Rooms by the Hour in Old Havana

Ernesto Perez Chang

Aguiar St. in Old Havana.  Photo:  Juan Suarez.
Apartment building on Aguiar St. in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez.

HAVANA TIMES — Though many years of neglect have effaced some its former splendor, one can still tell the building was once a luxurious colonial mansion. Today, it is one of the many shabby tenement buildings on Aguiar street, in the heart of Havana’s old town, a working-class apartment block where more than twenty families have settled wherever they have found the space.

These families make the most of the few square meters of their overcrowded dwellings. When possible, someone builds a small annex with the materials that turn up, materials that are almost always scavenged from a nearby place where a similar building has collapsed.

A room, even one built thanks to a chance-event like that, will always be put to good use: the kids will one day become adults and need a private space of their own and, more importantly, in Old Havana, one of the city’s most densely-populated areas, renting rooms by the hour has become a business that does not require much investment.

People who use these rooms – tourists in search of very cheap sex, people having affairs or giving in to forbidden passions, low-class prostitutes denied admission at luxury hotels, young couples or humble folk who do not have a place where they can spend a few hours together – cannot be too picky.

A night in a room in the cheapest hotel in Cuba can cost as much as two months’ worth of one’s salary. A ramshackle bed covered with dirty sheets, an old towel and a fan are the comforts offered by these hovels one finds scattered across the city, even in neighborhoods and districts farthest from the city center.

An hour of intimacy for 1 CUC, three hours for 2, a whole night for 5 or 7 – these are the lowest rates. It’s as good as it gets. Sometimes – and this would be more of a miracle than an added value – there’s even running water and private or common bathroom. The heat is stifling, the rooms are dark and the smells of dampness and rancid sweat envelop everything, impregnating all bodies.

Photo: Juan Suarez
Photo: Juan Suarez

There are tenement buildings, like the one on Aguiar street, where nearly all the tenants live off the rent of such rooms. Often, it is the livelihood of entire families who, after renting a room out to a couple, must leave their homes and wait out on the street until the time needed by the couple has passed.

Then, in a hurry, without thoroughly cleaning the room, they prepare the bed for the next two strangers, the same bed where perhaps the owners of the house, or their children, must sleep in every day.

The business gives them enough to eat and buy clothes but not nearly enough to make any big changes, not enough to decorate the place lavishly or add any comforts. There are days these rooms remain occupied until the early morning and the children are forced to go play out in the street till late, until their parents let them know they can go back to bed.

In the larger hovels, sometimes the family stays in the adjacent room while the other is being used. If there are children in the house, some parents force them to sit in front of the television and raise the volume to drown out the moans of pleasure, the dirty talk and all other noises.

They know they will face something far worse than a few moans if the money doesn’t come in and, in that light, such things are mere “occupational hazards”, as some say.

“That’s what the business is like, that’s what life is like,” they say. Perhaps it is reassuring for them to think that, with time, much like that colonial mansion on Aguiar steet was slowly turned into a gray shanty, these strangers that come and go at all hours will slowly turn colorless, invisible, forgettable, perhaps in much the same way they see the look of surprise and joy on their children’s faces slowly fade as they grow up.


25 thoughts on “Rooms by the Hour in Old Havana

  • January 29, 2014 at 3:08 am
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    viva fidel y el presidente castro carajo!!!

  • January 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm
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    A very nice story, Ernesto. It reminds me of the brilliant novel by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, “Three Trapped Tigers” (Tres Tristes Tigres), about a young Cuban in 1958 Havana, trying to convince his girlfriend to come with him to a dingy room for the hour, at a hotel on Neptuno street. But even the sketchy down-and-out rooms in Havana back then sound better than these crumbling ruins.

    Love in the time of ruins? Sounds like a title for another novel…

  • January 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm
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    To clarify, your “democracy” accepts no other opinions or ideologies but the One True ideology you profess.

  • January 27, 2014 at 8:05 pm
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    Anarchist

  • January 27, 2014 at 8:03 pm
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    Au cconraire mon frere! Cuba would have continued to be the jewel of the Caribbean, the Paris of the west. It would have have been THE destination! Instead it’s just another poor communist country that can’t keep the lights on. And that’s not speculation, it’s reality

  • January 27, 2014 at 11:42 am
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    My “pet theories” are based STRICTLY in democratic institutions and forms .
    I happen to believe that democracy is the best form for human society .
    Democracy is the way of the future.
    Despite your present love of all things totalitarian, I believe you’ll be happier in a democratic society

  • January 27, 2014 at 11:38 am
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    Enemies of humanity do have that effect on me.
    Anything I can do to point out your inhumanity is well worth my time and you do make my task very easy .
    It’s like doing the Monday NYT crossword puzzles.

  • January 27, 2014 at 9:00 am
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    Your comment stretches for more than 200 words focused on my feelings, who pays me, and the condition of my “undies”. I have certainly had an effect on you.

  • January 26, 2014 at 8:56 pm
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    Ennui means boredom and not necessarily unhappiness.
    and yes Cuba could have been just another poor capitalist country with all the inequities that entails.

