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