Blending in Havana

My last 2 days in Havana were quite different to my first one. The sense of anxiety I got in my first day had disappeared completely and I was a lot more confident getting around Havana and talking to the locals. To my surprise I would bump into a lot of people I had met the previous night, thanks to Anaconda who would introduce me to their friends and so on. So, by the third day, if I were to walk from Central Havana, where I was lodged, to Old Havana (the main tourist Centre) I would probably say hi to at least 5 people that I had met previously. 

Around midday I met Manuel, a young photographer I found on AirBnb, who in exchange for about 30 bucks would take a small group around Havana and take photos of them in the nicest locations around the old town and alongside the Malecon (the embankment). Due to the rainy weather conditions and a small accident, he suffered during the tour we had to postpone the photo shooting for the following day.

So, for the rest of the day I hung out with a really nice couple from Guatemala, that were also part of Manuel’s group. We went to a few nice landmarks in old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio, had some lunch afterwards, and then spent the evening at La Fabrica de Arte which is a really cool Art Gallery in Vedado that at night turns into a club.  I really liked this place since it offered me a good insight into the Cuban modern art and culture but also its nightlife, since a lot of youngsters filled up the bar/club after sunset. Although there were a few tourists here, compared to Old Havana, it was really refreshing as it genuinely felt as an authentic local place, at least for me. 

With the Feil and Ximena in Fabrica de Arte (FAC)

Towards the end of the night, the couple went back home but I decided to hang out in a park. I was hoping of finding Anaconda there but he wasn’t. I was told he might be back at La Rampa but that was a bit of a too far trek for me. So, I hung out with some guys I had previously the previous night via Anaconda. I chatted with them for a few hours about life and poverty in Cuba. One of them was telling me his wage is about 7 dollars per month and how we dreamt of becoming a rapper.  As I was still learning how to ‘navigate’ without google maps, he and another friend of him offered to walk me home, which I thought to be pretty nice of them. Only to find out the following night it was part of a wider plan, to be revealed at the right moment.

The people of Havana

My final day in Havana proved to be a cocktail of feelings. I met a lot of people and had to make a tough decision by the end of the night.  I spent the morning striking random conversations with random people. One guy that really impressed me was Juan Luis, whom I had briefly met via Anaconda but really got to know better after randomly bumping into him in front of a hotel. I was impressed to find out he knew quite a fair bit about the history of Romania and was also interested in studying Nordic languages. He had told me his dream was to leave the country and hopefully move to the North of Europe one day.  A few months after I left Cuba, he contacted me on Facebook to let me know had managed to ‘escape’ to Argentina via a 1-day boat trip and several days’ of coach travel. He currently resides there with his girlfriend. I still keep in contact with him from time to time. 

An hour later, I met Luis Eduardo, a young tour guide who had just finished work and his waiting for his coach that would take him home. He lived in a nearby city, called Matanzas, about 2 hours by coach.  He was probably the kindest person I met in Havana.  I told him I didn’t have a lot of time to hang around since I was supposed to meet Manuel for the ‘photo tour’ but he insisted to take me to Vedado to show me a truly authentic Cuban ‘lunch experience,’ which I simply could not say no to. 

With Luis Eduardo and Juan Luis

We took the local bus to Vedado and went to a place called Copella, the most famous place (and one of the few around) that sold ice cream. When we got there, I was surprised to see massive queues to different entrances of the place. We got in line and waited for about an hour. We had to wait in line to be given seats at a table. The place was operating in a truly communist fashion where all seats at a table were occupied, even though the seated ones did not know each other. We were seated with two couples. We were given some menus, which, as expected, only contained ice-cream and cake. To my surprise everyone at the table ordered 2-3 plates of Ice-Cream each. I could barely finish one since it was quite sweet and not the type of lunch, I am usually accustomed to eating. 

