New Year’s Eve in Havana, A Neighborhood Experience


New Year’s Eve before last we were in Havana as part of a multi-week Cuba stay (our 10th or 11th in 25 years). We got in from Santiago de Cuba on Dec 30, just in time to join the mad shopping rush at the big supermarket nearby, our neighborhood vegetable market, bakery, wine store and so on before everything would close down on the 31st until who knows when. (Turns out that in Habana Vieja where we were staying shops didn’t open up again for 8 or 9 days, forcing us to spend hours every day looking for food and supplies in other neighborhoods of the city - but that’s another story…)


We settled into our lovely little apartment on the Plaza del Cristo and were ready for whatever  would happen as midnight on the 31st approached. Earlier in the day we had visited some Cuban friends in a different neighborhood, near Cerro. We decided to walk - a long and interesting walk through many different residential parts of the city which apparently had not seen many tourists before.  Everywhere people were busy preparing for the evening’s festivities. Front steps and balconies were being washed, sidewalks swept, and it smelled like every kitchen was working overtime. Cubans sure know how to party, and a roasted pig is usually on order for very special occasions.


And, turning the next corner, there it was. A whole grown pig being roasted right there on the sidewalk of this scruffy street, with its proud owner, wearing only shorts and flip flops, turning the pig on a home-made spit for hours. (From another year’s Christmas Eve dinner at a friend’s house in Camaguey I remember a whole pig needs to be turned and roasted for about 6 hours. This is a very masculine event, with all the male guests participating while talking baseball and marinating themselves with rum.) The makeshift spit roast on this Havana sidewalk was classic Cuban style where any and every material gets repurposed. Wooden poles, pieces of a plywood crate, cardboard, some rope, a piece of corrugated scrap metal - listo!


Our friends were also cooking, but they just had a piece of pork, to be roasted conventionally in the kitchen oven. I told them I had heard about some Cuban New Year’s Eve customs which presumably include packing a suitcase and leaving the house with it as if going on a trip, and pouring a bucket full of water from your balcony at midnight. Was it true? Absolutely. Our friends would do that, too.


Back in our apartment close to midnight, we are now sitting on our balcony. We have our champagne (brought from New York for the occasion), and our bucket of water. We skipped the suitcase walk which symbolizes prospects for travel for the coming year. We are traveling plenty as it is and have already lugged our bags around enough. We also don’t have the twelve  grapes you are supposed to eat at the stroke of midnight. We had forgotten to buy them.


The balconies up and down and across Calle Amargura, our street, are filled with people. Then comes the moment, and we pop our bubbly. All our neighbors are raising glasses, too (most likely cider), and we all toast to each other, from balcony to balcony. Then comes the first splashing sound, and moments later the entire street sounds like a waterfall for just a few seconds. We join in of course, knowing we’re not doing it exactly right. The water is supposed to be dirty, as from washing your floor, and the whole thing symbolizes the washing away of all the bad things from the old year. We don’t have any dirty water (a housekeeper does our cleaning), so we feel a bit guilty about wasting a bucket full of that scarce and precious Havana tap water. But we do what we can, and we are enjoying the balcony-to-balcony celebration.


The next morning all is quiet. Really quiet. I remember having heard that Cubans also throw eggs in the street on New Year’s Eve, something supposedly connected to a santeria offering. I see no evidence of it in our neighborhood. But later that morning I cross over from Habana Vieja to the Centro neighborhood, and there, suddenly, are broken eggs all over the streets and sidewalks. So I wasn’t making this up. This would have had to be an important sacrifice - eggs are still rationed in Cuba, and therefore a precious commodity. Will need to explore this subject further some other time.