The seventh floor flat we rented had an easterly view, perhaps a bit south of east. Each morning, the sun slowly snaked around the buildings and through the streets of this old city, bringing shadow and light. An appropriate paradox.
Our flat was in Central Havana, a simple neighborhood populated by local folks and scant few tourists. This was just fine. On the street, quiet mornings quickly gave way to the daily “get down” of life in La Habana. School kids, taxis, fruit mongers, construction workers, and shops filled with craftsmen that will repair any and everything… while you get a haircut.
We decided our neighborhood was “sketchy”, but safe. The sketchy part? There was some kind of hustle happening around every corner, folks with stuff to sell. People tryin’ to put a little extra paper in their pockets, or what one should expect in a country with an average monthly salary of $25. The most common offers were of bootleg cigars and weed, followed by cocaine, which I seriously doubt was actually cocaine, and women who promised to make your moments with them ever so memorable for the low, low price of…
I wasn’t mad at ‘em, though. How could I be? I’m from a country built on the kidnapping, blood, sweat, rape, and lynching of people who looked just like me. People who, after their so called emancipation, had nothing but a hustle to live on. Naw, I wasn’t mad at all.
Our guide and companion, our Alejandra, left us at the end of each long, beautiful, and exhausting day by hopping into some random 1950s taxi, already filled with strangers, often men, and riding off into the night. My friend and I never got used to this. It went against every lesson, every cautionary tale, and every survival instinct we’d absorbed during our lives as Black men living in the US. You do NOT send a woman home by herself. And you certainly do not allow her to get into a car full of strange men in the middle of the night… unless, of course, you’re in Havana.
Alejandra, all of 23 years old, a Theatre History professor, an actress who has been in her share of telenovelas, and has performed in a number of The Bard’s plays, and who recited Puck’s closing monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me one afternoon over coffee, would simply smile each time we protested her preferred mode of travel. She would say “Guys, this is normal. This is what we do. It will be fine. See you in the morning. Ciao!” Hugs and kisses and away she would go.