The humid air covered us like a blanket in the night. We could see a decent amount of stars in the sky courtesy of the blackout. It was considerably cooler now, so the humidity was not bothersome. Danielle and I stood there for a second, suitcases at the ready, amazed at our arrival. We were in Havana, alone at last, ready for an adventure. And quite possibly sooner than we would have liked.
I looked at my watch. It was 2:00 in the morning. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, (the only light coming from a three-quarter's moon), I looked, again, down the long, gravel road with low slung storefronts all along the right side. On the left, I saw mostly crumbling edifices of varying heights. I was willing to bet that there were squatters in all of them. The buildings were falling apart while the people were living in them
. The residents of the top floors probably had to watch for holes in the flooring. That would make for a very dangerous trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, indeed.
I reached down with my left hand and felt the outside edge of my pocket to reassure myself that the two bulges were still there. A rubber-banded roll of hundreds and one roll of twenties, each totaling one thousand U.S. dollars. Thus, one bulge was quite a bit bigger than the other. That meant that my left pocket represented about 97 percent of my life savings at that point, and I was feeling a bit protective of it. The bank of The Hollywood Machine. I should have hung a sign on my pocket that read, "Apply within for micro loans!"
Whatever hotel supposedly resided 'only three blocks down' according to our new friend Melanie, I didn't see any people in front of it. I glanced in the direction that our friends had just gone with the car. I didn't see or hear another car in the vicinity.
Danielle smiled widely at me, pulling at her suitcase to suggest movement, content as a meadowlark. You'd think we weren't
in a place we knew nothing about, who's denizens may or may not detest Americans, in the middle of the night, during a blackout, with no native currency on our persons, whatsoever. It was as if she were taking a stroll on a lovely, spring day down the wide and convivial Champs-Élysées, twirling a parisol, en route to a trendy boutique! Life couldn't have been more wonderful or serene! Mais oui, le bon temps, n'est-ce pas?!
I grabbed the handle of my suitcase and it made a loud noise as it telescoped out with a snap, and Danielle and I rolled our suitcases, side by side, over the gravel, making approximately as much noise as a stadium-held Monster Truck Rally. For some reason, the sound echoed between the two sides of the street, amplifying it, and it pierced the otherwise silent night quite forcefully.
As we rolled along, Danielle pointed to the dilapidated, crumbling apartment buildings on the left side of the street and remarked on their faded beauty, and the imposing prominence of their arched entrances which tended to be a couple of stories high, at least. It was mostly the tops of the buildings that were in bad shape. That, and the fact that all the glass from the windows was long gone. It was just open-air, with clothes lines drying out the day's laundry in front of some of them. Trying to keep bugs and insects out of the living spaces was an unthinkable luxury.
Danielle continued to expound, quite loudly, upon the architecture, and the raw beauty of everything around her as her hands gestured and mirrored her passion for the various discoveries.
"Look at the entrances!! They're so incredibly huge and GRAND! It's amazing here!!"
I tried to reply, delicately. I didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm.
"Danielle, can we keep it down just a bit? I'm excited, too, but this may not be the very best time to attract a bunch of attention." I suggested, pointed at the bulge inside my left pocket.
The truth of the matter was: we had no idea where we were, and it was almost too dark to even read
"Oh come on! We didn't travel to Cuba to be timid and worry about everything. You've really got to lighten up a little!" she laughed.
I was, again, surprised and impressed with her insouciance to the utterly unknown. Perhaps I was being unreasonable, but I really didn't think so. I genuinely felt that the situation warranted at least a little bit of caution.
"Alright, I'll try, but maybe we'll talk low just to humor the gringo."
"I'm so glad we came!" she exclaimed.
"Me too!" I agreed.
And I was. I felt like an animal in the wild. My hearing seemed to improve three-fold. My pupils widened like saucers to absorb more light. In short, my entire system was on high alert.
Danielle was right. I did tend to worry too much. I told myself to relax a little. I tried to imagine the tension from my body collectively draining out thru my feet and into the gravel and soil beneath it. To some degree, I succeeded, and began to enjoy the scenery more...even though, there really wasn't that much to see.
We walked three blocks and there was no hotel there. I can't say that it surprised me one bit. Dammit! I had a feeling that Melanie didn't know what she was talking about it. Just dropping us off, in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves. I stewed about it for a minute, then dismissed it. We kept walking.
"That's pretty much what I thought would happen," I said to Danielle, evenly.
"It must be close by," she muttered. She was a bit annoyed, also.
We walked another three blocks. Good thing we both owned good suitcases with tough wheels. There were some restaurants and some boarded-up houses or businesses. Some were (perhaps clothing?) shops with heavy iron girders behind the glass. Every shop that had a window, had a set of large iron bars behind it. It didn't seem like a particularly good part of town.
Then, I heard voices, and turned my head away from the nearest shop window.
Ahead of us, in the distance, there was a group of men huddled around a fire in what looked like an old, oil drum. I heard the distinctive clink of beer bottles and hearty laughter. It seemed strange that they were huddled around a fire, until I remembered that might be the only source of light for many blocks in every direction. Plus, perhaps it was slightly chilly. Danielle and I just hadn't noticed because we were walking and lugging our heavy suitcases down the road.
We kept walking toward them, Danielle still pointing to architectural wonders and almost yelling their valuable idiosyncrasies to me in bullet point fashion. I was discreetly eyeing the men, then, eyeballing the next several blocks down the road. There was no one.
Now we were fairly close, about a city-sized block, and all the men stopped talking at once. The two men with their backs toward us, turned. They were now staring at us, almost in disbelief, it seemed.
Danielle hardly noticed them, being fixated on the left side of the street like she was.
I thought to myself: "Really? You don't notice four guys drinking and laughing around a fire made inside an oildrum with no one else around for miles, in the middle of the night, but you notice that the window sills are more prominent and ornate, here?"
Even after all this time, Danielle still surprised and fascinated me. We were very different in certain fundamental ways.
Rolling, and continuing to be noisier than hell breaking loose, we were almost upon the four gentleman who now issued a few whispers amongst themselves, and were all still staring at us. Danielle finally noticed them and her architecture/urban planning 101 lesson dropped off quickly.
I smiled at them, self consciously, and then regretted doing so. I probably even would have tipped my hat at them, if I'd been wearing one, as if we were in the old West on the way to a saloon with those high-waisted swinging doors. I should have just kept walking and ignored them completely, but that wouldn't have been right, either. Not one of them smiled back in response. Their bearded, tanned faces barely moved, inscrutable. The crackle of the fire was suddenly very loud as we walked by. It smelled like gasoline.
For a moment, it looked as if we'd just pass by them without incident, but then the largest one started walking toward us.
I found the continued whispering of the other three men around the fire extremely annoying. What the hell need was there to whisper? No one was even around for Chrissakes!
TO BE CONTINUED...