It’s Sunday morning in Havana. The sky is overcast but the sun’s rays dart through breaks in the clouds. The streets are quiet and overnight rain has left its mark on the pavement. I’m happy to wander the empty streets and absorb the quiet. My favorite part about walking when I travel is taking different paths to my desired destination. Today, I leave my guesthouse and turn left and without a map I am certain to get lost and discover new sights.
People are beginning to stir —the churches are calling and the narrow alleys fill with locals moving from place to place. I notice some activity and music coming from what resembles a junkyard. I am mistaken. It’s an artist quarter. I’m quickly ushered into a fenced in area where a man directs my attention to several household items converted into works of art by a famous Cuban African artist. My escort moves me through the complex only to leave me in a gallery where I learn the artists’ widow is serving mojitos in the front bar should I wish to partake. I pass on the hospitable gestures and a bit of hustling and dart out of the gallery right into an alley.
My sense of direction on the ground leads me to believe this street will take me to the center of Old Havana. I gaze at the deteriorating balconies and the design of a city once booming with wealth. It’s been fifty years since most Cubans enjoyed abundance and choice. Their lives are simple, yet they seem to appreciate the bits and pieces glued together that the rest of the world takes for granted.
As I stroll down the alley, an older gentleman fixing what may be a motorcycle tire catches my eye. He is perched on a step outside a door left ajar wearing an “Arizona” baseball cap; a cat gracefully moves between his doorway and the street.
He is disheveled wearing a navy shirt half ducked into his pants, trousers spotted from dirt and the soles of his shoes aged from use. I guess he is poor or possibly homeless but in Havana guessing is better left to the locals. I smile and say, “Buenos días.” He responds in Spanish with an equally meaningful greeting and I tell him I like his hat. He asks if I am American and I respond proudly “sí.” His face lights up and his smile exposes an inviting moment I have witnessed many times during my visit to Cuba. We chat for a few minutes and my new friend puts down his latest project and fully engages in conversation with me. We shake hands and make introductions. He is Tomás and I am Kelly. My name will render him tongue tied for the rest of our time together.
Tomás and I talk about where I am from and what I enjoy most about Cuba (the culture and the music). As if on cue, he excuses himself for 30 seconds, steps into what I now understand to be his home and returns to the porch holding a guitar. Bursting with pride, he asks, “Do you like Glenn Miller?” I nod and he begins to strum the strings to a song I can’t quite make out and then he exclaims, “Nat King Cole” and I’m treated to a jazz performance on the street. People passing by in cars and on bicycles yell, “el cantante, el cantante!” Indeed, he is the singer.
I am star struck, yet embarrassed that I am the object of his attention.
Tomás sits again and I stand captivated by his talent and his enthusiasm to bring music to the streets of Havana. I clap and smile and ask to take his photo. My guitarist poses grinning from ear to ear turning his face in one direction and then the other as I snap. I try to explain selfie in Spanish and he signals he understands. We pose together. His smile permanently affixed to his face. Tomás places the guitar along his waist and motions for me to wait. He disappears but comes back handing me a business card. I glance at it quickly. Tomás is a guitar teacher. My friend wishes for me to send him a photo by mail and I realize cameras and photos are expensive and a rarity in Cuba. He is as captivated by the moment as I am.
At 73, Tomas shares with me stories of life in Cuba from the past to the present and I even receive an overview of the U.S. and Spanish involvement in Cuba. Softly touching my hand to make sure I understand, Tomás describes his love for New York and the United States. Having never stepped on American soil I am impressed how he describes in detail places in New York he has never seen. Through the depths of his vibrant hazel colored eyes, I observe a glimmer of hope as he talks about our two countries. He whispers about progress but in the same breadth expresses trepidation. For Tomás, change cannot come soon enough.
Time passes. The streets of Old Havana call to me. Tomás does not want me to leave. We embrace and he gives me a kiss. I walk down the alley waving good-bye and promise to send him the photo and visit again soon.