A lo Cubano (The Cuban way)

You don’t walk through Havana, you stroll dreamily but with an excitement that really only grips you when you explore a new city. And when you do that in Havana it is as though everything you have known is forgotten and you are born again, learning a new world for the first time. The streets are alive, the musica heady and emanating from the corner of every old town bar. Street vendors sing for our attention and cats lazily watch on as we make our way towards our accommodation.

We rented an apartment in the old town for CUC40 per night. Options were scarce but our casa particulares was only the equivalent of AUS$30. The owner, like everyone else in Cuba, spoke no English. Usually this is no problem. In fact we revel in determining our way deep in another culture. However today two Nicoles booked to rent this apartment…. on the same day. This added a degree of difficulty to our interactions, as our Spanish had deteriorated to phrases used most regularly on Speedy Gonzales cartoons.

Our host confused, thought she had one guest named Nicole coming in on the evening flight and so didn’t pick us up at the airport in the morning. As travellers who always pack a healthy dose of patience and good humour, my Nicole and I made our own way into the city, unruffled. In fact we were delighted to do so, finding the incursion into new realms energising.

The building in which we were to reside for the next week had a dangerous look to it. There was no predatory vibe from the people, more from the broken staircase, the exposed nails and electrics, and the balconies that hung on the dirty facade out into the street. Hung sounds too secure, more dangle precariously than hung. Held by layers of peeling paint, remnants of a chore long since abandoned.

The doorbell didn’t work so we managed to follow someone in and meandered our way through the building, at times finding ourselves moving through people’s living rooms that had somehow over the years morphed into common walkways. They smiled and nodded, unphased as we passed by their tele.

There was no one home in our apartment but through an elaborate display of hand gestures and broken Spanish that may have looked like interpretive dance to the onlooking residents, a neighbour found what I guess were the communal keys to all apartments and let us in.

We somehow managed to sign out a need also for the owner’s phone number and after much referencing of our phrase book I managed to communicate to her that Nicole was aqui ….ahora. Here? Now? A squeal that seemed like a mix of delight and panic came down the line. Then click. Nicole asked if she was coming? I shrugged.

We spent the next 15 minutes taking in turns of walking onto the balcony and waving to the children on the opposite balconies, when our host burst into the room with a flurry of hugs and a niece in toe that could translate in broken English.

We worked out the apartment had been double booked and so a couple of phone calls later by our host and we were being led through the streets of the old town to our new apartment by the niece and her boyfriend who were eager to find out everything they could about Australia. The new accommodation was equally small, dated and tired but clean and our new host was lovely. So with that sorted we headed out into the city.

The streets of Havana are clean, save the rubble of abandoned building sites. The architecture captures perfectly time and place and still in places shows glimpses of their majesty in the 1950s. Now they are run down, their brightly coloured paint faded though to charming hues. Doors, walls and balconies maintained over the last 60 years only with bits of wire to keep them functional. The sides of some buildings possess the stigmata of stairways and rooms that were once in an adjacent building that didn’t survive the decay.

People sitting in corrugated iron doorways or on the footpath in front of their house watch on as we explore their streets. Their clothes dry in barred windows as they gather around a small television. Their doors all open to the street for ventilation. As we walk towards the centre of the old town we pass the faces of those who look worn and saddened by poverty, contrasted with those that laugh and dance in a carnival of energy and pizzazz. Vintage cars pass you in the streets and add to the scene which demands you to wander wide eyed. For a moment then, you are transferred to a world that looks like Las Vegas may have looked 70 years ago…. If nothing was ever maintained again. An intriguing and maybe a little sad product of the country’s politics.

A truck commercial on television in Australia 10 years ago was for a “one tonne Rodeo.” The commercial was set to the song Guantanamera. The country’s most noted patriotic song calls to us from every other bar. It has been slightly ruined for me now as I can’t get the damn commercial out of my head.

We head to La Floridita for my Daiquiri and La Bodeguita Del Medio for my Mojito. An old lady, craggy face, hat and long cigar, the Cuban portrait personified stares at me as we walk by and then bursts into a loud cackle throwing her head back in full body display. I think I missed the joke…..  or maybe it was me?

This was our first stop since leaving Mexico. Mexico was an easy lover. She provided brilliant food, breathtaking lodging and relatively easy travel. Cuba makes you work for her love. The food is not so great, you continuously encounter money situations and the accommodation is certainly questionable. But Cuba is a seductress. She has a rhythm, a vibe that is intoxicating, that takes you by the hand and draws you into a salsa dance curb side.

