Rediscovering Havana: Old City, New Friends (September 2016)

As a television journalist, I get into folks’ business every day. Without shame. So, needless to say, I do the same thing when I’m abroad. That’s because one of the best things about traveling to new places is meeting new people and listening to their stories. 

And I came across some amazingly cool characters during my recent trip to Havana.

Fernando, the music-loving merchant

There are several small shops set up outside the entrance of Fusterlandia, the colorful studio of artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster. 

One of those shops is operated by Fernando. He sells quite a few trinkets, many of them you can find in “touristy” shops throughout the city. However, he had one item hanging on a wall that caught my attention - a framed photo of a U.S. bill with President Obama’s face on it. Fernando saw me checking it out and asked,”Are you from the U.S.? I love President Obama!” He told me that a friend sent it to him, and that it was a souvenir from the president’s last campaign. Fernando then asked about my hometown. When I said, “Memphis, Tennessee,” his face lit up. I found out that he is a music buff! He told me that he had visited Memphis and Nashville for a few months with a friend years ago, and loved it! He even reminisced about his trip to B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street and Elvis' Graceland, which made me smile...and briefly "get in my feelings."

In that moment, we instantly became BFFs.

Mirayma, the soulful singer

After eating dinner at El Rum Rum in Old Havana, my travel group and I took a stroll around Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square). As our guide, Graciel, talked to us about the history of the square, I heard a beautiful voice in the distance. In fact, several of us heard it at the same time because it stopped us in our tracks. We turned around, and as the voice grew louder, we finally spotted the person it belonged to. 

It was a beautiful woman wearing microbraids, strumming a guitar while carrying her purse. (You can’t be too careful these days…lol.) Her husky, alto voice was simply beautiful. In fact, it reminded me of Celia Cruz’s voice. Even Toni Braxton’s. Imagine Toni singing “Besame Mucho” and “Guantanamara.” My God.  As soon as I got close enough to her, I asked her name. “Mirayma,” she said. She asked mine, and once I told her, she said she has several friends named Karla. She went on to say that she sings to make money for her family. “You should be making records,” I responded while giving her a few CUCs. “Thanks, my friend. You are too kind,” she said. 

I have a feeling that I will look up one day and see her face on a CD cover.

Clara, the consummate cigar roller

There is a cigar store located inside the Palacio de la Artesania. And inside that shop is Ms. Clara. 

She is a cigar roller, and she has been rolling cigars inside this shop for 45 years! When she can’t make it to work, her daughter fills in for her. 

She said although she rolls cigars, she does not smoke them.

Julio Rojas Rodriguez, the polished professor

I met Julio through my Gate 1 Travel guide, Carole. Carole knew that I studied at the University of Havana back in 1999. So, she wanted me to met her friend, Julio, who is an assistant professor at the university. Julio is currently working on his master’s degree, and plans to earn his PhD as well. He graciously agreed to meet me at Hotel Nacional, where my travel group and I were touring at the time. We sat down and talked, and that’s when I learned more about his degree focus- “The Theoretical Aspect of the Cuban Slave.” The 26-year-old is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to slavery in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean. He was even a researcher for the show “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr."! How cool is that?! He’s also a new dad to a baby girl who weighed a whopping 9.9 pounds when she was born! Julio’s wife is studying to be a neurosurgeon. 

Julio is such an interesting young man, and was an absolute pleasure to meet! And guess what? After we talked for a while, he took a cab with me to the University of Havana and gave me a campus tour!

Yoandri, the mischievous munchkin

I met 3-year-old Yoandri inside the daycare of the Church of Santa Barbara. It is located in the Parraga neighborhood of Havana. The daycare caters to the families who are considered to be low-income. 

The parents work, but they still can't make ends meet. The children are fed several times throughout the day, and are sent home with food on the weekends.

Yoandri and I bonded over crayons, and that’s how I discovered that he is quite a character. During our drawing shenanigans, he saw my camera in my lap. He pointed to it, so I took it out so that we could take a selfie. He was nice and still until the camera countdown began. 

He decided he wanted his crayon in the shot. Then, he wanted to color the camera. Then, his friend, Saul, wanted to get in on the action. On the fourth try, Yoandri still didn’t want to act right - so this was the result of our time well spent.  

Tell me about the most interesting person you have met during your travels.


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