The old house intoxicated me, from its ceilings, which seemed to stretch all the way up to the pristine skies above Havana; to rocking chairs that made me want to take up cigar smoking; to dramatic arches between the rooms, painted exactly the same shade of turquoise as the jewelry the lady of the casa particular was wearing when she offered us a welcome beverage.
It took a moment after she appeared in the kitchen – I was admiring the intricate pastel palette of the floor tiles – for me to register her presence.
“You have such a beautiful home,” I spit the words out, too distracted to speak properly. “How has your day been so far?”
“I tried to tell you” She sighed, and set the guava juice on the table. “But you didn’t listen.
“Mira,” she continued, “el jugo no tiene azucar.”
She disappeared from the kitchen before I could explain myself.
Havana is screaming at me, Lourdes, I would’ve said, gazing over the balcony to gaze down Avenida Brasil at the monolithic Capitolio building and the classic cars speeding past it. I was listening, I just couldn’t hear you.
Dora and I have been friends for seven years, during which time we’ve traveled to China, India and Thailand together, so it seemed natural that we should visit the forbidden land of Cuba together. We found ourselves equally mesmerized by the vintage Chevys, Fords and Chryslers rolling down the street, their half-century old paint and chrome gleaming as if it was brand new.
“I could literally watch this all night,” she said, alternating between shots of the endless classic car parade and sultry selfies.
“Yourself or the cars?” I laughed, and busted out my wide-angle lens.
She pouted at her phone’s front-facing camera. “Both, of course.”
As for me, I was scampering for the right spot to take in the widest landscape as the sky teetered on the edge of changing color, the sun nearly set behind a patch of palm trees.
It’s gonna be 24 hours before I can get a shot like this again, I thought and hit the shutter button as many times as I could before as the wispy clouds in the sky turned orange, then purple, then fluorescent pink.
After the kaleidoscopic sky had faded completely to black, I made my way toward the next-most colorful thing I could see: The stained glass awning in front of Hotel Inglaterra – Cuba’s oldest – which I immediately regretted not having booked a room at.
Dora immediately bummed a cigarette from an Australian Jew, whose orthodoxy was the only alien thing Havana’s idiosyncrasy seemed unable to penetrate.
“Why not?” Dora asked, when she asked if she could shake the hand of the man who helped her break her no-smoking vow.
“You’re a woman,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.
“I am,” she removed her phone and admired herself using its front-facing camera. “You’re very right about that.”
The ice broken, their conversation quickly devolved into typical smoker’s chat, which is good, because I didn’t want to have to insult anyone’s religious beliefs that night.
Instead, I began walking back toward the Capitolio, which was now dark and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the night sky. But on my way there, I became distracted by a lilac car with an interior so white it glowed in the dark.
Before I knew it, Dora and I were cruising Havana’s Malecon waterfront, our driver voguing to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as if he’d performed a hundred drag routines to it.
As the track faded out into “Human Nature,” we passed the nondescript building where the U.S. Embassy would be opening in just a few days, out of Habana Vieja and into Habana Nueva, and I asked him if we could stop and snap a photo, even out the car window.
“Es muy peligroso,” he insisted, his body not missing a beat of the song, as if we had never asked, or at least as if we shouldn’t have.
I wanted to tell him that I saw other foreigners, copious numbers of them, walking along the Malecon, and even crossing its chaotic lanes of traffic, but by the time I thought to speak I realized it would be on deaf ears.
So, I sang along. If this town is just an apple, then let me take a bite.
Our second day in Havana was long, hot and full of walking, so as the sun began to lower in the sky, Dora and I ducked into the first air-conditioned café we could find. Its owner, a man who was also named Robert, embodied the truth about Cuban people that surprises me the most: How connected they are to the rest of the world, in spite of their technological isolation.
“My friend owns a Cuban restaurant in Austin,” he explained, as he delivered our coffees, “and I hear they do extreme sports there too – The X Games?”
I nodded, shocked that he knew about the X-Games – I barely did.
“I would love to visit Austin.”
“Really?” Dora set down her coffee cup. “I never thought I would hear someone here say that.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “I’ve been doing a lot of research, for when things open up – a lot of young of Cubans want to discover America.”
Before we could respond, he put a huge plate of diabetes-inducing pastries in our face. “Would you prefer a gluten-free chocolate muffin, or a piece of cake make with organic coconut?”
