Havana nights

“Close the door would ya!” He asked me when the rear door swung open in a tight curve as me and Vladimir, my Cuban-looking Spanish-speaking taxi driver, were racing through the Havana night in this Lada taxi. I closed the door and soon enough I was back in my rented apartment, falling asleep with a smile on my face. I had decided that Havana was the best destination I had ever been to in my ten years of jet-setting life.

Just a few days earlier I rang the doorbell. There was a blue upside down anchor sign attached to the side of the house #260. A lady came to the front gate and despite her not knowing much English, I learned very quickly that I was at the wrong address. My house was #260 alright – just on a different street two blocks away. It was hot afternoon and I started walking with my backpack and messenger bag in the direction she had showed. My brain was not fully engaged yet and I missed it of course. I double checked the address and walked two blocks in each direction to get myself on the map and within half an hour I was enjoying a mug of fresh orange juice while my landlord’s son was explaining me the do’s and don’ts over the phone in English. I was finally in Havana. The mystical city that had haunted me ever since I got serious about salsa dancing. So serious that I started basic Spanish course lessons several times. I wasn’t comfortable at all speaking Spanish but I wasn’t a total beginner either. Pedro Almodovar movies and one long weekend in Barcelona had not improved my Spanish skills. I didn’t yet know that Cuba would teach me a lot of Spanish.

Near my casa particular was a culture centre where they had some unique Cuban music experience every Wednesday and albeit the distance is roughly two blocks, I had to stop half way to take cover from the rain on the veranda of an abandoned colonial style mansion where I stood listening to the music and watching people. The streets were flooded and people were walking ankle deep in water totally soaked. The tropical rain that usually lasted for two three hours every afternoon soon ended and I  found my way to the culture centre to see two last songs and my first Cuba Libre. After the show I started chatting with Francisco, one of the musicians, and his wife and they, like many cubanos y cubanas, told me they were freelancing salsa teachers. So I make an appointment for next day for some private lessons. I will never forget the feeling of absolute freedom and pure enjoyment dancing at this Cuban instructors home while his grandma is sitting in the armchair and clapping her hands to the rhythm while me and pretty much rest of the family were just dancing. And then the impromptu party ended abruptly as we needed to move the furniture back inside as the tropical rain was starting again. I had paid 5CUC (peso convertible) to get there with a taxi and Francisco put me in a shared taxi that locals use and it cost me much less to get back home. I paid 1 CUC and got 13CUP (peso nacional) change. Oh yes, Cuba has two official currencies, one for locals one for tourists…

Thanks to my Suunto GPS watch and pocket map I wasn’t afraid to walk distances and I had a nice walk to Necropolis, the famous cemetery where I had a private tour by Juan the gardener. As I left Necropolis it started raining again and of course no taxis were in vicinity so I had to spend probably an hour or so under the entrance of some residential building. Finally I managed to continue my walk and reached the deserted Placa de la Revolucion. I mean, who would go sightseeing in this weather… Eventually I walked back home and had dinner in one of my regular places near the university, Cafe Libro. The staff started to recognise me there as one of the regulars and I started to get much better service. I saw some tourists sitting in the other table and went for a chat, desperately longing to speak something else than Spanish for a while. No luck, they were exchange students from China and as my Spanish is still better than Mandarin we discussed briefly in Spanish before I went back to minding my own business in my own table. The surrounding local senors and senoritas were giving us curious looks and friendly smiles as they listened to us gringos desperately trying to communicate in Spanish – the only common denominator between a Chinese and Finnish person.

If you want to learn a foreign language real quick there is a brutal method called total immersion. I had no other choice and my Spanish was improving rapidly and the most common phrases were “Un cafecito por favor” in cafes and “No gracias no quiero” to reject the touts’ numerous offers for entertainment of all sorts. I met two kinds of cubans, those who want something (money) from you and those who don’t. The latter kind are unbelievably friendly and considerate people. My salsa teachers daughters met me with kisses on the cheeks, a fat Cuban guy complimented my tattoo and Jamaican-Cuban twins who looked like lifelong convicted criminals in their fifties wanted to chat about life in general. And a random guy who interrupted his girlfriends neverending talk just to get me a waiter as I had been waiting for service for too long in his opinion. I thanked him and he went back to listening to his girlfriend babbling about.

Then there are the kinds who see tourists as nothing more than $$$. One guy wanted to be my personal trainer and get paid by getting my running shoes. I was returning from my morning run on El Malecon and noticed there was a 400m track and some pull-up bars etc. I pop in for some exercise and this guy starts giving me “advice” and cheering for one more rep. Fun to begin with but the second day it got a bit annoying and I changed my route to avoid him.  Once I was a bit tipsy and had an argument with my taxi driver as I was going home. The taxi was the unofficial kind and when we arrived in Vedado near my home (I never give my correct address but two blocks away) I handed him 5 pesos which is the official fare and he started asking for 5 more. I said the fare was five pesos yesterday as it is today and tomorrow. We had this yes/no argument for a while and he starts to look like losing his temper so I made a quick risk evaluation and emptied the change from my pockets for him and thus avoided the argument getting physical.

One day the sky looked unusually clear so I hired a sightseeing tour with an American classic convertible Chevrolet. My guide Michael loved everything about America and he was a bit disappointed when I was not a Yankee. It is cool to tour Havana in convertible car listening to Elvis, CCR and other American classic rock legends. Michaels business seems to be going well as he is asking if I have a Rolex or some other nice watch to sell him. Not everyone in Havana is poor. If your income is in CUC from tourism and expenses in CUP you can have a very nice life there indeed.

One simply can not write about Havana without mentioning the music. Salsa!

Juan Formell had died two weeks prior to my trip and me seeing Los Van Van live in Drammen in 2009 proved to be a great conversation starter a many times. On most days many cafes in Havana Vieja and Vedado have live music and it’s so pleasant to have lunch while enjoying the music. One time there was even an impromptu street dance party gathering tons of people to watch a few couples and one drunkard show off their salsa passion. On another occasion I was buying souvenirs in a market and asked about the clave and aouila and soon the shopkeeper is giving me a music lesson and we have a two-man band, he playing the aouila and I the clave. As in Cuba when someone seems to be having fun, there is a small audience gathering. 🙂 After the show was over and our audience disappeared, I thanked for this fun by overpaying for a “professional quality” clave. On my last night in Havana I finally went to this restaurant near my home that I had been eyeing for a long time. And am I glad I did. As soon as I had ordered food I noticed some musical instruments in the corner and soon enough the band started playing. And it was the very best band I had seen that week. I quickly ran a calculation in my head about my cash reserves minus airport taxi and departure taxes if I could afford to buy their CD. The CD ended up being cheaper than I expected so I left a very generous tip in addition.

There was no internet in Havana and I did not miss being online at all. Is this what freedom feels like?

In the footsteps of Hemingway
El Caballo Loco

posted: 15 May 4
under: Travel