It started with a baseball cap. And led to a cozy evening in the home of a Cuban family, sharing beer and watching baseball on a vintage black and white TV, before a soldier appeared at the door, dressed for battle. But I’m ahead of myself. The ball cap….
Havana’s Artisan Market is a maze of tarps and two-by-fours, stalls and hawkers. It prides itself on selling everything a tourist or local could want. But mostly the tourists. My husband Roger and I had arrived at the market with one purpose; find a baseball cap with Cuba’s national team logo. We had been to dozens of stalls selling hats, but no luck, and frustrated we had stopped in front of another to converse about what to do.
The young man behind the table overheard and asked us in Spanish if he could help. I responded, as I’m fluent in Spanish, explaining what we were looking for. He didn’t have one, he said, but could get one. Would we be willing to come back in one hour, and he’d have the hat for $20 US dollars. We agreed with a handshake.
In an hour he was back, cap in hand, so to speak. Through me as translator, he asked why we wanted one of these hats so badly. I told him Roger was crazy about baseball and wanted a local souvenir of the Cuban team. He was pleased, and introduced himself with a handshake and a smile as Raul. he told us he had run (literally jogged) across town to the National Stadium, asked a friend to open the concession for him, and purchased a hat that really only the locals are normally interested in. We were impressed at the lengths he had gone to to get us a simple hat, and thanked him profusely, tucking a few extra bills into his hand.
We then asked him if he could recommend a local place to watch that night’s World Baseball Classic game which Cuba was playing in. A pub, a bar, a restaurant, a plaza?
“No thanks,” was my immediate reply, but my husband was not so easily dissuaded.
I was immediately uncomfortable with the idea of meeting a local, in a strange foreign country, somewhere after dark, in an unfamiliar place. Alarm bells went off.
My husband began to pantomime signs; where do you live? How do we find you?
Raul drew us a map. “There is no phone, so just knock on the door. My mother in law will answer. 8pm.”
As we parted ways, my husband and I debated the merits of this invitation.
“We’ll get kidnapped or robbed,” I argued.
“This could be really fun, and a neat way to see the real Cuba,” countered my husband.
In the end, a compromise; I copied the map and left it, as well as names, and pertinent details about the market encounter in our room. Clues, I reasoned, in case we went missing. I also left our passports and valuables, just in case.
On the way to Raul’s home, we made a stop for beer to bring, as a good Canadian does when watching the game at a buddy’s house.
The cab driver gave us a sideways look when he dropped us off at the address on the map. A look as if to say, what are YOU tourists doing in THIS part of town?
The address was a massive mansion, all crumbling stone and brickwork, with huge windows, Corinthian columns, heavy wooden doors and gorgeous ironwork. The massive front door had seen better days and stood cracked and ajar, so we pushed inside.
The door opened onto a beautiful, if dark, courtyard. A bare bulb hung from an open junction box and a string of Christmas lights circled a window. Above us the house soared two stories. An old home that had clearly once been a majestic mansion, was now showing its age. Most of the windows overlooking the courtyard were empty of glass with lacy yellowed curtains puffing halfheartedly in what must be the breath of fans on their other side.
Stuck for what to do next or where to go, we lingered in the courtyard trying not to look like either burglars, or out of place. Both of which we probably did. Eventually a young boy skipped into view and stopped in front of us.
He pointed to a window on the second floor, “Raul.” And skipped off, but not before shouting, “RA-UUUUUL!”
We climbed a wide, curving marble staircase that had seen many feet; the treads were worn in dual grooves. At the top, a door opened.
“Bienvinidos Canadienses!” Raul greeted us warmly and ushered us inside.
The “apartment” was one large room of this once grand and expansive mansion. Inside was a counter, bar fridge and hot plate making up the kitchen. Dry goods were stacked on shelves. A double bed was on the other side of the room. Two metal and vinyl chairs hugged a plywood table. A rickety staircase that was really a glorified ladder vanished into a makeshift loft above.
Inside, Raul introduced us to his wife Cecelia, and his mother-in-law Beatriz. No one spoke English so I translated. They were very warm and welcoming. The apartment had clearly been tidied for our arrival. A thin bedspread covered the bed and its two thin pillows. A worn knotted rug lay beside it. Another knotted rug of different colour and vintage spanned the kitchen. The apartment was spartan, but a lot of trouble had clearly gone into making it homey.
