As Havana fills with tourists, Santa Clara remains Cuba's hidden gem
The uniformed woman's eyes narrowed as she looked me up and down, assessing.
Seconds earlier, she had told me that the currency exchange was one floor up at the Havana airport. Now, after processing my poor Spanish, blonde hair and unaccompanied state, her tune quickly changed.
"He will take you," she offered, in the tone of a command. Who? What? My questions hung in the air, unanswered.
Already, a uniformed man had me by the arm, leading me not upstairs to the currency exchange but into a room barely bigger than a cubicle. In it was a small desk and two men sitting with arms folded, staring at me.
Click. The door shut.
This was not the Cuban experience I'd seen advertised by tour companies. I'd shunned those.
Instead, looking for a more affordable and authentic experience, I'd planned my own solo people-to-people exchange, taking advantage of the eased sanctions that opened doors, in a new way, to a world on the precipice of change.
Free of tour guides and defined schedules, I encountered a different angle on the postcard view. Beyond the white sand beaches, colourful old cars and pastel houses was an unscripted beauty on dusty streets, where hope for progress edges up against reality. There, I stumbled into friendships, enchanted by the immediate welcome, sharp humour and unglorified toughness of the people I met.
The lure, though, came with a hook: Cuba's beauty and friction are intertwined, and the triumph of unveiling one comes with the cost of unleashing the other.
In the small airport room, the sweat glands on my forehead leapt into action, but I saw no way out.
I handed over my cash. The officials took 13 per cent, skimming 3 per cent on top of the 10 per cent fee I later learned the exchange centre charged upstairs.
Forty-five minutes into my journey to Cuba, I felt robbed.
Soon, the country would steal my heart.
HOW TO BE CUBAN
Luy looked at me, lifted his espresso and raised an eyebrow.
"If you're going to hang with me," he said, "you have to learn how to be Cuban."
It was my second day in Cuba. After getting swindled for a US$200 (NZ$285) taxi ride from the Havana airport to Santa Clara (my new acquaintances later said it should have cost $70, tops), I'd awakened to thick ribbons of tobacco smoke rising from the courtyards below my casa particular, a private room I was renting.
I'd met Luy, a Cuban American, while wandering around the historic city's modest centre on Day 1, trying to get my bearings amid a pastel row of buildings. At first glance, they all looked like houses - until I discovered that behind the grated metal doors, barber shears buzzed and people congregated in hidden cafeterias for coffee and plates of rice and beans.
Few of the businesses announced themselves with signs - but many had another message broadcast on their facades: "Gracias Fidel" in hastily constructed lettering, a complicated ode to the former dictator. With Fidel Castro's death only a couple of weeks previous, drinking had been banned for 10 days. Dancing, meanwhile, was banned for a year.
Luy had pegged my sorry state then. "You look lost," he said, as I walked. Suddenly, I was adopted.
Now at the cafe, he eyed my short, chewed, natural nails and mulled how un-Cuban I was.
"We'll have to start with those," he said.
Inside the small salon where he took me, about a dozen people clustered around five beauticians at work, hair dryers whirring. At a small table by the door, a woman painted my nails bright blue as she swatted away the flies.
"OK, you're 15 per cent Cuban," Luy said as we walked out.
Next on our mission was the museum across the street, a coffee shop/historical treasure duo dubbed the Revolucion and housed in a space even smaller than the salon.
The tour guide showed me original photographs, documents and uniforms from the Cuban revolution that hung above the cafe tables, sweeping her arms dramatically as Luy interpreted. None of it was under glass. She touched the clothing as she spoke. At the end, she offered me one of a handful of war medals for $5.
It was hard to leave, but there were more stops on our tour through the city where Castro's revolutionaries delivered the final blow to Fulgencio Batista's regime.
As the sun rose and the dense heat of the day set in, we bought a cluster of bananas from a roadside stand, and hiked up Loma del Capiro, collapsing in a patch of shade at the top. The city stretched out below us, speckled between the leaves of tamarind trees. My mouth was bone dry, I was fortified by only bananas and coffee, but I was 85 percent Cuban for the trouble, Luy said.
