Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: Havana Encounters

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Michael Christopher Brown, from “Paradisio”. Havana, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

I’ve always lived as if there were no end in sight. What I mean is, I’m continually destroying things and building them back up again. It’s never occurred to me that I might end up crazy or suicidal.

Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

I was hanging around the restaurant Floridita, spending time in the red light district, roulette in all the hotels, slot machines spilling rivers of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theatre, where for a dollar twenty-five you could take in an extremely filthy stripshow, and in the intermission see the most pornographic x-rated films in the world. And suddenly it occurred to me that this extraordinary city, where all the vices were tolerated and all deals were possible, was the real backdrop for my novel.

Graham Greene on Our Man in Havana (1958)

Parque Central, Circa Hotel Ingelterra: 29 August 2012, 4 pm

I am lounging on a stone bench facing the central monument in Parque Central. The city is buzzing and the humidity and heat are overbearing. Nabokov’s Lolita is on my lap. I started reading it, devouring it, on the bus from Santiago de Chile to St. Pedro de Atacama; a 24 hour ride the only remaining memory of which – apart from Lolita – is a lingering and intensely unpleasant scent that I still am unable to identify. I have only two pages left, and I am beginning to experience that feeling of satisfaction which accompanies the end of a book you have savoured, when a Cuban man interrupts me. He appears to be in his early forties, and approaches me with buoyancy – he reminds me of those toys that spring out of a box and only cease moving once the lid is closed. “Que es su pais?” he asks in a question that I have already heard at least ten times today, and it’s only my first day. “Egipto” I reply. I notice that he is wearing a white skull-cap, and my hunch is correct. There are only five-thousand Muslims in Cuba, he begins, and an Islamic centre. It was complicated getting the communist government to approve the mosque. He mentions Ramadan, which has just concluded recently, and the difficulty of fasting in the tropical Havana heat. Upon learning that I too am Muslim, (yes I am, well .. sort of), and my name is Mohammed, his heart gives that jump of joy that for some reason Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities seem to feel towards each other, especially when they meet in unexpected circumstances. I am now his brother – hermano.

My beer is getting warm and I have quickly learned that in Havana if you do not consume your freezing cold drink within five minutes you will be left with a disgustingly hot fluid. I offer him some of my beer and an expression of shock forms on his face: “you drink beer?!” Fascinating: I have come all the way to Havana where everyone is practically naked in the streets, where Rum is literally more common than water, where young, unbelievably bodacious girls with round asses and sexy cleavages are gyrating to the Salsa and Reggaeton ever present in the streets at the Prado, at the Malecon, in this city, and on my first day I – who by Havana standards is a prude, a conservative – am being told that I am doing something that is morally wrong. It can only come from a Muslim. Unperturbed, in fact quite amused, I explain in broken Spanish that I must not be a good Muslim then. He asks if I would like another beer and if I would buy him an orange juice, and we head off to a nearby ‘Centre’; I don’t know what else to call it; it’s a big, greenish hall that combines shop, supermarket, grocery, bar, cafeteria, with a young man on a laptop DJing through massive speakers: it crosses all the familiar business and entertainment boundaries. I get the feeling that it also doubles as a pick-up joint – prostitutes yes. Then again, almost everywhere in Havana is. As I proceed to buy a Cristal (the local Cerveza) and an Orange juice, he asks if he can have a beer too. Hermano, I wish I told him, you just disapproved of my drinking, what’s the deal? But… no. Two minutes later we are drinking our ice-cold Cristal while on the table next to us two curvy women, a Black and a Mulatta, are eyeing me in that way only prostitutes are capable off. My friend looks towards them, “there are too many prostitutes in Havana”, he says. Many days later I will remember that he is one of the few men whom I have met in Havana who have not asked me if I want a girl, or three or four my friend, whatever you want, anything you want, can and will be arranged.

El Malecon: 8 September, 9p.m.

Having explored Havana Vieja over the course of several serious traipses, and having had properly taken in the renovated as well as the crumbling colonial splendour, the quaint plazas right out of pastel-illustrated story books, the jiniteros – the tourist hassle, the never-ending inquiries about your origins, and the constant attempts to suck CUCs off you (Cuban Convertible Pesos: read dollars), I set off for a much anticipated night-walk down the Malecon, Cuba’s name for what in Alexandria, Egypt is called the Corniche. The Malecon is Havana’s vista onto the Gulf of Mexico; Miami is only 367 kilometres away.

