We met our very first new Cuban friends within minutes of sitting down to a drink in the secluded patio of the Hotel Sevilla.
All tourists to Cuba (especially those who speak Spanish) will find themselves at some time being asked for stuff - spare soaps, toiletries, clothes, makeup. Everything except food is in very short supply in Cuba and therefore sells for often outrageous prices on the black market or in dollar-only shops. Actually, even food is in short supply - anything but bread, rice and beans. The minimum salary - which most people earn - is equivalent to 225 dollars per month (paid in Moneda National, not actual Cuban Convertible Pesos -CUCs). Tourists are the only route whereby Cubans can earn precious CUCs - known as dollars, to which they are equivalent.
A very Spanish-looking woman started talking to my daughter, asking her in Spanish if she was someone whom the woman had been told to meet. Well, it was probably a ruse to start talking to us. But I was in the market to meet Cubans - we had brought plenty of spare toiletries and clothes to exchange for company and tales of life in Cuba. So we started up a conversation.
The woman, Alicia (not her real name - I'm not going to use real names for any Cuba,s cos they can get into trouble for talking to tourists), was nervous about approaching us. The ubiquitous hotel security guards who try to stop ordinary Cubans entering hotels and talking to tourists had their beady eyes on her. She looked Spanish, rather than Afro-Cuban, so didn't attract immediate attention. But she was still anxious, so we invited her to sit down with us for a drink. She accepted readily and then brought in her much more Cuban-looking boyfriend, Giovannis. They turned out to be from the eastern part of the island - Guantanamo and had relatives in Santiago de Cuba. Lucky for us -we're in the market for making friends in the Oriente, where we'll be in a few days.
Was Alicia a hustler - albeit a more sophisticated one? She is a primary school teacher, on medical leave in Havana where she's having some treatment. Yes, the wonderful health system of which Cuba boasts requires people to cross the island (a 18 hour bus trip) for basic treatments, after you've endured horrendous queues at the consultants office. 'There is hardly any tourism in Guantamano province', she told us, 'so I'm using the time in Havana to try to pick up some spare stuff from tourists...whatever you have left over.'
I got on rather well with Alicia - a well-read woman who quietly despaired to me about the trials of life in Cuba. We invited her and her partner to join us for a few days, going to the beach, around Havana, dancing at the world-famous salsa dance hall, Casa de La Musica.
'I'm rubbish at dancing casino,' Alicia admitted, shattering the illusion that all Cubans can dance salsa (casino is the Cuban term for partner-salsa). 'I prefer reggaeton. But Giovannis can do it really well.'
Giovannis and I danced to the small Cuban-jazz band (Akana.com) who entertained us in the patio. He dances like someone from the Oriente (east end of Cuba) - small movements, more ballroom-style than the funkier Habaneros.
Behind the archways, the young sound technician danced alone, giving my teenage daughter the eye - any chance of a dance? Daughter gave her sleepy disinterested look. So I danced with him. Only eighteen but he had the confidence to stop me mid-dance and correct my style. 'Loosen up', he said. That's how you have to be to follow Habaneros in casino. Everything is shaking.