The clock was past 9 when I opened my eyes and found myself in my small room with high ceilings, hearing the sound of the rain playing on the balcony outside, together with women’s voices talking in Spanish. I looked around me and saw my backpack on the couch, untouched. I must have been so tired after the flight that as soon as I got into the room, I crashed on the bed and fallen asleep.
I was in Cuba. For real. I got out of bed, got dressed, and open the door. My room was the last one, at the second floor, alongside a narrow balcony that was crossing the whole patio. I’ve made my way to the main building and stepped inside, only to discover a beautiful lounge decorated with vintage chairs alongside a table, two big chandeliers hanging on the ceiling and a tall mirror. The walls were covered in what I assumed to be paintings made by Cuban artists. The rest of the space was decorated with tropical plants. The big windows were opened and the freshly rain smell was filling in the room.
It took me another hour until I managed to sort out the misunderstanding from the night before, regarding my booking. The casa was divided in two and I got mixed up between them. But all was good in the end, and I found myself in the kitchen, having a well deserved breakfast, talking in Spanish with the owner who was apologizing for the mix up.
Now, with my stomach full, I was ready for my next goal: get some Cuban money. I read in my Lonely Planet that the only place where you can legally exchange money are state owned the Cadeca’s. And I have also read that during the weekend is the worst time to go because of the big queues. And today it was Saturday… I asked the owner of the casa where the nearest Cadeca was. “Take a right after two blocks and then walk for more three blocks”, he said. Now, if you are like me, and come from Europe, counting blocks might be a difficult task. I managed to get lost. Havana’s old center is formed out of colonial houses alongside narrow streets, with beautiful colored squares in between. The first thing that I noticed it was that I felt very warm. It was definitely not jeans weather. Havana is a hot destination in the Caribbean so keep this in mind when you pack for Cuba.
It was almost lunchtime and the streets were full with locals rushing around and children playing. Finally I found the Cadeca, after retracing my steps and figuring out how to count blocks. The queue was huge, but I had no choice but stay and wait. Near me, a couple of young Cubans were making churros: he was making the dough while she was taking them out of the oil and sprinkle them with sugar. The air around us was smelling like vanilla.
As soon as I managed to exchange some pesos, I returned and bought a cone of churros, then headed back towards the casa. The jet lag was saying its word and I needed to rest before start to embrace Cuba for real. On the way back however I stopped at a shop to buy a bottle of water. You have to know that shops in Cuba are totally different than what you are used to. They only sell a few products, and all are in CUC – the touristic currency. I waited for my turn and when it finally came, I asked in my broken Spanish combined with Italian for a bottle of water. The price was 1 CUC, pretty expensive if you think about it. And just as I received it, a guy behind me said something to me. I didn’t understand so I walked away. But as I was standing in front of the shop, trying to get the bottle inside my backpack, he came out and smiled. I told him I didn’t understand what he said, so he repeated (in Spanish, of course): “You can find cheap water at the corner pizza shops, don’t buy from the shop as it’s very expensive). I said “thank you” and went back towards the casa, where, as soon as I finished my churros, I went straight to bed.
When I woke up again it was already evening. I didn’t want to spend the whole day sleeping so I decided to have an evening walk. I’ve put on the skirt and the shirt I bought in Canada and headed of towards the Malecon, the romantic waterfront of Havana. But instead heading towards the water, I ended up at the Capitolio. The rain was on and off so I walked around the big square, admiring the beautiful architecture of the buildings around Parque Central: The National Theater, Hotel Inglattera and Hotel Parque Central.
I looked at the map again and headed back. Again, I seemed to have taken the wrong turn. A young man saw me struggling with the map (it’s something very unusual for me so I blame the jet lag) and asked me if I was lost.
“I just want to go towards the sea”.
“Oh, you have to go to the opposite direction. The sea is that way”, he said, pointing to the road behind me.
By this point I couldn’t have been more amazed of my lack of sense of directions. Havana i s surrounded by the sea, how can I oversee it so badly? I thank the man and turned around, walking slowly on the street behind me. Suddenly, I could hear music and laughter and as I approached, I realised I just arrived in front of the famous Bodeguita del Medio. A band was singing classic Cuban songs inside, while people were sipping Mojitos and dancing in the street.
Across the street, in the Piazza, three children were playing football. In front of the cathedral the nativity scene was set up. In the middle, on Jesus’s wreath bed, a dog was shivering at every wind blast, while sleeping.
I continued my walk towards the Malecon, making sure I am on the right path now. As I was preparing to cross the street, I’ve noticed a familiar face on the other side, in the bus station. I didn’t make a connection until I actually got in front of him, the guy from the shop. He was so happy to see me again that he let his bus go and invite me to go for a Cuban coffee at a restaurant near by. I wanted to say no, thinking of all the scams Lonely Planet was talking about but what the hell, it was just a coffee, and I really needed one even if it was 8PM by now. So I said yes.
We crossed the street back towards the old town and entered this beautiful decorated restaurant, which looked very fancy. He ordered two coffees and we started to talk, him in Spanish, me in half Italian, half the Spanish I remembered from the Mexican novellas I used to watch while I was a kid. He didn’t know any English, which assured me he was actually a nice person just happy to see me again, and not a scammer. He told me he was an electrician and at lunch time, when we met in the shop, he was in his break from repairing some cables in the old town. He asked me what I wanted to see and I said that I wanted to go to see the Malecon.
That’s when he laughed and said that because of the high wind Malecon is not a great place to be right now. But I insisted and he said sure, why not. But first, he needed to give a bag with food to one of his friends. I said ok. We headed towards the Malecon and as soon as we got there I realised why he suggested to avoid it. Malecon is the seafront esplanade that stretched for 5 miles along the coast of Havana. When there is wind, the road closes because of the high waves that crash on top of it. However, it was already raining, and I was loving the show the sea was putting on.
The house of Eliner’s friend was on the Malecon. I followed him inside one of the buildings, climbing the narrow stairs towards the second floor, where he opened a door towards a patio, just like my casa had. His friend and his wife warmly welcomed me inside their tiny home, where they lived together with three dogs. I was immediately served with coffee, while Eliner laughed that I don’t take sugar with it. In Cuba, you have to put at least two teaspoons of sugar in your espresso, otherwise you are not Cuban. I couldn’t believe that it was less than 24 hours since I was in Cuba and already I was introduced to the real local life.
After the short visit, Eliner wanted to show me Old Havana, and even if my energy levels were very low, I said yes. We spent the next two hours just walking around and listening to his stories. I could only understand about half of what he was saying, but it everything was so fascinating. He told me about the history of the places that we were passing by, about the life in Cuba, about the people.
We decided to meet the next day too, after he finished work, to show me some more of the city.