The Malecon starts at the end of the Prado, a central and grand, marble laden avenue that has seen better days. As I head West by the seawall I am struck by how dark this stretch of the Malecon is. I can see light perhaps half a kilometre or so down the road, but then the Malecon descends into darkness again. Havana is barely lit; wherever you are, you are likely to encounter only the faintest lighting, always smooth and its deflection by the pillars and arches of the colonial architecture creates eerie shadows and a compelling atmosphere. But this stretch of the Malecon is pitch-black, and had it not been for the din of human conversation and the occasional released laughter, I might have continued to believe there was no one there. But it is the interplay of light and dark that sets my perceptions, definitively, right. In a scene that recalls those elaborate magic tricks where a whole building is made to disappear and reappear, each passing car coming from behind lights-up the stretch of the Malecon seawall within the reach of its headlamps to reveal, momentarily, a cornucopia of embraces, kisses, fishermen, naked thighs, rum, love, children, a trumpet, old-women, teenagers, passion, two guitars, prostitutes, and all this is shrouded again in darkness as the car, more often than not a relic from the 1950s, crackles along noisily towards Vedado.

Walking down the Malecon is like stepping into a party where all are welcome, a party that stretches several kilometres. But the Malecon really is the Alexandrian Corniche; more often than not an outlet for those who cannot afford more elaborate avenues of entertainment or who simply want to escape the heat and humidity of the inner city motivated by the promise of a sea breeze, a promise which in September is rarely fulfilled. It’s also a place where people are busy working: prostitutes, of course, but also fishermen with invisible lines, old-ladies selling popcorn and nuts, and guitarists offering entertainment for a peso or two. But, really, the Malecon is nothing like the Alexandrian Corniche whose image on a hot August night keeps pinging in my head: men selling seeds and nuts, families – most females appropriately covered in veils with varying degrees of modesty, a few scattered lovers shyly holding hands, no rum, no thighs, no kissing and certainly no trumpets. A triple shroud of humidity, heat and Egyptian-style conservatism; where is the fun in that? No, the Malecon is a different world. In itself it depicts the essence of Cuba, in a nut-shell, paraded right there by the sea. Hedonism, a limitless capacity for fun and passion, and a refreshing openness and freedom of the flesh, all entangled in not-so-pretty knots with the most profound neediness I have ever encountered in a society.

But neediness is not attractive, and I don’t want to get into that. Not now. I am enthralled, for the moment, overwhelmed by the palpable sexiness of the place. I continue further down the Malecon. I might have walked for an hour – I was pacing myself, what is the rush? Eventually I reach Calle 23, which is right before Hotel Nacional, and is the main avenue that cuts through Vedado. Right, I need a drink, and maybe a disco, somewhere to keep the promise, the potential, of excitement. But I make no headway: pacing up and then down Calle 23 I experience action-failure. I cannot decide what to do, and I am not sure why. I head back to Havana Vieja and on the way a thought takes hold of me: I can’t decide what to do or exert any energy apart from that required for walking because I am exhausted; I am exhausted from the constant efforts to brush aside the thoughts, urges, impulses and nascent intentions that beleaguer my mind every two minutes, every time I see a stunning Cuban woman that is.

Callejon Hammel: 9 September, Noon

I wake up at midday dehydrated and with a soaked pillow. Before I fell asleep the previous night, I had formed an intention to visit Callejon Hammel. Each Sunday at noon there is a Rumba jam for a couple of hours and I am not going to miss that. I pull myself together, down a freezing cold beer and a LADA drops me there for 3 CUC. Callejon Hammel is located on a side-street in Centro Havana, just off San Lazaro and close to the Malecon. The area is a few metres wide and stretches between two buildings, an art gallery on one side and a school and restaurant on the other. The place is randomly decorated with wild and crazy murals that fit the adjectives ‘psychedelic’ and ‘colourful’. They depict images of contorted individuals and musical instruments. Towards the end of the ‘corridor’ there is an area decorated with several bathtubs placed in awkward positions, a few glued to the wall. The tubs partake in the colourful murals found elsewhere in this most unusual space. Having arrived half an hour late I miss the beginning of the music. The place is packed, and a few tourists are lingering around. At the centre of the corridor is a rectangular area surrounded by a make-shift barrier; the audience surround this area. Inside are four drummers on congas and several singers and dancers. Three dark and sweaty women in bright yellow dresses and elaborate head-gear are singing and acting and miming in weird and beautiful ways the significance of which, I must say, eludes me. At one point one of the women who earlier had left the performance area begins to return in dramatic and slow movements while emitting a regular shriek, a truly ear-piercing shriek, with a constant wide smile and psychotic eyes, while the Congas gradually build up a complex sequence. I am drawn to the rhythms and the chants, even as the unbearable humidity reduces me to a dripping mess.

