Tourist Tales from Cuba…
Vicente Morín Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — There was less than an hour left until the six o’clock closing time. Up on the fourth floor, we guides waited for the opportunity of a visiting tourist, infrequent in May, the classic month of the slow season in Cuba. According to the established order, it was my turn when the bell rang with the code that indicated a recent arrival.
I quickly took old “Otis”, the elevator at the Napoleonic Museum of Havana, installed long before the Revolution by the then Lord and Master of this opulent mansion next to the University.
Orestes Ferrara, Italian, combatant in the final war against Spain, had later become an important figure in traditional Cuban politics as one of the leaders of the now-defunct Liberal Party.
Waiting for me below was a thin young girl, barely in her twenties, and skimpily dressed in a tank top, tight-fitting shorts and light sandals. She didn’t even have a small bag for safeguarding necessary items as is customary for visitors.
The museum clock – and an even more eloquent one, represented by the expressions on the faces of my workmates – urged me to finish up quickly with that inopportune young visitor who had appeared just when everyone was about to go home.
The initial questioning established that she was a Mexican from the capital city, enjoying her first day in Cuba and housed in the nearby Hotel Habana Libre, the former Hilton. I began the explanations with little enthusiasm, but the petite Mexican began to win me over with her excellent questions as well as a level of interest that was unusual in a young person of her age; and of her appearance, as I would have said at the time, but without losing sight of her large blue eyes.
It wasn’t easy to summarize all of the interesting facts about that abundant and varied collection from the Napoleonic Period, today the pride of Cuba and formerly owned by: Julio Lobo, possibly the richest man in Cuba a half-century ago.
We walked amongst priceless paintings from the 18th century, no less valuable porcelains from Sevres, Chippendale furniture, bronze lamps, and one of the beds used by the French Emperor, including a hank of hair that had belonged to the Great Corzo.
We finished when the museum guards almost threw us out the door, while the other guides had long since headed towards their buses home, sure that there’d be no tips coming my way from that girl.
I was in no hurry at all, since I was living alone with my aunt and my ninety-year-old grandmother. That made a big difference, because I invited her to continue on with me to Old Havana.
I did this without much thought for the consequences, but to my surprise she accepted. Perhaps I seemed trustworthy in my role as a professional – over forty and with a recognized career of work in the city.
This was a complete adventure, since as a Cuban I barely had a few pesos to invite her with, of no value against the dollars that are paid in the very touristy zone we would be visiting. But we Cubans are like that, risk takers, as suits those who live day by day on the edge. As you can understand, the problem consisted of my being unable to see, or even imagine, where my companion could be keeping her money.
This was the Havana of 1998, still surprised at the avalanche of foreigners, something not at all foreseen within the previous socialist scheme, totally opposed to the presence of foreign visitors on their own much less those guided by everyday Cubans.
With my mind on these things, we headed down the Malecon, towards the Havana Bay, conversing without pause, since she wanted to know about everything, from architectural questions to mere anecdotes, like about the children swimming at La Punta or the women down at the ocean, offering their flowers to Yemayá.
We arrived at “La Mina”, a fairly expensive restaurant by the Plaza de Armas, right in the heart of the old city. She wanted to hear our traditional music live and have a drink in passing. I warned her that the prices were in dollars, but she seemed not to hear me. We sat down while I tried to decipher the puzzle of money, thinking of the embarrassment that was likely to befall me in the next few hours as I tried to justify my actions to the waiters and the police.
Relief arrived with the check. The Mexican asked if it was customary to leave a tip, then got up from the table with that little lean forward that is typical of women, at the same time pulling a shining twenty dollar bill from the right pocket of her shorts.
Suddenly, I began to notice the fine taste of my “Bucanero” beer, wishing that I could have another, but refraining from asking due to the habitual norms of courtesy in these cases.
We left on foot, down Obispo Street, the center of any tourist visit to Old Havana. I felt no more worries when Rebecca, whose name I had finally learned, asked to take a picture of me in the “Floridita ” bar, Hemingway’s second home in the capital.
Rebecca, thank God, proved a kind of gift to my beleaguered Havana existence as a guide for the Napoleonic Museum, my destination when I had arrived from the provinces with barely a pair of boots for my feet.
She gave me more than money. Perhaps I’ll tell you how much at the end of this chronicle. The most essential thing, though, is that she made me feel that my knowledge was worth something, that life could make some sense again for me.
We ended in the Cyber-café of the Capitolio, contemplating Havana from above, with more beers included. She wanted to spare me the return trip back to her hotel, but I insisted on the honor of returning her home safe and sound, as befits a father or an older brother.
We took a taxi right to the door of what is now the Havana Libre Tryp, a mixed enterprise jointly owned by the State and a hotel chain with Mexican capital. Regretfully, the next day she had already paid for a day at Varadero Beach. I’ve never seen or heard from her again. It would be awhile before I had e-mail and my own telephone.
Upon parting, she dared to make the only gesture that could be considered an excess of familiarity between a girl of scarcely twenty and a mature man who have known each other for only a few hours:
With that same sensual inclination of her body, she took something from the magic hat that was the right pocket of her shorts and slipped it into my pants pocket, along with a cordial good night’s kiss.
(*) Vincent Morin Aguado: “My aim is the truth, though the path to it is difficult. My compass is that of common sense, which leads to solidarity, but if I accompany this with balance I can reach a fair share of justice. I am a teacher, the son of teachers, so my vocation is asking and answering. I am Cuban from Cuba and I live in Cuba.”