Before my trip to Cuba, I’d heard stories about how the locals often invited travelers they didn’t know into their homes. Hailing from New York City, the idea seemed preposterous if not downright risky. “They are an incredibly gracious and welcoming people,” remarked a friend. On a chilly January morning in Havana, I was lucky enough to experience their generosity first-hand.
She greeted us at the top of the stairs, a short, squat woman in her mid-seventies with one eye that perpetually squinted like a pirate. Moments before she’d thrown us her keys from the third floor balcony of her dilapidated apartment building and invited us in. Her name was Maria Theresa. Dressed in tattered striped shorts, a yellow t-shirt and a rumpled orange knit cardigan, she smiled and motioned for us to follow her down a dim corridor to her tiny 75 square foot apartment—her home for over 20 years.
Our guide introduced us, told her our names, where we lived, that we were a group of photographers from Santa Fe Photographic Workshops exploring the city. All the usual pleasantries that are exchanged in such situations. A mother of two, Maria Theresa lived alone. Her son had passed away years before and her daughter lived in Miami, though she hadn’t heard from her in over two years.
Her apartment was dim and worn and barely lit save a closet-sized alcove illuminated by a single window. Maria Theresa flashed her one-eyed smile and led us to her bedroom. In the corner sat a small unmade bed next to an open armoire that revealed a threadbare wardrobe. Tokens from her life–assorted doo-dads, medications, an old, half-open compact next to a pair of maracas–were scattered across her dresser. Tucked into a mirror frame was a hand-held fan decorated with a photo of “Papa Francisco,” a souvenir from the Pope’s visit last September. A tattered image of Christ rested against the wall next to a small cross mounted on what resembled a bowling trophy. Later, she asked to hold it in photographs as a tribute to her son.
Surveying her home, she suddenly became self conscious and apologized for its condition. My throat clenched. I hated the idea that our presence caused her embarrassment. Our guide soothed her in Spanish while we stood shaking our heads as he spoke, hoping the gesture would convey our support since our words could not.
Cuba is home to many wonderful things but the living conditions for a huge percentage of its population is not one of them. The ornate decaying buildings that look glorious through a lens, are substandard homes to thousands. I heard that a building collapses every day in Havana.
The government provides free healthcare and education for its citizens—the island’s literacy rate trumps that of the United States—but Havana has been in the grips of a housing crisis for decades. The city was flooded with people after the revolution, turning one-family mansions into subdivided 40-family homes. The loss of the former Soviet Union’s support and sanctions imposed by the United States, left few resources to maintain or restore the city’s infrastructure. What money there is is funneled to government parks, hotels, and public structures, leaving homes to disintegrate.
Maria Theresa stood by the window looking down at the street below, the light falling on her face. I photographed her there, our sweet Cuban model, knowing that moment would be one of the most memorable parts of my trip.
When we said our goodbyes, I hugged her tightly and she responded in kind. When we hit the street and looked back she was on the balcony waving goodbye.
My last memory of her she was blowing us a kiss.
Hours later I was sightseeing on my own, walking at my leisure through the streets of Havana letting a mental coin toss direct my exploration. Families gathered in the narrow cobblestone streets to chat, children played, men played dominoes, street vendors sold their wares.
Veiled in the shadow of a doorway, an old woman sat, small and shrunken in a rocking chair. She wore a beat up fuchsia robe that hid most of her body. Her legs were bare save white socks that were tucked into torn pink slippers.
She looked out at the street with a tired, forlorn expression. From what I could see, she sat at the the end of a narrow hallway in a makeshift sitting area containing her chair, a small bedside table and a fan. Above her hung a child’s painting (her grandson’s) of a tropical seaside view.
Our eyes connected as I approached and I raised my camera, pointing in her direction. I could tell that she was baffled by my interest but she nodded. As I drew near, I saw an old man, her husband, sitting inside the door, his back to me against the wall. He was sitting on a low bench with a battered guitar in his hand. He wore thick glasses and flashed a squinty-eyed grin, a la Bette Midler, that revealed more than a few teeth missing. His worn tweed coat gave him a stately air though it was challenged by the neon orange baseball cap on his head.
They motioned for me to come in and I took a seat between them on a tiny sliver of pavement just inside the door. They didn’t speak a lick of English and my Spanish was used up after Hola, but we were managed to exchange names—hers was Sophia, his Paolo. Her voice was soft and meek I wondered if she was ill. He was far more spirited. Pointing at his guitar, I asked if he would play.
His voice was hoarse at times and his guitar betrayed him with a string horribly out of tune but he sang as if he were on the world’s grandest stage. I photographed his performance loving the shafts of light that fell on him from the street as he sang.
Three songs in he took a break, he wanted to cut the nail on his thumb (I figured this out by the way he thrust his thumb in my face and made a scissor gesture with two fingers). He disappeared behind a cloth that separated the hallway from what lay beyond. Sophia looked at me with sad, tired eyes and I was instantly unsure if I should remain. I sat in a limbo of indecision. She glanced at the back of my camera and then at me, I realized she wanted me to show her some of the pictures I shot of Paolo.
For the first time since we met, a faint smile crossed her face and her eyes came to life. Paolo returned, picking up his guitar, his fingers ready to strum the first out-of-tune cord, but before he could begin, Sophia placed her hand on my wrist urging me to pay attention. I waited, worried that she was going to say something important and I wouldn’t understand. Instead she started to sing. Paolo sat dumbfounded. At first her voice was cracked and rough and she had to swallow against a dry throat, but quickly she rallied. Paolo began to accompany her on the guitar, gently rocking as he played.
When Sophia finished, reflexively, I started to clap. I felt as if something monumental had just happened and she smiled, a big broad grin that lit up the dark and I swear she grew six inches in her chair. We sat in silence letting the moment sink in, then Paolo began to play and they treated me to a duet.
There’s no way to properly put a value on the time I spent with Maria Theresa, Paolo and Sophia, other than priceless. As the years pass, I’ll forget street names, the corner cafes, the meals I ate, strolls along the Malecon, but never the sweet friends who welcomed me into their homes.