The man on the balcony - sliding doors
I had gone to Cuba on a 7 day guided ecotour with a Turkish friend called Lisette. Before I left I had researched Havana after reading a musicology book entitled 'Waking up in Havana' written by an American music journalist in which a musical venue in Vedado was mentioned with a Rumba Pena. I wanted to see the 'real' Havana and so I decided to stay on alone a few more days in a hotel in Old Havana. At the back of my mind was this place and I was ready for an adventure. Little did I know that evening would change the course of my life 17 years ago in 2002.
I arrived by taxi into the unknown. The garden was packed with people gyrating to the sounds of the rumba rhythm. There was nowhere to put my derrière. In the centre of the garden was a large tree with an impressive thick trunk around which was a low brick wall. A skinny Afro Cuban woman was watching and beckoned me over moving up to make room. It was if she was waiting for me! She spoke not one word of English but as I spoke Spanish, she introduced herself as Amalia and called Ingrid, her 18 year old daughter, over to meet me. Ingrid was voluptuous with the largest breasts I had ever seen. She had a stunning smile and continued dancing. Amalia seemed to be my protector and when a chair became free, she rushed over to grab it for me.
Then the lights went out at 7.00 pm. Boom a power cut and I was left alone in Vedado with 2 strangers. I needed help and they were there for me. Uneven dangerous ground in the moonlight. It was surreal. I invited them for dinner. Ingrid was so excited. Too excited to eat. She just drank a coke and said she was thrilled to speak English and that was all she wanted. Her mother, however, wolfed down fried chicken and rice with the inevitable black beans in a local paladar.
I arranged to meet Amalia at my hotel the next day for a guided walk around Old Havana. I suggested we go to the Casa de la Trova but the genuine one for locals in Centro not the one for tourists near my hotel. She was excited never having been to a 'Casa' before. We got into a bicitaxi. Never had she ridden in one as for her it was too expensive. It cost 1 CUC, the equivalent of $1!! Amalia always travelled in overcrowded 'camel' buses for a fraction of the price.
It was dark and we arrived at the wrong time, at least an hour before the doors opened. It was eerie with no one on the streets and no lights. Amalia was nervous never having been in Centro before at night, the area between Old Havana and Vedado, her middle class area. What to do? Where to go? The driver was getting impatient as he did not want to hang around in the dark.
Suddenly a black apparition appeared out of the shadows. Wearing a yellow fishnet long vest over shorts or perhaps Y fronts, he asked us ladies where we were heading. When I told him the Casa de la Trova, he thus informed us that we were an hour too early and that he would be going too. I had the chutzpah to ask him if we could come to his home to kill the time. Surprisingly he warmly agreed!
Off we went to a bleak dark grey Russian built 60s concrete apartment block. His humble abode was on the ground floor and was just one average sized spartan room which he shared with his partner who was dressed like a nurse or a chemist all in white. The room housed a toilet bowl behind a curtain to the right and a basin for washing and cooking. I felt guilty when she poured biblical water over my hands and offered me her cherished soap and a towel. Then she left for the hospital and our host showed us Santeria objects and beads used in his Afro rituals.
An hour passed quickly. Off we went walking one behind the other in the dark streets like the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Then we were about to pass under a balcony. A man at that moment walked out of his tall wood shuttered windows to light a cigarette.
My host greeted him shouting,
'I've got an English woman here!'
'Bring her. Come on up!'
We all clambered up the rickety staircase into Victor's enlightened world and my life changed forever.
Written in Bath 28.11.17