I met her after a long day in Havana. I was alone in a bar called Dos Hermanos, in a quiet part of La Habana Vieja. It’s the other Hemingway bar. Everyone goes to La Bodeguita del Medio, where the mojito is rumoured to have originated, but I wanted something more authentic, more removed from the touristy crowds of Calle Obispo.
Havana always feels “on”. When the traffic moves and the people flow, it feels like it’s in all directions at all times. It’s hot and crowded and loud and exhilarating with its almost rhythmical chaos. But there are pockets of quiet if you know where to look. Like watching the sunset along the Malecón. Or like slipping away from the tourist crowd and sipping cocktails with strangers.
My third day in Havana had left me on edge. There were problems with the cash advance I was trying to get and for several panicked hours, I wondered if I was stranded without money in Cuba. My feet burned from walking the cobbled streets of La Habana Vieja and my ears rang from the cacophony of sounds that make up Cuba’s capital—vendors calling to you, music pouring from restaurants, children squealing and racing through the narrow streets. So by the time I found myself in Dos Hermanos, a small bar on the edge of the old city, my body and mind were spent.
I had read Dos Hermanos was a former Ernest Hemingway hangout, but without the tourist crowds that come with his more famous haunt, La Bodeguita del Medio. It sits on the Calle San Pedro, just beyond the Plaza de San Francisco and a few steps away from the waterfront. The Plaza was in darkness as I cut through and headed toward San Pedro, all the noisy nightlife of busy Calle Obispo fading away behind me.
Dos Hermanos was almost empty, which was exactly what I wanted. A couple of locals sat at the wooden bar, watching soccer on a television set mounted in the corner. I ordered a mojito and took a seat, content to sit alone and unwind. The bartender, a pretty girl around my age, motioned for me to move from my spot and sit across from where she stood. In front of her was a row of empty glasses and she gestured to them, clearly indicating that I was to watch and learn how to make the classic Cuban drink.
Methodically, she scooped in spoons of sugar, working across the half dozen glasses like it was an assembly line. Next came the mint, delicately lifted out of a bucket with tongs and dropped into each glass. Then the rum, poured liberally of course, and the lime juice. She muddled it together and the scent of crushed mint filled my nostrils. She topped the glasses with soda and handed one to me, then watched as I sipped.
It was good, and I told her as such. She smiled, clearly pleased. I leaned back in my chair and watched the soccer game above my head. Beside me, a man asked if I liked soccer. I joked that I’m Canadian, so hockey is more my thing. There was movement in the corner of my eye and the bartender was suddenly beside me again, teasing the men, telling them to leave me alone. It was all harmless and the men laughed, but she nodded at me and gave me a look that transcended language barriers—we are women, we are friends, we are protectors, her eyes said.
My bartender friend and I barely spoke while I was there, apart from a few passing comments in broken attempts at Spanish from me and English from her. The most we said to each other was when I teased her after a server dropped one of her delicately prepared mojitos, spilling it across a table and forcing her to recreate her work of art from scratch, each methodical step carefully followed again. But despite our silence—or perhaps because of it—I felt connected to her. She seemed to recognize what I needed after my long, stressful afternoon. In that moment, for those few hours as I sat alone in a foreign city, we were the closest of friends. Two sisters in a bar called the Two Brothers.
This article originally appeared on TravelandEscape.ca.