Meeting of the millennials in Cuba

In Havana, it's easy to get jaded by the swarm of hawkers ready to rip you off at a moment's notice. We eventually gave into Julio, a middle aged man in a hot pink vintage ride, who we hired to take us round Havana. As I scrambled into the back of the car, a gangly kid in a straw cowboy hat covered a jagged piece of door metal so I wouldn't cut myself.

He grinned. "Watch out - it's sharp."

This kid was Julio's partner and our tour guide; my dad threw his hands up in the air and muttered darkly once he realised he had another person to tip. I started recording the kid, not because I was particularly interested in him at this point, but because I couldn't be bothered to write up information from memory later on. His commentary was okay, vetted and memorised, but it was when he went off script the tour came alive.

As we soared past the curves of the Capitol and the coloured houses, the kid turned to me - all white teeth and big eyes. "I'm learning languages at university. English is great, but I always forget where the verbs go. But I hate learning German."

I went to German school for years, so I knew a bit. "Yeah, me too. It sounds so angry all the time."

"You speak it too? Ich heiBe Ernesto," he told me, thrusting his hand awkwardly into the backseat for a handshake.

"Hallo, Ernesto," I said, grinning. 

Ernesto was 19 years old and somersaulted through sentences because his mind moved faster than his English.

I don't doubt that if I met him at a party back home, we would easily have become friends; he smiled easily, was curious about absolutely everything and handed out stories eagerly. At this point, he was in his first year at university and had been working with Julio on their buddy cop/tour guide routine for three months. Julio had been working as a driver for eight years - but he didn't own his car. At some point, the Cuban government had taken a load of vintage cars and turned them into tourist taxis as a form of revenue

Julio seemed like he would be driving taxis till he was too old to anymore. Ernesto didn't know how long he would be working as a tour guide.


We turned out of Old Havana and in the distance, the looming visage of Che Guevara and Revolution Square appeared. Ernesto asked out of the blue, "What's London like?"

I'd just been accepted onto a masters in the UK. "It's really different. Lots and lots of skyscrapers and the weather's not as nice."

Skies in Cuba are aggressively blue and the sun bears down on you relentlessly. Ernesto said, "I really want to go there. I want to go everywhere."

"Yeah? Where are you thinking?" I asked.

"Italy," he said immediately. "And Germany. And New York and Miami and Paris. I really want to go to Paris."

"Paris is nice! Not nearly as clean as here though," I explained. "New York's insane. You'll love it, there's so much energy everywhere."

At this point, Julio hissed through his teeth at Ernesto to stop faffing around and pulled the car to a stop outside Revolution Square. Ernesto sheepishly popped out of the car and launched into his spiel, racing through it before quietly giving us space to take photographs and explore the sprawling concourse.

I returned to the car and heard snatches of conversation that Ernesto was having with my father.

" how did you come to Cuba? Did you need an invitation?" he asked.

My dad shrugged. "We applied for a visa and flew over. It wasn't too complicated."

Ernesto balked at that. "So you didn't need an invitation?"

"Well, we needed a visa," my dad explained.

"No, no - I mean you didn't need to be invited by that country? If I want to leave Cuba, that government has to formally invite me and then I have to get a visa as well. That's why not a lot of people get to leave Cuba," he told us.

"Is that why you haven't been able to travel a lot?" I asked him.

"Yeah, and it's expensive. It's hard to make money," he explained, looking down at his feet. "But there are a lot of Cubans in Miami. Maybe they'll be able to help."

I’d been to five different countries in less than a year. It’s hard not to feel like shit when you realise how good you have it.

While Julio not-so-subtly suggested additions to the tour to swing more money out of us, Ernesto tried to swing glimpses of the outside world and tell us about his life. In the twisted trees of Havana Forest, he told us how he and his friends had bought a bunch of beers and walked for hours through the leaves, filling the silence with his guitar till his fingers hurt. Next to a graveyard, he told us how he hated Santeria or voodoo (Cuba's biggest religion) and how they drown a child in the river on the first day of the year.

He asked me what phone I used and what it was like to have internet everywhere, then told me about buying his fake Samsung on the black market and paying for internet by the hour in designated areas. He asked me about my favourite movies, none of which he'd seen, then waxed poetical about Titanic. It wasn't surprising that he'd be a romantic. 

As we began to drive back into the city, he rose up to his knees and pointed at a nondescript building in the distance.

"That's a supermarket," he told us, as though we'd never seen one before. As though it were one of Havana's biggest landmarks. "It's incredible, it has so many things inside it."

"Is it new?" I asked him.

He nodded, holding onto his hat. "A few months. It has everything. But it's expensive, so..."

If he'd been excited by the supermarket, it didn't compare to his reaction to a carpark filled with white trailers. He jumped up and gestured, "Those are trailers for Fast and the Furious, they're filming here."

"Holy shit, we might get to see Vin Diesel," I said, grinning. "I love Vin Diesel."

He laughed and grinned back. "Vin Diesel! Can you believe it? Hollywood is here. Hollywood thinks Havana is important. Things are changing."

The Fast and Furious crew had sealed off half of Havana's biggest highway, the Malecon, for a few scenes. In a nearby car park, Havana's most beautiful vintage cars were lined up as a production manager selected which ones would be in the film. I wondered what kind of Havana they were filming, if a changing Cuba would make the cut.

Julio pulled up by the Plaza de la Francisco in Old Havana, near our hotel. As we jumped out, my dad slipped both Ernesto and Julio a tip.

Ernesto hung onto his hand a moment longer and said in a small voice, "God bless you."

Then he turned to me and repeated it. Then he turned to my mother and repeated it again, his eyes full.  

Hours later, my mum would tell me, "It was so hard watching you and Ernesto talk. You're both just kids, but there was you, going off to do your London masters in September with all the opportunity in the world, and then there was him, with so many barriers but so much ambition. You're exactly the same, but it was just such a difference."

I'd been thinking about that a lot too, about Ernesto and supermarkets and travel permits. 

She folded her clothes and slipped into bed for a nap, saying, "But he'll be fine. Kids like him are always hungry for more. He'll work even harder than you will."