Three years ago today, we were chilling in Havana, celebrating my buddy Michael’s birthday. It was an amazing trip. Finally getting to visit that forbidden paradise, seeing the beautiful city, meeting new friends, cruising in classic convertibles and sampling all the rums, Hemingway style. As the hot August sun beat down on us, we made our way to La Bodeguita del Medio, where today’s drink was born. So, please join me now as we stand and make, the Mojito.
Everything about this drink is amazing. Rum, sugar, mint, some bubbles, it is perfect on a hot afternoon, and trust me, August in Havana is hot. A man can sweat through linen and seersuckers before noon, and that’s just relaxing in the shade, not replacing a single wooden cobble on the Place de Armes. I remember standing at this famous bar where Hemingway used to order his mojitos. Our merry band of travelers being refreshed like so many before us. It was a joy watching the bartenders make these 16 at a time, muddling mint and sugar before free pouring that amazing Havana Club rum. It was an experience for the ages. There are not enough words to adequately describe the wonder of the old city. It is a truly amazing place.
Of course, we tend to travel off the beaten path, so it wasn’t long before we were wandering far from the tourist quarter, seeing the other side of real life. That side of Havana is very different from the old town. There we watched as people stood in line to get “fresh” water from trucks parked on the corner, because the stuff that comes from the taps is infected with cholera. Yeah, cholera in the water system, in the 21st century. And folks in line to get government supplied clean water, free till it runs out. Of course, slipping the water man a little remembrance moved you to the front of the line, guaranteeing that you’d have water to drink or cook or clean with that night. We saw poverty of a sort that is rare in the world. I’m not gonna dwell on it, but trust me, you would be shocked by some of the conditions we witnessed.
You would also be amazed by the generous and open nature of everyone we met on that side of the city. Everyone was kind and helpful and maybe a little concerned that we had gotten lost. In the tourist area where a sort of limited capitalism is tolerated and even encouraged, there were lots of hustles, but out in the neighborhoods, it was just people being people. It is always a great reminder to go somewhere vastly different from your own life and find that at our core most folks are decent and want to get along and even help each other out.
Michael and I have had that same experience together over and over, across four continents and most of the states. We’ve practically made it standard procedure to have our expectations blown. Whether hanging with Ibrahim and Travolta in North Africa, learning about the jungle and big scary panthers in Brazil or 100 different places where we found, once again, that people are mostly decent and treat you as well as you treat them, no matter what language they speak or what they look like. When we stop to see each other, we have a lot more in common than at first glance.
I miss that. More than anything during these “unprecedented times”. I miss traveling with my buddy, meeting new folks, being surprised when things go better than expected, laughing nervously when we survive those rare cases where things went sideways. Those are the moments that make stories and memories. Like I said the other day, when it is all said and done all you have are the memories you made and the memories you leave with others. As much as I have enjoyed this time with the family, I miss my friends and making those memories.
So in honor of those better days and the ones yet to come let’s make the drink. You don’t need to grab your tins since we are going to build this one in the glass just like they do at La Bodeguita del Medio. So grab a tall Collins glass and pop in 6-12 leaves of fresh mint, 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar, just the plain white stuff, 2-3 drops of 18-21 Havana and Hide bitters and 1 ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice. Once you have that all together, muddle it well to marry the flavors. Pop in some ice cubes and add 2 ounces of light rum, I went with some of that amazing but forbidden, Havana Club 3 year, acquired outside the US and legally transported home in our luggage. Top that with some club soda or mineral water, I went with Topo Chico, stir well and serve with a garnish mixture of mint and lime wheels.
This one is every bit as amazing as the one we had in Havana. What our home lacked in ambiance it made up for in air conditioning. Not to say there wasn’t a certain charm in all the sweaty bodies rubbing against each other in passing at the bar. You should make this drink, always. It is super easy, the ingredients are a snap to get, if you opt for a less challenging rum, and they taste amazing. You could upsize this and make a pitcher, but honestly it is more fun to just do them individually. Especially if you get a whole assembly line thing going on like they do at the bar.
So there you go a special drink for Michael’s special day, made all the better because we were enjoying them together on another of our adventures three years ago today. Mojitos, playing happy birthday on the airhorns of a ’53 Chevy convertible while cruising El Malecon, Daiquiris and air conditioning, croquettes and humidity, so much sun and contraband cigars from sketchy dealers in risky places; what more could you ask for? Well, Michael could ask to get to drive the Trans Am and I could drive the truck, since it is his birthday, I guess that’d be ok. No matter who is driving, I hate like hell that we don’t get to spend it making some new memories, he always gets so excited when he gets to wear the mask and ride the white horse while I call him Kemo Sabe, for once. Happy birthday, little buddy. You know I love ya! Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friend.