Talking with a Stranger Leonardo, El Hombre Cubano (part 2)

Talking with a Stranger

Leonardo, El Hombre Cubano (part 2)

Photo by Susan Reid

Rumba Street is also known as the Callejón de Hamel in Havana Cuba, this street is full of life, rhythym, and culture. This is where my adventure begins with Leonardo, my stranger, the man that I met only moments before while walking the streets of Havana. (see Part 1) My story of talking with a stranger.

A bit of back story about Rumba Street and Callejón de Hamel or Hamel Alley, it is in the neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso in the municipality of Central Havana and it is one of the shortest streets in the city, barely 200 meters long, between by Aramburu and Espada streets. (read more)

Leonardo led me toward the music as we approached Rumba Street. It was familiar to me, as I was there the day before with friends, a short walk from our Air B&B. It is a tiny block full of vibrant colors and sculptures throughout. Benches converted from old cast iron bathtubs, that had been soldered in half and molded onto concrete blocks. The plants and flowers were growing out of hanging pots and along the walls, and the rusty steel sculptures, were surrounded by young children, who were jumping and climbing around them. This little block looked as though it was dropped right in the middle of a group of houses, where people still currently lived, who were sitting on their patios and balconies and watching all the activity on the street below, on this hot Cuban Spring day of 90 degrees F.

Rumba Street is also known as the Callejón de Hamel in Havana Cuba, this street is full of life, rhythym, and culture. Photo by Susan Reid

Leonardo showed me through the area towards the drums as we passed through the metal gates, that had been closed the day before. The garden was full of saturated colors, that matched the urgency of the demanding drums we were fast approaching. Leonardo, pointed through the glass-less window, for me to look. I peered in to see through the decorative grate and open window, to see a dark room, that was only lit by the sun as it seeped through the cracks in the plaster and the holes in the thatched roof. Indirect light came through the door and the window, that we were now standing in. Our shadows drew the attention of a beautiful Afro-Cuban women who looked up from her drum to meet my eyes, she was radiant. She appeared to be in her 50s and she looked to me and smiled as she glistened with sweat. She was holding court and she was happy to see the crowd gathering outside.

There were thunderous drums roaring from the room and I could see about 15–16 women of various ages from perhaps 13–60 years of age, in full decorative dress banging their congas, their guiros, maracas, and various percussion instruments. These women were in their glory, singing and dancing with their drums. Through my window, I could only see the Afro-Cuban women dancing and singing, and I imagined how incredibly hot it must be in the room that was literally only 10 feet wide and maybe 30 feet long, it appeared almost like a hut with a thatched roof. With each beat of the drum, the sweat would drip down their bodies and into their cleavage or bead at their brow. There was no question, these women were working for the crowd. At that moment, I wanted to pinch myself. I felt as though I had peered into a movie set. Leonardo asked, “Do you like?”

Like? I was speechless! I couldn’t believe I was seeing this unique moment, that the Potato Mafia ladies would never believe, don’t worry we will get to the Potato Mafia later, but this part of the story is reserved for Rumba Street. I responded with the only way I could at that moment, with a thumbs up. This was the moment when we were approached by the younger generation outside the room for a donation. And I, unfortunately at the time, did not have any small change, I only had 20 CUC, which is equivalent to $23 and now that I look back on it, that moment was worth the 20 CUCs as I saw how hard these women were working in this incredible heat. I wanted to take a picture of the moment, but I didn’t, because I was unable to leave a donation. I told the girls that I would come back, but the girls about 7–8 years old, just kept asking. I asked Leonardo to tell them why I was not able to make a donation and he explained, but they were persistent and I didn’t want to cheat them, so we left. However, before we scooted out, Leonardo gestured to me to look through the door of the room and said, “the tourists taking class.”

I could tell the Afro-Cuban women were performing their hearts out, but it wasn’t until this moment, that I realized who they were performing for, due to the language issue with Leonardo and I, his poor English and my poor Spanish. It was only then, that I realized that he was trying to explain that they were hosting a class for the tourists today on Rumba Street. The room was filled with Europeans, perhaps? Various people, but mostly of caucasion decent, they were up dancing with the other Afro-Cuban women. It appeared to be a dirt floor as the dust kicked into the sunlight. I felt like I had gotten a glimpse of a true African ritual and I was honored. I felt overwhelmed at the moment, I looked back to the women in the window and I again met the woman’s eyes that was glistening in the sun and we exchanged smiles through the window. She was gorgeous in that moment, the way the sunlight was hitting her body and the way the drums made her body move, she was truly glowing. I was moved by her spirit and energy, and I really have no recollect of what she actually looked like, perhaps because of the dimly lit room and the darkness of her skin that was off set by the bright white smile, but I was dumb struck, as she bore her soul to these people and she was radiant.

Photo by Kim Nicholais of

Leonardo continued to whisk me through the streets of Havana and said that I should come with him to the Buena Vista Social Club to make a reservation for later that evening for my friends and I. Apprehensive and feeling like I should return to my sick friend, I hesitated, but knowing that reservations are necessary for the popular places in Havana, I of course, continued on my adventure with the stranger…and I am so glad I did.

