I walked past several American cars with shiny exterior. The drivers sat in the shade in a nearby park. I reached the waterfront. Beyond the port, a fiery blaze from oil production site. Across the inlet is the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaa (Fort of Saint Charles), simply called as La Cabaa. Towards the entrance of the bay, westward, was the impressive watch tower of Castle of los Tres Reyes del Morro. I did not venture across. Under the watchful eye of a statue of Neptune, on the Malecón, I met Mandrill. He and his mate were fishing but for the moment it seemed to be futile exercise. I had seen the make-up of the Cuban population and its external influences. The physical appearance of a Cuban in my description – European White to African Black and everything in-between. With this broad skin tones, mine qualified easily. Just need to speak Spanish. The Cubans seem not to distinguish the differences and that was wonderful to see. They were one. I loved this distinctive Cuban culture – singularity.
Mandrill described himself as mostly Spanish, part Irish and part “unknown”. He quipped that his wife is an American and the reason for his spoken English capability. His fishing ability was hopeless for the last three hours. The gas flame continued to puff smoke into the atmosphere. Mandrill commented that the water around the island is polluted with oil drained from the ships. This is a fact as I witnessed slick oil floating in the south when I flew into Cuba. Numerous stretches of dark brown slick oil inter-spaced by the ocean currents and wind. A pristine coast under threat. I suggested that fuel must be cheap here. Mandrill just said, the fuel is low-grade and the reasons for the Habana’s air pollution.
Twilight was setting in. The Cubans understandably due to the heat, humidity and perhaps with no fans or ventilation, resorted to sit at their door steps and sidewalks. The front doors are left open with a view into Cuban’s private lives – watching TV, dining, having a conversation in rustic setting and charming wooden furniture. I remembered my childhood days in Malaysia. We would sit in the porch or on the road having a rest or conversation with family and neighbours. The porch in Cuba’s densely packed housing is the street. The ground floor was most exposed. In the upper floors, people hung around wrought iron balconies amidst hanging cloths conversing with their neighbours. It is a close-knit community. Amongst these people was Umbereto and his sister Ana. Typical Cuban style, shirtless with his belly hanging out and Ana with hair curlers on rested on the front door. Like most Cubans, they were friendly and wanted to communicate with me. When I mentioned that I lived in NZ, it hit his sweet spot. He was cricket mad. He even declared that he is the only one in Cuba. He immediately took me into his home. The path from the doorway led into a small courtyard, tidy and filled with potted plants. The path branched towards several doorways. He was not kidding. The walls and cabinets in his house were filled with cricket memorabilia. A set of crease embedded onto a side of a cabinet. His wife just laughed when he mentioned that his 100% love of his life is cricket. I suggested, perhaps 80% wife and 20% cricket. Umbereto just laughed. As I left his place, his last words were, “me casa tu casa”, my house is your house. I felt welcomed.
I returned to my Casa in Centro Habana. The slightly cooler air was a blessing in this windless narrow street. Similar to streets in Habana Viejo, the locals were out in force on the streets. Like the Cubans, I too hung around the balcony and watched everyday Cuban life unfold below. I loved these sights were people are living their lives normally. From my third floor room balcony, I surveyed my street. The building facades were crumbling with iron rods sticking out of some. Some were painted in pastel colours and mostly faded and worn surfaces. Renovation work partially completed and some needing urgent attention. The city’s choking fumes from vehicles did not help. Despite the hardships, the streets were clean with bins dotted along the street. Piles of stones and rubble were stacked on the sides of streets. On the far southern end, the towering dome of the Capitolio was under renovation. The corner fresh produce stall had closed for the day. I decided to have dinner at my Casa (well the operator’s) tonight and an opportunity to meet my fellow Casa “mates”. The Casa owner is very enterprising and had a few accommodations for rent both in Centro and Habana Vieja.