Day 1: Arrival | Salsa dancing | Intruders
We arrived in Havana in the afternoon, but accidentally got off after the Central stop--placing us somewhere in the outskirts of the city with no real understanding of where the hell we were. We feebly attempted to ask for help, but most people gestured us out to the streets to find another local bus or a taxi colectivo. After hesitantly walking away from the station, we tried talking to a few locals and finally an older gentleman guided us towards the central streets. Just standing there, we were already garnering quite a few stares from the young men posted up under the bus stands. Wanting to appear more certain, we turned onto an adjacent street and found a taxi pulled over, with two men and a woman leaning against it. Cautiously, I interrupted their conversation to see if his taxi was in service. He seemed to understand that we were a bit lost and his friends were willing to part ways so that he could help us. We learned that we were about 6km away from where we were supposed to be--not bad, could have been worse! He dropped us off right outside our casa particular and then continued on his way. We were let in by our host's husband--and met her in the entry room. The house had two floors--the main floor had the kitchen, living area, dining room, and the family's bedrooms. We were given our keys and settled into our pretty small room on the top floow. There was a nice open patio outside our room and a rooftop. Our neighbors were two girls from Germany who were here for the first time on vacation. That night we all went out for dinner at a restaurant in the central plaza. One thing to note if you're vegetarian - you are not going to eat very well while you're here. That night we went around to a few bars, checked out the local scene and did a little salsa dancing to kick off our stay. The night was humid with the occasional slight breeze that provided intense relief.
We returned to our casa around 3am and got ready for bed. Before sleeping, we sat on our beds and were chatting and planning our day ahead. Suddenly, Cynthia looked up over her shoulder at a little window that peered onto the roof. "Dude, is there a guy looking in?!" I wasn't wearing my glasses and could barely see a thing, but started to get nervous. I went over to the bathroom and removed the towel rod from the wall and walked under the window. Without warning or noise, I saw a flash of a guy's face and arm as he darted away from my nearing gaze. I screamed and started banging the towel rod on the iron bars of the window to scare him away. My heart was racing and I had backed away from the window. We had no phone service to reach our host downstairs, no internet, and no other way to leave our room other than the hallway that was right next to the roof. We couldn't sleep for hours, taking turns napping and keeping watch. We decided that we should just transfer to a hotel or something that felt safer, and packed up all our things. Around 7:30am, the sun had risen and we left the confine of our room. Downstairs, I explained to our host what happened in as much detail as I could in Spanish. She seemed shocked and had tears in her eyes, saying that this had never happened before. She said her neighborhood was very safe and everyone knew each other, they were all decent people. She asked some details about what he looked like, what time he came, etc. We told her we felt too scared to continue staying in that room and were going to look elsewhere. She immediately offered us a much larger room right next to her family's room on the main floor. It seemed like a good option, so we agreed.
Day 2: Learning about Santeria | Cruising on the Malecon | Partying at Colonial 1830
It was about a 10 minute walk from our casa to the site of our Airbnb Experience. This experience was to be split over three days, each day focusing on a different aspect of the Afro-Cuban religion and culture. The neighborhoods were bustling by the time we left to our host's house on the Malecon (a long strip along the Atlantic ocean) around 8am - sand covered streets with fruit sellers starting their routes, old men sipping on cortados and women gossiping on doorsteps. Our host, Reysa was a lawyer-turned Airbnb ambassador who spends her days teaching people about Afro-Cuban culture. Her niece Odiba acted as a co-host, translating Reysa'a words for our group. She shared how Yorubans were brought to Cuba from Nigeria by Spaniards. The Spanish forced the Nigerians to abandon their native religion and practice Catholicism instead. So, they would pretend to pray to the Catholic saints while actually incorporating elements of their African spiritualism. This integrated practice is what is referred to as Santeria. After our history lesson, we went to a beautiful courtyard in the middle of the house, where we were lucky enough to watch sacred Yoruba dance - knows as Orisha. All the performers were Reysa'a nieces and nephews - the boys played special drums, and the girls each did a separate dance for each of the main goddesses. It was absolutely beautiful--they wore stunning, colorful dresses and swayed with such a perfect rhythm and intensity to the beat of the drums. They were totally engrossed in the dance and I felt lucky to get to witness it! There was a special energy there. We headed into the dining room for a special lunch - I had beans, rice, and some sliced veggies. After lunch, we each got to have our palms read by a woman who specialized in it. When my turn came, I was super nervous. She told me some interesting predictions that didn't make sense at the moment, but looking back on it 10 months later - they actually did happen later that year. Our activities were done here, so we headed out to the central park to figure out what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We ran into our German house-mates and decided to all take a ride in a classic car. We chose a sleek red and white car and our chauffeur took us on an incredible 30 minute ride along the Malecon, and through Old Havana. I sat in the passenger seat and had to keep pinching myself that this was actually happening! Later that evening we headed back to the casa and freshened up. All of us went to a different hole-in-the-wall casa for dinner where I had an omelette and some fanta. We finished our meal with a delicious cortadito. That night, we took a taxi to Colonial 1830 - a super popular outdoor nightclub right on the oceanfront. We downed a few mojitos and danced the night away!
