A Cuban travelogue & memoir

I find myself currently waiting for Happy Hour at The Botija Tavern, covered in an instant film of sweat.

After finishing For Whom The Bell Toll’s in bed by 1PM, I read the introduction to The Motorcycle Diaries and headed out. It’s the prefect Segway to Hemingway and Che’s Cuba. That, and mojitos. Lots of mojitos.

I spent five days in La Habana in a casa particular, which is the closest you can get to a hostel. Upon opening the front door, one is instantly haggled by locals. Everyone is a tour guide, has a family member who works at a cigar factory, is offering weed or prostitutes, and has starving mothers who need money or are themselves starving. I have been grifted already for cigars, food and TAXI’s.

This beautiful city that has obviously stood still and started to decay since the 1960’s is filled with poverty, culture, classic cars and salsa music. It’s an emotionally exhausting city who’s tourists find it hard to even withdraw money from an ATM; at the airport a TAXI agreed to take us to one, although during the drive seemed to have forgotten about our arrangement and drove around for about an hour, asking locals on street corners. I’m not sure how I didn’t catch on earlier, as this is a common trick pulled all through the Latin countries. He then took us to the Hotel Nacional for their currency exchange services.

The contrast of this expensive hotel to the streets of Havana shocked me; clean floors with doormen, no stray animals to be seen, and filled with plump Americans and Canadians, all sitting in their stonewalled community to sit by the pool. Everyone spoke English. While waiting for my TAXI driver, who’d gone inside to organise an ATM for me, I found myself along its long, white driveway, guarding his yellow cab. His Cuban guide was walking a man with white hair and a round gut back to the hotel, and after noticing his American accent I figured he could be of help to my situation. As soon as I spoke in his direction, he looked at me- wide eyed and shocked, and hid behind the Cuban. He then paced quickly toward the entrance and was ushered in by the butlers.

That afternoon I found my casa and got drunk.

Walking around to buy street food I was stopped many times for cigars and women that I was finally happy to meet a Cuban who just wanted to talk, as I’d ran out of money quickly due to donating to beggars. It turned out that man was a baseball coach. He then offered me weed and offered me up to his house in what looked like a favela; the door had been knocked in years ago. He wanted me to meet his mother, who he pointed to up on the balcony. She stood there on the balcony smoking a cigarette in her bra. He told me she needed money. I gave him one CUC and he asked for more, telling me it’s not enough. I refused and walked on.

The following days I explored Hemingway’s Cuba: his finca in the suburbs, the hotel he frequented in the city centre and his favourite bar. I actually saw his typewriter.

I pub-crawled through the centre of La Habana, and stopped at any bar playing live salsa music for my last night in town. I got home around six and showered, then headed out with an accountant whom I’d found myself travelling with for the past few weeks. The juxtaposition of my disregard for budgeting and numeracy and his love of spreadsheets proved both humorous and testing when it came to decision-making.

We were told by locals on the street to try La Casa de Musica- The House of Music in central Havana if we wanted to have a good time. Inside this place there was a 50’s big-band-style stage with a dance floor and about twenty-five small steps leading up to the stage. A raised semi-circle of seats and tables surrounded the perimeter of the dance floor. We sat at a table near the bar where I managed to get enough rum down our throats enough to change the subject from financial foresight and more in the zone. The Accountant was now In The Moment.

Not long after two Cuban-African girls introduced themselves and sat down. The Accountant spoke no Spanish, and I was made to translate conversation for around ten minutes before it was made apparent that they were hookers by the words ‘fucky fucky’ being mentioned. I refused for half an hour before they left rather upset. A quick revisionary scan of the seating area had me see The House of Music in a new light. It was filled with hookers; black, white and the in-between ‘mulattas’, waiting for eye contact in order to make an approach. A live salsa band played great music and everybody danced. We decided to leave to drink on the malecon and bought some rum, cigarettes and cigars.

On the malecon we refused more women, drugs and cigars until we were introduced to a Dutch man whose name I now forget. Over rum and beer he told me he’d been visiting Cuba for 16 years, originally visiting as the manager of a rather famous eight piece classical band of which he wouldn’t tell me the name. This year’s visit though was to get results from a DNA test for a legitimate or illegitimate child to an African girl from the year before. I looked at a photo of his six-month old baby who definitely had his nose. His only argument was how did a baby that pale come out of a girl so dark? We talked more and he told me about Cuban women are not all prostitutes but most will sell themselves sometimes. On the third or fourth meeting they will yell and complain about money, so it’s best to give them around $20 after sex to keep the girl happy.

The Accountant and I were approached several times for ‘fucky fucky’, and to get someone’s attention they make a ‘tss, tss’ sound using the tip of the tongue and the teeth.

The Dutchman left with an African girl and offered me to take her friend. I bought a bottle of rum and decided to stay on the malecon; I wanted to be drunk on the malecon and see the sunrise like Pedro Juan Gutierrez does in his stories.

I met more locals who didn’t want to rob or screw me, and then I did some things that I won’t mention here.

I got home at midday to find the accountant had gone home, slept, and searched most of the morning for me. He’d called the police. The police said that they wouldn’t search for me, saying that if I actually did leave with Cubans I’m probably dead or at least bashed and robbed.

I came inside and packed my guitar case with clothes and passports for a five-hour TAXI to Trinidad that I’d booked the day before. I finally felt how Pedro-Juan and Hemingway must have felt some mornings, and I wondered how we’d all avoided disaster so often. It’s either luck or skill or a mixture of both. Fate is out of the question.