I was dumbfounded – the gluten-free movement has caught on here? – so I waited for Dora to answer for me.
“We’ll take both,” she said, grabbing the chocolate muffin for herself. “But can we get them to-go? We’re trying to make it to the Malecon for sunset.”
Not long after we said goodbye to Robert, Dora and I were digging into delicious seafood at a Pablo Neruda-themed restaurant along Havana’s waterfront.
“I would let you taste mine,” she said, as she scarfed down the second-to-last bite of her pescado a la plancha, and then the very last one, “but it’s already gone.”
I shoved one of my own garlic shrimp in my mouth, then pushed the plate toward her and got up from my seat. “Thankfully, I’m a nicer person than you – you can have as many of these as you want.”
“Where are you going?” she asked with genuine concern, then began attacking the plate of shrimp.
I turned around and held my camera up. “To watch the sunset.”
Or at least that’s where I thought I was going.
I’d tried to walk past the older man as he approached me, less because I feared he would ask me for money – I’ve tried to stop making assumptions like this the more I’ve traveled – and more because the sun was setting. Time was precious!
But he came at me anyway. “De qué país?”
“Estados Unidos,” I smiled, looking for a break in the steady stream of classic cars so that I could cross over to the oceanfront.
“Eres muy hermoso,” he said, and put his hand on my shoulder.
I was flattered, but I removed it.
“Tengo 58 años,” he said, in somewhat of a surprising change of subject. “Hoy es mi cumpleaños.”
“Oh,” I said, only half-caring at this point – the sun was sinking further toward the surface of the sea. “Feliz cumpleaños. Cual es su nombre?”
“Humberto,” he said. “Y tú?”
“Robert,” I was about to make a run for it. “Roberto, en español.”
But just then, he put his hand not on my shoulder, but on my rear end. “Yo puedo hacerte muy feliz,” he said, squeezing. “Si tu me pagas unos pesos cubanos.”
This time, I wasn’t nice as I removed his hand. In fact, I neither made eye contact nor said anything – I just rushed across the street and immersed myself in my sunset selfies.
But the discomfort still lingered. I’d heard the boys on the Malecon were prostitutes, I shuddered, nervous that Humberto had also crossed the street and would soon find me. But I didn’t know the old men were, too.
Back at dinner, Dora had not surprisingly finished my shrimp.
“How were they?”
She was using the toothpicks the waiter had brought with the bill to clean her teeth. “Better than my fish, actually – maybe it’s not so bad you didn’t try it.”
“How was sunset?”
I gulped. “You don’t wanna know.”
Cuba is going to change drastically and permanently, especially Havana, probably very soon.
Pretty soon, taxi drivers won’t have to warn foreigners about the presumable dangers of the Malecon – that’s where they’re all be sleeping, eating and entertaining themselves. No locals will be left, save for hotel and wait staff and, of course, taxi drivers, who will no longer drive classic cars.
Gluten-free muffins with be the rule, not the exception; the X-Games might even take place here one day. I doubt older men will be asking foreign boys who could be their sons for money for sex. Or, maybe more will.
One thing Cuban communism seems to have produced is an egalitarian – if rather poor – social order, and while I don’t doubt enterprising gentlemen like Humberto will do well when they can sell things besides their bodies, I do worry that increased competition will stratify society, with violent consequences.
If the majority of the architecture – and the casa particular industry – survives the inevitable arrival of Hilton, Hyatt and JW Marriott, then the most superficial aspect of the country will remain intact, so that the photos the people who visit in the future take will reflect the same sort of Old World splendor they do now, provided they are not too high in quality, their observers not too scrutinizing.
Yet in my current state – sweaty and sticky from the joy and the madness and the frustration of my time in Havana – combined with my simultaneous longing (for places that make me feel like I’ve actually gone somewhere) and contentment (to settle for slightly more exotic versions of the creature comforts I enjoy at home), I cannot answer definitively whether the new Havana – let alone the new Cuba – will be better or worse, for travelers like me or for local Cubans.
But the city I am leaving behind now, as my bus crawls toward Cuba’s cigar country, will certainly not exist as it is for very long, maybe not even for the 10 days that will pass before I return to Havana.
Havana is screaming at me, Lourdes.