The smell, the decay, the jineteros: my experience in La Havana
La Havana is a very interesting and curious town. It has a special charme, but it is also suffocating, with collapsing buildings and a population constantly trying to trick you.
The first aspect of La Havana that comes to mind is its smell. Of Gasoline. Pollution. Asphyxiation. You can smell gasoline everywhere: on the streets, in the form of the black smoke puffed out from the old American cars – that have become the symbol of Cuba and made its fortune, but that also suffocate you. On the buses, it’s the gas that comes in from the holes in the floor. In your bedroom, when even on the 5th floor you are awaken in the middle of the night by a terrible smell of gasoline and you have to shut the window and turn the air-con on even if you don’t like it.
The decay. It looks like the town might break into pieces at any time. There’s an area around the four squares of Old Havana that has been restored and is really pretty. One block away everything is falling down. From the rooftop terraces of the “case particular” (the accommodation in private families typical of Cuba) and some hotels you can see everything, and the decadence is even more visible. The walls facing the streets sometimes have been fixed and painted, but at the back everything is grey and you can see the holes in the walls, the missing walls, the collapsed walls.
On our first morning we went to the rooftop terrace of our casa particular. We were jet-lagged, so despite the tiredness at 6 am we were awake. It was lovely though, because we witnessed the sun rise on the roofs of La Havana. And slowly the town also woke up. The air is stuff even in winter (we were there in the month of December, 2015), so most doors and windows are always open and life happens mostly on the terraces or in the streets. And you can look at it while it happens. One man looking out of the window while brushing his teeth; a lady taking some water from the tank to do the laundry on her terrace; a girl sitting in front of her entrance door on a rocking chair with her baby, she turns the TV on and starts breastfeeding her baby. On the lower floor a mum combs her daughter’s hair; once she’s done, the girl watches tv with her siblings until mum says it’s time to go to school.
Jineteros are expert in tricking the tourists; they are very good in convincing the naive foreigners to buy rubbish or to stay in a casa particular or eat in a restaurant where they get a good commission (5 or 10 USD over a 20 USD price).
During our first day in La Havana we completely fell for it. Well, they are real experts like I haven’t found anywhere else and they are very good at recognizing the new arrivals. Just a few minutes after we got into the street, we had already bought some cigars. “Today it’s the only day of the month when families are allowed to sell cigars, and they are cheaper than in the factories”. Ok. Done, Thank you. I’m not easily fooled around normally, but this guy was particularly skillful, with his smiles, his jokes, the positive presence. Of course that the next day was “the only day” too. I don’t know of what quality these cigars are, because who understands anything about cigars? I don’t even smoke!
In the afternoon an apparently nice girl approaches with us, asks where we come from, smiles, laughs, invites us to Che Guevara’s favorite café (by chance just next to her house) to drink a mojito that will cost us 4 CUC (about 4 euro – 4,50 USD, when at the cafeteria of a 4 star hotel it costs 3 – probably its price for Cubans in a place like this one is less than one CUC), so 12 euro gone (because of course you don’t even need to mention it, but we had to pay for her mojito too; which we didn’t mind, but didn’t like to pay more too). Then to the shop to buy powder milk for the baby (first she asked for 5 packets for about 12 CUC, fortunately at the end she was happy with 2 packets only) because she doesn’t work, the State gives her something every month, but it’s not enough, in two weeks it’s all gone.
And you don’t mind buying the milk because it’s better than giving her money that she might use to buy 10 mojitos more (but actually Cubans’ favorite drink is Cuba Libre, mojito is for tourists). No, the milk for the baby is a good and useful thing. But as soon as we waved good bye I remembered I had read somewhere that they ask for powder milk (because it’s easier to convince people to give that then money), but then they resell it. Mmm…
The following day we “casually” meet another couple along the Malecon (the seaside promenade) in La Havana, very nice as usual; the guy talks to Luca in a mix of Spanish and Italian; she tells me how great Cuba is with its free education (everyone is graduated, but no one can speak English properly…??), free health system (but if you go to a pharmacy you might not find anything to cure your fever), free security (but everyone lives like in a cage, with grating at doors and windows even on the fifth floor). They took us to a place where an artist sells his work to raise money for a school for autistic children (thanks but I’m not interested) – where you can drink the “negron”, an amazing cocktail that you can find only here (sorry but I’m not thirsty) – and here everything is so expensive, could you buy some powder milk for my baby? (sorry but you’re late for this).
The first time you’re approached you’re happy, you think “how nice these Cuban people” (and the guy you’re talking to repeats it himself, as to confirm it). Then you realize that the only Cubans that approach you are those that want to trick you. So even if you don’t want to, your attitude changes, you become defensive and your holiday takes a different hue.
Despite the disappointment, I decided to spend three more nights in La Havana at the end of our stay in Cuba. Because, despite its faults, I have never seen a town as fascinating as La Havana.
More pictures from Cuba on my Flickr album.