I wake up, forgetting all the Spanish I spoke the day before.
Iraida, my host, arrives in the morning to cook me breakfast. What is this?! I’m not used to the concept of even someone cooking for me.Sol explains to me in Spanish: breakfast is coffee with a plate of pineapple, plantains, toast, and torte (plain egg omelette).
There’s a knock at the door. Sol has come to check in on me! It’s 11 AM and she’s just come from a private salsa lesson with an amazing international teacher I would meet later. We chat over breakfast. I ask about the address for my next casa particular booked. They look at the address provided by the Airbnb host in Havana. They both shake their head and laugh sadly.
“This isn’t a real address.”
“This would be impossible to find.”
Apparently, addresses in Cuba need to include the cross streets. The Airbnb host never supplied one. Since there’s no internet/GPS, there really aren’t many options.
This is the meetup place for my six teammates arriving separately today. This location needs to exist.
Our coach had booked two separate Airbnb’s for tonight. But the host of the second address didn’t include the building number. If the phone number worked, which was always questionable in Cuba, then we might be able to get the full address.
They try calling the number provided by the host, which happens to be a German number and doesn’t work. Iraida sets up a taxi for me at 2pm to move to this new location. We decide the best we can do is go and try to find it. No internet in Cuba = yes problems for travellers.
Nonetheless, Sol offers to call her salsa instructor for me to set up a private lesson later that day. I express concern for the other teammates arriving and finding the address, but she encourages me that I take care of myself and enjoy my precious time that I paid for in Cuba. We will all make our way, one way or another. For that, I will forever be grateful for her advice.
Sol leaves to go sun bathing at a pool. She complains about how pale she is when in reality she’s more tan than all of California. Iraida leaves and says she’ll return later.
I take down my rum stained clothes from the clothing line and repack my glass-dusty items. I chill on the balcony, watching for potential taxis and watching people roam the streets below.
People just walk down the middle of the street. Cars, mopeds, and bikers turn the corner fast and honk to let people know they’re coming. It’s busy down there. I observe neighbors across the street on their balconies. In one building directly across from me that had debris and missing walls, I see the feet of two people lounging in chairs in the shade. People are relaxing or living in what would be considered unlivable conditions in the U.S.
The phone rings and its the taxi driver. He says he’ll come an hour later.
After I hang up I realize I have no way of contacting him back. I’m sure if he’ll know what floor/apartment/building I’m waiting at.
Do I go down to the street with all my luggage? I don’t want to leave the house phone in case of emergency.
For the next hour I wonder if that’s my taxi I see driving away. Then a tall man in a baseball cap enters walks into the apartment.
“Me llamo Felix.” He is Iraida’s son and this is his day off work. He speaks a fair amount of English, but I speak as much Spanish as I can throughout our conversations.
We walk down the street to catch a taxi. He’s more of my tour guide/translator than taxi driver. The sidewalks are full of people walking and the streets are full of taxis. He waves down a taxi and tells me not to say a word. He tells the taxi the address and we get in with three other bulky men who look like locals. This is my first “taxi pool” and I’m shoulder to shoulder with large, hairy, sweaty men sitting in silence. The car’s loud engine covers the almost awkward silence.
We arrive to the first location, at least as close as we can get to the unknown location. Felix begins asking people hanging around outside and then asking neighbors through the wrought-iron doors (their gate-like screen doors). Everyone is pointing every which way.
It’s one hour into the search process and I am beginning to get tired; still lugging my bags and 42lb backpack with me full of gifts, chocolate, and more bug spray then would help.
Finally, it comes down to one door. We reach the buzzer through the iron gate and it has a sign that said in Spanish, “Buzz, then go to the street to yell for me.”
We try many times and there is no answer. Two hours into search and decidedly, a scam.
We head to the next address hoping for better luck. This time, asking around works. We get to the gate, but there’s no buzzer. A man approaches us from across the street (I guess he keeps watch or something) and opens the door with a key. He never says a word. Sketchy, but okay, thank you, sir.