  • January 26, 2014 at 8:53 pm
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    It would be crazy to hate Cuba per se.
    Of course you don’t hate Cuba.
    You hate the people of Cuba for continuing to hold out against the U.S economic war that has been waged against them all for standing up for their revolution and against the government of the USA.
    You hate the Cuban people so much that you call for the continuance of the U.S. economic war even though you have relatives in Cuba who suffer from the effects of that economic war .
    Moses, your arguments are so weak and so in line with those of the U.S. State Department that many suspect you of being in the pay of the U.S. government and especially given that you spend so much time and effort here at HT to post your pro-State Department positions. .
    I disagree with those who think that is the case because you are so ineffectual that no one in their right mind would pay you for your postings.
    Further, as a supporter of capitalism and the U.S. government (which is an oligarchy or a plutocracy ) you display a great affection for those dictatorships and it isn’t at all likely that a lack of democracy in Cuba is what has your undies in a bunch.

  • January 26, 2014 at 7:53 pm
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    Thankfully your pet theories, like you, will remain in obscurity

  • January 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm
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    I don’t hate Cuba. I oppose the Castro dictatorship. There is a difference. No one has to pay me to share my opinions. Who are you to ask?

  • January 26, 2014 at 1:04 pm
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    Who are you christ worshiper? Who pays you to hate Cuba?

  • January 26, 2014 at 9:44 am
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    Communism is a future societal form intended to follow a democratic socialism .
    Neither has yet existed .
    You need to go back to school.
    Communism – that future state- envisions a worker- run bottom- up democratic society in which each person gets what they need for a good life and contributes what he/she does best to that society.
    This differs entirely from the state-run , top-down forms as existed in the Soviet Union, China and now in Cuba and which only the totally uneducated and mis-educated understand as communism.
    This sort of uneducated thinking is quite popular on right-wing talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh’s . He actually calls the now deeply capitalist Chinese ” Chi-Coms ” which is 1950’s propagandistic terminology for Chinese Communists
    . This is most likely where you get your talking points and you need to know that they are not academically accepted.
    No university uses right-wing radio’s “facts” to teach anything but courses on media and propaganda techniques.
    The reforms that are unfolding in Cuba now are reforms and not a wholesale reversion to capitalism as you would like .
    You are involved with wishful thinking

  • January 26, 2014 at 9:31 am
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    Thanks. My point is that as Castro apologists love to tout the Castros medical diplomacy as a justification for the regime, it is important to put that claim in context with other medical charitable programs around the world. Doctors w/o Borders, among others, is such a program well-supported by American doctors.

  • January 26, 2014 at 4:32 am
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    Ennui. ..really? I’m quite content thank you. However it’s sad to see what Cuba is, knowing what it could have been

  • January 26, 2014 at 4:27 am
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    …Then as an American then, you should understand what a metaphor is right?

  • January 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm
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    Just a slight nitpick on the above re “Doctors without Borders.” This is the English translation of their “real name” :Médecins sans Frontières which was established in France in 1971.

  • January 25, 2014 at 1:56 pm
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    Really? Explain the Peace Corps then. Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy FOUNDED the ParaOlympics out of their own pockets and now it is worldwide. Oprah Winphrey started a school in Africa costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate girls. Yet America(ns) only help when there is something they want?

  • January 25, 2014 at 1:19 pm
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    As an American, I agree with cubalibre!

  • January 25, 2014 at 11:43 am
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    These are not just the fruits of communism. There are run down buildings everywhere, there are rooms by the hour, and all of the things described in this article where there are people, poverty, greed, and ennui. I am not about to forgive Fidel, but quit feeling sorry for yourself and develop a broader view.

  • January 25, 2014 at 11:32 am
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    I know of a house near the corner of Teniente Rey and Cuba streets in Hab.Vie. where the owner left his job as a hospital orderly to sit on his door stoop every day and rent out the two bedrooms in his house for short-term use. He says he gets 5 cuc for two hours and he provides the condoms! He markets his ‘business’ by contacting every chulo and jinetera who works in that area. He also has a ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship with the PNR cop who is usually a couple doors down on the corner. This guy has all the basic business skills that any small-time capitalist here in the US would possess. Fidel should be proud of how the revolution has created opportunities for the “New Man” to emerge.

  • January 25, 2014 at 11:21 am
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    As much as your passions want to believe that what you say is true, the US DOES save a lot of people around the world every day. Google ‘Peace Corps’ or ‘Doctors without Borders’ or ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ and so on. Americans give more money in charity around the world than any other country by far. Remember the recent typhoon in the Philippines? Guess who sent the most doctors, food, clothing, etc.? BTW, with more than $5.1 billion (nearly 10% of the Castro budget) in remittances and materials received by Cubans from their AMERICAN family members and friends, I would say we are ‘saving’ Cuba already.

  • January 25, 2014 at 10:52 am
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    No US CAVERLY is coming.. America saves no one, US only helps when you have something they want. And when they get or don’t need anymore…. your the enemy! Not saying what Fidel has done is perfect, but lets keep the US out saving anyone.

  • January 25, 2014 at 8:35 am
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    These are the fruits of communism. An ideology of envy and fear.

    The only equality Castro brought to Cuba was the equality of poverty. Instead of pulling up those in need he simply brought everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

    It pleases me to no end to know Fidel is still around to see Capitalism brought back to Cuba, like the US Cavalry coming in to save the day!

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