On the way down, we stopped for a real lunch - meat and rice with sauce - at a cafeteria with a patio. His meal was beef, mine was crab, but they looked exactly the same.
I looked down and saw a fly on its back in my wine, legs twitching. I flicked it out and took another sip.
Luy put down his fork and glared, disgusted.
"Now," he said, "you're more Cuban than I am."
'I'M NOT SAD'
Branches spilled through the windows and kept climbing at El Mejunje, Santa Clara's popular club set in the bare bones of a brick building.
At the top, they joined to form a canopy where the roof might have been and, with stars piercing through the leaves, they swayed with the warm breeze.
An early December night had begun as do most nights in Santa Clara: at the beautiful, grass-covered central square.
Boasting the city's only Wi-Fi and regular cultural events, Parque Vidal draws young and old who come to meet friends, check their phones and listen to the municipal orchestra serenade while sipping rum from juice box-like cardboard containers.
But the night was ending, as do most nights in Santa Clara, at El Mejunje, a vibrant, open-air venue where the edgy vibe serves as a notice to the government's censorship police.
Once a year, it hosts a beauty pageant for transvestites. On the weekends, El Mejunje transforms into a gay club - Cuba's only, and a tangible point of pride for many, whatever their sexual orientation.
Luy, who works as a server there, had earlier pulled a tube of mascara from his bag when explaining what his job entailed on Saturdays.
"Guys will come and ffffpt," he said, grinning and mimicking someone patting his bum. He winked. "I just smile and carry the drinks."
The programming on this night was tame - singer-songwriters, armed with guitars, crooning on the stage as Spanish harmonies filled the indoor courtyard.
Young people, intently listening, gathered on thin metal bleachers. I sat with Yuniel, another new friend, among the trees on a stone balcony.
Later, Cuba Libre cocktails in hand, my adopted crew and I spilled over into the art gallery, which doubles as a tattoo shop, on El Mejunje's upper level. With Yuniel acting as salsa instructor, we danced, against government wishes, our sandals shuffling to the soft guitar beats below.
"We're supposed to be sad," Yuniel had said earlier, nodding at one of the Fidel signs. He grinned.
"But I'm not sad."
'IT HAS TO CHANGE'
In the taxi, that first day, I had to repeat myself.
"Yes, Santa Clara," I said.
The driver muttered.
"Not many tourists there," he said.
That's why I was going - far away from the Havana airport and its money changers.
"There are two Cubas," Luy's friend KK had told me. "The government, and the people.
"It's best to avoid the people in suits."
Smack in the country's middle, Santa Clara has no beaches, no cerulean waters. Unlike other cities on Cuba's handsome coasts, it boasts no ritzy resorts or travel guide lore. Tourists tend to go elsewhere.
But the tide is shifting.
With the political padlock removed, the gate is cracked open. Starting last winter, airlines began adding direct flights from the US, including to cities beyond Havana such as Santa Clara. Cuba sits just 161 kilometres from Miami Beach. The dollar, even when exploited, goes far. There is no doubt: The surge of tourists is coming.
Will Santa Clara change? Will Cuba change?
Luy mulled the questions as we sat on the steps of La Marquesina, drinking mojitos.
He knows the untouched beauty, the stunning culture, the warmth.
But he knows the challenges, too.
Though widely and impressively educated, the Cuban people's wages are low. The shelves at the stores in Santa Clara, much like the rest of the country, are often lacking - one day, they'll be out of milk, another day, eggs - and the black market is used as a necessity, supplying everything from razor blades to good shampoo.
Life carries on. One night, Yuniel, another friend and I had dinner of pork and chicken and rice and beans and salad - for a total of $6.50 - but the restaurant had no napkins to give us.
When we went to a bar for rum afterward, it was out of ice.
"Everything is like this," Yuniel said, shaking his head. "We don't have, we don't have."
Luy didn't know what the future would hold, but he knew it wouldn't be like the past.
"It will change," he said. "It has to change."
The mojitos were spent and the sun was, too. Beyond the square, the warm night and all its possibilities beckoned.