Before you start reading this article, I want you to have an open mind. No, not an open mind, but a critical mind. I spent time in Havana questioning every bit of information I got, mainly because it didn’t correlate with my thoughts/world/knowledge. But it doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. Truth is that we’ll never know who is right and who is wrong. Also, I won’t post any pictures we took that evening with Julio. I wouldn’t want to compromise him in any way.
“We were ready to go home after a fun evening trying local beers and cocktails and listening to live music in a bar when we met Julio.”
We saw him once before. He invited us to the restaurant, but it was too early to eat and we politely declined. Now, Julio recognized us and we started chatting.
‘Hey guys, where are you going? Have you tried out the restaurant I told you about?’ he asked.
‘Oh no, but actually we just ate, so maybe another time.. if you can recommend any local bars, we’d love to give it a go,’ said Anders and that’s how, when we thought our evening was coming to an end, it has only just begun. Julio took a lead and we followed him to Havana’s dusty side streets.
We started talking in English, but he slowly changed to Spanish, which became a little difficult. Luckily, he was always ready to slow down and explain again. ‘I’m going to take you to Che Guevara bar,’ Julio said, ‘tourists don’t go there often.’ When we reached it, the bar was closed, so Julio approached a half-naked man for advice. A new friend of our new friend said that Che Guevara bar is closed, but there’s another “local” place nearby.
On the way I tried to find out why they called it Che Guevara bar, and Julio said that this is where they planned revolution. To be honest, I’m a bit skeptical about that, knowing how much Cubans like selling anything Che Guevara related. Tons of items in the souvenir shops, visits to Che Guevara home (where he lived for like 3 months) – anything. Once a museum worker tried to sell us a 3 CUP note with Che on it (and not for 3 CUP). In Cuba he’s definitely a bigger hero than Fidel Castro. According to Julio, many people think Che Guevara is a real legend while Fidel was all talk and no action. And he wasn’t even a “good warrior”.
“That’s what often happens to “great leaders” and “heroes of the nation” when they survive to actually rule a country, which is different from fighting and/or winning a war.”
We continued our way to the next place.
There were some topics that Julio didn’t want to discuss on the street. ‘There are ears everywhere,’ he said, ‘You shouldn’t always make your opinion public in a country like Cuba.’ Earlier, Julio was complaining that communism in Cuba is good for tourists, but not for locals. According to him, police becomes very suspicious when they see a local person together with foreigners. Sometimes they would stop them, ask for documents and question about why they are together. This is why he asked, in case the police stops us, to say that he is our old friend and we came back to Cuba to visit him (Remember how one of our taxi drivers asked us the same? Police might be suspicious of locals or might be just scanning for scammers).
We know some locals “entertain” tourists and later ask for money, but we were okay with that being a case. We did want to learn something from this trip, to get some local perspective. But the hardest thing in Cuba is to decide what to believe. Was Julio saying it because it was true or because he’s been in trouble with the police before and didn’t want to get in trouble for conning tourists? Is all the information in the Revolution Museum correct and it’s just Cuban way to look at things, or we shouldn’t believe everything we read and hear? Thoughts like that popped into our minds all the time. That’s why everything Julio said left a big question mark. When we finally reached the bar, the doors were closed, but 2 people and a bartender were inside.
“Hola amigo! I have a few foreign friends here who’d love to see a local Cuban bar – can we get a drink?”
‘Sure-sure, come in,’ said the bar owner and let us come inside.
Julio turned around to us: ‘Normally tourists won’t come to this bar, they won’t even know it’s here. Real Cuban bars close early, because Cubans don’t have money enough to drink late like tourists do.’ The bar definitely didn’t look like a popular place to be. Everything was worn out, soviet-style and some very old refrigerators were standing behind the counter. They weren’t in a working condition, but fit into the setting very well.
“Bartender started making drinks without asking what we would like – mojito is often a go-to choice in places like this.”
Sitting in a bar, Julio felt like opening up a bit more about life in Cuba.
‘For tourist, Cuba is safe, very safe! Communism in Cuba is so good, but only for tourists,’ he repeated himself, ‘For Cubans it’s not good! If a girl gets assaulted by a foreigner and goes to the police, they will put her in jail for lying, without even questioning a tourist.’
He took out a packet of powdered milk and put it on the table.
‘Here, I have two kids, and this is what I can get – my ration card only provides one package of milk per month,’ – seemed like he was relieved to finally speak out loud. He talked about politics, about life in Cuba. He didn’t seem to be interested what happens out in the world, but he was eager to share about his homeland.
‘Best tourist is a Russian tourist! They used to have communism, but now they have money and they want to spend it.. Russians who come to Cuba always have money!’
“Julio was very proud of Cuba’s free medicine and said that Cuban medicine is one of the best in Latin America.”
One of the days we passed a hospital where Hugo Chavez had an operation; Cuba also exports medicine to Venezuela while Venezuela helps Cuba with oil. Cubans don’t have to pay for the medicine, but one of the things they do is donate blood. When Julio’s wife had to terminate her pregnancy because of medical reasons, Julio had to go to the hospital and donate blood (5 liters, he said). And when he himself had an operation, his family members had to donate.
Later, Julio dragged us to the “dance floor” and tried to teach us some salsa. We probably weren’t his best students, but to be honest, we weren’t much into dancing either. We got few more drinks and decided to change place.
On the way we passed a few closed bars he wanted to take us to and a few places he wanted to show us. His friend’s home, where he showed us a local sculpture they pray to (I reckon that was a way to showcase his friend’s casa particular); a yard with a tree they pray to (my attention was to all the cats and kittens surrounding the tree). We talked about their religion and their hotels – another thing Cubans are proud of.
In our new location, at the next table, two girls were sitting and chatting. We ordered drinks and Julio asked one of the girls to teach Anders to dance salsa. We danced, we talked, we had some drinks. Then we got an enormous bill. Not enormous by Singaporean standards, but for a place where you can get a cocktail for as little as 3 USD. In the end Julio asked Anders for money “for his kids” and we gave him a little bit of cash.
“Now, evenings like that are both interesting and somewhat controversial.”
On one hand, you know that you “new friend” might just do it to get some money. You don’t know what information is true, what is a “tourist trap”. But on another hand, the opportunity to learn something, the opportunity to spend an evening like that with a local person; to get their opinion on their communistic motherland, to hear how they live and things they are proud of – that is definitely worth these extra dollars. Cuba will always remain a bit of a mystery for us, but we are very happy to have been there. Hope one day we’ll come again to explore more than just Havana. And with some better Spanish skills.
For more travel stories read:
Our Fairy-tale Visit to Uyuni Salt Flats
Salkantay Trek: a Terrific Trail to Machu Picchu
Curto Cafe: Revolutionizing Coffee Shops
Havana is always so beautiful.. I need to go back and revisit.
Hi! It’s definitely a very special place, and architecture is fantastic! I wish we explored more of Cuba though.