It was our last day in Havana. We were walking on one of the streets of Habana Vieja, slightly off the so called beaten tracks but still only ten minutes away from our swanky 5* hotel in the gorgeous Plaza San Francisco de Asis.
It was sunny, it was nearly midday and the road was pretty empty, mainly because there are not many cars around in Cuba anyway. Not everyone can afford one.
Walking in Havana Vieja
We noticed an old man peeping through the metal bars on his window. Overlooking the road, his ground floor flat was on the sunny side of the street. We smiled at him, and @bmcboy silently asked him if it was ok to take a picture. He nodded and smiled again. After we took the shot, he motioned us closer, still smiling.
We approached him. He cheerfully asked us where we were from and, like many people so far in our week in Cuba, burst into words of admiration for England, telling us how much he loves England. However, he soon pointed out, he had never been to England – he knew it through books and photos.
He told us he was a doctor, who worked in a Cuban hospital for over 50 years. He showed us a photo of his working in his medical whites. While we listened to him. I asked him immediately if he needed any medicine; he said sure he did, Cubans need everything.
We rushed to our hotel room, we bagged the soaps, the shampoos samples and the few medicines we had left. We had in fact left a large amount with our Casa Particular in Vinales, never expecting to have such an encounter during our last few hours on the island.
El Che, watches over his people
We made our way back towards our doctor friend. Caught by torrential rain, we stopped somewhere along the way, in run down building entrances which still bear the resemblance of past glories. Beautiful, even in their crumbly state.
Two young girls started flirting with @bmcboy while I was stuck in a different building. Soon I joined them, and we asked them how far from the doctor we were. Not far, they told us. They said “He’s the doctor who sells pencils”.
We moved on as soon as the rain eased, and finally found him. By now, maybe really believing we would be back, he had dressed up and he welcomed us into his home.
Calling it home is just a metaphor. It is the place where he lives.
We were drenched so I left my tattered old crocs outside his front door, and walked in. He greeted us full of smiles. He ran to a back room, came back with a towel and started drying our arms and faces. One never stops caring for others.
I was too busy by the efforts in my Spanish conversation but tried to take the surroundings in. The missing ceiling, the damp patches on the walls, the cardboard boxes on the window… beyond, no doors, and a sink made of concrete. We sat at the table, he stood. I noticed a bunch of pencils, crayons and some nail filers by the window. Maybe he really does sell them.
He told us a bit about himself, without complaining or ranting – he told us his pension is 7CUC a month. I felt sick. 4CUC is the price of a mojito at nearby Bodeguita del Medio, where hordes of tourists like us flood the crammed rooms spending hours drinking and eating.
And 4CUC is still less than half what we pay in London for a mojito.
Mojitos lined up for tourists
I noticed his elbows showed the familiar signs of psoriasis and questioned him. He replied that was only one of his ailments but the the lotion for his skin would cost him 2CUC. My initial thought was “that is cheap” as I pay way more than a pound for my half used skin lotions. Then I realised that for him, it would mean spending a third of his monthly income on it. With this in mind, psoriasis becomes a very bearable condition.
We handed the doctor our few medicines, soaps, a bottle of wine the hotel had given us as a welcome present… he thanked us.
He asked us for our address and gave us his. “Write to me” he asked. We assured him we would, but it was time to go back to pick our bags and make our way to the airport.
He looked down and whispered “I don’t know how to ask you…” he continued “but would you happen to have a spare CUC?”.
Up to that point I had thought of offering some money but I had been afraid of offending him. @bcmboy put his hands in his pocket and took out some coins, around 2.5 CUC. Of course we handed it to the doctor, who justified himself saying he needed to buy oil to cook. Again, I wasn’t sure what to think or do…I just stood there, with a million thoughts going through my head.
We hugged him, promising to write, and he showed us out. As I put my old, dirty shoes on, he joked that I was lucky to have found them. It dawned on me that yes, my cranky shoes would have made someone happy in that part of Havana, light years from the fun, bright, music filled touristy streets world.
We got back to the hotel, took our bags and waited for our colectivo.
I left Havana with sadness in my heart, as well as a lot of happy memories of an amazing place. I wanted to run back to the doctor and give him the 80 or so CUC we had left over. I thought with hatred of the receptionist at the hotel who stole from us nearly 100£ with a dodgy exchange rate, when we arrived. It might have gone to a good family, but it was the cheating that was wrong.
After all, I felt we only scratched the surface of something I find too difficult to fully understand.
Beautiful hotel, wrongdoings by the staff
We only saw some facets of a reality, and yet these aspects have upset me. I am not even going to get into politics. Extremes and foreign policy have had enormous consequences on a proud and dignified population.
Meeting the doctor on our last day was the saddest and maybe more genuine moment of our time in Cuba. Yet I am glad we bumped into him. We met many people… our hosts in the Casa Particular, the taxi driver who helped us at the hospital when we needed, the dentist who patched up @bcmboy’s tooth, the jineteros, the often rude staff at hotels. The all inclusive tourists, the hippy tourists, the American tourists. And the Cubans who are managing to make a living, a better living, with the slight opening in regulations like the Paladares’ owners. I am pleased we managed to at least look beyond the mojitos, the cigars and the sunny beaches.
We came back to London and a put a bunch of lotions, medicines and soaps in a package and sent it to the doctor. 10 days later an email arrived thanking us for remembering ‘an old man’ and sending those things.
I did not forget to post a bunch of pencils. I hope the doctor can sell those too.