Read part 1 of the story here
Those who know me personally may have noticed at some point that I usually don’t drink alcohol and should I ever do so, said alcohol would form part of a cocktail. But even in the form of a cocktail, the alcohol strikes me as too strong and always makes me feel like I just had a sip of disinfectant. Not so in Havana. The Cubans, so it seemed, had found the perfect balance between alcohol and lemonade to even make teetotalers like myself crazy about mixed drinks. I had just finished my dinner and was determined to drop by El Rum Rum de la Habana for another mojito with a platter of Manchego cheese, dried apricots, olives and mint on the side, when a group of Cubans sitting at a table across from me started talking to me. At first, it was the usual conversation between locals who are curious about the people visiting their country.
Having grown up as a third culture kid, it was always difficult to answer where I am from. On this trip, I let my answer vary between Belarus (place of birth), Germany (place where I grew up) and Mexico (where I had actually come from by plane to Havana). The answer I used depended on how I felt or on what came to mind first. So when Emilia asked me where I was from, I intuitively said that I had come from Mexico which in turn led to questions about the numerous earthquakes the people in Mexico, myself included, had gone through in the past months. Before I knew it, I had joined Emilia and her grown up children at the table for a chat. Upon Emilia’s insistence I ordered a drink which made me stay longer to return the favor of being invited by buying a round of beers for our party of four.
The conversation went on as the sun kept setting for the day. Emilia’s son, Norberto, kept telling me about the Santería religion when asked about his all white clothes, followed by a story about his child who now lived in Florida with its mother. Emilia, a woman in her late sixties smoked like a chimney, was utterly direct and didn’t mince words. She offered me a cigarette and I, having not yet discovered my appreciation of good cigars, declined. Meanwhile her youngest daughter Lorena didn’t say a word but between drags on her cigarette and sips of beer, listened attentively to everything I had to say. The Cubans were telling me about life in Havana and occasionally cracked jokes I didn’t understand for my lack of vocabulary but that were patiently explained to me.
I was about to leave when Emilia asked me what I thought of Che. I didn’t know what exactly to say to her and mentioned my surprise about a strong presence of Che Guevara as a historical figure in the city while the Commander-in-Chief Castro was barely to be seen on posters or political street art.
I do not remember the explanation I was given for this phenomenon. Before I had the chance to go back to my hostel however, Emilia insisted on giving me some pages of an old wall calendar with Che on it. She wanted me to take it home as a memory of our meeting. She was also very good at insisting on things. I felt my inner alarm bells go off and first tried to get out of coming with her and her kids to their apartment. It was late and my flight was tomorrow, I said. “Don’t worry. There are bike taxis near the house. One will take you back and since I am Cuban, they will give you a good price.” I have absolutely no idea what hit me but at the end I followed the family to their apartment in the old town of Havana. On our way there, Emilia explained in detail where we were and mentioned all kinds of landmarks in the area so that I would find her home again when I came back to Havana which she was convinced I would some day.
Because many Cubans let the doors to their apartments open, upon walking the streets of Havana I had noticed that the apartments are relatively small at first glance but make up for the lack of space by adding on in hight. Emilia’s apartment told a similar story. Every so little space was taken up by various objects. A fish tank was squeezed in between framed photographs and books. The kitchen was separated from the tiny eating area by a curtain to the left of the entrance door from which one could see right into the living room. Just as I thought that this little space must be it, I saw a narrow pair of stairs leading to another floor. Emilia’s husband was cooking dinner in the kitchen so she encouraged me to talk to him while she went looking for the calendar. It didn’t take long for me to get invited to stay for dinner but since I had already eaten, I kindly declined.
With the calendar rolled up in a neat tube, Emilia handed me a piece of paper with her name, her phone number and her address on it. She wanted me to know that from now on I would always have someone in Havana with whom I could stay. When it was time for me to return to my hostel, Emilia came with me to find a bike taxi which consisted of a seat with wheels connected to a bike driven by a Cuban driver. I gave her the address of the hostel and suggested that I could also walk the distance of a kilometer, convinced that there was no way the cyclists would be able to find a particular address. As quickly as the words had left my mouth, Emilia had already approached a Cuban youth and was arranging for him to take us to the hostel. “That would be 4 CUC”, said the youth. “Estás loco, hijo?”, exclaimed Emilia. “Make it one and let’s go!” There was no way on earth I would have gotten such a discount had I led that negotiation but Emilia was so upfront with her outrage about the price that it actually worked.
And so, on the night before Christmas I was riding at the back of this bike taxi through the dark streets of Havana, past the Capitol, the National Theater and a monument of José Martí, a moment like a photograph.