Gradually I begin to attract the attention of the locals. A girl who by no means can be more than twenty, if not younger, starts winking at me and smiling, occasionally sticking her tongue out in a gesture you would expect of playground school kids not a woman trying, presumably, to seduce you. A few minutes later she comes to introduce herself to me: she is Carla; she thinks I am beautiful, and she gives me a peck on the cheek. She wants to be my companion. I reject her offer in the gentlest way possible and decide that there is no place better than this to find a conga teacher, something I have been trying to achieve for the past two days. I throw the question around and within minutes I am introduced to Carlos, a percussion teacher, a conga player, and an old-hand at that. But Carlos is performing next, and I have to wait for him. I retreat to a shady area and suck at the cheap 5 peso cigar I bought earlier. Carla remains intent on sticking by my side. A pleasant, young Cuban man who speaks some English approaches me and we have a chat. He asks me what I think of Carla, do I like her? She is cute, isn’t she, he says, implying that I really should accept her offer of companionship. I am not sure what to make of this; does he know her? Why does he care? A few minutes later I find myself chatting to another Cuban guy accompanied by a black woman. A truly curvy, tall woman with big hair, and a striking face, her skin glistening with sweat. She is wearing a tight, low-cut black top hugging her breasts, and an equally tight and short black jeans skirt. The conversation slowly drifts to ‘Cuban girls’ – “they make you crazy my friend”, he says – and inviting me to look at his companion, he holds her hand and twirls her around slowly to give me a good view of her body: a magnificent ass, a full bosom, serious curves, and dark, dark, soft and taught skin. She only barely resists this demonstration of her charms. She lets out a giggle, pulls her arm gently away, and I swear I notice the hints of something I have not so far seen in Cuba: she blushes, and walks away while coquettishly glancing back at us.

I resist.

Carlos returns and invites me as a spectator into the drum circle beyond the barriers, a privilege grounded in the student/teacher relation that we are about to have. Carla continues to follow me and sits on an adjacent chair. After ten minutes, perhaps upon realising that not much will come of this, she leaves. The jam is now over, and Carlos asks for my help to transfer the congas to the location of the lessons. I pick up the rather heavy Tumbadores and wrap my arms around it. It is a truly ancient specimen of a conga painted in red, now peeling, and with rusty bolts holding an impossibly weathered animal hide in place. I follow Carlos into Centro and into the relentless sun, and it occurs to me that it was in 2001 when I first discovered Cuban music and formed the earliest intention to visit the country that can produce such elegant and complex, subtle rhythms. It would take eleven years for this dream scenario to materialise. And here I am.

A Traipse to Plaza de La Revolucion: 10 September, 3p.m.

I don’t know why I walk for hours each day. I don’t even spare those few hours where the sun is perpendicular and the shade non-existent. Rachel says only mad dogs and Englishmen. Perhaps it is some form of atonement, or compensation for my years of semi-embodiment in cold and sun-less London. And what a contrast it is: my daily walk to the conga lesson takes me down the Malecon just before midday, and with my shirt half soaked in sweat and glued to my skin I’ve come to discover that sweat has a smell. I am not talking about the repulsive, rancid smell that emanates from your armpits when you forget to use deodorant, no. It’s a sweet, subtle smell that I’ve come to think of as the unique smell of our species, in the way that dogs, horses and birds have a special scent. And I’ve never noticed it before Cuba.

