“¡Feliz Cumpleaños! ¡Feliz Cumpleaños!” shout Camile and Ernesto Santos, the retired couple hosting me during my final days in Havana, Cuba. It’s my birthday and they greet me with a chocolate birthday cake for breakfast.
“No boy should start his birthday without a cake,” says Camile as she slices through the sponge and forks it onto a plate. Without any signal or internet, I am cut off from my home and the birthday messages my family and friends are trying to send to me. This little slice of cake is all I’ve got, and Camile understands this.
“My son is a little older than you, and I need someone to spoil since he moved out,” says Camile. “We like having guests because it gives me something to do since I retired.”
Former school teachers, Camile and Ernesto Santos have rented out their spare room to tourists since retiring. Casa Particulares are part of a government initiative to pump some private enterprise into the Cuban economy (Cubans were only able to start selling their houses in 2011). Homeowners are allowed to rent a room out to tourists as long as they provide information on whoever is staying. For a cash-strapped traveller, they are a great way to travel around Cuba as they are cheap and owners are well-connected.
There is so much to do here… the playa, the park, cheaper, better restaurants.
“We don’t advertise because we don’t need to,” says Ernesto as he spoons the cake into his mouth. “[Their friend] Raul is on Airbnb, and when he can’t take guests he sends them to us. We don’t want guests here all the time, but we do like the company.”
The Santos’ live in the trendy and up-and-coming neighbourhood, Miramar, and it’s a seven-kilometre walk from Havana’s jiving old town and centre.
“There is so much to do here. There is the playa, the park and cheaper, better restaurants,” says Camile. “Ern loves Bettie Boom because of the young girls serving the food.”
Bettie Boom is a kitsch restaurant transplanting 1950’s small-town Americana to the tropics. Inspired by Betty Boop, the waitresses wear red pinnies and garters and serve hamburgers and milkshakes.
Ernesto blushes. “I’m an old man, so help me,” he says. “But, if you want good food go to El Olivo. For $10CUC you get all you can eat!”
As hosts, the pair is a formidable team. Camile whips up a nice breakfast consisting of fresh tropical fruits, eggs and toast, and Ernesto has a detailed knowledge of the local area.
“I find it funny that no one ever actually cares about the area or the history. They only care about what to do, what to eat,” says Ernesto as he stands on the street discussing how the area has recently changed.
I don’t really like having strangers in my house
“This small square,” he points at the dilapidated area at the end of the street. Weeds are spreading out of the cracks in the concrete and climbing the benches. “Everyone went there, and now no one goes there. It is becoming a wi-fi zone, but it has to get worse before its fixed.”
Wi-fi in Cuba is expensive and government regulated. It can only be accessed in public squares or designated zones and an access code has to be bought beforehand from an Etesca telepuntos centre.
“I don’t really like having strangers in my house,” confides Ernesto. “I do it because it makes Camile happy, but I’d rather be left alone to finish my book.”