Havana. December 2, 2016.
The humidity and overbearing heat strike us as we arrive in the airport. We’re in December and winter has never felt more summerish. We pick a taxi to take us to our first casa particular. Four days left. Maybe that’s the reason why the electricity is cut off. Everything is so hazy and obscure. Wait until we get to the city, says the deep down voice, the lights will be back on. Maybe. I suddenly remember my parents saying how the electricity would be cut off at 8 pm every day before the Revolution in Romania. Or maybe this is how it is going to be for the next four days until Fidel’s funeral. I got the shivers for a while. We arrive in the city and the darkness is installed deeper than outside. After one hour the driver decides to speak: “it’s been a blackout, it happens quite often”. As we turn the next corner the headlights reveal noisy and cramped streets. What is everyone doing in this darkness? Socializing and listening to reggaetón. We have no idea how this neighbourhood looks like. We just know we are close to Malécon – the seafront avenue, to Vedado – the modern district, and to the Old Havana. That voice keeps coming back: maybe it’s better arriving at night, like this you’ll be surprised by what the daylight will reveal.
Here we are next day, in an unsophisticated casa with great view to the seaside and a busy local street. We didn’t choose a hotel because we wanted to be in close contact with locals and their day-by-day life. It’s becoming more and more common in fact. Our host, Alvio, is kind and knowledgeable. He prepares the fruits juice while he tells us all about the city, how safe it is, where to go, what to do. He then adds the phrase that shakes our expectations:
“No music and no alcohol until Fidel’s funeral”.
On the table there are two books lazing around: one on anatomy and another on Marxism-Leninism philosophy. It’s Alvio’s nephew studying medicine in secondary school. Next to the books, our breakfast is carefully arranged. It looks modest and rich in the same time: few bread and cheese, yet two eggs and many fruits – Goiaba, Papaya, Orange, Pina (pineapple) and small Platano (banana). And the coffee, this filtered coffee we haven’t drunk in a while. Coming from Portugal, we are picky with the foreign coffee. But this coffee just made it on our top favorite list.
At the end of the corridor a little kid is swinging back and forth in a chair while staring at the TV. Alvio says that ever since Fidel died, there has been nothing but propaganda on all channels. No animations whatsoever. The kid can only be staring though – it’s yet another documentary about Fidel’s life. Edgar offers his phone to play a football game. The kid’s eyes shine, as in “saved by technology.”
Out on the streets finally. Havana is so photogenic. I don’t know where to start. Should I wait and soak up the views for a while before I start shooting? But then I’m going to miss the classic scene of a Chevrolet passing by at the end of the street. No I’m not! We’re in a maze, full of labirynthine streets and old cars. Through its ruins, the Spanish colonial houses, the colorful and crumbling architecture, pastel buildings and those cars (man, how the classic cars make this Cuban landscape so iconic!) they all speak how Havana was once one of the most sought places in the world (by the socialites).
We realize we cannot pay with CUC outside the Old Havana, the tourists’ accepted coin. A bit hungry, we decide to head towards the Old Havana so we can rest our belly before another walk. We can tell we arrived in Old Havana. Everything is more sophisticated, more touristic, cleaner, art galleries and souvenir shops at every step. Speaking of art galleries, we decide to visit a few, not particularly because of the exhibition in itself, but because the mesmerizing call of the architecture inside. Art nouveau – my cup of tea. As we’re heading to the exit door, one security guard asks for a coin. It’s free entrance, but it’s a relatively pricey exit.
At every 5 minutes someone asks us where we are from. I’m from Romania, and Edgar is from Portugal. Saying Portugal lifts the spirits. They next talk about Christiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid. Everyone is entertained. Though baseball is Cuba’s national sports, football is becoming bigger and bigger. Before leaving, they give us “the tip” of buying cigars from the cooperativas behind the Capitolio before they close in the afternoon. A few steps ahead another Cubano tries to convince us that the cooperativas discounts will only last until tomorrow so we should hurry up. We don’t fall for any. Later on we learn that it’s all a scam. There are no such things as discounts and cooperativas.
After a while, we are stopped by a salsa teacher who gives us a tip, this time of where we can listen music and watch some salsa in action despite the mourning days for Fidel:
“ In Cuba, if you haven’t drunk mojitos, haven’t smoked cigars and haven’t danced salsa, you’ve most probably been in Mexico.”
Since the day is short, we decide to go back to our casa particular. On the way we pass by a square where we realize everyone is on their phones. Wait a minute…is there Internet here? We ask other tourists, who confirm it is a wifi spot and “for 3 CUC you can buy one hour Internet access card from one of those guys there”, pointing to some badass faces. Different than what we’ve imagined.
Back at the casa, Alvio has also returned from his habitual evening walk. We take advantage to chat and ask him a few questions about the regime and the system. Cannot help it. It’s impossible to go to Cuba and not tap into the politics topic. Alvio tells us about the interesting combination between Spanish from Galicia and black people from Africa. That’s a wonderful combination: blancos, negros y mulatos.
Time to rest. Turning off the lights leaves us with the outdoor sounds. Three hours later we wake up again – people speaking loud, cars passing by, and the unbearable smell of pollution. These streets don’t sleep. I suddenly get this strange feeling that we’re in another world tens of years behind…