Colour­ful nights on the tiles in Old Ha­vana

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHERINE MAR­SHALL

THERE is a party tonight on a rooftop in Old Ha­vana, and we’re in­vited. “Just for a few hours, to cel­e­brate Penny’s birth­day,” Alex says.

This is our first night in Cuba, and al­ready we feel at home. Just min­utes ago we checked into the homes­tay Alex runs on Calle Lam­par­illa in the city’s his­toric quar­ter. Its fa­cade is painted sharp red and blue to dis­tin­guish it from the de­cay next door, its doorstep shad­owed by a lime-green Oldsmo­bile, and we’ve been drawn im­me­di­ately into the fold. Penny’s from Australia, we learn; af­ter months spent per­fect­ing her salsa skills while stay­ing at Alex’s, she’s leav­ing for home in the morn­ing.

“Nine o’clock, the party starts,” Alex calls af­ter us as we make our way down the nar­row, wind­ing stairs of his casa and out on to the al­ley­ways of Old Ha­vana. We’ve landed in Cuba just in time to sam­ple the coun­try’s new­found love af­fair with pri­vate home­s­tays.

Cubans have re­sponded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to the re­lax­ing of their coun­try’s strict rules on pri­vate prop­erty and busi­ness own­er­ship. They’ve re­stored crum­bling vil­las, bright­ened them with paint, plumped up the pil­lows, shaken out the sheets and in­vited the tourists. There were just 18 casas in Old Ha­vana in 2012; to­day there are more than 400. “Three years ago the door was opened,” our guide Mickel ex­plains. “Be­fore, you would have, say, 10 rooms in your casa but you could rent out only one. Now, most casas are in bet­ter con­di­tion than the ho­tels.”

We’re sit­ting with Mickel on the rooftop of an­other casa one street down from Alex’s on Calle Obrapia. It’s a neo­clas­si­cal beauty with its dou­ble-vol­ume ceil­ings and broad door­ways and the breeze waft­ing in like a mir­a­cle from the cramped city streets. The owner, Ray­del, has re­cently in­stalled a bar up here and we’re chris­ten­ing it with our first mo­jito. The bar­man, Wilder, is mud­dling great bou­quets of mint and fill­ing our glasses with Ha­vana rum. There’s a les­son im­plicit in the gen­eros­ity em­ployed in this homely mak­ing of cock­tails, for Cuba is about more than just a mo­jito in a ho­tel, Mickel says.

“If you go to a re­sort you’ll get about three pieces of mint in your mo­jito,” says Mickel. Then he points to Wilder, “And that guy is not go­ing to put 13ml of rum in your glass. He’s go­ing to put in 35ml.”

The party is rocking by the time we re­turn to Alex’s casa that night. Penny dances salsa with her Afro-Cuban in­struc­tor, Sil­via, while Alex of­fers ris­soles and birth­day cake and bot­tles of Bu­canero beer. Ernesto and Michel, tak­ing a night off from their jobs as cabaret singers, ser­e­nade Penny to a back­ing track that blasts out from Alex’s lap­top.

By 2am, Old Ha­vana’s streets are quiet but the party’s still thump­ing. Through a bro­ken win­dow in the build­ing across the street I spy a woman bathed in soft light, sound asleep on her bed. Michel is belt­ing out the Span­ish ver­sion of Toni Brax­ton’s Un­break my Heart and the rest of us are croon­ing along in a mish­mash of lan­guages. If there were a roof above us we would have blown it off with our ex­u­ber­ant ca­coph­ony. In­stead, the clam­our spills up­wards and out­wards, fill­ing Old Ha­vana’s night air, seep­ing deep into its cracked streets and crum­bling build­ings, yet some­how never stir­ring the woman, for she sleeps soundly on.

Catherine Mar­shall was a guest of In­trepid Travel.

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