Jorge was definitely drunk, and probably high.
“Mi amigo!” he slurred, staring through milky, bloodshot eyes. “You need casa?”
“No me moleste” (translation: “don’t bother me”) had become my well-worn reply, but I was running out of ideas—and energy—and he said he could help.
I’d been trying desperately to find a room to sleep in, but the very early hours of Christmas morning in Havana are a bad time to be looking for a bed. I’d known this, but the train to Matanzas, where I’d booked a Casa Particulaire—a homestay accommodation for tourists like me—had broken down a hundred miles short, and the only option had been to catch a ride in the back of a ‘54 Ford Skyliner and see what luck there might be in the capital.
The car dropped me on the western shore of the harbour, the Malecón, where warm air blows in from the Mexican Gulf, old men cast for fish from the crumbling sea wall, and the lurid whispers of pimps and their prostitutas filter into the Old City’s dilapidated avenues.
Indeed, Havana was full, and no taxi driver, tout, or fellow tourist knew of an empty space. I was looking, now, for a quiet bench.
That’s when Jorge came out of the shadows, like an inebriated panther come to prey.
“Need casa, amigo?”
“Si, amigo, you have?”
“We find, no problem. Come, come.”
My bags were heavy, but it wasn’t hard to keep up with Jorge. He stumbled constantly as I followed his trail of rum fumes and cigar ash down the dark, decaying streets of Habana Viejo.
Jorge most certainly saw me as a mark. The average weekly wage of a Cuban worker is about $30 a month, so a bewildered tourist on the streets of Havana at two o’clock on Christmas morning is a ripe target.
“So you need chica?” asked Jorge, inevitably.
“No, non gracias amigo. Casa. Only casa.”
“Oh! Why not? What you like in Cuba?”
“The architecture, mostly, and the people!” I said, in my head adding, a fucking bed to lie in, right now, more than anything.
“Cocaína?” he asked, naturally.
“No, non gracias, amigo. Casa. Only casa.”
“Ok, casa. We find, no problem.”
We trudged around the dim, filthy back alleys of Havana’s underbelly, up and down narrow, crumbling, low-lit stairwells; as we traipsed from door to door, we had one after another slammed in our faces.
Jorge was well known in these parts, apparently, and not at all popular. You don’t need to know the words of a language to appreciate their meaning—at least, not when they are spoken in anger.
Occasionally there were glimpses of the opulent Capitolio and the gleaming Teatro Grande—monumental symbols of the hypocrisy of Communist leadership surrounded by a city that is much in ruin. And there were swank bars here and there, filled with turistas ordering tapas and cocktails from servers in Santa hats—harbingers of the new, Western wealth creeping into Cuba.
But no casa, despite what had been, in Jorge’s state, an admirable effort.
I bought a bottle of Havana Club Añejo 3 and gave Jorge the change. We found a quiet bench, Jorge passed out, and I waited for Christmas to dawn.
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