A man in a tatty fedora played fevered jazz trumpet to the tangerine sky. Teenage boys black-flipped into the sea from the wall of the Malecón. Men clicked like insects as Anna and I shuffled in short skirts and flip flops along the sea-beaten pavement of Havana’s main thoroughfare. It was hard to believe that you could see the silhouette of Florida floating on the horizon. With a backdrop of crumbling colonial buildings and banged-up 50s cars, we were a world away from McDonald’s and high speed internet.
A young couple in designer jeans walked in time with us. “Would you like to come to the salsa festival?” the girl asked.
A week before we left the UK, Fidel Castro had stepped down as leader and passed the baton to his brother, Raul. Now, everything will change, people said. The internet is coming, everyone will have a mobile phone, you’ve missed your chance to see real Cuba.
An impromptu salsa festival sounded like the authentic Cuba I was desperate to find.
“We can take you,” the man chimed in, all smiles. “It is only today.”
I was tempted, but Anna is more sensible than I am.
“Maybe later,” she said. “We have a tour booked right now.”
It was a lie, but, being British neither of us are comfortable in coming straight out with lines like “no thanks, I reckon you might be a murderer”. We hurried on to find lunch.
Sipping watered-down mojitos, we picked at over-salted fish at a patio restaurant dappled with bougainvilleas in Havana’s old town. I flicked through the pages of our guidebook but couldn’t find any mention of a salsa festival in April. We watched tourists crowd around statues in the square and snap pictures of old men posing with Che Guavara hats and fat cigars. As we walked through the sleek, white streets of Habana Vieja, a salsa beat started up and we heard squeals and murmurs of delights from a cruise ship tour. The thud of salsa drums got louder and the cobbled streets filled with men and women tottering on stilts, some playing trumpets, all clad in bright greens, reds and blues. Perhaps this was the impromptu salsa festival I was looking for. A man bent low from his stilts and in a flourish offered his fedora to us, asking for money. It was a performance for tourists, no more authentic than the old lady with fruit on her head who smiled a toothless grin, cigar wedged between her lips, for $2 a photograph.
We wandered off into the space on the maps where there were no pictures of little cameras or knives and forks. If the travel magazines were right, then all this space would be McDonald’s and Starbucks in a few months’ time. We had to see the real city before it all changed. Barefoot children played in an old cement mixer that had been dormant for years. Scaffolding that propped up crumbling tenements was rusted and covered in twisting vines. Dark-eyed women in ripped shorts and t-shirts two sizes too big for them watched us from their porches. As we rounded a corner a man bouncing a baby on his knee made kissy noises at us.
“Hey, hey, you looking for a husband?” he called.
We passed a shop selling tins of food. A long line of people clutching ration tickets didn’t meet our eyes. A voyeuristic part of me wanted to snap a photo to show people back home. On the corner a heavily pregnant lady was swapping blister packs of pills for baby formula.
We stumbled across a market where fruit fermented under a haze of black flies in the baking sun. We tried to buy some papayas but this was a local market, not for tourists. The man behind a mound of browning bananas shook his head at our tourist dollars. At another stall a man with sun-crinkled eyes and dirty fingernails winked at us. He charged us double for two bruised papayas and gave us change in real Cuban pesos.
As we paused on a bench to eat our fruit Anna got out the guidebook to find the way back to our hotel.
“I’m not sure where we are,” she muttered, tracing her finger across the page.
“Maybe we could ask someone,” I said, looking up.
I caught the eye of a gangly, dread-locked man in a rasta hat and sunglasses. Before I had a chance to look away his face split into a grin and he ambled towards us. The smell of stale rum hit us.
“Beautiful gringos!” he said, voice thick with drink. Before we had time to move he lurched towards the bench and grabbed my arm with surprising strength.
“Salsa!” he shouted, with a lopsided grin.
“No thank you,” I mumbled, trying to loosen his grip as he wrenched me up from the safety of the bench. I looked desperately at Anna who just stared back, mouth hanging open.
“Salsa!” he demanded again, putting his hands on my waist and moving his hips. This was not the Salsa Festival I was looking for.
Anna snapped into motion, grabbed me by my free arm and herded me in the direction of the sea and the Malecón. The man swaggered after us, shouting in Spanish. I heard the tick of stones on the pavement. As we met the main road Anna spotted a group of American tourists shuffling towards Avenida de los Presidentes. We slipped into the centre of the group and I looked over my shoulder, expecting my dancing partner to have followed, but there was something about the audio guides and bright blue umbrella that warded him off like sunlight to a vampire.
We rode the wave of cruise ships tourists back to Habana Vieja. Back to watered down mojitos and fake fruit hats. The only evidence of our time on the other side was the Cuban pesos jingling in my pocket.
In April this year Raul Castro will step down as el Presidente. “Go now” they will say, “before everything changes.”