We head into a very, small, old elevator. It’s hot and stinky. It’s only four floors, but we are inside it for a couple minutes. I’m losing hope that we’ll ever reach the next casa. At last! The door creaks open. Halfway. Felix pushes it all the way open and we arrive to the bright pink hallway leading to the apartment.
A slender woman answers the door with a wide smile. She’s the host of this Airbnb. Her name is Lumei Chang. She’s so kind and says it’s okay if seven of us sleep there, though we only paid for four (since Yandi screwed us over).
I consider waiting for all my teammates there to ensure their safe arrival, but waiting for who-knows-how-long wouldn’t be ideal use of my first full day in Cuba.
Everyone said they were going to buy a phone upon arrival. In case they can’t find the place on their own, I text them all the full address of Lumei’s place. I’ve done everything I can do help, now it’s time for me to explore and enjoy the rest of my afternoon.
I learn that despite T-Mobile representatives telling my phone won’t work, my phone works. It’s $2/min. for calls and $0.50/text. My teammate Shakun calls. He’s landed and alive! I give him the full address. Prior to departure, Shakun said he’d wait at the airport for the other three: Zaida, Royce, and Ralyn. They were supposed to have landed an two hours ago, but Shakun hadn’t see or heard from them. He tells me he’ll wait an hour longer and then head to Lumei’s.
Lumei comes in from the balcony muttering, “Hace frio!” It’s about 75 degrees.
She says she’ll wait for the others to arrive. Felix offers to show me around Havana.
We walk to the busiest, touristy street called Calle Obispo. Souvenir shops, restaurants and appliance stores fill some ten blocks. We stop at a stand with an umbrella for 1.50 CUC screwdrivers. The exchange rate is 1 US dollar to 0.87 CUC.
Sipping our screwdrivers, (since alcohol is legal on the streets as well as smoking cigs basically anywhere) we explore downtown.
We walk west from the end of the Malecon to the cross streets Sol told me to meet her at for my private salsa lesson. “San Lazaro y Espada.” With a Cuban accent, that’s pronounced “Eh- pada.” They don’t pronounce the “s”. So “seis” is “sei” and “despacio” is “de-pacio”.
It’s a lovely walk along Habana Viejo (Old Havana) and we walk past the Morro Castle that was built in the late 16th century. It’s about an hour walk to the cross streets Sol’s given me. The sun is already getting lower. It’s around 4 PM.
We meet up with Sol and Ozmanny just in time for my lesson. She leads me down the street and into what might look like an uninhabited building. We walk up an iron spiral staircase without light, except for the soft setting sun many floors above us.
Sol introduces me to Yohan and his teacher’s assistant, Randy. They both speak enough English and I enough Spanish, for us to understand each other with ease. I am just realizing that I’ve never had a private dance lesson in any genre of dance, so that was special in itself. It cost 20 CUC.
I couldn’t stop smiling the whole hour and especially, after.
Felix comes after my lesson to escort me back to the casa. We wind down the streets in the evening. I’ve now been in Cuba for 24 hours.
I arrive at Lumei’s to see all my friends! Everyone made it safely, but not without struggle. I can’t wait to hear everyone’s stories, already. There are six of us now at Lumei’s: me, Shakun, Zaida, Royce, and Ralyn.
We have one last teammate who hasn’t arrived yet. Emily.
She flew into Santa Clara, which is a five hour train ride from Havana. She said she doesn’t speak Spanish. We haven’t heard from her. And with the complications of the address, there’s no way she’ll find it after sunset. We leave a sign on the door downstairs, but we know that won’t do anything. There’s no hope for Emily to find Lumei’s today. And tomorrow we’re leaving to another location.
But there’s nothing else we can do. We have no way to contact her.
We go out to dinner and hope the best for Emily. That maybe she got a working phone. That maybe she’ll call us if she’s in trouble.
