shelf of books labeled “Sh*terature”. You’ll find some of those romance novels I mentioned a bit ago.
If you want to really see Havana, through the eyes of the American Journalist and former New York resident who runs Cuba Libro, check out the blog “Here is Havana”. Living and working there for 13+ years, she describes the blog as “written by the gringa next door”, aimed at giving readers “a dose of what life is really like across the Straits” (blog “About” page).
If you want to share a cup of Cuban coffee, in Cuba, speak up! I’ll let you know when I plan to return. You can come along! Perhaps we shouldn’t have given away that nice, laminated map of Cuba, to the Airbnb owner. But, I’m pretty sure he enjoyed the rum! The bottle was half full, after all, not half empty!
Join me on my next adventure,
Cuba Libro (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/cubalibroHAV/
Havana, We Have a Problem: Stray Cats & Dogs: https://hereishavana.com/2016/10/12/havana-we-have-a-problem-stray-cats-dogs/
Here is Havana (blog): https://hereishavana.com/about/