We wrap up the conga lesson just after 2p.m., and instead of returning to Havana Vieja I decide to visit Plaza de La Revolution. The distance from the beginning of San Lazaro (where I am) to the Plaza is huge; on the map it is half the page, which is half of Havana, and Havana is a big city. I start walking. An hour and a half later I arrive at a major intersection and decide to have a break. I find a little park nestled between two major avenues and settle in the shade of a tree. Three trees away is a man holding a notebook and a pen. He is deep in thought, almost oblivious to his surroundings, and scribbles periodically into his notebook. I look across the road and see a massive billboard which reads: ‘Socialismo o Muerte’. Socialism or Death. What a statement. Surely, if socialism is so valuable – more valuable in fact than life itself – then it cannot be worth much, and certainly not worth dying for, since it becomes no longer about what matters but about itself. But this and similar slogans confront Cubans as they get about their daily efforts to make it through. It is Castro’s replacement for Persil, Toyota and KFC ads. I pull my camera out and begin conceiving a shot that can capture this slogan together with this other prototypical and surprisingly frequent Cuban sight: 1950s American giant-cars: they are everywhere. Several clicks later I am still dissatisfied with the result and I notice behind my shoulder a white Woman, probably European, and a man peering through their cameras and taking the exact frame I have been trying to capture for the last five minutes. I feel that I’ve been robbed of my private field of vision; my enthusiasm dwindles and I settle for the ones I have already taken.

Thirty minutes later I arrive at the vicinity of Plaza de la Revolution. I pause for a minute to buy a couple of peanut cones off a very old-man. “Cuanto cuesta?” “Un peso para dos”, he croaks. If today had been my second or third day in Cuba I would have thought the man wants a CUC which is equivalent to a dollar, and I would have thought that this is way too much for two slim cones of peanuts. But now I am much wiser and I know that he wants a peso which is 1/24th of a CUC: 1 CUC=24 pesos. I check my pockets and I only find one 25 cent CUC coin. Without any pesos on me I offer the man the coin. He proceeds to give me all the cones on him – four to be precise – and when I object that I can’t possibly eat so many peanuts he tells me with a big smile on his face: “take them, now I can go home”. He walks off and I am left slightly confused. I do a little math in my head and this is what I discover. I gave him 25 cents which is equivalent to 6 pesos. To make 6 pesos he needs to sell 12 cones of peanuts. Now, in one transaction, he was able to get rid of all his stock and make more than double the profit, and I am only 25 cents less which for me is a completely insignificant amount: I have a handful of coins scattered around my flat. The double economy going on in Cuba is truly confusing and it took me several days to get the hang of it. The problem is that no one explains it to you, and you can only learn by trial and error. For example, you walk by a food stand in Calle Obispo and you see an ice-cream going for 3 pesos. Naturally you would think it is three CUCs, which are also called pesos in Cuba, and is the currency you automatically obtain as you arrive to Havana. And you may end up giving the vendor 72 pesos for what only costs 3, an error some vendors, naturally, are not always keen to correct. In time you begin to identify peso places and CUC places, and some are labelled too: Moneda Nacional. During my last week in Havana I manage to have my daily breakfast for 10 pesos, less than half a dollar: a double espresso for two pesos and a sandwich for 5 or 8. But then a few hours later you find yourself at a hotel-bar downing Mojitos that cost three or four CUCs, a quarter of a doctor’s monthly salary.

Is Cuba poor? Not obviously so. Not on the surface, no, especially if poverty, for you, is synonymous with pot-bellied black kids starving in some African wasteland. Cubans would tell you that health-care and education are good. But in Cuba there is a lot of need, and constant attempts to obtain dollars off those who have them. And this is not surprising. At 24 pesos a dollar the gain is phenomenal and can truly make a difference to a person’s life. CUCs are extremely valuable in Cuba. CUCs are the means by which a Cuban person can obtain the amenities that I take completely for granted: t-shirts, jeans, deodorant, washing powder, drinkable rum, soap, decent food, basically anything outside of the government sponsored monthly rations that are distributed at special outlets to Cuban citizens. Cuba might not be radically poor in the way that Mozambique is, but it certainly has destitution on a massive scale: crumbling buildings, cracked walls, lack of running water, overcrowded housing, absent ceilings, unreliable electricity, poor sanitation, insufficient food rations, and the impossibility of progressing in any of those respects is guaranteed by the strong hold the socialist government has over the country and private enterprise. Wages reflect this miserable state of affairs: a doctor makes 15 to 20 CUC a month, an engineer about the same, and a police officer about 35 or 40. There is a saying in Cuba, “there are four police men for every Cuban citizen”, and it would appear that the backbone of the country is a robust police-like state. It is also hardly surprising that Havana is teeming with prostitutes who by comparison are raking it. A prostitute would make at least 40 or 50 CUC a night (or per transaction to be precise). This is serious cash here, and may partially explain the fact that prostitution appears to be detached from the usual quasi-moral values of shame, dignity and honour to the extent that women are openly soliciting for sex all over Havana and men may pimp their girlfriends and wives. But need cannot account fully for the phenomena. There are places with more significant poverty but where it is unthinkable that a man would pimp his wife or a mother her daughter, irrespective of how destitute they were. No matter how much I mull it in my head, I can only see the phenomena of massive scale prostitution as an indication of deep problems with the country; Cuba clearly is in need of some kind of change.

