We follow our new amigo in the Barrio Chino, Chinatown. “This is a Chinatown without Chinese!”, says our Cuban friend, honestly laughing at his own clever observation.
We enter a small room hidden from view inside the courtyard of a bar, where the air conditioning at full throttle and where the smell of brown cigarettes dominates. The young scammer motions to the waitress who brings us beer, and asks us to pay immediately. 11 pesos for three beers? That’s clearly a catch, we’re leaving.
After managing, somehow, to rid ourselves of the scammer, we can finally walk through the neighborhood. And it’s in poor condition. Several buildings are abandoned and remnants of collapsed buildings sometimes are left there, all the way to the middle of the street. The streets are very dark since there are virtually no street lights on.
The night is pitch black. We can’t see anything, except when a car with its headlights on passes by. The more we go towards the southwest of the city, the more the roads are in poor condition. The art deco architecture is devastated. The pervasive smell of gasoline, combined with a temperature of over 30 degrees Celsius, can make your belly turn.
On a street corner, teenagers have found a way to have fun. A dozen young people dance, shout, sing, drum on plastic buckets with broken branches; someone is playing an old trumpet. Two old people shout: “Cállate” (“Shut up!”) This reaction only emboldens the teenagers who sing mockingly, louder and in chorus, ” ¡Cállate! ¡Cállate! ¡Cállate!”
Then, we reach the city center limits (Centro Habana) and the tourist district (Habana Vieja) shows its face.
This is the mythical place where the Spaniards, then English conquered the largest Caribbean island. It’s also one of the Caribbean locations most visited by pirates in the 17th century.
Now it is one of the most charming neighborhoods in the Caribbean.
Unlike the rest of the city, the streets are well maintained and luxury hotels adjoin the main squares in an atmosphere reminiscent of modern Spain.
There is a group of Cuban music playing in every bar and every restaurant. Tourists dance in bars, and Cubans dance in the streets, enjoying the sound that leaks out through the open windows. The festive atmosphere makes us forget everything: although sometimes lackluster, the city of Havana is very safe.
After having had a beer, a dark rum and a few dance steps with a Russian or an Albertan met in a bar, the bartender asks us: “Do you want cheap cigars?”
Counterfeit cigars are everywhere in Cuba. After one or two days on the island, we must have had them offered to us at least a dozen times. Although these cigars are labelled with rings of the large Cuban companies – Partagas , Romeo y Julieta , Cohiba – they are contraband. The outside layer of the cigar is made of a high quality tobacco leaf, but it’s filled with tobacco scraps that are rejected by real companies. For this reason, the difference in taste between a real and fake is notable.
The evening draws to a close. But before finding a hotel for the night, we must pass through the Malecón. This is the road that runs along the sea, to the north, and the bay, to the east. Since it is dark, we see only a few yards ahead. On one side, the atmosphere is festive – it’s the tourist district; on the other side, the calm of the sea invades us.
Young fishermen are on the roadside and cast their lines, hoping to find something to eat before going to bed. And this makes us hungry.
A small canteen at a street corner is still open. And contrary to what is offered to tourists in the resorts, here, we find actual Cuban food: rice, black beans, pulled pork, roast chicken, tostones (fried plantain chips), ham, and a delicious fluffy white bread. One last bottle of Cristal, and we’re off to bed after a long day of miles and discoveries.
(This is part 2 of a 2-part article.)