Local encounter in Havana - Cuba
Updated: May 3
Very often our best memories of a place, is a memory of a new friendship, or people we meet on our way, or the local people who we meet and learn about their story! Here is my story...
The moment I arrived in Havana I could not wait to start exploring Old Havana, especially that I had very limited time there and I really wanted to see everything I had planned to see. I read the guide book thoroughly and I planned my day! My walking map was marked with landmarks, piazzas, certain streets that I planned to wander on, and restaurants for a whole day of walking and exploration.
As my hotel was not located in the old part of town I arrived to Habana Vieja i.e. Old Havana, the earliest I could. Equipped with my map, camera and good spirits set off to my exploration of the city. I got off at a bus stop that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, I could not recognise street or or landmarks that I knew from my prep work. As I was walking and looking around for street names and trying to figure out my map and where I was, I saw a couple smiling so I smiled back, they were very quick to approach me with 'Hola' and asked if I needed help. It must have been clear that I was a bit lost.
The couple offered to guide me to the place I wanted to go and started walking with me and said: “why don’t we take you to Che Guevara house where you can drink his favourite drink?”. Sensing adventure I quickly agreed! I followed my local guides through very dilapidated streets and started to wonder whether this was a good idea. There were no other tourists in sight and I had no idea which part of the city I was.
After a short walk we arrived at, let's call it, 'The Bar', the one deemed as Che’s house and ordered drinks that I insisted to pay for, since they offered me such a warm welcome and help. I enjoyed more chats with the couple, not necessarily the drinks (too sweet for my liking)! I learnt a lot about their daily struggles, earnings, and their day to day life. They didn’t complain. Although, they were poor financially, they seemed to be happy and positive. And this is the biggest lesson I learnt in Cuba. You don’t have to have a lot to be happy. It seems like [we] people living outside of Cuba often forget about it, and forget about simple happiness of life!
Once we finished our drinks I stated that I'd better get going if I wanted to see all the beautiful places in Havana. The couple insisted they will take me to one more place. In fact, they took me to an illegal shop that was run at the back of the house, behind washing lines, well hidden in the back yard of the old house. You could buy cigars, rum, and caned coke. I can only assume they thought they are helping me to get a good deal as that’s how their daily life is; deals, swap of products, as there’s shortage of everything in shops so you must make it happen, but I kindly declined. The truth is that I read about it in the guide and apparently if I was caught at the airport with such products, they would have been confiscated and I’d have been in trouble (or pay a fine of some sort)! I said my good byes and thanked them for short and wonderful time spent together. And even though this chats took more than I anticipated, I really enjoyed that local encounter and I remember this experience as my ‘mingling with locals’.
For some reason I always manage to befriend a local person and this gives me a whole new perspective on the city, country and my trip. I still admire the happiness I found in Cuban people, despite the hardship they face. Many of us could learn from them.
After leaving my new friends, I reflected on the whole situation and sceptic part of me thinks that I was classically coned as a tourist. They took me to a bar that may or may not have been Che's house, (which was a good bite) and got me to pay for their drinks. But you know what? I do not regret that at all, I had a great chat with locals who told me some great stories and allowed me to peek inside every day life of Cubans. And I like to think that me buying them a drink brightened their day.
My travel tip still is "Get to know people" - befriend a local and you will hear some great stories, but also you might be taken to some interesting places (like I did in Havana). People are just so nice and lovely you cannot be in Cuba without having some great chats. We also manage to have some great chats on catamaran trip with locals in Cayo Santa Maria, but that's another story to tell.... :-)
And my travel tip is: Do smile to people - it always pays off!