I arrive to Plaza de la Revolution and take in the place in all its grandiosity. I realise almost instantly the scale of the challenge facing young Cubans if one day they rise and attempt to transcend the ideology and narrative that has publicly framed their lives for decades. The Plaza is a massive open space baking in the sun and without a sliver of shade. There is not a single person here at this time of day, maybe never? On one side there is a gigantic statue of Jose Marti that rises perhaps 30 metres and on the other are two equally gigantic and elegant murals of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara mounted on the façades of two characterless, communist-looking buildings. The whole thing is arranged such that the two Revolutionaries are facing Marti, the inspirational figure behind Cuba’s late-19th century independence from Spanish colonial rule. What the space lacks in charm – it really has absolutely none – it makes up for in the ridiculousness of its scale. I suddenly get a feeling that I need to leave this space. I am so sick of having this stuff shoved in my face, I am allergic to it. It reminds me of pre-25thJanuary-Revolution Mubarak posters looming at me all over Cairo with his smug face and empty slogans. In this respect – on the ideology/empty-slogan/rhetoric/larger-than-life-venerable-leader-front – Cuba is infinitely worse than Egypt. I have seen tens and tens of Jose Marti busts of all sizes in Havana and I wasn’t even searching for them. And the main thing breaking the monotony of the main Cuban highway, apart from the hordes of hitch-hikers, are massive billboards declaring one of Castro’s nuggets of wisdom. In fact there is so much of Castro that I begin to see his name everywhere: bus company: astro; gas station: Castrol; bar: Mastro. It’s creepy.

The Birthday: 15 September, 4p.m. – 10p.m.

The Reggaeton is now at full blast. It’s reaching us from Julia’s living room. I am at a roofless back-room in her flat, the location of my conga lessons for the past week. We are seated on two cranky, rusty chairs and with the floor so cracked and uneven it is proving impossible to find a spot flat enough to place the chair and which also happens to be shielded from the sun’s relentless rays. For the past hour of my final lesson with Carlos I have been rehearsing the Afro-Cuban rhythms I have learnt over seven days. Despite the distraction of the manic and anxiety-provoking Reggaeton (I can’t stand this shit, unless a hot woman is rubbing her ass against me) I have been able to nail the Son, ChaCha, Bolero, Meringue and even the Rumba, but when it came to the complex and seriously off-beat Mozambique I struggled. Clearly the party isn’t going to slow down for us: its Julia’s 48th birthday and already at 5p.m. she is drunk.

Carlos invited me to this party yesterday. In fact it was Reyes who did the talking; he is Julia’s nephew and lives with her after his mother died. He speaks a bit of English and I still wonder where he learnt to speak this way: “Listen man, tomorrow we have a party and we want you to come, man. You know, you can get a bottle of Rum, man, a big one, seven years old man, that’s the best yes. My aunt will like it. And four bottles of coke, yes man, and we will have a party”. Naturally I obliged.

We conclude our lesson and Reyes immediately takes me to the side for a request; they need a few CUCs so Julia can cook tonight’s meal for us. I deal with this and join the party in the living room. Julia’s flat is a humble affair. It is one of the barest flats I have ever seen: totally naked walls and a cracked, grey floor without a shred of a rug or carpet, a single light bulb dimly illuminating the whole space, and a dark bathroom with no running water. The kitchen is tucked in the corridor and there is a massive pot simmering on the stove. Cockroaches periodically scurry around. Apart from the Orisha corner that is found in most Cuban houses with its doll and offerings of rum, cigars and money, there is not a single ornament anywhere in the flat. But right there on the back wall of the living room and standing in stark contrast with the frugality of the rest of the place is a table with a shiny-silver hi-fi, two powerful speakers, an external hard-drive, and a pretty decent lap-top playing the latest Reggaeton music-videos. This is the birthday gear they have rented for the occasion; it makes the rounds in the neighbourhood for all sorts of parties.

