One New Year’s Eve in Havana changed my entire perception of the small island country of Cuba.
Dirty concrete and tropical green plants blurred into a backdrop streaked with the brown skin and colorful clothing of people lounging outside of houses. The scenes from my cab’s window flashed by too quickly for me to process.
I arrived in Cuba 12 hours before the launch of 2017. In the cab from the airport, I strained to catch every word from our driver, hindered by the rush of wind and the distraction of my first glimpses of Havana through the cab’s rolled-down windows.
“What’s going to happen today for the holiday?” I asked him in Spanish. “What should we do tonight?”
“Bueno, you can go to the discoteca with all the other tourists,” he laughed. “It’s really a family holiday—una fiesta familiar. When I’m done working tonight, I’m going home to be with my wife.”
“What will the families do together tonight?” I asked.
“Everyone roasts a pig. There’s lots of food. If you’re staying in a casa particular, you can eat with your host family.”
“You think they’ll include us? At their family dinner?”
He laughed again, “It’s a holiday!”
This casual openness, I quickly found, was characteristic of Havana. As my travel partner Kemper and I strolled through the city’s narrow and vibrant streets, we caught glimpses of daily interactions everywhere. People gathered on stoops to play chess, leaned out of windows to launch shouted greetings neighbors passing below, lounged in chairs on street-level porches, and propped open doors to welcome the tropical breeze. Through those doors I saw a mother blow-drying her daughter’s hair, a small child playing with his tiny puppy, a middle-aged man watching television. It felt almost indecent for me, a foreign passer-by, to peer into people’s lives this way—but if someone looked up from their mundane activity and inadvertently made eye contact with me, no curtains snapped shut. Nobody angrily waved me away. I wasn’t in the United States anymore: The Cubans I saw were relaxed, unconcerned with the value of privacy so highly prized and sought after back home.
And so it went for our New Year’s celebration. Kemper and I happened upon our casa particular—part of a government-approved B&B system similar to Airbnb—quite randomly and unexpectedly. We had booked an Airbnb for the night, but our would-be host met us at her apartment door and told us she’d been double-booked because her apartment was listed simultaneously on Airbnb and on the Cuban casas particulares site. After explaining this in overwhelmingly fast Spanish, the woman abruptly led us to a different apartment. Kemper and I followed, moderately terrified but preferring to discard the alternative of feeling completely stranded.
The couple who answered the door at the second apartment ushered us in, doing their best to reassure us as we stood together, tensely clutching our belongings. A worn-looking black couch with frayed lace antimacassars faced a squat lift-top freezer next to a large refrigerator. The walls seemed to have been abandoned halfway through a new paint job: the base layer was white, but the bottom half haphazardly sported a newer layer of peach. Large portraits of the couple’s teenage children hung on the walls. Street noises wafted in through the open windows. A pale gray cat peered suspiciously around the far corner of the couch.
The shirtless, potbellied man gave us a wave and disappeared into another room. His wife, who introduced herself as Xiomara, informed us that she needed to make up our beds but we could follow her to drop off our backpacks in our room.
This was our introduction to Cuba: claiming beds in the home of complete strangers with no advance notice. Strangers who probably shuffled around family members to accommodate us.
“What are your plans for tonight?” I hopefully asked our host, as she tucked thin cotton sheets around a thin plasticky mattress.
“Oh, we’ll eat roasted pork and watch the ball drop on TV,” she said nonchalantly. “You’re welcome to join us.”
“En serio? Should we bring something? What should we bring?”
“Sí, you can bring a little something to contribute,” she said as she replaced a pillow case. “Fruit, or rum, anything like that.”
As our host walked us to the door, she pointed out her children in the portraits on the wall, sharing their names and tidbits about their lives. Our relief, our sense of welcome, as we walked out was laughable contrasted to the apprehension we’d felt walking in.