Ice cream at Copella

Luis insisted he’d pay for everything, including the bus tickets which really surprised me. It was a massive change in what I was accustomed to in Havana. Instead of him asking him for money, he was treating me to lunch and the bus ride. For this, I’ll be forever grateful to Luis and when I get back to Havana, I will definitely pay him a visit in Matanzas. 

As I had to go meet Manuel and he back home to Matanzas, we parted ways in old Havana.  I met Manuel and his new group and had a great time walking around the streets of old Havana and taking pics. The other guys in the group, a couple of Americans, one English guy and another Indian guy were also pretty decent to hang around with.  I had an interesting talk with Manuel as well, who was a photography student and had been set up a thriving business off AirBnb.

With Manuel and the Group at the rooftop bar

We ended the tour with a ride in a convertible car alongside the Malecon and a drink at a rooftop terrace in Vedado, with views of the American Embassy. The English lad, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, invited me to Fabrica de Arte that night, where he was meeting other backpackers. Manuel told me as well he was going to a local bar somewhere in Vedado too and I was welcome to join had I wanted to. However, I think my mind was already made up in regards to how I was going to spend my last night in Havana.

The last night in Havana

I went on a stroll to find Anaconda. As I didn’t have a phone that worked in Cuba I went to various parks and asked of his whereabouts until I found him. He was happy to see me and told me he was concerned he had not heard from me the other day. Since it was my last night, he said we’ll have a farewell party so I bought some Rum and Coke and went drinking from park to park for a few hours. My concern was how we were going to mix the Rum and Coke since I had bought no cups, but Anaconda quickly found a solution to my issue. He found an empty Rum bottle on the corner of the street, smelled it, said it smelled fine, and then mixed the Rum and Coke. 

‘Don’t be afraid Gato, drink! You’re one of us now, have no fear!’ Anaconda jokingly pushed me to drink as he saw I was slightly uncomfortable putting my mouth on a dirty rum bottle. The video below was taken shortly after I had a few sips.

After the pre-drinks session ended, we went to a few bars and ended up in a local club in Central Havana where they had a Jamaican theme on.  It was incredible how many familiar faces I saw in there. It was like almost everyone I had met for the past 3 days had ended up in that club. There were a few toruists as well, one who one of Anaconda’s friend liked.  

After the pre-drinks session ended, we went to a few bars and ended up in a local club in Central Havana where they had a Jamaican theme on.  It was incredible how many familiar faces I saw in there. It was like almost everyone I had met for the past 3 days had ended up in that club. There were a few tourists as well, one of which Anaconda’s friend liked. 

‘Just go to her and talk to her then,’ I told him.  

‘No man, I can’t do that, she’s come here with other Cuban guys. 

‘Yea so? They are a bigger group, it seems she is single’ I continued trying to persuade him.  

‘It’s an unwritten rule we have here. We don’t meddle with foreigners if they are already in the company of other locals. We don’t want to upset them or ruin their plans’ 

That was an interesting point he brought up and it somehow made me connect some more points when it came to the hustler’s culture in Havana. (the one I talk about in part 1)  

Towards the end of the night, probably around 3 AM Anaconda told me he was going to drop off two lady-friends home and then he would come back. Once Anaconda left, I bumped into the guys that had dropped me off home the previous night. They asked me if I had any money to buy some drinks but I told them I did not. To my surprise, they bought me a few drinks and kept on telling me how happy they were we had become friends. At the same time, they were trying to shun Anaconda off, and tell me he was being a bad friend by having left me in the club to take his friends home. I found this a bit weird as they were the second ones to draw my attention to Anaconda but I did not really pay attention to them.  

At about 4 AM he was still not back and the club was closing down. Most of the people had left so I decided it was time for me to make a move as well. It was a shame I did not get to say goodbye to Anaconda but my flight was at 8 AM and I could not really wait any longer for him.  The two guys offered to walk me home again as a farewell. On the way home we had a good chat about life and they kept on asking me when I would come back to party with them again.  