The smoke from fat Cohiba cigars drifts into the air around us, tantalising our cerveza cristal and 18 year old rum before catching the cool breeze and mixing with the music from the band. We sit back on our plastic chairs on the street corner, taking it all in as the humidity of the day lifts.  Glad we made it to Cuba before the western world arrives in droves, with their oversized red shoes and golden arches; putting a Starbucks and Hooters on every other corner.

I look across to Nicole enjoying the Cuban music and sing along….. “one tonne Rodeo, guajira, one tonne Rodeo.”

Well, that was surreal!

I hate the misuse of the word surreal. I hear people say things like “I bumped into my friend at the train station the other day, it was so surreal.”

It wasn’t. Unless you friend was a pink elephant with your undies on his head telling time from a melting clock, it wasn’t surreal.

I look around me though and there is no other word that can really describe what I’m seeing. I’m dressed in lederhosen, so are five of my closest mates. Our drinks are oversized one litre plastic cups filled with Vodka and Redbull. Around us monks, hillbillies, centurions, minions, Donald Trumps, flamingos, creepy baby heads, a wardrobe with legs (presumably from the lion, witch and the wardrobe), Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins, Muy Thai fighters, pirates, jockeys, unicorns, T-rexs, leprechauns carrying blokes, pregnant cheerleaders, fighter pilots, snipers, lifeguards, policewomen, dictators, the Chinese army, a clergy of nuns priests and bishops, a couple of Harry Potters, numerous Where’s Wallys, a handful of broadcasters, some tinder screens, Oompah Loompas, prisoners, geishas, pharaohs , TMNTs, Tetris pieces, the odd Mother of Dragons, a trace of rabbits, bathers from the 1940s, guys with dressing gowns and shaving cream, Shrek, Asterix and Oblisk, Storm Troopers, Budgie Smugglers and the Super Mario Bros.

David Hasselhoff is singing in front of me surrounded by Baywatch babes and bizarrely accompanied by a Chinese midget also dressed as a lifeguard sitting on a tower.

South Stand at the Hong Kong Sevens. Where have you been all my life. Oh and some rugby was played too – Fiji won. I think.

Rio de Janeiro

We taxi it to the fringe of the Lapa street party at the base of the aqueduct that connects St Theresa with the Centro. The streets are humming and so am I. The smell of BBQ wafts through the air and the rhythm of drums accompany it in a harmony of sensory exhilaration that would enthral and electrify even the most seasoned of travellers. We push into the heaving crowd soaking up the colour and vibrancy of movement, dogs and children weave underfoot and flags and streamers frame the azure above. Canopied street stalls and bar entrances to buildings from the 1800s line the street with live samba, choro, rock and reggae tunes emanating and possessing any space between the movement of mocha skin from locals and tanned tourists alike.

We find a less dense area to stand and drink, suitably appropriate to a beer and sausage stand while placing us in the middle of same minded locals well and truly in party mode. Caipirinha, a fuelled mix of cachaca rum, lime, sugar and ice is the perfect chaser to Batidas straws of fruity and milky elixirs that surely need to follow a refreshing Brahma Chopp.

We indulge and before long have conversations with multiple groups of locals most of who can speak English and others who are just keen to communicate with a series of nods, smiles, and the little Portuguese we can muster. We mingle in and out of dancing groups and sidle along side all who look friendly or interesting. Herman is seeking out a Brazillian with a brazillian.

I am talking to some brazen young shirtless local men who have the potential to be dangerous if not simply intimidating but I am suitably inebriated and any unfounded prejudgement is placed aside and partially substituted for a friendly enthusiasm to marinate in their culture. I glance over my shoulder to check Herman is ok. He is throwing his hands about in an animated fashion, three tourists watching on entertained. I turn back to the group. After the obligatory introduction via comments on the crowd and our respective origins, we engage in the finer and more important discussion topics.

“You guys have some hot hot women here” I complement.

“You need to have one” Estevan, the ringleader of these amigos who seemed smoother than a rat with a gold tooth, replies enthusiastically. He is a tall confident well groomed guy who I was happy talking to for now and who seemed friendly enough, but whom I wouldn’t trust my wallet or sister with. “Which one do you want?” he continues.

“Ha, you talk like you own them” I respond with a laugh.

“I don’t own them my friend but you don’t have to be so slow here in Rio, you see a girl you like, you just walk up to her and take her.”

“Take her?”

“Sim, beijo … kiss her”

“Yeah right” I laugh “We have a name for that at home”

“Serious….. look I will show” Estevan struts into the path of a pretty brunette walking with two girlfriends on her wing, and presents long enough only for a quick “ola” before leaning in and kissing her. Abruptly halted, the brunette girl reciprocates his advance and after a good 10-15 seconds of passion Estevan spins on his heel and returns to the fold. “See…. Now you.”

