Super Freaky in Havana
Travel Stories: With some help from the locals (and Rick James), Lauren Quinn lets down her well-learned defenses
03.26.10 | 10:21 AM ET
As I follow the stranger over the shadow-shrouded threshold of the ricketiest, crumblingest building on the block, I hear a little voice. It comes from that nagging part of my brain, where all the cautions and common sense are stored, gathered like apron-wringing mothers, peering anxiously over the windowsill of my life, chorusing warnings and reminders.
The voice says: You’ve gotta be out of your mind.
And if we were at home, we would be. Meeting a total stranger on a deserted street and following him back to his apartment? Why don’t we just empty our pockets, pistol-whip ourselves and save everyone the trouble?
But this isn’t Oakland. Not by a long shot. This is Havana, the Cadillac-covered capital of languishing legend and atrophied beauty. Every guidebook we’ve read, every customs-evading American we’ve talked to, every eagerly welcoming shopkeeper and casa-host we’ve met have all assured us: Cuba has a remarkably low violent crime rate. Whether you chalk it up to the fact that many basic needs, like housing and health care, are provided for, that tourism is the only thing keeping the island afloat, or that the police presence is damn strong, it’s true. Cuba is startlingly safe.
This is a bit of a leap for my boyfriend John and me. We come from Oakland, California, a city consistently ranked among the most dangerous in the United States. It’s hard to shed the well-ingrained habit of checking our backs, even on near-empty streets laced with the gentle sounds of celebrating families. It’s hard to not be on guard as we stand out like throbbing thumbs, trying to light a cigar and hacking like idiots under dim streetlight. It’s hard not to cautiously eye the approaching strangers, even as one stumbles drunk and boisterously exclaims, “Feliz año nuevo!”
It’s also hard not to smile, to echo his infectious enthusiasm. “Feliz año nuevo,” we reply.
He squints at us and asks in choppy English, “You have nowhere to go?” We shake our heads. “You must come to my house, with my family!”
John and I exchange a screw-it look. We introduce ourselves and follow two perfect strangers, Luis and his pouty girlfriend, down the block and into an aged edifice.
The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates a crumbling interior. Like most colonial buildings in Havana, Luis’ hasn’t seen maintenance of any kind in years. We climb two flights of skinny stairs, past walls adorned with the occasional chicken-scratch graffiti. The banister shakes. Ducking our heads under the low ceilings, we make our way down an even narrower cement-floor hallway. A hunk of plaster has fallen off the cracked wall. Luis waves us into his home.
We meet four faces in the crowded little room. “This is my father,” Luis says, introducing a red-faced, grinning man, whose shirtlessness reveals an impressively round belly. He shakes our hands earnestly. “And my aunt Carmen.” Carmen, sporting the usual tank top, stretch pants and bandana attire, hugs us like old friends. “And my brothers,” who manage a grumble and nod, seemingly bemused by our presence from behind their glassy eyes.
We stand awkwardly in the doorway, cautious and still a little unsure as to whether we’ve made a mistake by entering a stranger’s home.
Carmen smiles and grabs our hands, leading us over to a folding table displaying an array of well-picked-over plates. She gestures toward some chicken and instructs, “Coman, coman.” John reaches over and grabs a healthy chunk. “Mmm.” A vegetarian, I smile, shake my head, “No gracias.” She pours two glasses of rum. And not the Havana Club sold in Centro or Vieja or other touristed parts of Cuba—like tobacco, the good stuff is exported. No, this rum smells stronger, astringent. The color is as sallow as an alcoholic’s skin. John sniffs it, hesitates, then takes a swig. He suppresses a pucker and manages another “Mmm.”
Carmen, and in fact the whole clan, is now staring at me. I smile weakly. I’m going to insult the whole lot if I don’t partake in something, and my options appear to be the mysterious moonshine-ish rum or the chicken. Sober for seven years, I trepidly reach my fingers towards slices of dead animal. I see John snicker from behind their shoulders. I chew, smiling helplessly. Carmen appears satisfied. She returns her attention to John, refilling his glass.
