Ernesto Perez Chang
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.
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.