Everlasting Cuba

All was good until one them asks me if they could enter the room I was staying in to take a bit of shelter from the rain. This seemed a bit weird to me since it was already about 5 AM and the rain was not even as strong anymore. Moreover, I had told them I need to catch a flight at 8 AM. I told them that I don’t think it’s a good idea since the host would not be happy if other people came in. Their response was a bit aggressive, insisting that as long as I paid for my room,  I should have had the right to leave my friends in to rest for a bit. 

At this point, my 6th sense kicked in. I felt something was not right in their intentions and then it hit me. They were planning on robbing me. At least that’s the feeling I got then. When we got close to the house I was staying in, they kind of gave me an ultimatum. 

‘Are you going to let us in or no?’ one of them said on a fairly aggressive tone 

At that point a few scenarios went through my head. It was about 5 AM, still dark and raining outside. There was no-one on the streets that could have helped me had they tried to assault me, and despite me having curled two days before, I was hardly a match for any of them in a fight. (as they were quite well built, athletic guys) The conclusion I got to was that had I told them no, they would have robbed me there. I still had my phone, some money, passport and wallet on me so I couldn’t really afford losing any of that. After about 2.5 seconds of going through various scenarios in my head I decide to let them in. But I told them that they would have to be really quiet since if the house owners woke up, they would kick them out.  

When we entered my room, I realised the mistake I had made.  My professional camera, my tablet, my wireless Beats and some British Pound notes were on the bed, just waiting to be taken. As soon as my two ‘friends’ entered the room their radar turned on immediately and started scanning around for potential spoils of war. So, they sat down on a small bench in front of the bed, and I sat down on the bed, basically blocking their view of my items. Then, an awkward silence creeped up on both sides and for about 2 minutes, which felt like 20, we just stared at each other without saying anything. It was as if each other was waiting for the other to make the first move. In those 2 minutes I probably went through hundreds of scenarios in my head of what could have potentially happened and what the best course of action on my side would be. Black Mamba’s words echoed in my head: “You are in the right place with the right people.” “You’re god damn right I am”

The first move was made by one of the Cubans, who took out an old mp3 player and put his earphones on. The music was so loud that I could actually hear it as well. It was some kind of weird electro tune. At that time, I freaked out since this was like a scene from a horror movie where a psychopath unleashes himself. Shortly after, he grabbed my backpack and tried to pull it to his side. Without saying anything, I pulled it back from his hands.

At that point, I felt I had to urgently take action, so I got up and started thanking them for making sure I got safely home. On top of that, I told them that in order to express my gratitude I wanted to give them some gifts from the UK. And so I opened up my suitcase and started handing them Slazenger socks, Everlast T-shirts and Lonsdale shorts (usually the cheapest clothes you can buy in the UK). One man’s dirt, another’s treasure, I assume. I gave a few items to each and they were thrilled about it. So thrilled that they completely forgot about the rest of the items on my bed. Just as they were going to leave, one of them turned around and asked me if I could give him my toothbrush, as he had seen it in my suitcase. As my toothbrush was fairly used (almost yellow) I asked him if he really wanted it as it was dirty, to which he replied that Cuba is a poor country and he doesn’t care. I gave him my toothbrush as well and they were on their way. As they left,  a sense of disappointment gripped me and I shouted at them: 

‘You disappointed me, brothers!’ 

One of them shouted back:  

‘Peace and Love brother, Peace and Love’ 

I got back to the room and laid on bed, exhaling relief. I wasn’t mad at them, just a bit disappointed I couldn’t see through their intentions. But then again had I seen it, one of them would still not have a toothbrush. I had about 40 minutes until I had to depart towards the airport. My host lady came to check up on me and asked me if I wanted breakfast. I smiled and told her I really needed it. 

Three hours later I was on a flight back to Mexico. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved to be leaving a country. At the same time, I was already planning the date of my return.

The following day I sent one of the Cubans a message on Facebook :  
“Hope you liked the clothes, brothers!”.
A week later I got a reply :
“Very much indeed. Many blessings, brother!”