I’m down to just $15 Cuban CUCs to get me through my last few days in Havana.
This sad fact has sent me spiraling swiftly into a state of deflation. I feel strangely trapped as I trudge helplessly past museums, theaters, and large genteel hotels showcasing bustling outdoor patios populated by well-heeled diners. The scenes could have been plucked from classic Hollywood films, though the once splendid buildings are now gently time-battered and dusted with a fine coat of black car exhaust.
I imagine how delightful it would be to join the cheerful tourists in their leisurely lunching. But I know I can’t. Killing time as cheaply as possible has become the name of this game, which more or less prohibits all things fun. Even my favorite thrill of wandering through the gritty avenues of the Centro Historico has dulled.
I can’t retreat to my computer to burn hours online, and there’s no way to upload new books to my eReader. Wifi in ‘Castroland’ is frustratingly elusive—as are other basics, such as hair brushes. I’d lost my last one in Mexico City just before arriving, and haven’t been able to locate a replacement in Cuba so far. Therefore, my coiffure perfectly reflects my mood.
To save cash, I’ve been sneaking parts of the enormous daily breakfast at my particular familiar on Trocadero Street into plastic sandwich bags in order to eat the leftovers later. By now I’m so sick of cold, slimy scrambled eggs on a stiff bun and a wilting shard of fruit that every awful bite is heavily seasoned with bitter self pity.
The morning of my fifth day in the city, as I sit in the alcove outside my room apathetically picking at my breakfast (and future lunch, which is an exact replica of every single one of the previous mornings’ spreads), a wholesome-looking young Scottish couple called Rebecca and Craig file down the stairs to sit at the other guest dining table.
We exchange pleasantries, the typical ‘where are you from?’ and ‘how long have you been in the city?’ and they are so amazingly kind and friendly that I suddenly realize I’ve been deprived of real conversation in easy, clear, perfect English for so long that it’s as if I have just been rescued after years stranded on a lonely deserted island.
My spirits skyrocket and I have to almost physically restrain my jaw so as not to smile and laugh like a lunatic, or chatter their ears off. The question ‘what have you done here so far?’ comes up and I find myself unloading my tale of woe on them, beginning with my foolish lack of financial foresight—the answer is: I have done nothing here.
Though I did manage to attend a salsa show, my grandest experience so far.
Rebecca’s ears perk up. “Oh, lovely! How was that?”
So I explain.
The Casa de Musica on Avenida de Italia is dark and its 1960s-era theater doors are locked when I arrive. The evening is just beginning to open its yellow streetlight eyes. A few of them blink hesitantly up and down the craggy streets of Centro Habana. Some lights don’t come on at all, a result of frantic city-wide overhauling of the decrepit electrical systems.
The government now has only two and a half weeks to finish ripping up the roadways and sidewalks to repair ancient wires that supposedly will make the failing lights across the city function properly. March 20th is when President Obama will come to help bring an end to the 57-year-old trade embargo between the U.S. and frail 89-year-old Fidel Castro’s homeland.
The goal of this wiry mess? To make the lights shine as bright as possible for Obama. I have my doubts every time I nearly nosedive into random jagged pits and trenches in the sidewalks, or have to light candles at my homestay when flicking the wall switch produces nada.
A frazzled older woman in the ticket booth tells me in rapid Spanish that tickets for the salsa show will go on sale in 45 minutes. So I slip into the dingy bar next door to wait.
“Uno mojito, por favor.” I tell the handsome bartender, who gets to work crafting the exquisite beverage from smooth Cuban rum, cane sugar, soda, lime and a stalk of mint so sizable it protrudes from the glass like a sapling tree.
This particular cocktail—and only the kind served here—is so absurdly delicious that the mere thought of one grasps me like a drug. My craving for Cuba’s unofficial national drink generally begins directly after breakfast and plagues me all day until I finally surrender, as close to 5 o’clock as I can will myself to hold out.
I’d been previously warned by other travelers about the addictiveness of Cuban mojitos…and now I fully understood. My rampant addiction sieves CUCs from my wallet like sand, and I kick myself, and my conscience growls, You want another nasty leftover egg sandwich for dinner? Huh? Do you?? But I can’t help myself. They’re so good and they soften my boredom and make everything wonderful for a little while.
Two mojitos later, I enter the Casa de Musica, and I feel wonderful.
The place is huge, cavernous and mostly empty; but an incoming trickle of locals soon turns into a steady stream of exuberant chatter, high heels and bicep-revealing t-shirts. I grab a small table near the front and to the side near the bar and remove my bulky camera from my bag, ready to capture whatever awaits.
The wait is long. I order a beer from the bar (the mojitos here, alas, cost a few too many CUCs). I get the impression that things happen in Cuba exactly when they’re good and ready to happen. This would explain a lot.
Finally, something happens.
A spotlight on stage comes up, illuminating a shimmery green and purple backdrop and instruments. A middle-aged man in a polished black suit and slicked-back hair paces to a microphone at the center of the stage to a flurry of applause and whistles. The spotlight sharpens and shadow narrows tightly around him. With well-honed dramatic flair, he waits for the crowd to grow quiet in anticipation and then tells us in Spanish what a treat we’re in for tonight. This band is fairly new, they’re mostly younger musicians and haven’t been playing together long, but they’re very talented and have managed to hit the salsa scene in Cuba like a rocket.
With a matador’s flourish of his hand, he trills their name, the whole stage bursts into furious light and an eight-man band launches into a gorgeous thundering storm of Carribbean-flavored salsa: drums, keyboard, strings and horns. The crowd—and I—stand and clap and stomp and dance. The floor before the stage immediately floods with salsa dancers and I am surrounded completely by a frenzied cloud of absolute joy.
