We decided one morning we were going to take the bus no matter what. We asked a lot of people and walked around a good deal and finally ended up in a line with a bunch of Cubans waiting for the bus that would take us downtown for the peso equivalent of three cents as apposed to the fifteen dollars it would be for a cab.
A bus pulled up. It wasn’t ours, but I didn’t realize that. So I didn’t stand clear. As soon as the doors opened, the people behind, in front of, and around me began to claw their way forward and into the open door. I was harshly shoved and pushed and moved along with the group until, finally, breathing hard, I could duck and cover my way out. A group of school boys were especially aggressive; slapping each others faces, shoving with all the strength in their skinny arms and laughing hysterically. One boy, having finally got to the stairs on the bus, turned around, looked down upon his subjects gracefully, threw his head back and raised his fisted hands in victory.
A very kind, very tiny, adorable, elderly woman in a floppy, blue hat started talking to us in Spanish at the bus stop. At one point, as she was talking rapidly and steadily and it was clear we had no clue what she was saying, a kind twentyish year old gentlemen leaned over and, with a sigh, began translating. Telling us over and over how handsome and sweet we are while the old lady lovingly patted our hands and cheeks. The young man, and the friend standing next to him, were from Durban and had thick South African accents. We all fought our way onto the bus together and were pressed harshly up against each other and strangers. We formed a protective circle around the old lady as she beamed proudly up at us from the center.
In between cheek pats and endearments we got to talk to the boys a little. Sello and Mondli are very dark and handsome boys. They have big lips and big eyes and are utterly polite and immutably kind. They are studying in Cuba to be doctors back in South Africa. They told us the medical schools in Cuba are top notch and very affordable, however, “the cafeteria does not cook with love,” Sello told me, endearing me to him forever.
Adam asked how many African languages they each speak.
“Four,” Sello answered.
I added Spanish and English. “So six languages?” I asked. “That’s impressive.”
“Actually,” he replied. He lowered his head sheepishly and in his lovely lilting South African accent he said, “eleven.”
“I speak six,” smiled Mondli helpfully.
It was hot. Sweat dripped off of everyone in the bus and our skin became slick against each other. But they kept us distracted and I am very grateful to have met them. Eventually Bill got shoved into the middle of the bus away from us. I genuinely worried that we’d lose him. I took a picture of him over there stuffed between all those strangers. In the picture he is happy. It reminds me of a quote I read in a book a long time ago – Some people see chaos as chaos. Others view it as an opportunity.
When we got downtown we picked up where we had left off the day before and continued the business of falling in love with Cuba. This is how we would spend most of our days, walking around Havana. There is so much to see and so much do and so many people to meet. We ate delicious pizza (we would do this a lot), with remarkably fluffy crust, sold to us, out of the window of someone’s house inside a crumbling, gray, concrete building, for the equivalent of twelve cents.
The owners of the house/pizza joint had a black and white TV on. It buzzed badly. Something about the election came on. We ran away. The man of the house then tried to come talk to us about the US presidential election, which was happening that day. All three of us immediately started yelling at the top of our lungs, our hands too full of pizza to cover our ears. We didn’t want to know who was going to be the next president of the United States. We did not want to know one bit! We did not want that tribulation to be part of our Cuban experience. The man was taken aback, but spoke English well enough to understand and seemed to gain respect for us for not wanting to know. Literally everyone we would meet from then on wanted to talk to us specifically about it; we would not make it another day without finding out.
But at that moment, still blissfully Schrodinger’s cat style ignorant, we happily ate the pizza off of torn pieces of cardboard that Bill remarked would never meet OSHA standards. We watched young boys play soccer in the street and show off for us and chatted easily with the people at the pizza house. For a little while we were very much simply part of the neighborhood.
At dusk we decided to find a bar and have a drink. We stopped and asked a hefty guard with a big beard where we could get one. “Der,” he pointed to a crumbling building across the street from us. The scaffolding covering the entire front of the building seemed to be the only thing holding it up. “A Drink. Cervesa.” we said slower. “Si, si, cervesa,” he said, annoyed. He waved his meaty paw toward the building and walked away.