I found myself disconcerted that afternoon as we explored Habana Vieja, the historical center of town. Old buildings looked recently renovated, strategically placed signs gave helpful context, and inviting cafes on every corner helped outsiders feel comfortable in town. Weeks later I finally realized: how very American of me, to have expected that I would be discovering Cuba.
But I had expected to discover Cuba. I had naively assumed Kemper and I would be the only Americans in sight, and probably the only tourists, too. I was completely unaware that we would be arriving at peak holiday season, when daily cruise ships were dumping loads of tourists into Habana Vieja, and fraternity brothers on winter break were flying in for five whirlwind days of cigars and rum and discotecas.
I also expected to see a lot more hunger. Reading about Cuba’s infamous Special Period, or Skinny Period, known as a time of extreme rationing after the collapse of the Soviet Union damaged Cuba’s economy, had primed me to look for bony children and bare shelves. Instead, I saw fresh churros sold on the street—USD$1.50 for a whole cluster of them—and half-coconuts full of ice cream for USD$1. I knew native Cubans, who didn’t have disposable incomes, weren’t buying those treats—but they still seemed out of place.
Later I learned that the gradual political and economic opening of the country has led to an influx of cash from tourism. This financial boom particularly benefits Cubans working in the tourism industry—who make more money than doctors and engineers, according to a taxi driver who laughed at my incredulity to that fact. According to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, the average Cuban’s monthly salary is about USD$25—keeping in mind that all Cubans are guaranteed free healthcare and education, as well as subsidized or free housing in most cases. But anyone with the chance to access hard cash through tips is much, much better off. My cab driver told me he gets to keep 10 percent of his base earnings (the rest goes to the owner of the car), but he gets 50 percent of his tip money.
Our New Year’s Eve dinner the night of our arrival in Cuba represented a bountiful contrast to the food shortages I’d read about. Kemper and I contributed a bottle of wine, which our hosts poured into tiny glass goblets for toasting and sipping. Xiomara had sliced a roasted pork leg into a veritable mountain of meat, accompanied by a platter of fresh sliced tomatoes, starchy yucca baked with bits of pork fat, and congris—the Cuban staple of white rice cooked with black beans. Even after we served our plates generously, plenty of food was still left on the platters. As we dined, the conversation drifted from the New York City excitement depicted on the TV mounted in the corner, to differences in Fidel Castro’s policies vs. Raul’s.
Around 11 p.m. Kemper and I realized we needed to take a walk to keep ourselves awake until the countdown. We strolled to the Malecón, that romantic stretch of sea wall for which Havana is so famous. The area was nearly deserted, and even the ocean waves seemed muted, expectant.
On our meandering path back to the casa, we turned a corner and stepped into a perfect scene of unhindered celebration: a whole pig turning on a spit over an open fire on the street, reggaetón music bumping from a stereo on the sidewalk, and several couples swinging and spinning and grinning inside the flickering circle of soft orange cast from the streetlight above. We edged closer, but didn’t want to intrude. The partiers clapping along at the edge of the group smiled at us openly, welcomingly. The dancers smiled, too, and gestured for us to join them. A middle-aged man wearing white pants and a sleeveless shirt stepped out and took Kemper’s hands, leading her in the dance steps that all of them evidently knew. She followed his lead, laughing as she ducked under his arm for turns. After a few minutes he dropped her hands to take mine.
We continued back to our casa some time later, remembering the warning to get off the streets by midnight on New Year’s. When the clock strikes 12 a.m., Cubans fill buckets of water to toss out their doors and over their balconies, washing away the old year and ensuring a clean start for the new. Good riddance on 2016, Kemper and I agreed.
We dumped our bucket of water and laughed with delight at the echoing splashes from every household on the street. Our hosts exchanged cheek kisses with each of us, and we all bid each other a happy new year. The door was open.
Caroline Leland is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN. A North Carolina native and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Caroline believes open-minded travel and reading are the best ways to understand the world.