By the time a third round of Mojitos had been ordered, it was clear that Rosa was a master of seduction. Earlier that afternoon, two fair-haired Yumas meandering through la Habana Vieja had caught the eye of this beautiful young woman at her friend’s street stall. In half a blink, she was beside them. Were they hungry? Thinking about dinner? Could she recommend a special restaurant?
It was a bit early, one explained, they liked to eat later. Undeterred, she strolled with them and started to chat. Where were they from? After three days in the country, the two women were heartily tired of this question, but as one responded, the other marvelled at the average Cuban’s command of the English language and ability to mimic a kangaroo.
Cobbled streets demand a slow pace so there was time for the unofficial guide to point out Hemingway’s Hotel, Hemingway’s Bar, and a building somehow associated with Che Guevara. It feels as if all Cubans are duty bound to inject a little Che moment into every tourist encounter. After all, T-shirts bearing his image help keep the economy afloat.
Rosa is not wearing one though. She is in Lycra from tip to toe and carries it like a thoroughbred. All manner of Cuban women seem to favour a figure-hugging ensemble despite the tropical heat. The travellers, on the other hand, are sensible in loose cotton trousers and tops.
Within minutes, they have reached the recommended establishment and Rosa suggests taking a look inside. Clearly, there would be no point in returning later if they found it did not suit their taste. Everyone breathes in and thinks thin as she leads them up the winding staircase. Finally, they pop through the opening at the top and the two women are hooked.
There’s no sign of a kitchen, but the bar is well stocked. An underwater scene along the feature wall is offset by a distant view of peeling paint and iron lace, a scene that makes its way home on hundreds of memory sticks. Rustic chandeliers sparkle in the twilight. Neighbouring buildings are a handshake away.
All three are now seated and ordering cocktails. Rosa is happy to join her new friends who discover that the menu comprises tourist staples — delicious lobster, chicken and pork, all served seventies style. The outsiders would love a bowl of vegetables but are unlikely to find it here.
Mojitos arrive and conversation is flowing. They talk about work, children — easy ice-breakers for women. A conspiratorial smile hovers at the mention of a husband; nothing more need be said. Rosa’s pride and joy is young Matthew; she reverently holds aloft a curious half photo. He’s a gorgeous little fellow; reminds the travellers of George, the new baby Prince.
A sharp young man offers genuine Cuban cigars and is surprised when there are no takers. Yago and Rosa are acquainted so he too joins the table. Despite stilted English, Yago offers local insight. Between tips about music houses, markets, and local attractions, it emerges that life as an unregistered Cigar Seller is difficult. Yago cuts a wide path and has to dodge officials everywhere. Still the few sales expand his limited income because Cigars sell for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs or cooks to these English speakers).
With a little urging, Rosa and Yago explain how the economy works. Housing and health care are subsidised, basic food is affordable, child care is available from an early age. Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos (CUP) and a small percentage of their wages in the currency of the tourist world and consumer goods. Hospitality workers are tipped in CUCs, owners of paladares and casas trade in CUCs, artists and artisans sell their work for CUCs. Society is becoming divided between people who have access to CUCs and those who do not.
Rosa offers a Che Guevara coin. “Take it as a souvenir”, she says, “you can’t spend it”. The coin has a face value of three CUPs. At a money exchange, we could buy one for fifteen cents. Dinner here is thirty CUCs which is roughly 800 CUPs. Rosa’s monthly salary, less than 500 CUPs, is starting to look a bit thin. Young Matthew needs toys, books, more milk than the daily ration allows — mothers everywhere know how it is.
“So what do you feed Matthew when there’s not enough milk?” the older woman asks. “Sugar and water” is the quick response. “Goodness, what about his teeth!” is on the tip of her tongue when the coveted photo floats back into view. Barely six months old, baby Matthew is too young to have teeth.
Food arrives and the locals take their cue. Yago bows out quickly but the women are reluctant to see Rosa go. “For Matthew”, one of them murmurs as precious CUCs change hands and Rosa graciously takes her leave. The travellers know they have been conned and Rosa knows that they know. Nonetheless, it has been a delightful encounter and they would happily do it again.
An hour later, back out in the cobbled streets, the women are approached by a man with a menu. Were they hungry? Thinking about dinner? Could he recommend a special restaurant? They politely decline and continue on their way. They are experienced la Habana visitors now; they know he has Matthew’s brother or sister hidden up his sleeve.