Arriving back at the room after a long day in the beautiful city of Havana, I was surprised to find the Señora of the guesthouse standing in her nightgown in the middle of my room, smoking a pungent cigar and talking on the phone. She motioned for me to enter, as if I was coming into her office. Since this was the only phone in the house, that’s exactly what it seemed to be. Her conversation continued unabated and the Señora seemingly was unconcerned about my presence or the fact that she was standing there in her nighty, covering the carpet with cigar ash with each wild hand gesture.
There was a short silence as she listened intently to the speaker on the end of the line and then suddenly she exploded with raucous laughter so ferocious that a small ball of phlegm flew across the room and attached itself firmly to the wardrobe door. A loud coughing fit ensued, and tears were wiped from both eyes before she slammed down the phone and beamed at me triumphantly. She immediately embarked on a short monologue which I didn’t understand a word of but pretended to. Probably some boring details about the house. She motioned me to follow her through to the other rooms and explained the domestic amenities in detail; there was computer in the living room with a small sign showing the hourly rates, indicating the presence of an internet connection, and general rules and regulations were also described, none of which I would have been able to comprehend, even if the Señora had been speaking perfect English instead of her mumbled, glottal version of Spanish.
My brain was totally fried, my muscles ached, and I was as ravenous as a dieting Belgian in a chocolate factory. I had somehow managed to convey the sense of total food deprivation with some sign language, and asked for directions to the nearest supermarket to buy some food. I hadn’t seen any restaurants anywhere in the neighbourhood.
“¿Dónde está el supermercado?” the Señora repeated my question slowly with a frown on her face, blinking stupidly as she articulated each word. She looked at me as if I had gone completely insane and snorted “¡No hay esos tipos de mierda aquí!” I didn’t completely catch the last bit, but I think it meant that they didn’t have any supermarkets in Cuba. Shit. “¿Blah blah blah blubber bugger gabber bloody whatsit, eh?”
Apparently, the search for a good source of sustenance would be equally fruitless and greasy chicken and chips back in town were starting to become rather appetising as the only available option. The Señora sensed my need for real nutrition, re-lit her cigar, and made another phone call, signalling for me to wait while she sorted something out.
More raucous laughter and coughing followed, this time without phlegm rockets, but with an apparently positive result nonetheless. Trailing thick clouds of tobacco behind her, and still wearing her nighty, she led me onto the street and around the block. There was no street lighting of any kind anywhere in the neighbourhood and I picked my way carefully through the pitch black, dodging large potholes in the street and mammoth rubbish heaps on the sidewalk. A few minutes later, we came to a door of another house. The Señora knocked loudly and entered without waiting for a reply. I followed her into a small room which was furnished with a grubby couch and a small fish tank with gigantic fish. Was I supposed to catch my own dinner? I waited, but for what I wasn’t really sure.
A few moments later another woman appeared from behind a large curtain draped over the far wall. She was carrying a tray on which was a plate heaped with rice, salad, a delicious looking chickpea stew and a heap of shredded beef. She spoke a little English and chatted to me while I wolfed down the food as if I hadn’t eaten for an entire week. Both women watched me intently and chuckled at my child-like glee with which I devoured everything on the plate. Thus nourished, I leant back in the couch, burped contently and relaxed a little. I talked to the woman and she told me that she cooks meals for dozens of people in the neighbourhood every night, thus supplementing her almost non-existent wage earned from working in an anonymous office somewhere in the centre of Havana.
“Why don’t you cook during the day as well?” I asked the woman.
“This is not permitted, and I would go to prison if someone finds out I cook for tourists without official permission,” she replied clearing away my empty plate.
This comment surprised me somewhat, but then again we were in a Communist country where the rules were a little different to what I was used to at home. I had just eaten a meal that could quite possibly get me arrested. Could I be castrated by Castro for even considering the consumption of this Cuban culinary creation? Oh well, at least it would have been a great last meal. I’d have asked for a cigar as well, but I don’t smoke. It was time to go back to my ash-covered room and sleep after this first, very tiring day in Havana. Maybe I would understand a little more about Cuba after a good night’s sleep. Perhaps, I would make sense of it all. But, not today.