Maren and I arrived in Havana and promptly got scammed. At the airport, we'd agreed on a price with our taxi driver, but when we got to our casa particular in Old Havana, he gave us the cold-eyed smirk of a movie villain and told us that the cost was per person. It was late, we were tired and vastly out of our element and, if I'm to be honest, just a little bit scared. We sighed and handed over the money.
We spent the next few days doing the tourist things—museums; parks; a lot of happily aimless wandering through the narrow streets of Old Havana—our spirits on a constant upward trend from that inauspicious beginning. But we were always on guard because the hustlers were everywhere, offering everything: Hola amigo, you want a cigar? Rum? Taxi? Tour? Tell me what do you need amigo--I'll get it for you. We quickly mastered the art of smile-nod-walk-away-quickly. We didn't want to get burned again.
* * *
Now it's our last night, and we're ready to give in to the hustle. We've come to understand that the hustlers are, in fact, the best way to acquire certain things. Like a paladar—essentially, a semi-official restaurant in someone's home; often it's literally just a card table or two in a family kitchen. There's no sign on the street; most don't show up in any guidebooks. You just have to wait for someone to step from the shadows. Hola amigo, you need a paladar?
But, of course, the second you go looking for a hustler, there are none to be found. We spend a good hour traipsing through the streets where we were previously hounded, back when we were still skittish. We get eager every time a local so much as makes eye contact with us. Nada. The hustlers, for once, are ignoring us entirely.
And then it happens. A middle-aged woman sidles up to us. “Hola amigos,” she begins. We nearly hug her. She shows us a menu, a red sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve.
“Okay,” we say.
She leads us down a dead-end alley and through a broad stone archway that marks the entrance to one of those buildings for which Havana is famous, a three- or four-story Spanish colonial structure that is the very definition of deteriorated grandeur.
We end up in a small living room with two folding tables—both with white linen table cloths, flowers in vases, and elegantly folded napkins—and a china cabinet filled with various dishes and, on the checkboard-pattern floor, a stereo playing a Michael Jackson mix.
I order pork, Maren gets the chicken “Golden Blue” (you might know it as Chicken Cordon Bleu). We can hear it being prepared in the kitchen, a cramped space that in a typical American house wouldn't even be big enough to call a walk-in closet.
When the chef-slash-server brings out the food, our eyes bulge. There's way too much of it—bread, salad, rice and beans, freshly fried plantains, and enormous pieces of pork and chicken garnished with delicately carved pieces of guava. It's all served on fine white china. There's a fine rub of something red and vaguely peppery—paprika and assorted other spices we can't quite identify—on the succulent meat. Whatever it is, it is emphatically delicious.
We eat the best meal of our trip to a soundtrack of the traditional Cuban melodies “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal,” then thank our host profusely. Then we go back out to the street to thank the hustler, too.