Felix leads us through Calle Obispo again, telling us there’s a nice place he has in mind. Everyone’s exhausted and hungry and hot. Finally, we arrive at the end of road and seemingly, the end of Cuba! It is a restaurant on a ship at the port.
The server tells us to seat ourselves. We choose a table and then they tell us that table is reserved. They move us to the corner table in the near empty restaurant. The waitress hands us the menus, stating that, “Tenemos solamente camarones y langostas”. We only have shrimp and lobster.
The seven of us look at each other. Personally, I like shrimp. It seems not everyone feels the same about shrimp and Royce is allergic.
“Verdadero? Es siete y media.” Felix questions their sincerity, since it’s only 7:30pm. How could they run out already?
I take a look at the menu. Out of the thirty dishes, only a few are shrimp and lobster. Lobster is, of course, the most expensive item on the menu. Shrimp, probably the cheapest for the restaurant to purchase. We think about leaving. Decisions are hard to make in big groups (as the rest of our trip proves to be true), but we decide to stay. We’re all ravished after a day of travelling.
After they explain Royce is allergic to shrimp, the waitress comes back from the kitchen saying (again, everything’s in Spanish), “We have three pork dishes left.” Great, that’s a miracle. So we order the three pork dishes and everyone else gets shrimp. Then I order a mojito and the rest order bottled water.
The waitress returns and says, “We only have one bottle of water.”
Only one bottle of water.
Okay, everyone orders mojitos. And just like that, we’ve been hustled for the first time in Cuba. ¡Bienvenida a Cuba!
We finish our dishes. I wonder about Emily and if she’s okay. I still am hopeful she’ll arrive tonight to Lumei’s incomplete address, somehow.
It’s been some time we’ve been waiting for our check. Do we pay at the front? This restaurant seems too nice for that. The seven of us rise and stand at the front counter. The waitresses behind the counter drying glasses just stare at us. After a few minutes, we start to feel uncomfortable. Felix tells us, if they’re not going to give us the check, we might as well leave. We all say, noo, we’ll pay. We wait there longer. Workers look at us standing at the cashier and walk by. Felix starts heading down the stairs to the front door.
I’m all about experiencing Cuba like the locals live it. I head down the stairs after him. One by one, we file out of the restaurant and down the stairs. We exit the ship and are basically confused. We cross the street, wondering if that really just happened.
We’re five blocks away from the *shippy* restaurant. We’re laughing about how weird that whole situation was and how badly we got hustled. Out of nowhere, an angry man in a uniform is talking sternly to Felix in Spanish.
In the dark, I couldn’t tell what uniform he was wearing. How deep in doodoo were we?
It was waiter from the restaurant. He begins to lead us back to the ship.
Felix looks at me with a smile. “We can still run.”
“No. We’re not going to jail on our first night of Cuba.”
We arrive back at the ship and our waitress tells off Felix in Spanish, I learn later. From body language, she seems pissed, but not outraged. In my humble opinion, she knows they unnecessarily hustled us.
Next time we’ll do better dashing from a shippy restaurant. Haha, not really. I was just following our tour guide. We didn’t try that hard to dine and dash, but they had to try really hard to charge us. Oops!
We’re exhausted and everything’s closing. Felix leaves and I thank him for guiding me and the group around Habana. We return home. No sign of Emily.
The six of us play Lotería and drink the Cuban wine Shakun bought from a small store (5’x5′) on the way home. Then I pull out a bottle at was meant to be gifted, but at this point in time, I realize bringing American rum was probably the least interesting alcohol to bring to Cuba. And I also can’t think of anyone who I’d give it to, with reason. So we enjoy that bottle too.
While we worry about Emily once again, Shakun writes on a sheet of paper something along the lines (in all caps), “EMILY, IF YOU FIND THIS NOTE, CALL 14083358208.”
He plans to put it on the front gate of the apartment lobby. We can’t find any tape, so we use clothing pins to attach it to the gate. Success.
Within an hour, we fall into our beds, happy and drained-a similar ending to the rest of our nights in Cuba.