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Happy New Year's Eve in Havana

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Anticipating a Cuban New Year's bash, tourists gather in Havana's old town. The cathedral square is filled with tables, as servants scamper to keep the breeze from destroying their handiwork with the napkins. Leaving the touristic center, we walk three blocks into a barrio -- with buildings aging like melted sugar cubes and people who, it seems, view the world from their ramshackle doorsteps. I made a friend and was invited into a party I'll never forget.

Peeking into a once-grand entryway, now draped in poverty, I saw masses of creative wiring creating a confused black web above broken building material coated with grime. A ramshackle spiral staircase led into what seemed like a dark attic -- but I knew was many floors of apartments, each with a family primed to enter the New Year. Given the political quaking in Cuban-American relations, I suspect that 2016 could be a year to remember.

Marveling at the play of light -- rays streaming through cracks, highlighting random corners of the otherwise dark space -- I realized it was perfectly monochrome. As I steadied my camera against the door to compensate for the low light, a man suddenly stepped into the space.

Wearing a blue-and-black-striped shirt, with crucifix bling dangling from his neck, he looked like a young, miniature Arsenio Hall. The bright-blue stripes along with his toothy smile popped in all that black and gray.

He said, "Me llamo José." We talked and shared our feliz año nuevo wishes. Americans are still an oddity here, so that stoked the conversation. José was heading up that haunted-house spiral staircase to his family's party, and invited us along. Knowing that this is the kind of opportunity you travel for, we accepted.

Rocking chairs spilled out onto the third-floor landing, providing an alternative space for the old boys to gather. Drawn to the bright light of the family room -- a big space for cooking, eating, and lounging -- we were welcomed into a four-generation scene. (Generations pile up quickly, as girls have kids early. José was 39 and already a grandfather. He didn't like that his 13-year-old daughter had a child...but what can you do?)

I've enjoyed many situations with very poor people partying. But this scene seemed different. I sense the ratio of education to per capita income here is the highest among the poor of any place I've ever traveled. These people spoke English and eagerly taught us to rhumba. With the conversation raging, the brother showed me his smartphone with quotes from Abraham Lincoln in Spanish. He translated one roughly: "The best form of justice is not always the best politics." Cuba has plenty of poor, but regardless of any family's ability to pay, they've all been to school.

The only thing being served was straight rum in tiny glasses. A boom box played while all danced. Little kids were busy learning dance moves from the older ones. A ten-year-old Michael Jackson wannabe was happy to teach the visiting tourists the steps. The patriarch proudly snapped photos. (My next post is a video of all the fun.)


Getting some quiet, I stepped out onto the balcony. From that corner perch, the grimy city stretched in four directions. Nearly all the action seemed to be families gathered in homes -- certainly more affordable than going out.

When midnight struck, everyone crowded onto that balcony to enjoy the local tradition of pelting anyone clueless enough to be out and about with garbage and water.

Later, we walked six blocks back to Cuba's towering capitol building (a knockoff of ours in Washington DC -- but, they boast, "one meter taller"). Across the street, we climbed to the rooftop of a hotel and crashed a classy $50-a-plate dinner with a band playing poolside. The patrons seemed dreadfully bored, and the contrast between this scene (with over-the-top food and party favors for about a month's local wages) and the humble apartment where we had enjoyed our New Year's was thought-provoking.

Out after midnight in a Havana barrio, we felt perfectly safe, except for potholes and passing bici (bicycle taxis) in the dark streets. Jumping into a taxi, I said, "Miramar" (the neighborhood of our B&B). He said, "Twenty CUC" -- that's about $20. I said, "Ten." He said, "No, this is a 1956 Pontiac...fifteen." I said, "OK." He said "Feliz año nuevo," and we rumbled home...capping a New Year's Eve I'll long remember.