NOTE: I am enjoying recounting all that I can of my adventures in Cuba, but I am most surprised at how long it takes me to put into words a story, that I can tell in person within 10 mins, because I want you to really picture the places and people. I hope I can continue to bring you closer to Cuba through my words and at least spark your interest to explore…my adventure with Leonardo will be continued tomorrow.

 As published on Medium

El Hombre Cubano: The Cuban Man part 1

El Hombre Cubano: The Cuban Man part 1

Talking to strangers!

“Rhythm” Photo by Kim Nicholais of Nicholais Photography

“Don’t talk to strangers!” That is the one thing we have all been taught in the US, since we were young children? “Don’t talk to strangers!” And as a woman we are doubly aware when a strange man approaches us on the street, we quickly move away from the threat. Yes, any man is a potential threat to our safety, this is how we walk around the world, on guard and constantly accessing our safety. Always having one eye on the exit or knowing how we can get out of this situation in a hurry if we have to, or our panic reflex kicks in when we see no way out. So, if you are a man reading this, you should understand that most women operate with our personal safety as a first priority when meeting a man on the street.

One-two punch: Coming from New York City I have to rely on my gut instincts when a stranger approaches me on the street or subway platform, mostly innocent usually looking for directions, but sometimes they are looking to sell you something or want to ask for a donation, and on the rare occasion are sometimes crazy, so being from New York I have developed a one-two punch on how to handle these moments. You have 1-second to get me to pay attention followed by another 2-seconds to get to the point, within 4 seconds I have already begun to walk away with a gesture of the hand. This seems like a pretty logical approach to a strange man on the street, yet in Cuba I walked with a strange man for hours through the streets of Havana and it was wonderful.

My reason: While in Cuba I decided to take music classes because they are well know for a certain style of guitar and percussion, I opted to take both classes and the interesting thing about going to Cuba, you have to declare out of 8 reasons, why you are traveling to Cuba. So in having to declare why, ‘Education,’ it made me really think about why and what I would like to do there! I found a great music school, not a huge school, but a great place for lessons and in the middle of suburbia, I will post on the music lessons later, but this post is about El Hombre Cubano: The Cuban Man.

Un-guard: While walking back from my percussion class and thinking to myself, ‘wow, I am plugging right in and taking music lessons in a foreign land and I am getting around Havana by myself!’ Then a strange man walked into my life, literally. Isn’t this the premise of all romantic novels?

“Hola” a man began to walk beside me. He was dressed smartly, all white for the heat of Cuba, white polo shirt, white chino pants, and white converse shoes. He was probably about 60 years of age, tan with graying hair. At that moment, I remembered what my tour guide, Andrés said the day before. ‘In Cuba, it is not unusal for a man and a woman to strike up a conversation in the street and walk together.’


“Habla español?”

“Um pequîto español.”

Oh, um pequîto înglish!” although my initial reaction was to quickly dismiss him and walk away from the situation. I thought, well, I have to walk for another 10 blocks, what is the harm in us walking down the street together and practicing our languages. So, we began walking and talking in our Span-glish.

Leonardo is a percussionist, how amazing I thought. There is no way this man could have known, that I had just come from a percussion lesson. This is about the moment, that I switched from being concerned for my safety to the Universe intending us to meet. He began to show me tips immediately and wanted me to show him what I had learned. Of course, I had to fake what I remembered. He shared with me his gigs and said he is usually sleeping at this hour because he plays pretty late, but he decided to get up and walk the city today. He said he was playing tonight at the Buena Vista Social Club. As a musician, you have hopefully at least heard of the Buena Vista Social Club. He really had my attention at this point. What are the odds, that I would meet a percussionist in the streets of Havanna who was going to play a gig tonight at the Buena Vista Social Club? I was excited at the thought of actually getting to see some great music in Havana because up to this point we had not been able to find the right spot. He pointed out that there was a fair going on down that block and then he said,“Have you been to Rumba Street? The Afro-Cuban block?”

 “Barberia” Photo by Kim Nicholais of Nicholais Photography

Follow Me: I hadn’t remembered it by name, but when he mentioned the Afro-Cuban block, it clicked, we had just been there the day before, so I also knew it was not far from our Air B&B. “Today, they have a percussion and dance class for the tourists! Let’s go see, I will take you!” In these moments, when presented with a ‘follow me’…my guard returns for a moment to access the situation. I knew Rumba Street was not far from our place, so I knew I could navigate my way back if need be. So before you know it, we took a quick left and we were walking to Rumba Street together. I should also say, that I generally have a good sense of direction, although I was never a girl scout. So I knew when we took that quick left, we were literally walking the parallel block to our place, so I always had my beckon calling me back, like the North Star. I also should say, that I had a sick friend at the house, that was recovering from food issues, so I did want to get back and check on her too, so knowing where I was, was important to getting home quickly.

So this man had long passed my one-two punch and I had a moment, where I thought, ‘this is really happening, I am walking the streets with a strange man in Cuba, I must be crazy!’

I intended to tell the whole story today, but in words, it actually does take quite a bit of time to convey a good story, so like you, I must get back to work. What happened with Leonardo is literally what you read about in novels and I hope I can do the adventure justice in my story, so please tune in tomorrow for the second part of “Talking to Strangers!”  subscribe to our blog for updates

“Old Habana” Photo by Kim Nicholais of Nicholais Photography