By late morning in Santiago de Cuba the sun is already oppressive, pouring down on every inch of these sultry streets. A port town built along the backside of a narrow bay, Santiago’s setting was perhaps strategic for Spanish conquistadors, but it also serves to sequester it from the kind of cooling sea breezes that flutter off the malecon in Havana. The midday heat here is impossible to avoid and makes any kind of movement all but unbearable.
That of course, makes the prospect of an ice cream stop in Santiago irresistible — even given the laughably long lines that snake out from the open-air La Arboleda ice cream parlor, circling down the block, and as far as is evident, barely moving at all. Our first few times passing by, my cousin Cara and I deemed the line not possibly worth the wait, but after two days in this blistering city, we decided that whether the wait is measured in hours, minutes or days, there’s no chance we aren’t stopping in for ice cream this time.
We join up at what appears to be the end, and wait for twenty minutes on the first segment of the line, behind hundreds of people barely inching forward. As we finally reach the front we’re directed towards another line, then yet another, until 45 minutes later we approach the small gate fronting this elite enclave of rusted patio benches and faded umbrellas. Two guards handle traffic, letting groups of ten in at a time, under a strict limit. If there are nine people ahead of your party of two, there is no way you are both going in this round. Ten in and ten out — no exceptions.
It is classic Cuba — an unwieldy wait, a rigid system with no apparent rhyme or reason, yet people who seem perfectly content to wait, with nary a sigh of exhaustion or muttered complaint. I don’t know if this speaks highly of the way Cubans do things or lowly, but I can say with certainty that if there was ever this kind of delay for a salted caramel cone at Ben & Jerry’s in New York City, at least one fistfight would have broken out by now and the air would be ringing with the shrieks of whiny toddlers. Here in Santiago, there is neither gleeful anticipation nor outraged frustration. We simply wait.
Finally we’re among the next ten to be granted entry. Once inside, we’re ushered over to an empty table and handed three elaborate menus. By this point we’ve eaten in enough Cuban restaurants to know that the lengthy lists are just for show; the server informs us there are only two options today: chocolate and naranja — orange (my Spanish is rusty but some things, like dessert flavors and how to order a cerveza, I never forget). Everything comes in servings of two, five or seven scoops. The two of us debate whether to be modest and share a two-scoop serving — but we go for it and order two scoops each.
The little kids across from us seem amused when our dual scoops are served, but I don’t understand why until their family’s own order returns. Apparently, each of them have opted for seven scoops — the mother, father, sister and brother are each presented with three elaborate trays: two full-size scoops in one upright dish, three additional heaving portions in a more rotund bowl, and two more slathered atop a slab of yellow cake. Just to reiterate: that is not a list of what they are sharing. Each member of the family has everything described, for a glorious total of twenty-eight scoops and three slices of cake.
Looking around, we realize they are not alone — practically everyone here, aside from the clueless gringos, has ordered an outrageous amount of ice cream.
The entire family dives in immediately. There are no shouts of delight, no breaks to beam up with satisfied, chocolate-streaked grins. The two children — she can’t be more than seven, the boy maybe five — devour all seven scoops without a visible trace of merriment or concern. They’re eating as if it’s their job — heads down, mouths open, eyes on the prize. Their straight-faced father is not far behind, reaching the bottom of his own three dishes a minute later. The stick-thin young mother must be watching her figure — after four or five scoops she pulls a Tupperware from her purse and dumps in her leftovers.
As my cousin and I tepidly finish our bowls of mediocre chocolate and orange, we can’t stop laughing at the perplexing, fast-moving scene around us. I ask for a check and plop down a few convertibles — the equivalent of two dollars in the shadow currency offered to foreigners. I realize later that everyone else is paying in local pesos; at 1/25 the value of the convertibles, they paid mere pennies for their sweet smorgasbords.
I’m neither a Che-worshiping backpacker nor an anti-Castro activist — more of an interested observer — and what I find most striking about Cuba is how hard it is to explain; despite the abundance of arguments, how difficult it is to come up with an opinion of what Cuba is or should be. When I see the negative effects of a cut-off economy it is tough not to rile at the U.S. embargo, but when a feisty octogenarian woman grabs me on the street and insists on a salsa, it’s hard to think the culture of this country would be improved if it could only be overrun by American products and tour groups.
Of all the inexplicable moments during our two weeks in Cuba, the hour at La Arboleda is the one that stays with me most; the bemusement represents what we felt every time we turned a corner in this confounding country. I’ve investigated a bit but never found a solid explanation for why such a gorge-fest is an acceptable activity. It may have to do with the fact that the subsidized state-run ice cream company is a pet project of Fidel Castro himself, who supposedly boasted back in the heyday of the revolution that Cuba’s communist parlors offered more options than even Howard Johnson’s. It may be that in a struggling socialist state where only two flavors can be scrounged up nowadays, an afternoon at La Arboleda is one of the few respites from an otherwise treat-less life.
Or it may just be that when the sun gets so high in the sky that no other activity seems remotely tolerable, there’s nothing left to do but fix your gaze on a giant bowl of ice cream and just go.