Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beating the Heat in Havana, Cuba: Granizados and Guarapo-Lifesaving Shots of Cool on the Streets of Havana

Frank delivers Cuban slushes with gusto at Havana's Parque Central

There's no escape from the oppressive heat of summer in Cuba. Its brutal forces of humidity and sweltering temperatures dog you from the moment you wake 'til the point in which you are able to find enough relief to sleep. At night you remove all clothes and search for the coolest part of your bed with old fans blasting directly on your sun-beaten body. In the mornings the sweating begins once you get out of the shower.

You know it's bad when all day long you hear the locals moaning about the heat. Between the hours of 2 and 4pm those who can retreat indoors are fortunate souls. We are all in varying degrees of sweatiness, or are among those waiting to sweat. One day, I actually sweated the entire day, soaking my shirt so bad I alarmed the Havana residents I encountered that day, " Oye hermano, esta sudando mucho!" (Hey brother, you're sweating alot)Spoken in a melodic and rythmic Cuban spanish. My evening that day was spent with embarrassing salt streaks all over my shirt where the sweat had finally dried.

Among the many liquids Cubans consume during the day to stay hydrated and get a reprieve from the torturing sun are two divine interventions:granizados and guarapos. Slushes and fresh pressed sugar cane juice.

The granizados, or Cuban slushes are flavored shaved ices available with the national currency of Cuba. It costs between 4 and 8 cents.The flavors are simple:strawberry, pineapple, orange, and lime. Most carts have only 1 or 2 flavors, some have as many as 6.

These small shots of Cuban air-conditioning are perfect, a little bit of ice with the pleasures of a sweet, syrupy gulp. Cubans have a serious sweet tooth.

These bottles on the sides of the carts become beacons of hope. Oh, strawberry, that'll do just fine.

They're found all over town like this vendor here at La Rampa, a popular hang-out for Cuba's young and restless.

Here in Parque Central--where you'll always find granizados--young Cubanas employing a few heat defense strategies of Havana(an umbrella and short pants)seek to lower their body temperatures a few degrees--deliciously.

Once the flavoring is poured your body relaxes knowing that help is on the way.

A mandarin refreshment of is just the remedy to keep you going in Havana, Cuba. Throughout the day the carts will serve as necessary pit stops in taking on the hot Havana days and nights.

An even sweeter proposition is guarapo, or sugar cane juice.These small stands take stalks of sugar cane and squeeze the juice into a pitcher,also for pennies using monedas nacionales.

Guarapos are sold from guaraperos found usually next to agropecuarios(farmer's markets).

These small stands take stalks of sugar cane and squeeze the juice into a pitcher. The juice is poured into glasses pre-loaded with ice cubes, unfiltered, giving it a nice touch of grassy stalk.

I found a spot in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana--think the Bronx of the Cuban capitol. While I've always enjoyed fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice in other countries, the intense hell-fire sun that saps the energy and spirit of Cubans gives this cooler a whole other purpose. It's a practical pleasure. It's tropical paradise in a glass that revives and comforts. For me, these were moments to regroup. I would now be free to forget about the handicapping solar beams that exasperated me all over town."Alright, so where was I?" "Ah, off to Partagas for some cigars!"

Customers often go back for seconds, yelling,"el ultimo?" This means "who's last?" We need to get in the right place in line, get our juice, and get the hell out.It's too hot for mistakes.

During the rush, the vendors are cranking the juicer, and the cashier is calling for clean glasses. A small collection of glasses are washed as we turn them in--there's no space or budget here for too many drinking glasses. No plastic cups will do, guarapos are best in a cold glass.

Think of walking in Havana in August as a battle against the elements, but you're not alone. The guaraperos and granizados vendors are there when you need them.

One of my last and truly special memories of this trip was with Frank, the granizado vendor in Parque Central. As soon as I was down to just a cup with ice, he poured over some more grape flavoring. He said,"mi amigo, pa recordar de Cuba--amigos!" Thanks to the cool street vendors of Cuba for helping me through my journey.


Food GPS said...

Bill, you manage to make snow cones and sugar cane juice sound poetic. Nice article. I like the idea that people are either sweating, or awaiting sweat, though that probably wasn't too fun to experience.

gourmetpigs said...

Sweating just looking at the photos ;)
In Little Saigon they always put kumquat in their sugar cane juice. I like that too, but I think I prefer it straight better.

Stephanie said...

Cuba is so interesting right now. I can't wait for this book "Habana Libre" to come out.
I love the work that Michael does and the creative side to Havana that no one has herd about until now.