A Beauty Salon In The Middle of Old Havana

By Ronelle King*

HAVANA TIMES – On our return from attending a global youth event in Sochi, Russia my two Grenadian colleagues and I decided to peruse Old Havana where our hostel was located. Separated from our delegation and depressed over our misplaced luggage, I thought it best we have an adventure in case our sanity decided to take one first.

Two of us had already broken down into tears and figured it was only a matter of time before the last of us did. With nothing but the clothes on our backs—so basically all our possessions—we ventured deep into Old Havana.

It was already quite apparent from the several dilapidated buildings that we were no longer in Kansas yet there was this strange familiarity that lingered in the air. Community. There were people leaning against street bars with their companions laughing and drinking their beverages.

The sound of knees being slapping after a well-executed joke.The hearty laugh that cared not for respectability in this very moment. The sound of children’s amusement as they made their way home from school. The rough housing from the boys as the girls looked on indifferently.

Drinking it in as we walked by, I felt a pang of guilt in my stomach as I compared my childhood to theirs. I had done most of the same things, but the gulf between us was my privilege. I was afforded privileges that these children might never experience in their lifetimes. I went to private school. I never lacked for clothing, and on the rare occasion the words “hand me down” presented themselves, they were presented as a last resort. I never had to worry about my next meal.

Likewise, I had access to running water day and night. I had access to the Internet and the wealth of knowledge that it held. I had libraries full of books to read at my leisure. I had access to transportation to and from school in my parents’ vehicle, etc. The list of privileges were endless. My feelings of entitlement to these privileges were still present—not twenty minutes earlier, I was livid because my hostel had no internet.

I swallowed my guilt and decided to view my current location in a new light. My situation though tragic, was temporary. Theirs was not. In 24 hours, I’d be flying to a country where the air was clean, the wind was cool, and hot water was aplenty.

As I continued to ponder my good fortune, we began to venture further into city looking for souvenirs to take back home to our loved ones. It was during this search that we stumbled upon Chinatown. In what literally looked like a hole in the wall, there were three women ushering us inside.

As someone who supports the advancement of women in rural areas, I encouraged my companions to spend 5 CUC ($5 USD) at a local salon just to get our nails filed, buffed and painted. We could have gotten souvenirs at a mall but putting the money straight into the hands of the women I was certain were the backbones of their households is always the better option. That money would help their children eat another day, or contribute to the bills. I thought I’d rather support her hustle than add to the riches of a wealthy business owner.

I was in awe of the strength, the cheerful hospitality, and the resilience of these women. They had not even half of what I have as a salon owner but their drive and willingness to hone their craft, to earn more so they could better provide for their family, was inspiring. We couldn’t understand each other without Google Translate, but who wouldn’t have felt welcomed by those warm, inviting smiles?

We made our way back to our hotel via horse-drawn carriage, made little to no fuss about having to bathe with hand sanitizer due to there being no running water, and got into our beds. It wasn’t long before we were fast asleep, as we had quite an exhausting day.

Five hours later, I awoke to the sound of my alarm. I brushed my teeth and showered in the sink before dressing in the t-shirt provided to me by the hotel. I picked up my carry on, checked out of the hostel, and headed for the airport, waving goodbye to both beauty and horrors of Havana while wearing my guilt on my sleeve.

*HT Guest writer

 

  • Moses Patterson

    Those poor, poor Cubans. I get knots in my stomach every time I read or hear a story like this from a first-time or short-term visitor to Cuba. I have absolutely no doubt that every bit of what Ronelle wrote is reflects what she experienced. But what bums me out is that less than 5 miles away from her hostel, in Vedado or Miramar, is a Cuba of an entirely different stripe. There are satellite TVs on 72-inch screens, 5-head showers with steaming hot water and unlimited high-speed internet. OK, that Cuba is not nearly as prominent or accessible as the Cuba that Ronelle saw, but it is there. Ironically, for a privileged few, even as conditions worsen in Cuba today for the average Cuban, life continues to improve dramatically in both comfort and quality. One other gripe: Enough with the whole happy kids playing in the street and old men laughing in bars stuff. I bet nearly every one of those smiling faces Ronelle saw would trade passports with her in a heartbeat. As I have commented in the space before, people used to say the same thing about Black slaves who sang as they worked in the fields under a blistering sun.

    • Ronelle King

      I wrote an extensive reply about why I wrote this piece but rather post it I’ll say this:

      This piece is not a reflection of my thoughts of Cuba as a country or the Cuban people but rather a documentation of my thoughts and my experiences during my final day in Cuba which was the only day I was able to explore. I should mention all of the exploration I did with my colleagues was by foot.

      In reference to smiling faces, I was referring to the women in the salon. We couldn’t understand each other through language but their hospitality and pleasant demeanor made me feel welcomed.

      Finally, that part of Cuba was not accessible to me or my delegation. I’m sorry that this was not the first time experience you were hoping to read but I can only write on what I experience.

      My significant other’s grandfather is from Cuba and he hopes to visit soon to soak in the culture as well as connect with family. Perhaps his first time experience (and my subsequent second visit) would be more along the lines of what you were expecting.

      This was the account by another person in my delegation: https://medium.com/@priscillaabhilakhmissier/how-i-survived-without-my-luggage-e697ec27d2fa?source=linkShare-cf7b9c6c7d9b-1511135424

      ^ we were separated, her hostel and stayed in different hostels so our experiences would differ and also she stayed longer than I did.

      *The issue with our luggage (that she mentions) was that the Cuban delegation made the chartered plane overweight with all of their purchases from russia and our luggage was randomly selected to be left behind. Most of us still haven’t received our luggage as yet. Hopefully this provides more context.

      • editorht

        Thanks again Ronelle for sharing your experience on that one day in Cuba.

      • Moses Patterson

        Please accept my apology if my comment appears critical. The truth is that after my first visit I would likely said the same things you said.

        • Ronelle King

          Constructive criticism is always welcomed. I just wanted to explain the details that contributed to the piece’s overall narrative to give you a better understanding.

          No apology is necessary. :)

  • Eric Levert

    Cuba is magical, as long as the magic can stop when you are ready to go back home…

  • Sylvia Baker

    Ms. King.  You have experienced so much during your  short visit  to Cuba.  But it seems you’ve been privileged in ways most Bahamians were and are not. How many Bahamians are homeless, go to bed hungry, wear hand-me-downs and are unemployed?  By what magical formula  can they procure  limousine service to attend private schools, running water, electricity and internet service? When was the last time you visited a family island… Andros, Cat Island, Ragged Island? Why the guilt?  But for all of your privilege, what have you contributed to lift others out of oppression, even here in the Bahamas?  During your Cuba visit, did you find opportunities for meaningful exchange and  conversation w a Cuban-Cuban?  What do you know of Cuba, really?

    • Ronelle King

      Didn’t anyone ever tell you that they loved you as a child?

      Could you imagine the level of insecurity that must have manifested to possess you to stalk me all the way to this page to rant about things that are completely unrelated to the article?

      If you want to address me, do so on the initial thread.

      This obsession you have with Louby and anyone who fights for human rights is beyond me and perhaps I might suggest some therapy.

      Lastly, you know nothing about me or what I have done or intended to do for the bahamian and/or Cuban people.

      I am a Barbadian citizen yet, I’ve probably done more for your country from a distance than you’ve actually done your entire life of being there.

      Do not come for me if I did not send for you. I will not be as diplomatic next time.