We arrive in Havana slowly, lines moving through the exit metal detectors at a humid pace, lines at the currency exchange languid as well. We go to find a taxi to take us to the casa particulare Collin has managed to book in advance using Paypal and Air BnB. I brandish the address I’ve written on a scrap of paper. The lady at the information desk does not speak English, but she does know a guy who can take us to our destination — specifically that guy right there. That guy right there is muy simpatico, and we roll out of the airport in his vintage Russian car with an agreed-upon price between us, past a billboard with photos of Castro through the ages, blazoned with the slogan Fidel Entre Nosotros. I wonder if this has been put up in the two weeks since his death, or if it’s older than that.
The streets are full of vintage cars and diesel fumes, windows rolled down for breeze, me leaning forward to try to communicate with the driver. My pretend-Spanish is only about as good as the French and English cognates he says, which means that I say “si” every few seconds to the things he helpfully points out, like the Plaza de la Revolución, the statue of Che, a photo of his daughter on his phone, the fact that Donald Trump is horrible. I pretend-translate between the driver and Collin when Collin realizes he can’t see any street signs. “No existo de nombres de … via?” and I point out the window. “Si, si,” the driver agrees, “Es Cuba!” and he waves the need for them away. He yells out the window to a random guy: “oy, chico!” and gets directions. We continue down an alleyway teeming with people, bicycles, construction, trim and beautiful girls in pristine school uniforms.
I’ve never seen Collin look so much like a child: eyes as round as saucers, somewhere between terror and delight. We come to a pile of construction rubble in the narrow alley and the driver stops, turns, speaks to me. “What’d he say?” Collin asks, and I say, authoritatively, although I’m not remotely convinced it’s true: “He said he’d leave the car and walk with us to the address.” As it turns out, I guessed accurately. The driver locks up his taxi, shoulders my bag, and marches us through la Plaza Vieja a few blocks to our destination. He rings the bell for us. No answer, or at least none that we can hear, because a quad of youth on the balcony of a nearby crumbling building are blasting Iggy Azalea and reggaeton so loud that nobody can hear anything. The driver yells upwards to the casa’s cleaning lady until she buzzes us in; he doesn’t leave until he’s sure we’re going inside. We tip him well.
The nephew of our host greets us wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and a bike-shorts-and-spandex-top ensemble that’s just loose enough to indicate that it’s a fashion statement. He speaks no English. We wait for our host, sipping water and listening to the deafening syncopation of Iggy Azalea.
Collin, still a bit dazed, says he is nervous about getting around Cuba given that neither of us speaks Spanish. “Nah,” I say “we got here fine. I do this all the time. It’s easier in Spanish than in Thai or Japanese. Way easier. Aren’t you impressed with my fake Spanish?”
Our host arrives, and he speaks English. He tells us where we can find dinner, and says not to worry, the streets may be loud, and dark at night, but they are safe, safer than anywhere else in South America. He yells out the window for the youth to turn the music down.
We explore Havana for the next day and a half, mostly just walking and taking pictures. We quickly get the lay of Old Havana, where there are street signs after all. We drink agua con gas, listening to tour guides tell us about buried Spanish treasure and pirates. Havana is beautiful, and frenetic, and also laid-back; ruined and restored; underrated and yet full of tourists and people wanting us to tip them, from the unwanted table magician to the postal worker.