I woke up convinced there was a ghost playing with the light switches. In fact it was just the guy next door going to the bathroom – we share the half wall that splits my room from his, and it seems we also share a light bulb.
In Cuba there are almost no hostels and few cheap hotels, so the best option for budget travellers are Casa Particulares – essentially family homes with a license to rent rooms to foreigners. The casas sprang from the legalization of small scale private enterprise, introduced in the 90’s to help Cubans to cope with the so called ‘special period’, a euphemism for the widespread hardship caused by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the tightening of the US trade embargo.
You hear are stories of people eating dogs and cats and melting down rubber to thicken out food…but it’s hard to know where truth ends and myth begins. For sure times were tough and ordinary people opened their living rooms as restaurants, sold snacks out of front windows and threw up walls to split out dining rooms into bedrooms for hire.
The same small businesses still flourish for pretty clear reasons – the amount a tourist pays for one night rent is what a doctor earns in a month…
It is a strange thing to walk right on in to someone’s home, and it feels stranger still since style here seems stuck somewhere in the 50’s. Elaborately styled family portraits deck the walls, swarming with straw hats and feather boas. Technical-colour kittens glare out from a crochet-covered TV top.
I’ve seen a stuffed painted doe’s head, a plastic cuckoo clock that claimed to be a fairy garden and a foot long black porcelain panther ash tray – clearly much loved, broken and stuck back together many times over. It’s a kitsch curio delight…
Table tops are Formica and the sheets are always polyester. They riot with the same bright plasticky blooms that sit so abundantly in vases it seems someone must have once dreamed they would grow into a garden.
As I anxiously enter yet another room lined with china ornaments, clumsy with the weight of the pack on my back, I am reminded of my grandmother’s home. She had so little, so she highly prized the little that she had.
There is an uncomfortable intimacy in this way of travelling, this waking up to the rough cut of a blunt knife breaking the bread crust or the clatter of tea cups marking 6am chatter at the kitchen table.
I eat my breakfast awkwardly. The milk tastes like mould, but I think of the women who beg for bottles outside the semblance of a supermarket, and I drink the glass down anyway. The words ‘waste not want not’ float up with memories of cucumber sandwiches and sticky fingers at my grandmother’s table and I am reminded once again how easy it is to be ignorant of the blessings we have heaped.
I struggle to make conversation with the little Spanish I can muster, but I try to make up for my lack of words with smiles and compliments to the white ball of fluff, edging up onto my lap a little closer to the crumbs. A liking for dogs serves a common language when my phrase book fails. They think that she’s a poodle. I try to explain that she’s not.
Sometimes when I can hear the couple next door lustily attending to the advice pinned to the bathroom door, ‘shower together and save water’, or I’m teetering on yet another loo without a seat or any paper, I almost wish I could afford a room in a hotel. And yet it is a privilege to share someone’s home, to travel and taste just a little bit of what is, rather than what a five star hotel can make it seem like.