What’s the first thing you’ll remember? Sure, you won’t forget the fact that society is running in a completely different political realm. Patriotism or Die. Painted on walls. And that the system, which you were so eager to witness, seems to have lost some of its wonder. But it’s not that. The first thing you’ll remember is the heat.
My god, is it possible to sweat this much out of every aperture at 3am? Don’t think you’ll get used to it. Is it even summer yet? Shit. It doesn’t help that your host, an old lady who turned her 30-year-old son’s room into an 8-bed dorm, hasn’t had her water running for two days straight. Try to sleep in the doily-plagued living room under a framed portrait of Fidel, but there’s no respite. There’ll be at least one guy snoring.
Take a dip in the Malecon, that decrepit old wall of concrete which cuts the tragically beautiful and dilapidated city of Havana from the sea, the Gulf of Mexico. There are kids swimming in its crystal waters, dark skin shining in the midday sun. There are old men smoking cigarettes, standing barefoot on the salt-bitten rocks throwing fishing lines. You climb up and try to find a way in, to reward your body with a momentary coolness, but how? There’s no easy way down, no ladders, and the ground below looks like razors.
Ask the locals. Is it okay to swim here? Well, just watch for sharks. Que!? This is ridiculous. So you walk into town, through Old Havana and get yourself a mojito, end up getting six. Ho ho look at me, I’m Ernest Hemingway. Foreign intellectual pilgrims pack his old bar haunts. Don’t forget to try the local beers while you’re here, looks like Cristal wins.
Shit, the guide books weren’t kidding about the time warp. Try and find a car that isn’t a 1950s American Pontiac, Buick, Ford or the like. One guy hangs dice from his. Some are well kept, most just randomly patched back together in a shot to fight time. You came for the culture and shit, it sure is beautiful. And sad. The people are just as colourful as the cars they ride, pieces of clothing mismatched together, competing for the viewer’s attention.
Get some cigars from one of the black market dealers, you’ve been here a day and already you’re going down some single-file alleyway to a strange man’s house just so you can come home with some genu-ine cigars to share around and be popular for a minute.
You’ve been accosted at least twice by male prostitutes, when three mojitos ago you said you’d never be tricked by the very ones that got you.
Get used to the catcalls and wolf whistles. Guys and girls both.
“You don’t know Cuba till you’ve made love to one, Cubans are the best lovers,” a Spanish traveller says. Her top keeps falling down. She gets aroused just talking about it.
Doesn’t knowing some Spanish help? You know, to fit in? Well considering you’re already being followed by the government, making sure you check in daily, it’s hard to fit in here unless you’re Cuban.
Chat to a Cuban kid for a while, he’s cool. Good English. Not so keen on the system. Then he gets arrested, twice, for no apparent reason. Can you bail me out? Please? Just come with the cops. Okay now this is too far. Really Cuba? Fuck off.
Can’t I just have a minute? One minute where I’m not questioned, harassed, and wolf-whistled, sweating from my eyeballs?
Join the locals when they ask you to play dominoes in the middle of the street. They look friendly and they are. Share a bottle of rum and dance with your partner when you win. They’ll serenade you when you go.
Join the city at night, when they sit on the Malecon wall from Havana to Vedado and share in the communal gatherings of men, women, children, lovers, families, and teenagers, who sit and eat together in a moonlit city. Accept a swig of the passing Havana Club, pull out your own, and if you’re cheaper than 5CUCS, pull out the juice-box of rum you bought in the ration shop. Let’s hope you like rum.
You might forget the heat for a bit, and tourist rite, and just enjoy a moment that is real for the people of Cuba. Or if that’s too much, just listen to Buena Vista Social Club.