Day 3: La Regla & Habana Vieja
We left early at 7:30am and bought a few platanos pequenos for a light breakfast. Today, our group was taking a ferry to La Regla, a borough in the Havana bay. It's known to be a simpler, more untouched part of Havana where people preserved the older traditions and lifestyle. The ferry ride over was lovely. We went to the main church (Iglesia de Nuestra Senora) where a virgin Madonna was the main saint people worship. We spent the next few hours walking through the quiet streets, observing the preserved architecture and parks. Reysa told us that they had just gotten Wi-Fi on the island four months prior! Our tour concluded and we ferried back to the port in Old Havana. We had the rest of the afternoon to explore the city. The architecture in Old Havana is what we're using to seeing - classic, beautiful structures in rich colors. Stone pathways shaded by tropical plants and trees, fruit sellers selling fresh coconut water, artisans displaying their work, and a gentle sea breeze carrying soft guitar and melodies through the streets. We stumbled upon a truly lovely restaurant in a random alley and decided to eat there! I had a delicious meal of noodles mixed with sauteed vegetables and spices. The restaurant was open and airy, with hanging plants, a bar, and a live band taking requests from the crowd. This is when I first heard the song "Chan Chan" by Buena Vista Social Club and I have been obsessed ever since. A post-lunch stroll to avoid getting sleepy was in order, so we walked over to a nice park and got fresh coconut water. A sweet little grandma made conversation with us, asking where we were from and how we liked cuba. She surprised both of us when, after we were done drinking the coconut water, she skillfully cracked the nut open with her wrinkled hands and started carving up the inside for us! That night our host prepared a big dinner for us - courses of vegetable soup, fresh bread rolls, fried plantains, omelette, and fresh fruit juice as always. Full, tired, and content we sat on rocking chairs on the balcony to watch the moonrise, then went to sleep around midnight.
Day 4: Miramar | Museum Hopping | Dinner on the Malecon
After allowing ourselves to sleep in a bit, we went to the central park around 8:30 and bought our bus tickets to Vinales for the next day. We had until 4pm to do whatever we wanted, so hopped on a double-decker sightseeing bus to get a nice relaxing overview of all Havana. The bus took us all the way out to Miramar, a more resort-y area where tourists go for the amazing beach. We went through Vedado, a modern borough where the main university is, and also rode by a famous cemetery in the area. We sat on the top deck of the bus and soaked in the views & the sunshine - loved the amazing ocean breeze everywhere you go! After hopping off at Parque Central, we walked to Old Havana to the museum district. First stop: Museum of the Revolution. We spent a few hours learning about the history and even got to observe a salsa lesson in the main courtyard. We were a bit hungry by noon and stopped for quick lunch at 'Cha-Cha' across the street. Following this we went to the National Museum of Fine Arts - saw some really intriguing modern and classic art! With our last few free hours, we explored some of the artisan markets, looking for trinkets and souvenirs to take back. At 5pm we met back at our host's house - we were going to a popular afro-cuban club called Almanacer. The interiors were black, lit only with colorful strobe lights. On the main dance floor, we got to watch for Orisha dances, along with live music! We ended the night by grabbing dinner with some friends from our group at a restaurant right on the Malecon. Next up, Vinales!