Most visitors experience Cuba as tourists: they stay in one of the nice hotels in Habana Vieja (old Havana) where they spend most of their time, are driven along the Malecon in a pre-revolution Chevrolet, buy Che berets, and eat in the restaurants or paladares that cater to foreigners. Having done that on my first trip here, I want to experience a little more of daily life in Cuba this time. So my friend and tour organizer Steve Anchell recommends an apartment away from the tourist part of Habana Vieja in which I spend the first three nights. The apartment is on the second floor of a building in Calle Emperadoro; it is clean, airy, and adequately furnished. In Havana, most people live in small apartments that were carved from larger living spaces utilized by pre-revolution occupants. Several generations of a family often share the same apartment, and are frequently visited by other family members. Such is the case with my next door neighbors, and I can easily hear their conversations and smell what they are cooking through the thin walls that separate our apartments. This is part of the experience that I hoped for, which for the sake of sleeping seems to run out of steam by 11PM or so each night.
The best feature of the apartment is the french doors that open onto a balcony overlooking the street. Like many streets in this part of Havana, Calle Emperadoro is very narrow. Cars, and sometimes large trucks, barrel down the street, which is usually congested with parked cars, motor bikes, bicitaxis, and pedestrians. How at least one fatal traffic accident per day does not occur in these streets is beyond me. Directly across the street is a cafetería, which in reality is a window into an apartment in which the owners live and from which they sell food from early in the morning until late evening. Their menu includes Café Cubano, jugo natural (juice) helado (ice cream), and the ubiquitious Cuban ham and cheese sandwiches...a little capitalism in this socialistic paradise. I can buy a sandwich and juice or coffee for about 10 Cuban pesos, approximately 40 cents US!
Life happens on the stoops and balconies in Havana. My “neighbors” across the narrow street occasionally step onto theirs to see what is happening, to hang some laundry onto the ever-present clotheslines, to talk with one another, or just to catch some fresh air. Like nearly every Cuban that I meet, they are friendly and wave and smile at me.
On my first trip to Cuba I heard a noise that stopped me dead in my tracks: SSST SSST. I had only heard it in one place before, in the introduction to Jimmy Buffett's “Everybody's Got a Cousin in Miami.” Apparently Cubans use it to attract attention; to hail an aquaintance across the street, to get a bicitaxi to stop, or to induce a pretty girl to turn her head. After realizing it was a real thing, I heard it everywhere. Now, as I sat on “my” balcony listening to life in Calle Emperadoro, I noticed a different sound: the word “oye.” Literally, I believe the word translates as “listen,” or “hear me,” but I also think it equates to the English, “hey!” I hear people on the street below me using it to call to family or friends in upper apartments, and as a way of beginning conversations with others on the street.
In the mornings I walk a couple of blocks down the street to the house of Luis and Mirtha, who own the apartment in which I am staying. For 5 CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso used by tourists and roughly equal to a US dollar) am served a big Cuban breakfast: Café Cubano, tropical fruit juice, fresh fruit, eggs, ham, cheese, and a basket of bread. As good as the food is, however, I think that I more enjoy simply sitting at Luis and Mirtha's table and conversing with them and their friends and family, overcoming the limitations of my rudimentary Spanish and their inability to speak very much English.