“Hold on there fella, as impressive as that was, how am I to know that wasn’t your friend or girlfriend, or wife…… or sister” I announce cheekily to the laughter of the boys. Estevan punches my shoulder softly and playfully for the sister comment as he is slapped on his back by his mates.

“I tell you I don’t know that one” he says

“How about I pick a girl for you to just walk up to and kiss”

“No problem” Estevan replies. I turn and scan the party.

“How about…” my finger points out towards the crowd

“no touristas” Estevan adds

“Ok how about….” Finger still scanning, “this one” my finger stops on a girl standing close to us and then quickly shifts at the last second to a girl over a little. “Yes, her, the short hair white singlet shirt”

“Which?” Estevan says “oh, yes, no problem.” Estevan, swagger in check parades to the target and within seconds is engaged in an embrace and kiss suited more to a honeymooning couple than that of a chance encounter. He returns and all eyes are on me

Their eyes eager in anticipation of my move in this game.

“Ok, at the risk of looking like an absolute idiot in front of you guys, I’m going to give this a go….. Just walk up and kiss them you reckon.” I start towards the crowd saying over my shoulder “Promise me, you will help me out if I am attacked by a jealous boyfriend or if this girl slaps me.” The guys laugh again. I’m in trouble aren’t I, cant back out now though. I spot a very pretty girl in jean shorts and big boobs snuggled into a midrift crop top. I stop directly in front of her and look into her eyes, she is beautiful.

I say only one thing. “sorry” and then I lean in and kiss her. She kisses back to my absolute amazement and so I pull her in close. We kiss again after a quick turn and wink to Estevan and his amigos.

“Herman, Herman” I stop kissing and grab my kissing partner by the hand. “Herman you can kiss any girl you like” I am so excited, I drag her towards Herman.

“Mate, what are you talking about” I have his attention.

“Seriously, you can kiss any girl you want”

“What”

“Just go up and kiss a girl” I squark

“What”

“Mate, listen to me and stop saying ‘what’, this place is different, you can just walk up to any girl you like and kiss her, those guys told me to, I did it and now I have….. hey what is your name”

“Hee hee you funny” Mariana was pretty in a worldly way and with confident eyes that more seemed to take pity or amusement in my courting attempt. Sympathy hook up or not, I was stoked it worked.

Herman was onto it and in minutes came back with Ana. I was a little bummed, Ana was hotter than Mariana. We introduced the girls and celebrated our revelation between us secretly before taking their hands to further explore the street party. Now with dates.

We drank, ate and danced until late and thoroughly enjoyed the company of the girls who taught us about Brazilian culture, music, dancing, drinking and anything we noted that seemed different from home. Not once did it occur to us that we had just been given the key to pick up any girl we wanted, presumably, and that we were stopping with the first girls we found. We are idiots.

It was getting late and not being ones to head home early we ask the girls to take us to their local gaff and all pile into a taxi. Mariana gave the cab driver directions and although the ride was only about 15 minutes I was happy it was over since Herman had somehow swindled his way into the back seat with the ladies whiles I sat up front with an unwashed driver who looked a little like a Brazilian Steve Buschemi. The driver chatted the whole way through stained and crooked teeth and didn’t seem to comprehend that I couldn’t understand a word he said. I smiled a lot and nodded, if he pointed at something I said “si” and pointed to it as well. This seemed to suffice for company for this guy and he appeared very satisfied with our conversation when we arrived at our hole in the wall destination faring us goodbye with a hearty hand shake.

Inside the décor was simple, wooden tables with bench chairs and scattered in coasters. The walls dirty with beer posters and old notices for bands that obviously didn’t perform here. I order a round of drinks, the girls go to powder their nose while Herman and I reflect on what a great night we had and lay some anticipations about what the rest of the evening would hold with the girls. I look around “mate, do you notice their seems to be a lot of pretty young girls in here with some not so good looking older guys… and one of them just smiled at me and pulled her tit out the side of her t-shirt”

“I was just going to say the same thing, I have seen two sets of cans since we came in” Herman responded, but we didn’t have time to extrapolate any theories from our observations, the girls were back and our attention was focused back on them. Mariana and Ana come back to the table only this time Mariana sits on Herman’s knee.

“What are you doing?” he said confused

“We changed” she replied

“What do you mean you changed?”

Ana sits down next to me “Well we were in the toilet and she says she like you better than him and I like him better so we change” She responds matter of factly to Herman.

“Ha” I rock back in my seat and clap my hands together over my head, “The old switch-a-roo”

“I’m not sure I am entirely comfortable with this… I’m not happy about this at all” Herman glares at me across the table.

“Mate, not my fault, if the girls want to swap, what can we do about it? We kinda have to swap” I laugh and pull Ana to my lap. We start to kiss, Herman sits there with a bemused look.