“Come,” a young, thin Cuban from the next table over leans in and shouts to me, extending his hand. “Dance with me.”
I’m stunned for many reasons. “You speak English!”
“A little. You’re here alone? ” I nod and he swivels his hips in time to the music, still holding out his hand. “Come dance!”
I hesitantly stand, then remember my heavy camera, purse and open beer sitting on the table and groan. “I’m sorry, I can’t leave my stuff here and I can’t dance with it. I’m sorry…but thank you…!”
He smiles and takes my hand. “What is your name? I’m Alejandro.”
Like a Cuban prince, if there ever was one, Alejandro suavely leans down and kisses my knuckle and winks. “It is so nice to meet you Kristina. I will be right over there if you change your mind.”
I blush and nod as a half-flattered, half-amused grin adheres itself solidly to my face. I chuckle and think, Cuban men must be bred to be bold.
The night evolves into a blend of whirling colors, vibrant sounds, and sweet, brilliant shine.
The day I meet my Scottish homestay neighbors flows like thick tar toward my 5pm mojito hour. I can’t bear to eat any more leftovers from breakfast for lunch and I need mojito money, so I skip lunch and attempt to avoid the relentless heat by parking myself near a fan in a bar in the Centro Historico. To the bartender’s dismay, I order only a water, and stay for hours trying to reread a book while god-awful 1980s Cuban music videos play on a corner TV.
By 4pm I can’t take it anymore.
I exit the historic district and walk along the Prado out toward Havana Bay, rimmed by the famous Malecón, a roadway and seawall built at the turn of the last century. There is a tiny restaurant here that serves my precious mojitos for only $2 CUCs. I sit outside and order my cocktail and a $4 CUC plate of chicken and rice. The chicken emerges as a flattened slab of room-temperature leather while the rice is so stale I need sips of mojito to coax it down my gullet.
Still, a feeling of contentment washes over me.
I put my feet up and sip as slowly as I’m able, savoring, while gazing out at Morro Castle, an old fort adjacent to the seawall. Young Cubans in skinny jeans hang out in clusters, some holding brown paper sacks with beer bottle silhouettes. Fishermen stand on top of the thick concrete, or down on the rocks where the waves crash white and foamy. The salty sky deepens to blues, purples and pinks that match the endless parade of tank-like 1950s and 1960s-era Chevvys and Fords accessorized with classic streamlines fins, whooshing down the strip.
I order another mojito and feel especially wonderful.
It’s fully dark out when I sway gladly toward my homestay on Trocadero Street beneath half-functional streetlights, past beautifully decaying Art Deco and Greek Revival homes flying flags of freshly washed shirts and jeans and bedsheets, winding through paved battlefields of holes and trenches exposing decades-old electrical wire.
At my homestay, my host Elaine is watching a movie on her computer in the living room. She glances over her shoulder with her typical cheery smile. “Hola, Kristina! How was your day?”
“Muy bueno, gracias!” I white lie, moving quickly to my room to avoid further conversation that might reveal either that I am a little tipsy, or that the majority of my day has largely sucked, or both.
I unlock the door and step inside, kicking something with my foot. I reach for the light switch, which thankfully is working. The thing I’ve kicked is a folded piece of paper, I pick it up, open it and am met with a neat pile of crisp paper: Cuban CUCs.
Huh? I don’t understand. I take it into the living room and ask Elaine dumbly what exactly I am holding. She looks confused and shrugs in bewilderment, “Yo no se…” I count it — $100. Then Elaine notices handwriting on one side of the folded paper. “Kristina, look!”
My eyes focus on it:
“You should enjoy your last few days in Havana & traveling the world. Feel free to email us or add us on Facebook so we know what you got up to! :)”
~ Rebecca and Craig
My jaw drops. My hand impulsively moves over my heart. I want to cry.
Elaine is also in wide-eyed shock, she gives my shoulders a big squeeze. “Oh, mi amor, this is so wonderful!”
My heart explodes with love for humanity.
On Sunday, March 20, 2016, President Obama along with his family stepped onto the tarmac at Havana Airport with “a pomp unmatched by the Pope, becoming the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly a century.” (thegaurdian.com)
The president went to church in the rain and watched a baseball game with current Cuban President Raul Castro. He walked through the elegant crumbling streets and charismatic squares of Old Havana, past a cafe where I’d sat just three weeks earlier enjoying an afternoon coffee as daily life in Cuba vividly unfurled before me.
All around the president, mostly unseen by TV cameras, were the lovely, sturdy people of this old port city. Kids wishing the rain would stop so they could go play soccer or climb trees. Women and men with a passion for salsa in their bones. Musicians and artists and scholars—their history reaching back over 500 years; through the revolution, through slavery, through the British, through the Spanish founding. People whose lives are not always easy, but who somehow always find a way to make do, with tangible joyfulness.
Inside my apartment back home in San Francisco, I eagerly watched Obama’s visit on TV. I was waiting for something in particular. Finally, there is was! A nighttime camera shot taken from a helicopter hovering over Havana.
“They actually did it.” I chuckled to my cat, shaking my head in disbelief.
The entire city appeared ablaze with radiant light.
“Sometimes the most important changes start in small places.”
~ President Barack Obama, Havana on March 22, 2016
Next Up: Stories from my adventures in the wild Everglades of Florida!
Check out more photos from my adventures in colorful Cuba HERE.