I’ve had to think about my crazy coincidences lately. I makes me wonder about certain parts of my life. However, my trip to Cuba is not one of them. Everything about this trip had a meaning and purpose. It was not really a trip of crazy coincidences, but one of trusting and having things working out. Still I do have a lot of funny stories from this trip, but first, here is the closest I got to “crazy coincidences” in Cuba.
Day 1: The first group arrives in Havana. It’s me, Rafael and Laurence and we head to our AirBnB, which was reserved just 3 days before our trip. We were lucky to find an entire apartment in Central Havana that could hold 9 people on such short notice. Although our original plan fell through and there was some panic along the way, this place worked out perfectly. We could all be together, it was central and it gave us a real taste of Havana.
After we settled in, we went out to explore and find a place to eat. We were walking along the Prado and from a distance, Rafael saw a rooftop terrace that looked nice. When we get got closer, we realized it was in el Centro Asturiano de La Havana, which had a number of restaurants inside. We made our way to the elevators to get the roof and I saw a woman in some cool printed pants, tank top, Havaianas flip flops and lots of silver jewelry – totally my style.
She was also carrying a cotton bag that said “99% diseño cubano” and I loved it. I could not help myself and complimented her on the bag. She was a local and so I asked her where she got it. She ended up going to the same restaurant as us, which was actually under some construction and we had to walk across a wooden plank over wet cement to get to the outside terrace. This gave me a chance to take out my phone and ask her for the spelling of the place and the address. Clandestina, which means “secret or clandestine” located at Villegas 403 between Teniente Rey and Muralla.
Day 2: Our mission: Finding schools to donate school supplies and volunteer or teach English. We tried to make these arrangements beforehand, but it was quite difficult. So Laurence, Rafael and I became the advanced logistics team checking out places for when the rest of our group would arrive. We got to know our way around Havana that day. I think we walked 20 miles. And then at one point, I realized we were on Teniente Rey! We walked until we found the store.
The Clandestina store was very Brooklyn, young and hip. They had the studio in the back, where they did the screen printing with bags made of burlap, cotton and vintage fabrics, shirts, hats, posters, artwork and clothing. A video about their story was playing with a clip of a young woman talking to President Obama about entrepreneurship in the country. It made me happy knowing that I could support the young Cuban artists and entrepreneurs who started the company. Me encanta even more because they promote socially-conscious design and upcycled products that are made and designed in Cuba.
Day 3: Two more people arrive and we had secured appointments at two schools. The morning was packed and we did lots of walking again. We took our new friend from one of the schools and our newly arrived team members to La Terraza, our rooftop restaurant from the first day. This restaurant will most definitely make it into my recommendations list.
It was a memorable lunch as our Cuban friend had never had octopus before and he rarely gets to eat fish. He explained that the rations for fish are reserved for people who are sick and have special dietary restrictions, and for tourists. It is expensive for local people to buy seafood in restaurants as they cater to foreigners (you can tell when they put the prices only in CUCs currency). It made our meal of grilled octopus and snapper all that more special. By then, the waiters at the restaurant began to recognize us too. Our group of three had turned into six. A complimentary round of Havana Club followed shortly.
Day 4: Finally a day off. We had free time until our welcome dinner at La Guarida (another recommendation – the most beautiful restaurant in Havana). My feet needed a break and all I wanted to do was sit in a cafe and write, and go to the flea market, and so did my friend Ruth. Somehow we ended up passing a bunch of models waiting for their fashion show rehearsals to start. One of them was carrying a Clandestina burlap bag. Ruth liked it and we were not far from the store so we went back. I never noticed before, but Clandestina had illustrated maps of Havana on recycled paper with their recommendations of cool places to go. One of the guys in the store had a tattoo and Ruth asked him where he got it. He showed us on the map. It was not far from the flea market. Perfect. We made our way there in a bike taxi and even found a cute little cafe to stop and have cafe con leche and write.
Day 5: Today was our beach day. We spent the entire day from 9am to 5pm at the beach. By the end of it we were completely zonked out from the sun, but we rallied to go to Fabrica del Arte that night. It is a former sugar factory transformed into a hip venue for people to experience art in all its forms from fine art and design to live music, performances and dance.
We arrived in a cab with me lying across people’s laps because we were over the limit of passengers and there was a line around the block. We tried to “friend-up” the bouncer, but that didn’t work. We did good cop, bad cop, Spanish, no Spanish. We split up with some of us joining the line and others continuing to do their “magic”.
I went to the line with Ruth and we started talking to some guys from Brooklyn. The others came back and said we could go to the front for 25CUCs each. (NOTE: A teacher in Cuba can make 20CUCs per month. This was a lot for them and it also made me feel guilty that we would spend it like this.) However, we were a big group.
We went to the front, gave the guy the money and then the cops came. He got nervous and gave the money back to us. We waited around for a bit and then the guys we were talking to in the line came around the corner. They were getting closer to the front. What!
We ended up going back into the line with them – all 7 of us! These guys were from Brooklyn and obviously very cool. Apparently, this is what local people do. They join the line from early and offer up their spot to tourists for a price. What a fiasco, but we got inside.
The vibe was great and there was so much to see. They had several floors and rooms with photography and paintings, and then rooms with bands playing and DJs. People were dancing, drinking and standing outside on the roof talking. There was film and rooms with display cases of beautiful jewelry. There in the room with the jewelry, I saw stairs going up to a smaller room and inside it was a CLANDESTINA POP-UP Shop!
It was no coincidence that I kept running into this brand over and over. I ended up buying another bag, but this time it was for me. I got a vintage fabric one with a mint green strap that was the same color as our unexpected AirBnB apartment that worked out perfectly. With all my travels, I have stopped buying typical souvenirs and instead I like to get something unique that will remind me of my trip. This was perfect.
Day 6, 7, 8: What happens in Cuba, stays in Cuba. We did go to La Terraza one more time with the rest of the group on the last night. It’s that good!
DE FACTO CRAZY COINCIDENCE
Ruth, Laurence and I are sitting on the steps of the Cathedral taking a break and resting our feet. Then I see this woman walking towards us. It goes something like this:
Woman: (Looks side to side) Ruth is that you?
Ruth: Oh my God. Shariffa! I never see you in New York, but I see you in Cuba. This is crazy.
Me: Ruth, you’re having a crazy coincidence! You were meant to be on this trip.
Backstory: A few days before, Ruth was not even planning to come to Cuba although she was one of the key organizers of the trip. Things turned around for her quickly and she got a ticket in a day and was off to the airport the next. Ruth, aka Social Nomad, also ended up getting her tattoo ‘August’ for the month of the Haitian Revolution, which ended slavery and France’s colonial rule of the island.