“Estan abierto– Are you open?”
The waiter on the dirtied steps of the cafe shook his head disinterestedly, sucking in on his cigarette for a lingering breath of blue tobacco smoke. Raul grunted mutedly and shot off down the street, motioning impatiently for the three of us to follow suit.
“Abierto?” he shouted out at the next place we ran into.
No answer. We continued walking.
“Señor,” the latest restaurateur said, regarding us in the flickering lights of his establishment like a flock of miscreant teenagers. “You’re from Habana. You should know better. There are no restaurants open this late. It’s fucking Tuesday night. Dios mío.”
Raul, responding to the old man, spit off a slur of Spanish far too fast for me to understand, though within the storm of his diatribe I made out the words “Fuck,” and “We didn’t want to eat here anyways.” Shaking his head with frustrated astonishment, he ushered us along around yet another corner, continuing his quixotic quest to find us any restaurant that was still possibly open.
It was ten o’clock at night in the empty streets of Havana. Darkness had cast over the tangled mazework of the city, which seemed to be lit from within with a dying light, reflecting up against the dark, ashen clouds with a faint, incandescent glow. The corridors of the streets were simmering down, the streets draining of people. Tourists had disappeared. Cars whipped past us occasionally, and on distant corners we saw conglomerations of locals, outlined dimly against the smeared reflections of orange-hued streetlights. Cats slunk across the pavement and voices of children retreating to their houses echoed out faintly between the cracked walls of the buildings.
Through this phantasmagoric nightscape, seemingly drained of life, we had Raúl to guide us.
Raúl had come into our life earlier that evening as we were walking downtown to find a place to eat. I had asked him for directions on Calle Manrrique, where he had been lording over his stretch of the block outside his dusty, two-story flat like a lion over his pride, and when I asked him where we could find the restaurant we’d eaten at earlier, he seemed taken aback.
“No, no!” he said to me. “I know so many better places than that.”
Raul was amusing; congenial and easy to talk with. Seeing that I spoke Spanish, he happily lapsed into a series of questions about the United States and our experience in Cuba. Within five minutes he decided to take us on a tour of his home city, and with a characteristically warm flick of his wrist motioned for us to follow him as he set off down the street.
Raul, we were soon to learn, seemed to know half the population of Havana. There were hardly any corners we walked by where he didn’t see at least one person he knew: old cousins three times removed, lost friends from a previous jobs, friends of friends of friends. He would stop and hold forth briefly in some passionate conversation with whomever we ran into before continuing on with us into the night.
Certain parts of Havana, such the part of Centrohabana where we were walking, withdraw into hibernation past a certain point of the night: the stores lock their doors, the restaurants go dark, the streets become lifeless. The city becomes an empty landscape, a dark landscape bathed in moonlight.
I liked Raul. He embodied a wonderful strain of Cuban generosity that I never before saw in my life. Had I asked for directions while walking through a similar neighborhood in the United States, I would’ve been greeted with the same suspicion with which one regards a thief or criminal (or simply ignored altogether).
But Raul, having barely talked to us for five minutes, decided he wanted the honor of showing us around the home city that he loved- just because he could. Because doing so would be the nice thing to do.
This unabashed generosity was a trait I saw continually reciprocated within Cubans throughout my brief travels in that poor, Caribbean country, and I believe it reflected a deeper truth about human nature I had previously failed to grasp in the United States: that impoverished people tend to be more open and friendly than those who are rich.
For unlike many Americans, who retreat into the turtle-shell of their insecurity, who balk at others from behind the polished gates of their walled-in suburbs, the Cuban’s lack of wealth puts them in situations in which they’re more inclined to depend on other people for happiness- in which they’re less likely to see strangers as a threat.
Because they did not have the money to buy expensive TV’s or video games, they entertained themselves by walking the streets and talking to people. I had never been to a place in which so many strangers were willing to talk, without rhyme or reason, merely for the sake of talking.
Admittedly, there were the occasional street-salesmen who, seeing that we came from the United States, sought to catch our attention for the sake of peddling cheap cigars or rum to us (I can already imagine that many people, offended by the aforementioned comparisons with the United States, were angrily preparing to point this out).
But these salesmen-types constituted a small minority on the multifaceted tableau of the Cuban populace.
Cubans were friendly because friendliness, in a world with little money, seemed to be the most vital anchors to staying happy. The suffering of their poverty had inadvertently brought them closer to their humanity. And this wonderful humanity, this generosity, seemed to be embodied in the stout, bald, convivial figure of Raul.
We ended up eating at a government-run Chinese restaurant in the dimly lit upstairs of an decrepit building, the low ceiling strung with Christmas lights and the tables draped with Italian covers. Given that it was a government-run restaurant, which tend be less efficient and produce lower-quality food than their privately run counterparts, we ended up eating pizza (it was the only food available that night), and the pizza, which tasted of sweet cardboard smeared with tomato sauce and sprinkling with unmelted cheese, could have been better.
Lapsing into conversation about everything under the moon, I began picking out periodic details about Raúl’s life.
He, like many people I had met along my way, had hardly traveled beyond the shores of Cuba. He had spent much of his life around Havana and had acquired his limited proficiency in English after working at a bar in Varadero a decade or so back, where he catered to European tourists. More than anything, he loved baseball.
He liked the Revolutionary government. He believed Castro’s regime had brought positive change to the country, having improved the living conditions for poor families like his, which languished under the brunt of Batista’s iron-heel government in the years preceding the Revolution.
Like all people here, Cuba’s economic crash in the mid-90’s left indelible scars on his life: friends and family members gradually disappeared over the years, having taken rafts to Florida in search of jobs, of the better life which had become inaccessable to them on the island’s impoverished morass.
His own son had made the perilous oceanic journey to Miami, and rarely had enough money to make the visiting flight back home. As one of the few remaining holdouts, Raul, after all these years, was still eking out a living here in Cuba. But why?
“I love it,” he said matter-of-factly. “Hay problemas– there are problems. Most definitely. But I love it. It’s my home.”
A few moments later the room darkened, and a cheap rotating disco-ball dropped down from the ceiling, painting the surrounding walls with a sudden whirlwind of gaudy, neon flashes. A line of employees emerged from the back of the restaurant, led by a man carrying a cake with a single firecracker candle that up spat showering sparks of orange into the darkness.
“Lo cumpleaños feliz” they sang- someone’s birthday. The line of employees turned, slowly encircling the table of a young, thirty-something couple, and as they serenaded them, the whole restaurant fell into a garbled incantation of the song, an impromptu party manifesting suddenly in the previously quiet room.
Having been conditioned to the song’s Americanized tradition, I naturally expected it to end after about thirty seconds. It didn’t.
The employees returned continually returned to the chorus, and every time I thought that the guests had exhausted themselves, that the song was almost over, they joyously returned once again, beginning the chorus with even more vigor than before. It was, in a way I couldn’t have expected, comically exhilarating.
The song ended after five minutes, and shortly thereafter we left our pesos and continued on our way back home.
He showed us back the way back to his house, from which point we could navigate back to our place. He shook our hands, and we promised that we would come back to drink with him soon. He smiled, and we parted ways.
That was the end of our first night with Raul.