It might be the protein hitting my system, but I start to relax. I check out the room, which appears to be the whole of the apartment. It can’t be more than 12 by 8 feet. The floors are cement, the walls an unpainted drywall, the ceiling low. A ladder in the corner suggests a sleeping loft beyond the torso-sized hole in the ceiling. A few plastic flowers, a signature of Cuban home décor, add color to the otherwise drab room. A small, grate-covered window overlooks a light shaft, which lets in the celebratory sounds of the night.
“De dónde son?” dad asks us.
“Los Estados Unidos.”
“Ah, Americanos, Americanos.” Dad seems genuinely excited. He grabs a busted-up boom box off the floor, and frantically searches for a tape. Gap-toothed grinning, he waves the retrieved cassette in the air. The eject button on the boom box is missing; he has to jack the little door open with the back of a fork. He puts in the tape, presses play. Super Freak blares out of the feeble speakers. John and I burst out laughing, clapping and nodding. “Si, si!” dad exclaims, pleased we recognize the song.
Now he begins to shake his polyester-clad hips as he closes his eyes, seemingly channeling the funky spirit of the deceased Rick James. John and I exchange sideways glances. The rest of the family appears unperturbed, even as dad’s shoulders begin to rock to the beat. Then suddenly, as though he’s in fact made a medium’s contact, dad busts out with a slide. He dips down, twists, rubs his stomach sensually. He shoots us an alluring glance over his shoulder. He dances like a stripper.
“My dad,” Luis tells us, sipping a glass of rum, “all he care about is beer and rock.” John and I nod; we can appreciate that. One hand stylishly behind his head, dad points his finger around at each of us, perfectly on time.
As Rick James gives way to Paul McCartney, I can feel midnight approaching. I want to reciprocate our new friends’ hospitality, a kind of graciousness and warmth that feels unprecedented from my cautious American perspective. I retrieve a fresh cigar from my day bag, and Carmen’s eyes light up. “Quieren?” I ask the group. They nod. It’s a Romeo and Juliet, not the best brand, but far better than the un-exported tobacco left for Cuban consumption. Carmen lights it like a pro and puffs happily.
Dad continues dancing up a storm, now to Talking Heads, as Carmen becomes blurry behind an increasingly thick cloud of smoke. Luis drapes his arm around his girlfriend and swigs away at the rum. His brothers struggle against passing out. I feel vaguely at home, vaguely a part of something, a group, if only in the smallest way.
We hear people down the hall begin to count down: “Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos ... UNO!” We clap, embrace one another. John and the rest down some more moonshine; I’m forced into another bite of chicken.
Luis moves over to take control of the stereo, shooing aside his protesting father, who’s having trouble standing by this point. To our relief, rumba rattles its way out of the speakers. “You can dance?” Luis asks me.
I shake my head. “No, no,” I say. “I’m very bad.”
“Is okay, I teach you.” I note a small scowl on both John and Luis’s girlfriend’s mouths. “Okay, like this,” he holds my hand, respectfully placing his fingertips on my hip. “One, two, three,” he counts in English, stepping back and forth. I mimic. “Yes!” he exclaims. He picks up the pace, and, laughing, I attempt to keep up.
Carmen sets the cigar in an ashtray and grabs John’s hand. Then dad comes over, takes Luis’ girlfriend’s hand. Even the brothers are forced out of their chairs, and now we’re all dancing, laughing as we bump into one another in the small cement room.
It’s the New Year, and we’re far from home, salsa-ing along a steamy longitude in a foreign land. In a couple of weeks, when we return, we’ll walk through the grief-littered, windshield-sprinkled streets of our hometown wearing stony expressions, all our well-learned defenses up, our walls raised. Less than 48 hours after our plane touches down, John will be carjacked, a hand to his throat and a barrel to his temple. We will be home. But for now, for this night and these first few moments of a new year, we are safe, laughing and dancing with perfect strangers.
Editor’s note: Some names have been changed.