“Where you from?” “You need restaurant?” “You need hotel? Casa Particular?” They swarm their prey, shouting and following. “Hey, senora, you want taxi?” “You like cigar?” At first the persistent hustlers, known in Cuba as jiniteros, can seem either overly friendly or slightly intimidating, then annoying, and after two weeks of constant harassment, disheartening. Unwanted attention is all but impossible to avoid in Havana, but a little extra effort can turn a trip to Cuba into an opportunity to interact with locals and sample life the way they live it. For us, the key was in the dining:
We are determined to experience the real Cuba, albeit based out of an air-conditioned room in Vedado, the upper-class section of Havana where the spacious houses have large columns and colourfully tiled floors. After we’ve rested, we tour the neighbourhood looking for food.
The grocery store down the road sells packaged cookies, soda, bottled water, rum and beer among other odds and ends, all over-priced in American dollars. Some big hotels are nearby, each with expensive restaurants. “I’d like some moros y cristianos,” I repeat again and again at each, eager to taste the traditional Cuban rice and beans. ‘Sorry, we can’t do that,’ I’m told each time. ‘We have lobster, grilled chicken… ham?’ The prices are usually more than US $10 dollars a plate, the portions small.
Nearly two hours later we find ourselves on a back street, a line of Cubans spiralling down the sidewalk. Behind a counter, a woman loads personal pan pizzas into an oven on the grass. The oven fits just four pizzas and the orders are coming in droves.
No one is shouting at us on this little back street, but the line never seems to get shorter, and our order never seems to get taken. A fresh-faced man who arrived after us places his order. “What are you getting?” he asks me, sensing my disillusionment as I pace the sidewalk. “Two cheese pizzas,” I say. He mumbles something to the woman on the other side of the counter, who is still working on three or four orders back.
“So where you from?” he asks after another few minutes.
“He’s probably going to ask us for money for helping us order the pizza,” my husband whispers in my ear. It’s official—we’ve become cynics.
We talk a little in my two-years-gone-unpractised-Spanish. “So do you have a job?” I ask. He is a cook, in a restaurant in Havana Viejo. His name is Daniel. He lives a few blocks away, not too far. He has a son who is 11. He loves to dance salsa, son and cha cha cha. “Really,” I say as our pizzas finally arrive. “I want to learn how to dance salsa, but I’ve tried a few times, and I just can’t do it.” “Well why don’t you come over to my house. I’ll teach you how,” Daniel says.
About 10 minutes down the road is Daniel’s home. Three women are leaning against a ledge at the end of a long driveway. They each kiss me hello. A tall and slender woman named Adami is Daniel’s partner. They live there together with cousins and brothers and Daniel’s mother and son. About 12 of them.
“Come in,” they motion us toward a small house with uneven grey cement floors and walls, typical of most Cubans who don’t have relatives sending money from abroad. Adami sifts through a pile of CDs and finally chooses one— Los Van Van—the biggest salsa group in Cuba, she tells me as she shoves a table aside to create a dance floor. Daniel takes my hands, Adami grabs my husband’s. She patiently counts the beats for us. Un, do, un, do, tre— in Cuba s’s are rarely pronounced. We stare at our feet laughing uncontrollably, a small fan blowing respite from the thick night heat. Daniel and Adami demonstrate, while we attempt awkward imitations.
“Come back Friday,” Daniel says, kissing my cheek and slapping my husband high five as we leave. “and we will practice some more.” Day one in Cuba has been better than expected.
Day two: The little restaurant with the cute folk band playing, and the bow-tied waiters spieling off the daily specials turns out to be much less of a deal than it seemed. The bow ties should have been our clue. The “steak” is actually “steak of pork,” the “salad,” a few shreds of cabbage. We leave the leathery white meat on our plates and swallow the salty side dishes in gulps. Still hungry having walked the lengths of Havana today, we try our trusty remedy: street food.
A big white sign with red lettering lures us: spaghetti, three pesos.
A well-dressed man in his mid-20s sporting a silky yellow and green Rinaldo jersey and khaki pants strikes up a conversation in English. He tells us his name is Suzuki, pulling his passport out to prove he is not lying. Name: Suzuki Rodriguez. Occupation: unemployed.
“So how do you afford clothes like that?” I ask.
“Oh, I go to the store and I buy, like, 10 cokes, maybe six pairs of sneakers. Then I go out and sell them to the farmers,” he explains with a shrug.
It’s after 10 p.m. and the crowd outside the spaghetti place is growing. Must be good. “Maybe we got ripped off yesterday,” I nudge my travel buddy. Suzuki smiles. He tells of how his mother moved to New Jersey in the 1980s when hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled. She lives in Atlantic City. “I’ve tried three times to leave this place,” he says, shaking his head. “Every time I get to the airport they won’t let me leave. They look at my passport and send me straight back.”
The spaghetti arrives: overcooked noodles, a bit of ketchup-like sauce and piles of cheese. I load my spoon and devour. My gut wrenches. Ugh. “Um, what is this? Is the cheese bad?” The flavour is rancid and harsh, the sauce, spiceless. It is a sour paste of mush.
My travel buddy is hungrier than I am, and stronger. He and Suzuki manage to lick their bowls clean. I force feed myself, but 10 minutes later my bowl seems nearly untouched.
“I, I feel sick. I can’t, can’t eat this.” I have failed. I try another bite, coughing and gagging as I swallow.
“Would you like it?” I offer Suzuki. “No,” he says with a light chuckle. “I don’t like it any more than you. I’m just used to it.”
Suzuki takes us on a walking tour of the city, stopping at one shop where part of the famous Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate was filmed, and another that was seen in Buena Vista Social Club. “Would you like a beer?”
“Oh no thanks,” we politely decline. “Have a sip of mine,” Suzuki insists as we wander around the old town.
I rub my stomach, which is still aching.
“So how long have you been in Cuba?” he asks.
“This is our second day.”
“And it’s your first time?”
“No wonder you’re sick.” Our impromptu tour guide laughs.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve only been here two days and you’re trying to live like a Cuban. You can’t do that. You need to go to a resort and sip a mojito. You can’t be Cuban yet,” he says. “Maybe in a week.”
We walk in silence, the wisdom of his words sinking in.
“So where did you learn English?” I ask as we circle back to the little spaghetti shop. I am surprised by his well-rounded vocabulary and nearly flawless pronunciation.
“On the street…” Suzuki smiles. “I used to work with tourists.”
If you go:
When to go: Cuba is a year-round destination, but Lonely Planet recommends May, June and November as the least crowded months with reasonable weather (not too hot or too rainy). Peak season runs December to April.
Getting there: You’ll have to make a few transfers: a trade embargo by the United States means all tourist flights to Cuba are prohibited so the most direct route to Havana is via LA through Mexico.
Where to stay: Casa Particulares, private houses, are a good alternative to hotels. Prices in Havana range from $US15 to $35 for a basic room, while similar rooms in other cities run a bit cheaper. Most owners will offer to prepare breakfast (US $2-3) and dinner (about US $7).
Don’t miss: Live folk music and salsa dancing at one of Havana’s many clubs or bars, or if you can spare the time, in Cuba’s second largest city of Santiago on the eastern side of the island. It’s Cuba’s music capital, home town of Buena Vista Social Club and worth the 15-hour bus ride or the extra money for a plane trip.
What you’ll need: Cash, and plenty of it. Credit cards are rarely accepted and you’ll be expected to pay for most things in US dollars (you can get cash advances at many banks, but there is generally a minimum withdrawal of US $100). Candles will also come in handy as there are frequent power outages in many Cuban cities.
First published Australian Doctor, 2003