After arriving in Havana, I while away a couple of hours watching my latest obsession on iTunes – Entourage – and my host Fabio recommends a nearby paladar (a restaurant in a local home). I requested one of the places that are in homes, where the food is famously much better than the ordinary fare in public, often government-run, eateries.
Walking through Havana’s streets at night feels safe enough. Violent crime isn’t what you need to worry about: it’s more the pickpockets and muggers. Fabio implores me to hold my handbag tight.
However, there is an eeriness about these streets in the unrestored section of Old Havana; as you walk through more shadow than light, there are almost no cars, although the occasional bike taxi trundles by. As I walk down the centre of the road, men, women and children linger in doorways, or drift in groups on the street. Voices and music echo from crowded homes, the city’s human soundtrack. A little girl greets me: “Hola”. Walking by takes on the self-conscious feel of voyeurism: open spaces on ground floors reveal a handful of barber’s chairs overwhelmed by cavernous rooms, staircases rise into the darkness; a man walks shirtless in his lounge; a family gathers around the TV. Life spills onto the street. Men wave to me from dimly lit bars. I am asked to stop several times but keep moving.
I overshoot the street I am meant to turn left on and wind up lost. Stopping to ask a middle-aged man draped in a dirty singlet for directions, he thrusts his chest against my arm; I reel back involuntarily. He turns inside an enormous open room to two friends, junk strewn everywhere, and returns to point me one block back.
I arrive at the paladar, Don Lorenzo, to find it is not what I asked for: this is a proper restaurant, albeit one you must ring a bell for. I smile politely as the worn out band delivers a predictable list of Cuban standards, and consume my over-cooked seafood, a salad of cut vegetables lining a plate, a mojito made half of ice (doubtless from the tap water one is not meant to drink) and a bill many times more than I think it’s worth. This is Havana: good meals come for 15CUC or less, not the 32 I’m being charged. I am assured that service is not included, and another 3CUC is taken for this. A pleading musician targets me with an empty napkin-lined bread basket. With the average Cuban wage being around CUC15 a month, I think I just paid the equivalent of US$10,000 for dinner.
On my way back, I am lost once again. This time, the city is enveloped in a dark and surreal feeling. I am Yossarian in Rome. It dawns on me that I’ve brought no map. The street signs are faded and high up: almost indecipherable in this light. The echoes swirl about me, the shadows longer – seemier – than before. I haven’t familiarised myself with my location yet, and panic rises in me. None of the street names seem to be mine. Eventually, I recognise the name of a nearby cross-street. But as I pan out in different directions, only to return and take a new route, I am more disoriented yet no closer.
A woman leans in a doorway. I call out “Calle San Ignatius?” and she points the way. Another couple of blocks, and finally I am there.
Tonight, I have felt so foreign. Foreign and lost.
Sleep is interrupted; my gut tightens around the thought that I have arrived in Cuba woefully under-prepared: almost no Spanish (I was hoping to cram from the three apps on my iPhone), nothing but my Havana accommodation pre-arranged.
I obsess: will Old Havana be better or worse in daylight?