Notes from Cuba: First Night in La Habana

My first day and night in Cuba were uh, an adventure, to put it mildly. I’ll save pieces of the tale for the next series of my Cuba Notes.

But that night, I convinced one of my casa hosts, a 27-something Cuban–fluent in English and with family in California–to accompany me to the Malecon to see the Fidel Castro 90th birthday celebrations and to catch carnival. The deal was that in exchange, I would accompany him to his favorite art and dance venue in Havana afterwards. I was dying to see the Fidel tribute–there had to be a reason I had arrived on this historic day–so I agreed. We started walking through the colonial zone toward the waterfront area. Along the way, several taxi cabs refused his attempts to bargain a cheap fare–I found it intriguing, given that we were not going that far; business must be really good for them, I thought. And then, as we neared the corner toward the start of the main waterfront boulevard, Mother Nature had other ideas. A torrential downpour ensued and sent us flying down a dark side street, where we ended up barely fitting beneath the entranceway of a decaying building in the older part of Habana Vieja. We were stuck in partial obscurity for one hour, while the water came down furiously, occasionally sideways on our legs and faces. My host kept trying to flag down a local shared taxi over and over, to no avail. They zipped past us without mercy.

Finally after an hour, while I laughed at my fate on this first night in Havana, one taxi stopped–a black Oldsmobile. My host told me to stay quiet and he’d do the talking, because I looked Cuban and the driver wouldn’t know I was a tourist. I jumped the massive puddle and sat in the back with another local couple. I rode in my first classic vehicle that night, with few street lights and the rain pouring down as Cubans hopped on and off along the way. I snapped this selfie along the way (amazed at my luck of experiencing a local shared ride, also = a cheap classic car tour). I didn’t use any filters or edit–and somehow I think it ended up capturing the feel of the classic car, and my sense of wonder while taking in my first scenes of old Havana by night as the taxi dropped and picked up passengers on our route towards Vedado, while others took refuge wherever they could along the streets.

We never did make it to the Malecon festivities (the events were rained out–so much for the historic day). We also didn’t get to experience the host’s favorite venue Fabrica de Arte (the latest hotspot am told), which was unexpectedly closed that Saturday night. But the taxi let us ride free to the next stop my host picked–a gay-friendly club in Vedado. Inside was a 25- to 40-something, “trendy” Cuban crowd jamming and singing away to Rihanna, Sean Paul, Jacob Forever (Sueltame la mia! Sueltame la mia!), and the occasional Cuban reggaeton band while the videos rotated on a big screen.

All in all, a most unpredictable first night in Cuba.