The grand windows of Casa Almson are flung wide, the trade winds offering a gentle breeze off the Florida straits as the sun descends across Havana, and I am learning Spanish. “Anoche, yo fui en un nightclub de mala fama,” I say. WAAAAHK. “What the hell was that?” I retreat to English. “Was that a duck?”Alma, mi profesora, cocks her head and listens as the creature makes another complaint.
“It’s a goose,” she decides. “They’re making a Santería ritual.” She is referring to the creole religion of Cuba.
“Not good news for the goose then?” I ask, and she shakes her head.
At Christmas, I packed in my job to write a book in Havana. If you say mid-life crisis, I’m flattered you think I’m so young. I rented an apartment on the sixth floor of a beautiful, if put-upon building in Centro Habana, the most frayed part of the Cuban capital.
‘We rush to the balconies to watch ships steaming in.’ Waves crash along the Malecon in Old Havana. Photograph: Rachel Lewis/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images
Part of the plan was to immerse myself in the city, and very quickly life on the streets was tugging at me. On the first day, a man leaning against a wall said: “Mi amigo, what are you looking for?” I wasn’t really sure where to start with a question like that, so I stopped and almost got run over by a 1952 Chrysler.
Getting to the apartment requires taking a lift like the one that delivers Mickey Rourke to hell in the film Angel Heart. The operators, Juan and Miriam, take turns. They close the gate and up we trundle in the cage, passing washed-out windows, bare bulbs and gritty floors. Juan plays Bryan Adams at deafening volume, and Miriam is so hungry she hasn’t the strength to press the button, so we start giving her breakfast.
Beware falling masonry … La Maravilla building in the old town. Photograph: Rachel Lewis/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images
Once inside, Casa Almson offers up high ceilings, elegant cornicing, slightly disreputable art and balconies on every side. It’s an elegant platform from which to look down on the city.
I am joined by my pal Chris, who is finishing a book on the opioid crisis in the US, and we write in the mornings. Once in a while, Chris shouts and we rush to the balconies to watch ships steaming in – they glide past the Morro Castle and into Havana bay, sounding their sirens as they come.
The house is not a refuge, though. The street comes up and in. There is the constant rumble of the 1950s cars, the shouts of hawkers selling everything from meat to peanuts to water. There are arguments, laughter and, of course, music.
One afternoon, again during my Spanish lesson, a furious row breaks out next door, every word audible through the well of the building. “You know how the eskimos have 100 words for snow?” says mi profesora. “Well, we Cubans have 100 words for dick.”
‘High ceilings, slightly disreputable art and balconies on every side.’ Casa Almson, Havana
In the afternoons, I leave Chris to write, and go on adventures. Sometimes it is enough just to walk. It’s one of the few cities in the world where you can saunter up the middle of the road. The bici-taxis swerve round me, asking where I want to go as I watch people shout up to friends on the higher floors, who then lower baskets for their provisions.
“You know why everyone walks in the centre of the road?” a friend tells me. “It’s because there is a real danger of falling masonry.” It is true, the city is falling to pieces, but another Cuban friend will say, “Don’t look at the buildings, look at the people.”
It’s hard not to look at both. From the mad hubbub of Centro, I wander into Vedado, a beautiful old neighbourhood of villas. On the more elegant streets, ancient jaguey trees drip vines while their roots tear up the paving stones. Here it’s possible to see a little of the lives being led behind the 19th-century facades, where Habaneros battle with shortages and bureaucracy by gripping on to culture and, the occasional swearword apart, an immense good humour.
At sunset I am back in Casa Almson learning Spanish, but sometimes mi profesora is away, and Chris and I go and sit on the wall of the Malecón, the road that edges the sea, or else find ourselves in the garden at the Nacional, the most august hotel in the city, drinking mojitos.
Where once eating was a trial in Havana, now it’s all choice. Using a crib sheet provided by expat travel specialist Toby Brocklehurst, we go in search of the best Havana now offers, superb restaurants such as La Corte del Principe where the ceviche is world class, or else San Cristóbal, where Barack Obama took Michelle during their 2016 visit, and which is only a few yards from Casa Almson.
‘In the afternoons I go on adventures.’ Ruaridh Nicoll watches the sunset
And from there, as the city cools to night, La Fábrica de Arte calls. It is a cultural centre that has become a great nightspot. Created out of an old cooking oil factory by Afro-Cuban musician X Alfonso, it attracts anyone looking for a good time, and all disappear into the warren where in one place there’s an art gallery, another a live music stage, elsewhere a club, and lots of secret little rooms where hidden conversations take place.
It’s usually the early hours before the city quietens. Beyond the shuttered windows of the house, there is the faintest whisper of music from a club or passing car. But the night the goose got it, the Santería initiates spilled on to the streets and began a singing competition, outdoing each other with their unaccompanied ballads, clearly enjoying their voices bouncing off the for once silent streets.
For a while I laughed, but then I rolled over and put earplugs in. Sometimes one needs a break from full immersion.
Way to go
Journey Latin America offers 11 days in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad, from £1,784pp, including flights from Gatwick, transfers, accommodation, breakfast, excursions and tourist card visa. Casa Almson is €70 a night for four sharing two rooms, but a discount can be negotiated for trips of over two weeks. To use Toby Brocklehurst’s services go to incloud9.com