Unlike the typical Cuban getaway – in mid-winter complete with package tour and all you can eat buffet, I decided to see Cuba in reverse. That is, in full early July heat and staying at the opposite of a resort – at a Cuban home complete with grandma, mum, adult kids and babies – out in the Havana suburbs. It proved to be unforgettable “auténtica experiencia” – and one I would not willingly exchange for the pre-packaged kind. It’s not often after all, that you get to meet an 85 year old Cuban grandma who spied for Castro during the Revolution, have a Spanish speaking guide or to walk the streets of Havana at 4am with a bunch of newly made Cuban friends. Then there was learning how to hail cabs local style, eating at unknown hole in the wall restaurants and learning how to push your way into a line up for a hot Latin jazz band a la Cubana. It was a week of living la vida local – Cuban crazy, fun, hot and humid – and not for the faint at heart.
For starters, the first thing you discover about Havana is that it well, isn’t Ottawa. While in Ottawa public servants are sensibly tucked into bed recouping from a day pounding the keyboards in an air conditioned office, young Cubans are out all day and night – and they are partying, hard. As my Air Canada flight landed into Havana Airport almost three hours late – turning a scheduled 9:33pm landing into an after midnight touch down, I was concerned my host family would be sound asleep oblivious to my knocks on the door. Worse still, my cab driver was lost. I need not have worried. My arrival at 1am left my Cuban hosts unfazed and slightly puzzled by my apologies. Eighty five year old Grandma Carmen was on the balcony enjoying a well earned rum along with her daughter Esperanza. In relaxed Cuban style, they were warm and welcoming as I explained in broken Spanish the flight delay and the lost cab driver.
I was offered rum, snacks (dried plantain and fresh mango) and shown my digs. My room did not disappoint. The room was at the far end of a sprawling, grand-looking Spanish-Cuban style house, complete with 12 foot ceiling, photos of Castro and gorgeous antique furniture. The room was large, with louvered wooden slat screens that opened out into a small garden and a large private luxury bathroom. At $40 Cuban pesos a night with a huge breakfast of fresh, garden picked pawpaw, mango, soursop, toast, omelette, cheese, honeydew melon jam and best of all, thick Cuban style coffee – it was a bargain. But the best was yet to come – a one week whirlwind tour of Havana with a local – Carmen’s 31 year old grandson Juan-Carlos – who doubled as interpreter, tour guide and photographer, and who has lived in Havana all his life.
My week of living La Vida Local started next morning, after six hours of light sleep at the untimely hour of 8am in the morning.