So the airplane lands in Havana. (I’m going to skip the 12 hour journey and two layovers there because that’s not interesting at this point.)
The first thing that hits me is the heat, humidity, and the smell of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Yeah, I thought the last one was a bit random too until I decided that it has to do with humidity and condensation on stone walls in both locations.
They stop me at Immigration and Customs to investigate why I have 14 baseballs in my bag. They speak only Spanish and I’m unsure exactly what they’re demanding of me. I take all them out of my bag and eventually they let me through.
I stop for the restroom, happy to see there is a toilet! But no seat. There is also no soap in the dispenser and no paper towels. Well, I thought, I’m grateful for a flushing toilet. And I didn’t know how much I would miss that later!
Everyone piling off the plane is sweaty and hot in their San Francisco and Chicago winter clothes. We wait an hour and a half to get our luggage, some people standing next to me commenting at the inefficiency of the unloading process that they viewed from the window of the plane. So it’s likely that Cuban culture isn’t focused on linear time as much the U.S., I note. (Though I would receive plenty of reminders throughout the trip, making there no need for “notes”.)
After grabbing my 42 lb backpack, I trudge through the doors to a crowd of strangers. Since I don’t have a working cell phone according to T-Mobile, I look for the man named Yeiler whose face I had studied via Facebook profile pictures. I find him holding a sign with my name on it and we both seem to be ecstatic to have found each other.
Our taxi driver named Rafael who had waited with him the whole hour and a half since I landed led us to his old red car. From there, all of my senses are overwhelmed and it’s quite a blur.
I attempt conversation in Spanish for the first time in years and we are able to understand enough about each other that we’re content. The 1950’s car coughs along the road and fellow 60 year old cars. The scenery and specimen of Cuba remind me of Hawaii. On a few buildings is graffiti in Spanish supporting Fidel. People are attempting to cross a busy highway and I think they were crazy tourists, though I learn later that’s just how you cross the road in Cuba. No crosswalk, no problem.
Rafael drops us off at the Casa Particular that Yeiler booked for me since my booking canceled on me before I came. Thank you again, Yeiler! We walk up three flights of stairs to a spacious one bedroom apartment. Rafael offers to carry my luggage up the stairs for me and as I walk behind him, I smell alcohol.
I find out soon that a bottle of whiskey that was supposed to be gifted broke in my baggage. Que una lastima! What a shame. Glass shards and rum soak my clothes and my host, Iraida, offers to wash it. She speaks a few words of English, but I insist that I do it myself. Still, she washes my ultra soaked clothes for me. Already, I’m realizing the kindess and sincerity of Cubanos.
Iraida shows me around the one bedroom apartment. This also doesn’t have a toilet seat. The shower has a switch to turn on the hot water. I never got hot water either way. There was a digital countdown of something, I never figured out for what.
Yeiler and I walk a couple blocks over to his friends apartment. The streets are dark and every foot smells of something different–diesel, sewage, onions, and other indistinguishable aromas. Yeiler rings the bell through the front door. The front doors in Cuba tend to be a metal gate, then another full door. He steps back into the dark cobblestoned street, yelling to his friend, “Ozmanny! Ozmanny!” at the balcony.
A shirtless man appears at the second story, hollers something in Spanish and we’re left waiting in the street.
While waiting, a biker’s rickshaw breaks right in front of us as he bikes up hill. His bike and cart halt and begin rolling backward. Without hesitation, Yeiler jumps into the street and lunges low to push the cart. Running with the biker to get the momentum going, the biker continues uphill into blackness, shouting a thanks behind. Was that just Yeiler’s thoughtfulness or was that the culture? Maybe it was both.
We make it upstairs and Ozmanny turns the fan on for us. I’m getting used to the idea I’ll be hot and sticky for the next two weeks. A lady with fire red hair comes out of the bedroom and welcomes we warmly. She begins speaking English to my relief, the first person I would speak English with in five some hours. Seemed like longer. Of course, it’s wonderful to speak different languages, but I am so out of practice that my brain is already on overdrive.
She speaks with a Norwegian accent in English, as she too is from Norway. Her name: Sol. Sol means “sun” in Spanish. So fitting for a woman who I would get to know as a passionate source of love and dance. She salsa dances, too! I’m beginning to think Norweigans all secretly salsa and travel to Cuba.
Ozmanny, Sol’s novio (boyfriend) makes us all coffee served in small espresso cups with a plate. Yeiler makes a run for beer while Sol and I chat about Cuba, salsa, careers and men. What else is there to talk about?
Yeiler returns with Heineken cerveza (beer) while Sol drinks the last beer in the fridge appropriately called “Sol”. The wooden shutters are wide open to the balcony so we essentially are sitting outside in the middle of winter in 80 degrees. Ozmanny leaves for a bit to visit his daughter.
Meanwhile, Sol acts a bit of a translator between me and Yeiler. Yeiler knows Norwegian from his fiancé so I ask for a moment they speak in Norwegian. I listen to Sol speak in her Native tongue for the first time and Yeiler speak fluently in something other than his first language. I smile and cherish the beauty of the three of us coming from three different cultures and communicating in different languages to each other. I feel so welcomed and safe in these strangers’ company.
Ozmanny returns and we head out for the night. I don’t where I’m going, I barely know who I’m with. And I’m so happy.
We strut down the dimly lit streets, one turn after another. They all look the same: an open front door, a family lounging in the living room. People are sitting on sidewalks and just hanging out outside. Small shapes run across the streets and I guess they’re the stray dogs and cats I saw earlier in the evening.
They keep saying, “Vamos a Malecón, vamos a Malecón.” I don’t know what it is, but guess it must be good. I would become very fond of this Malecón.
We make it to the oceanfront-the Malecón- Havana ends at a four foot high wall bordering the Atlantic Ocean. An expressway runs along the Malecón for five miles. Right now, the street is lit up by extra tall and bright street lights, surrounded by darkness. I can’t wait to see it in the daylight.
People are sitting on the wall, some spots wet from the waves crashing over. Men pass us selling peanuts rolled in paper. (Not gonna lie, I thought they were blunts at first.)
We snack on these salted peanuts and saunter down the ocean front. I’m in shorts and a tank top, it’s warm and humid, and it’s the middle of winter. And I’m in perfect company. I never would have imagined my first night being so romantic.
After we walk to a restaurant called El Loco Loco, for a traditional dish, Ropa Vieja. I got the local beer, Bucanero. I loved it all.
It’s 12 am and they walk with me 20 minutes to my casa particular and wish me a great time in Cuba. I’m sad to see them go already.
I return to my empty apartment. I turn on the fans and my classic Cuban music playlist. I can’t wait for tomorrow. The hum of the fans and cool air lull me to sleep.
Coming soon: A Video Blog (Vlog) will be made for the first few days of my trip. Currently in the creative process…