Julia invites me to sit on the big armchair and offers me a glass of cold rum. I sip at the rum slowly and try to grasp the situation. On the sofa next to me is Julia’s daughter. She is a chubby girl in the final year of teenage-hood, wearing a tight pink shirt and knickers. Yes, she is wearing semi-transparent white knickers and lying on the sofa looking worse for wear; she doesn’t feel well; a cold I manage to understand. Next to her is a plump twenty-two year-old girl with a pretty face and beautiful breasts amplified by a black and white, striped top and an extremely skimpy jeans skirt that reveals well-formed slightly-tanned thighs. She is Julia’s daughter’s friend and she is there with her boyfriend who is athletic and hip and looks about 34 or 35 but is actually 48. They “make music together” and, appropriately, he is the ‘DJ’ for the night. This gathering is periodically amplified by passing neighbours who drop in and say hello and sometimes stay for a few minutes. There is no real separation between Julia’s living room and the street; the door of the flat is wide-open, as is the case with most of the houses here, and the party spills outside to the obvious delight of passers-by who periodically would break into an impromptu dance before continuing on their way. Carlos is sitting silently in the corner, with an expression that is a mixture of disappointment and genuine kindness on a person whose general demeanour is that of a man who has been truly ravished by life. But that’s another story. Let me just say that he did not look happy when I gave him two t-shirts and a toiletries bag after our last lesson. A few lessons ago he had asked indirectly for help through a letter he had written covertly on the back of one of our lesson sheets with the hope that I will discover it. He described how destitute he is, that his daughter is in prison and he must support her kids, that he has no home and must alternate sleeping at friends’ houses, Julia’s being one of them. He wanted me to help him in any way possible; clothes, money, buying congas off him, anything. He loves his kids, the letter said, all five of them from four different women and feels that it’s his duty to support them. At this point, however, I have already given away almost everything: I literally have only 2 t-shirts and a pair of trousers left and I need those to make it home. A few days before I had bought from Carlos what I knew where overpriced maracas and a clave, but I didn’t care. Cuba has sucked me dry, in every possible way. It stretched my capacity for empathy, love, generosity, good-will and desire, and it raided my bank account repeatedly. But I persevered, and I made it through.

Julia interrupts my reverie and appears intent on talking at me in fast and drunken Spanish. As is the case for several weeks now, I manage to pick up enough words and with all the pointing and gesturing I understand the gist of what the hell she was trying to say to me. She shows me a number of pictures of her with a sturdy looking, bald white man in his forties. Eight years ago he took some lessons with Carlos and she fell in love with him and they spent the few weeks he had in Havana together. He is Danish and Julia is waiting for the day when he sends her an invitation and she can leave Cuba for good and live a good life away from here. She hasn’t heard from him in over two years.

The first time I saw Julia she was wearing a bikini top and shorts and was sitting on the floor with a big bowl between her legs and a pile of dirty clothes on her side. She was scrubbing and scrubbing and wringing and drying and hanging while I practiced the Songu with Carlos two metres away. At one point a massive cockroach dives straight into the bowl and she, without giving it a second’s thought, picks it up and flicks it away not even looking where it had landed. If it wasn’t for the Spanish and the nakedness I swear I could easily be in Boulaq El-Dakrur or any other poverty stricken Egyptian home. It’s unnerving how poverty is the same wherever you go. Julia has a job; she is a nurse and makes a few CUCs a month which is nothing. But at least she has the guarantee of those few CUCs which is something to begin the month with. Even this minimal and temporary sense of security is a luxury Carlos and countless others can’t claim for themselves. For many Cubans there is no alternative to working the tourists in any way possible for those valuable dollars; there simply is no other way. And in this arena it really is survival of the fittest: the hustler who speaks English and the prostitute who is young and beautiful will always make it on top.

Today Julia is clearly determined to have a good time. She managed to squeeze into a tight and stylish dark-blue jeans and a yellow tank-top revealing her midriff. She is slightly manic from the Rum and keeps fluttering around the small living room, a conversation there, a dance here. The bottle of Havana Club that I brought with me really is propping up the evening, but so are the bottles of cola I bought at Reyes’ prompting an hour into the party. Julia comes and sits next to me for a rest and reaches for her cigarettes only to find she has none left. I offer to buy some and Reyes comes along to show me the nearest shop.

