Cubans struggle to survive on their meager incomes, while watching tourists come to their island and spend what to them is an unimaginable amount of money on hotels and food. Those lucky enough to work in the tourist industry make more money than those who don’t and those who don’t have been searching for a way in.
And then along comes Airbnb
Those Cubans who are fortunate enough to own their own homes saw dollar signs. But the average Cuban home is small with just two rooms on one level. But poverty encourages resourcefulness, and Cubans are certainly resourceful. They scrimp and save and set about building another two rooms on top of their home. They then list the two rooms as a “homestay” on Airbnb
Now, dear readers, you know that Gordon did an excellent job of finding us a perfectly comfortable apartment in Havana. In fact by Cuban standards it was positively luxurious. But if you were paying close attention I had hinted that things might not be quite so luxurious in the smaller towns we will be visiting. You might therefore have realised that I would probably have more to say on Gordon’s future choices.
If so, you would be right.
In Cienfuegos Gordon has booked one such homestay for the princely sum of $15 a night. He was thrilled to have found such a deal. Moi? Not so much! To say that I was unenthusiastic about his choice would be an understatement. But, you know me,easy going as ever and never one to complain, I graciously accepted his choice without mention of my concerns. At this point Gordon might add a note in his position as Ed stating that my version of the facts might not be entirely accurate. But please know that I was not dragged here kicking and screaming.
With the usual lack of street names, it takes us over an hour to find the house. We sit outside in the car looking at it for a few minutes summoning up our courage to enter. The house is small but immaculately looked after which is encouraging. But it seems to be behind a giant wall of iron work which is not.
But it has a certain charm.
We are greeted by a very elderly man sitting in a very elderly chair outside the front door. He speaks no English but points to the doorbell suggesting we should ring it.
It is answered by Vivian, a tiny woman in her 50’s exuding good humour. She leads us up an outdoor staircase barely wide enough to accommodate me, let alone me and a suitcase. At the top of the stairs is a tiny and charming patio, covered by a vine with dozens of flowers hanging down from it
I am encouraged.
With considerable flourish Vivian opens the door to the “apartment”
I am discouraged
She gives us a tour of the apartment.
It doesn’t take long.
She points out every little design detail with great pride, but really there is very little to show. The experience is saved only by Vivian’s enthusiasm for what she has created and her delightful personality.
There are two tiny rooms. The word “basic” has been created for just such a moment. The bedroom has one tiny bed, with a bright purple blanket acting as both a bed cover and design accent. It works as neither.
We discover later that the mattress is rock hard lacking any springs or for that matter anything that yields to the body. The bed is so small that turning over in the night needs to be choreographed carefully to avoid one of us falling out.
The living room features a sofa and two chairs in heavy wood and heavy patterned fabric. It also has an old fridge and a coffee maker. It is not exactly cosy, but it is our home for the next three days.
Vivian has found a shiny white and green tile that she particularly likes so she has covered every available surface in the bathroom with it. She shows us with great pride that the shower stall has an arch in it with a light in the top of the arch. “Very romantic’ she says. I am not convinced that romantic is the right term but she is glowing with pride as she tells us how she designed everything herself
Unfortunately she has forgotten one thing – and that is hot water. There is none in the wash basin, but if we are brave (or foolish) there is hot water available in the shower. Vivian points to an electrical switch and tells us if that if we flip the switch we will get hot water. But the fact that the switch is right next to the shower head makes us too nervous to try it.
I guess the building codes are a little more relaxed in Cuba.
Later when we take a shower we discover that it hardly qualifies for that name. It is more like a sprinkle as water drips intermittently from the shower head. In a way it is quite fortunate as the two towels that Vivian supplies are hardly larger than hand towels, are wafer thin and made of some strange fabric that doesn’t absorb water.
Vivian tells us her English is non existent and asks if we speak Spanish. We tell her that we speak a little which is all the encouragement she needs. She settles in for a long chat. The fact that we understand little of what she says does not deter her.
She tells us that the old man we met is her father and he is 92.
He speaks not one word of English but is always smiling and we become rather attached to him over the next three days. He walks slowly with the aid of a stick, but we see him up and down the street visiting all the neighbors and whiling away each day sitting on their porches chatting.
Once the subject of age has been broached, Vivian feels compelled to ask Gordon how old he is and once told she feels compelled to refuse to believe it, saying she thought he was 20 years younger. She is beginning to annoy me. She then looks at me and decides there is no need to ask me my age. Now she is really annoying me
Once Vivian has left, Gordon reminds me that we are only paying $15 a night and that the place is spotless. Both of which is true, but neither of which helps me understand what we are doing here. And I am not looking upon Vivian in a kindly manner.
