Cuba - A Journey in Time. Part 2 (Habana)
The next day, I called up Nicolas, a guy I met just before my trip. Coincidentally, he and his wife, who is Cuban, were visiting at the same time as my trip. They were busy mostly with her family, but Nicolas was happy to get away for a day and walk around Habana with me.
He is half-Hungarian and half-Russian living in the US, so we could equally easily communicate in English and Russian. Of course, Nicolas also happens to be fluent in Spanish, which is the language he speaks with his charming wife. His is atypical, yet not an uncommon story of a truly international person. To cut to the chase, his Spanish proved invaluable for us as we strolled the streets of Habana Viejo with our huge camerabags.
There are a few things that make Habana different from any other city. First, the abundance of police. There is a cop almost on every street corner in Centro and Habana Vieja. In my opinion, it is a good thing, especially compared to other Cuban cities. This is a jinetero/a territory – jinetero being a male hustler trying to sell you cigars, dinners or rooms for rent, and jinetera – a female kind, trying to sell you… well, you get the picture.
Some places are still quite infested with them. Malecon is one, perhaps due to its openness and ease of detection of police of any kind. As soon as it is “all clear” and you are a guy, watch out for the pretty girls talking to you. I was sitting with my mojito, at a café no less, when 2 girls at different times sat next to me and blatantly asked me to buy them a drink and talk to them. They spoke OK English. I had little interest at those particular moments, but it was some time before I was able to get rid of them. With Nicolas, it was a little easier as he was not as clueless as I was.
Secondly, there are very few street eateries or food vendors. This is a socialist country, where free market is still in a rudimental stage. Everything is owned by the state which has no interest in feeding tourists on every block. As a result, you can spend quite some times looking for your rice and beans and pork or chicken (and that’s about all there is to eat in Cuba). Of course, there are restaurants and even areas where they do sell ham sandwiches off street stands, but they are far and few in between.
Before I went to Cuba, I had been told about the Chinatown in Habana. Well, there is indeed a faux Chinatown with the obligatory arch and even a couple of signs in Chinese. However, just like everybody else, the few Chinese that lived in Cuba have long blended in the whole mix. There are no Chinese as such in Chinatown, but a couple of chefs I saw in restaurants there, did bear vague traces of Asian appearance. In the entire stay in Cuba, I met only 2 Spanish-speaking Chinese which I presume were locals, although they could as well have been tourists from Venezuela or Nicaragua.
I also quickly realized I could not take Internet access for granted in Cuba. Unlike most third-world where internet cafes are cheap and plentiful, Cuba is very restrictive about it still. Virtually nobody has it privately, and the only access to World Wide Web is through state-run telephone offices, where you have to buy a card for 6 convertible pesos (about $7), which gives you one hour of painstakingly slow internet connection.
In the evening, Nicolas took me to the small town where his wife was from. It’s called Bauta, and is only about half an hour south-west of Habana. By the time we got there by taxi, it was already dark, but the party was just beginning.
Although it seemed like a poor town to me, Nicolas told me it was about average. Indeed, his wife’s mother’s house was small but made of concrete, with a tiny living room with a TV, a kitchen and a bedroom. A small but cozy place. Among the array of Nicolas’s relatives-in-law, there was an 80-year old grandpa, whom everybody called Pipo. He was very friendly, constantly smiling with a toothless mouth, until he finally dozed off in front on the TV which was showing an endless baseball game.
The entire family seemed happy to have a guest in the house, especially Enrique, mom’s boyfriend, a 50-something Jamaican who has been living in Cuba since a child. He was as jovial and outspoken as any Belarusian soul of a drinking party. Nicolas and I (who by definition were the people with the money) bought a few bottles of Habana Libre rum, which went down nice and smooth. Enrique was constantly making jokes and assumed complete control over the small jukebox – the only source of music at the party. Cuba, he said, was famous for three things: ron (rum), tabaco and café con leche – at which point he pointed at an arm of one of the girls at the house, implying her skin. Again, he would roar with laughter. Nobody spoke a work of English except Nicolas and to a much lesser degree, his wife, so communication was at the very least interesting.
As the salsa was getting more and more vertiginous and rum kept flowing, my head was literally spinning by the end. I wanted to have a not-too-late start the next day, and made my excuses. The taxi took me back to Central Habana before I was able to fall asleep in the back seat.