We set off walking at a leisurely pace. It’s half an hour before sunset and the sky is burning. The neighbourhood is wonderfully lively: kids playing make-shift baseball in the street; old men relaxing on wooden chairs perched against dodgy-looking cracked walls; four men playing a game of dominos; a couple dancing in their house to an energetic salsa; two young women in heavy make-up dressed for a night of hustling in mini-skirts, pin shoes and tiny tops, their dyed blond hair flowing over their backs. A mild yet steady and cool drizzle is falling gently on my face. Reyes is by my side and he is in the mood to talk.

“Man, it’s hard, man. Don’t you think I want to invite you to my house man? And take care of you and my friends? And get you the best Rum, just for you man, my friend? But I can’t do it man, no one can do it. The tourists say Cuba is beautiful, but its hard man, it’s very hard. Where does all the money go? One night in Hotel Nacional, man, is 300 dollars? 300 dollars! Where is the money, man. We don’t see it. Do you know why people walk in the middle of the street, man? You know why, man? The buildings are falling man, people die, man.”

On the way back from the shop we are caught in a torrential downpour. Just like that the sky opens and the heaviest, densest rain that I’ve ever seen is released upon Havana. There aren’t even that many clouds in the sky. The golden glow of sunset is now mingled with bluish-grey, bluish-green silvery hues, transforming the city around me into an impressionistic masterpiece. The rain is now so heavy that we can no longer proceed. We take refuge under the ledge of one of the buildings, and I recall what Reyes had said earlier about buildings falling but to my surprise I feel absolutely no fear or anxiety. Half an hour later the rain stops as suddenly as it began, and I notice that the humidity is now even more intolerable.

The clock hits 8 and I can definitely feel the Rum now. I have sweated so much that the upper part of my t-shirt is completely wet and because of all the humidity it doesn’t want to dry. I feel dirty and all I want is a cold shower. A neighbour who has been hanging around for a while pulls me off my chair and starts dancing with me. It’s the last thing I want. The music is Salsa-Reggaeton, more bearable than Reggaeton but a much more demanding dance. She senses my lack of enthusiasm and sees my lack of skill and abandons me on the dance floor before the song is over which must be the biggest insult in a culture that values dancing. Julia’s daughter’s friend is looking at me with admiration; I have no idea for what. I go back to my chair – I have moved next to Carlos in the corner – and within minutes my dinner plate arrives. Carlos rolls the Tumbadores in front of me, the same one that has endured my incessant drumming for eight days and now must serve me in a final gesture of tolerance as my dinner-table. I place the hot plate on its ancient hide. Whatever is in my plate has been simmering on the stove for the past few hours. It’s a medley of soup, corn and sweet potatoes with a few bare bones thrown in to create the illusion of meat. After dinner Reyes approaches me again: “do you want to smoke, man, yes just to relax you know, we can buy some”. I notice Carlos looking at us with expectation. For a minute I am under the impression we are talking about cigarettes but we are not. I explain that I don’t smoke weed, not anymore, and that the last thing I want now is to get stoned. “Man, it’s just to relax, you know, Carlos will like it. You give us some dollars to buy some, man?”

I don’t know why, I have failed to know why, but with me there is always a significant time-lag between the emergence of the feeling of the need to leave and actually leaving. Sometimes I don’t even manage to leave. It’s always been like this with me, that is my problem. So there I am sipping Rum and smoking a cigarette and waiting for the right moment to go. I am hot and tired and wet and I can’t handle any further demands no matter how sweetly presented. And just as I am about to make a move Carlos approaches me looking desperate as he always does. I feel sorry for this man. I can see the pain, the embarrassment of having to do it and I can also see that there just is no other way for him. He asks me for money, directly this time. He doesn’t need to explain his situation to me, I understand. A few minutes later we say our goodbyes and he walks me to San Lazaro; we hug and part.

On the walk back down the Malecon I feel heavy and deflated. And it occurs to me that there was no real happiness at the birthday. There was drunken euphoria, yes, which multiplied with the amount of Rum consumed, but no real happiness. There was something gloomy; it cannot be defined any more than this, and you see it when you realise that everyone is waiting. Julia is waiting for the Danish boyfriend who will never come. Reyes is waiting for the business deal that will make him rich and send him to America. And Carlos, is waiting for salvation. All they can do, all that Cuba can do, is wait.

2 responses to Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: Havana Encounters

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