We turned and walked skeptically toward the old building. The doors had to be twenty feet high, three inches thick and were carved out of wood. Very old and worn but stunning. A tall young man with long, curly, jet black hair, pulled back into a slick bun, and a harsh, pointed nose, saw us and ascertained immediately what was going on. He said a name, we shrugged, he nodded and motioned for us to follow him as he went into the building. Inside it looked as though it had been through a war. Huge piles of rubble sat in every corner, having originally been the walls above the piles. Long shadows filled every room from the bare bulbs that hung from the ceilings. A thick layer of dust spread over everything in sight on the first two floors. The ceilings were twenty feet high or more. Huge old dust covered paintings hung on the walls. I followed him up the huge ornate marble staircase, running my hand along the cold, smooth banister and making this-place-is-awesome faces back to my companions behind his back. I had no idea what to expect here. I had no compass for such a place. We came to an intricate metal spiral stair case and continued up. And up. He eventually stopped but pointed for us to keep going up. We caught glimpses of a restaurant on our way up, which was extremely fancy. In great contrast to the first couple of floors, where I would later, while exploring, find a family squatting in the back of the building with their chickens, the restaurant walls were perfectly painted, the wood sanded and stained so that it shined beautifully, huge chandeliers threw romantic light across the tables which were set with crystal wine and water glasses, more then one fork, that sort of thing. The bathroom.. God where to begin. First the door was of complimenting material and thickness to the one in the front of the building. The walls were a lovely indigo blue, on one wall all the way up, twenty feet, to the ceiling were steel pegs. Each peg was painstakingly wrapped with a cloth hand towel for drying your hands after you washed them in the truly remarkable sink, the likes of which I have never seen. There was only one, It was in the middle of the room. It was made of one gigantic earthy pink stone and shaped like a thick, heavy, lavish picture frame laid on it side. The “drains” were hidden in each corner where from the side protruded tall, elegant faucets. A giant chandelier hung gracefully above it. The bathroom was unisex and we giggled like children as we washed our hands together.
Up more stairs the bar did not disappoint after the restaurant. A big beautiful concrete barrier kept the people from falling off the roof. The bar was lit up from underneath as well and the tables, lending a warm and generous glow to everything. Everything was very, very white. It was sunset when we got there and the sun slowly crept away from the city as we sat sipping the local beer. Havana spread as far as we could see out to every side. And here is where we really got to see just how beautiful and also dilapidated the city of Havana is. Everywhere buildings crumbled from the top down. Makeshift roofs littered the scenery and colorful clothing and sheets hung out of the windows, lending the scene before us a playful air. Over it all flew an angel atop a tall church backlit by the setting sun.
Adam thought up a game for us to play. You simply go around the table making rules for each other to do embarrassing, stupid things. We couldn’t show our teeth or before we could take a drink we’d have to bonk ourselves on the head three times, then hop on one foot, then slap the person to the right in the face. Things of that nature. It was silly and fun and we drank and deep belly laughed until long after dark.
After all the laughing we were hungry so we stumbled down the block to find food. This guy came by with pizza. We asked him where he got it. He motioned for us to follow him. When we stepped into the light on the side of the building we realized how utterly inebriated he was. He looked like a very old flava-flave without the clock necklace. He spoke no English what-so-ever. He took us to the pizza place and then pulled himself up a chair. We didn’t mind. We love meeting new people and this guy was clearly a character. It deteriorated quickly. He started knocking things over and getting louder and then he began to hit us to get our attention and wanted to endlessly kiss my hand, we were over it. We were stuck there as we had ordered pizzas. I feel bad about what happened next but he kept hitting the boys, who luckily for me, he was sat between, and then speaking rapidly in Spanish, he fell off his chair.
A very bald, very buff cook came out and, without acknowledging us, took the man outside and went up against him. Bad. Clearly and sternly telling him to get the fuck out. It was a very sad situation. The man kept saying he was with us. We were embarrassed to have brought this upon both the establishment and the guy. As we couldn’t even speak to the inebriated man in any way we couldn’t help him even if we wanted to. Everyone at the place got involved, coming from around the counter and the kitchen. Bill kept trying to calm the situation. But no one would even look at us at that point. The guy started to get violent, yelling self-righteously. He threw a beer bottle into the street, where it shattered. Bill kept gently saying “lo siento”, we’re sorry, and “beunos noches.” He would not leave. He kept yelling back and forth at the people that worked at the place, deepening our embarrassment Finally, long after our pizza came out, they got him to leave but two cooks sat outside and guarded us or their establishment (we were never really sure) the rest of the time we were there, staring intently down the street he had taken. Eventually the man came back and painstakingly picked up the pieces of glass from the bottle he broke, the cooks watching him like hawks, and then he left.
After the drinking game and the beers with the pizza we were pretty drunk and I made a very questionable decision just minutes after Adam made the same questionable decision.
We stopped at a corner bar while stumbling home. We got some beers and sat at a table where we met an older gentlemen. I can’t tell you much about him because my writing from this night has become completely illegible. Something about being a pilot in “the war” and I remember he and Adam talking about planes for a while.
At some point Adam left to use the restroom which the bartender emphatically claimed to have. He came back a little shell shocked and sheepish. I went up and gestured could I use the restroom also. He nodded happily, clapped his hands and then rubbed them together as he headed to the back. He took me around the corner and right there in the open with only a very thin, short wall between us and the people at the bar was a bucket in front of a drain. The guy then emptied my husbands pee out of the five gallon bucket and set it down for me with a sweeping of his hand toward it. With a broad and completely genuine smile he left me to it.
Giggling like an idiot, I peed in it. Because I had to pee, because I was drunk, because if my well mannered, polished, professional husband can do it, I can do it and well…because when in Rome…