Reluctantly Herman accepts his new girl and before long, Mariana is whispering in his ear and a grin came over his stupid looking face from ear to ear. Mariana calls something out to a friend of hers in the bar as Herman leans over the table and mouths the word “threesome”. Within seconds Mariana’s friend is sitting on the other side of Herman whispering in his ear also. Herman has a thousand mile stare and his eyes are starting to slowly roll back in his head.

“Your friend does not know does he?” Ana says

“Know what?”

“That girl is a prostitute”

“Really? Um… are you a prostitute?”

“Ha ha no”

“But you are friends with her?”

“No I don’t know this one. I meet her when I meet you”

“How do you know she is a prostitute?”

“She tell me when we were walking through the street party”

“OK but I don’t understand ….. I mean …. I walked up to Mariana and kissed her and she kissed me back… because she is a prostitute obviously…. but why did you let Herman just walk up to you and kiss you?

“I think he is funny”

And why did you come with us?”

“You all look like fun”

“And you are sure you are not a prostitute too?”

“No, I am not a prostitute”

“Shit, I have to let Herman know” I look across at him, he was in his happy place. “I had better give him a bit of time before I break it to him” Ana agreed, besides we had a lot more kissing to do.
30 minutes and another round of beer later I had a drunken moment of clarity and there were a couple of local guys that seemed to be watching us intently. Maybe it was time to wrap this up.

“If you will excuse me ladies, I just have to use the mens room. Herman, would you like to join me?”

Herman squints at me like I am crazy “No mate, I would not”

I nod in the direction of the toilets, he nods in the direction of Mariana.

“Um, I think you do want to join me mate”
“Robbo I’m pretty fucking sure I don’t”

I lean in and stare a bit more intensely at Herman nodding slightly, he stares back shaking his head subtly and quickly. I respond slowly and with intent. “Herman my retarded friend, I couldnt be more obvious if I grabbed you by the scruff of your neck, please, get the fuck up, I want to talk to you.”

In the bathrooms I explained our situation to Herman. Herman met my status update with the appropriate amount of suspicion.

“This is not like the time you convinced me the girl we both liked was a white witch? Im on a threesome out there”

“Well let’s just think about that now Herman, in all your travels have you ever known girls to behave like the ones here in Brazil. They are all kissing us and showing their breasts, playing pocket snooker and inviting instant thresomes. Don’t you think that it is a little unusual?”

“I just thought we were hot in Brazil. I was planning on moving here for good”

Herman replied but leaving the events that lead to now with him for the briefest of moments reality sure enough sunk in and a look of utter devastation hit Hermans face.

“Have you ever met a brazillain prostitute’s pimp?”

“No”

“Neither have I but I really don’t want to and wherever the pimp is watching on from,  I don’t want to be arguing the toss with him as to whether we owe him for a nights services from the two girls you were getting your jollies with at the table”

“Ok then, fuck, Im way to drunk to be dealing with this. How do we get out of here then?”

“Its ok, I have a plan”

“Robbo, your plan sucks”

“Hey, you haven’t even heard it yet……Now we could have just walked straight out the front door but that will arouse obvious suspicions with the prostitutes. So…. Herman, you climb out the bathroom window here and I’ll go back to the table. The prostitutes will think you are still in the toilet. Maybe I will mention you have some sort of diarrhoea bug.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because its funny, what do you care, you aren’t seeing them again are you? Then I will pretend to take a call on my phone, Ill meet you on the next corner”

“Why can’t you be the one who climbs out the window?”
“Because I came up with the plan and also because I am not the one that needs to escape the pimp, my girl isn’t a prostitute”

“She was my girl first!”

“Semantics Herman, quit living in the past. Now get to it”

My plan worked to perfection. Herman had to scale a fence after being terrorized by a dog, but with minimal subsequent whinging he met me on the corner.

“Did they suspect anything?” he asks

“Mate trust me, I was as smooth as a rat with a gold tooth” Just then some high pitched prostitute yelling came from up the road. A lot of Portuguese and some English that says you owe me money. We start running in the other direction, the prostitute being joined by two other prostitutes. My girl wasn’t there, I was proud of her. Those prostitutes were quite quick, they were no doubt catching on us when Herman stopped for a moment.

“What are you doing? Lets go?” I yell

“Don’t worry Im creating a diversion” Herman shoots back. Herman pulls out a bunch of centavos and scattered them across the ground, throwing a couple of 2 Real notes into the air before returning to the chase.

Seamlessly we approach the next corner and slide straight into a cab, turning to see the prostitutes half a block away scurrying to pick up Herman’s change on the road. And we were off, laughing our arses off into the Brazilian night.