In Spanish: “We brought you some beer,” I said handing it to Cecelia. She looked confused, but offered us the two seats. She sat on the bed, while Beatriz pulled over a crate. Raul went to the ancient looking TV, and turned it on. Nothing happened.
“It needs to warm up,” he explained. In the meantime, he began fiddling with the giant rabbit ear antennae clinging to the TV’s top. Eventually a grainy image appeared.
Raul offered us a rum-box; kinda like a juice box, but filled with straight Cuban rum. That stuff will knock you on your ear. We offered them beer in return, but they shook their heads, refusing several times. Eventually the reason came clear: “Beer is much too expensive. This should be for you, the guests.”
We insisted, explaining that in Canada, bringing beer and sharing it with friends over a game is typical. Finally the relented, telling us what a treat was to sample something they can’t usually afford on Cuba’s meagre salaries.
At first the talk was about baseball. Roger spoke English to Raul. Somehow Raul understood, and would then reply in Spanish, and Roger would somehow understand him. It was pretty entertaining watching two men, each speaking in a different language, have a full conversation with little difficulty. The language of sports, I guess.
We swapped stories over drinks and the game; what life is like in Canada, and in Cuba. Eventually talk turned to politics, and here Celia lowered her voice substantially.
“We must be careful, ” she said looking out at the paneless window frames, “Everyone listens, and some will report you for saying things against…” and here she stroked an imaginary beard on her chin. “We don’t use his name,” she explained of Fidel Castro.
We got deeper into communism, socialism, politics, and the Castro family, and with the rum loosening tongues we learned that many people were not big on Castro. Salaries were fixed, and meagre. “Friends” of the elite Cuban class got better jobs, bigger cheques, more rations. Teenagers were ‘assigned” a career, based on what a panel thought you “should” do, not what you were good at necessarily, or what you loved. All was not equal in Cuba. As the saying goes, some are more equal than others under the Castro regime.
At that moment there was a loud pounding at the door. Raul and Celia exchanged glances and Raul got up to answer it.
A soldier in full fatigues was there.
My husband and I froze.
First, some calm questions, then a more heated discussion. Raul was blocking the door, trying to prevent the soldier from seeing inside. Despite my fluency in Spanish, the conversation was rapid-fire, and loaded with slang and I couldn’t follow what was happening. Eventually an argument ensued until the door was pushed open and the soldier came in, glanced around, and went immediately up the stairs to the loft. We could hear him pounding around on the thin boards.
Raul came back, sat down, picked up his beer and resumed his conversation about baseball, as if nothing was wrong. Not sure what to do, (do we make a run for it? Stay put and try not to rock the boat for them OR us?) We stayed.
After about 10 minutes we heard footsteps on the stairs again. Flip-flop-clad feet emerged, attached to basketball shorts and a tank top. It was the soldier, freshly scrubbed and re-dressed.
“Meet my cousin, Julio, ” said Raul
Introductions were made all around, and Julio shook our hands with warmth, welcoming us to the neighbourhood.
It was then I dared ask, “What was the fight at the door about?”
“Julio wanted to use the shower, but it was not his night. We fought about it, but I allowed him.” Julio just grinned and toasted us with a freshly opened box of rum.
“I thought you were here to arrest us!” I couldn’t resist exclaiming.
Julio laughed, and here the talk turned to working for the government. Hearing Julio talk about how he did his job as a soldier, despite not agreeing with many of the policies of his superiors was very enlightening.
The insight from the entire family gave us a very unique picture of Cuba. While on the surface, things seem like they roll along just fine, under the surface, there’s discontent, but no one dares try to do anything about it for fear of arrest, reprisal against other family members, or jail.
We talked long into the night, before Julio called a friend with a taxi to take us back to our hotel.
We exchanged addresses and promised to share letters and post cards.
The chance we took that day I would not recommend to anyone. But for us it turned out great. Sometimes taking a chance and going with your gut while travelling can leave you with fond memories… and a great story to share.