Gordon has been waiting desperately for Vivian to leave. He has been having stomach troubles and, if you will pardon the pun, they have suddenly come to a head, as has he, and he intends to make use of it.
Twenty minutes later he is in bed with a raging fever. His forehead is really hot to the touch. Something nasty has taken hold of him very quickly. I secretly hope it ages him. Like Greta Garbo he looks fabulous and now he wants to be left alone so I go out to explore.
When I return three hours later the fever has gone as quickly as it came, but he is unwilling to leave the toilet, so I am on my own for the evening. Vivian is fussing like a mother hen, offering all sorts of pills and vile looking liquids all of which Gordon politely but wisely declines.
We have a reservation for dinner which I intend to keep, but Vivian insists on calling her friends who own what she describes as “the best restaurant in town” and makes a reservation for me. I stand right by her while she describes me in detail to her friend at the restaurant – a very unnerving experience particularly as I only understand every other word. It is even more unnerving when I am a block away from the restaurant and a woman starts waving at me and calling my name. It must have been a very accurate description, which is more than can be said for Vivian’s description of the best restaurant in town. It is a restaurant and it is in town but that’s about it.
The next morning Gordon is feeling better and is willing to try a little breakfast.
$15 a night to stay with Vivian does not, by the way, include breakfast. We can choose to pay extra for breakfast, which we do. It is $5 each per day, which is a deal although it seems a lot compared to the cost of the apartment. It is served downstairs in Vivian’s front room.
She calls us down at 9am. The room, like ours, is immaculate but hers feels more like a home with cheerful yellow walls a dining table, two sofas , two easy chairs and a TV.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, a scooter
It is apparently an electric scooter (why doesn’t the US have those) and has to be brought into the front room to be charged. And if you take a look at the photo of the front of the house you will realise it is not an easy task
Vivian has clearly gone to a lot of trouble to make the dining table look lovely
Although the scooter rather spoils the ambiance
We admire the table with Vivian although we can’t help but notice that plastic is her material of choice. There is a huge amount of food, most of which is not very appealing. However we have been to the stores and know exactly how much trouble Vivian must have gone to. There is more than we could possibly eat but we feel terrible leaving it. Meanwhile Vivian is in and out of the kitchen, fussing over Gordon, and ignoring me. But she is a delight and she clearly likes us. Well she clearly loves Gordon as she hugs him at every given opportunity.
The story of my life.
Perhaps it is Gordon, not Vivian who irritates me!!
Over the next couple of days we learn Vivian’s story. She has her father to look after. She has a husband who works, but we never quite find out what he actually does. He spends most of the time wandering around shirtless with a large stomach hanging over his belt. He smiles when he sees us but makes no effort to interact. Vivian explains that he does his work and she does the Airbnb. They have a son, called Darian who flies to Cancun in Mexico as often as he can afford to and brings back all sorts of stuff to sell in Cuba. We tell him we saw people like him with all their merchandise at the airport. He says he doesn’t do that, he just brings back two suitcases of stuff to sell. We wonder what that can be. He arrives back from one such trip while we are there. He is perhaps 25, very friendly and nice, but we both think he is a Mama’s boy which having met Mama comes as no surprise. From the moment he is home there is a steady stream of young men knocking at the door to buy merchandise. We never actually see them carrying anything. We wonder a little more about what it is Darian is selling.
Vivian shows us her bookings for the next three months and she seems pretty solidly booked. She says she does very well but that the trouble with offering a place for $15 a night is that she gets a lot of very cheap guests who often only stay for one night. She also says they refuse to buy breakfast because they won’t pay $5. She is so happy we are having breakfast as somehow she makes good money on that.
The more we talk to Vivian the more it becomes apparent that she is the driving force behind the family.
The family income all gets pooled and goes towards Vivian’s grand scheme, which is to keep expanding her home. They have already added more rooms to the back of the house and now she wants to build another “homestay” apartment on top of them. She goes into great detail about how much the bricks cost, how much the rebar costs and so on. They buy what they can each month and slowly but surely expand their empire.
And all the time she is cheerful and fun, although she tells us she is exhausted and in bed by 9 every evening. We are full of admiration for her. By sheer force of character and hard work she is dragging her family towards a better future, and in Cuba that is not easy.
When our three days come to an end we feel like family.
Papa comes to the car to wave us off
Vivian fights off tears as she hugs us goodbye
She doesn’t want to let go of Gordon
Welcome to Cuba