Needles and rum in Havana

In an improvised tattoo studio in Havana. (Photo: Václav Lang)
In an improvised tattoo studio in Havana. (Photo: Václav Lang)

I fulfilled a dream I've had in my head since forever. As soon as I saw the first images of Cuba as a child a long time ago, I knew I wanted to go there one day. And the older I got, the stronger that desire became.

And so, suddenly, I was there. The year was 2016 and I landed in Havana, in the middle of my long-ago dream image. Only it soon became a nightmare.

The trap next to the trap

I didn't know a word of Spanish back then, and I wasn't prepared for the fact that there, as a solo tourist, I would be an easy target for all the street chasers for whom you were a goldmine in their poverty, somehow deserving to contribute, willingly or unwillingly, to their livelihood. They were all simply trying to benefit from you - and I don't condemn that, but I wasn't comfortable with it at the time either.

Havana streets
Havana. (Photo: Václav Lang)

No sooner were you on the street than they were already gathering around you like wasps on honey. The worst thing was that in Havana, the capital of what was then still a pretty strictly isolated "Island of Freedom", you couldn't do without the help of the locals. Whether you needed a place to stay, basic food, or to ask for directions. So you always had to meet the wasp swarm. In the end, you were just handing out money on all sides and unwittingly got caught in one tourist trap and lies after another.

And then there was the other factor. And that was the general hostility towards white tourists. Now, after years in Mexico and seeing under the hood of the remnants of colonialism, I'm not surprised. To some extent, I've picked up on it too. But then it all got so far that in the middle of my dream trip, I found myself locking myself in my room for the first time in all my travels around the world and not wanting to go out.

The only island where I was somewhat comfortable was the bar La Farmacia in the center of Old Havana. I stumbled upon it about an hour after arriving. I threw my stuff in my room and went looking for a place to grab a drink and start soaking up the atmosphere. This bar in the backdrop of a former pharmacy seemed like the perfect place from afar, so I didn't hesitate to step closer.

havana streets
Havana. (Photo: Václav Lang)

Behind the bar, a guy with dreadlocks tied over his head like the crown of a palm tree was brimming with energy. He was all tattooed up in a similar style to the kind of what I like. He asked me what I wanted. I asked for a beer. He handed me a bottle and asked in English where I was from. He was the first and last person in Havana who didn't mind speaking to me in the language of the imperialists and who didn't want to extort money from me.

I complimented him on his tattoos and he said that his friend Pepe, who was just celebrating his birthday in the backyard, did them for him.

And he was already taking me to him to introduce me. It didn't make his company too enthusiastic. Pepé seemed rather reserved and rather silent. But one of the girls in particular was very ostentatious in letting me know I wasn't welcome there. So after a while, I said goodbye to Yunior, as the dreadlocked bartender was called, and went home.

The next day, however, I returned. Because despite all that, I never felt as welcome in Havana as I did at the bar at La Farmacia. It was mostly Yunior's fault. His energy was contagious. He was radiant and gave the place a lively atmosphere, even if it was noon and the place was empty. We instantly became friends and talked about all sorts of things.

Memories on the skin

Yunior urged me to get a tattoo at Pepé's. And he didn't have to try very hard. I went on this lifetime trip - which was preceded by a week in California and three weeks in Mexico - with the idea that I would come back with some kind of memory on my skin. I've just been rather distant from that idea in the last few days. Mostly because I couldn't find a convenient place I could trust. But now Pepe was here. And Yunior had promised to set up an appointment with him for the following week when I returned from my trip around the island.

The Viñales Valley landscape in Cuba
The Viñales Valley has won my heart. (Photo: Václav Lang)

It should be noted that it was a completely different story in the countryside. The people were amazingly nice and hospitable. Exactly as I knew it from documentaries and as I dreamed of it. The nature was beautiful, and the atmosphere relaxed. If it hadn't been for my meeting with Pepe, I wouldn't have returned to the city. But I didn't want to disappoint Yunior or Pepe with my lack of punctuality. Yes, how naive, at that time I still thought that maybe in Cuba someone cared about time or deadlines.

No. In fact, they didn't even care about addresses. So Yunior repeatedly drew my plans to get to Pepe, and I repeatedly came back with nothing. It wasn't until the third day back in Havana that I got lucky. The problem was that this was not the tattoo studio we are used to and that I expected. Pepe only had a small corner in his parents' house reserved for him. It was also entered through the hairdresser's shop in the front, so when you walked by, you didn't even think to go in and ask for Pepe. I only got a hint when the mouthy girl from the first night appeared in the doorway of the hairdresser's just as I was desperately looking around again. Pepe's sister, I now discovered.

Pepe opened an ancient laptop with some prehistoric version of MS Word. He let me type the Vagabond sign with a red Cuban star instead of the letter A, and then we started choosing from about twenty available basic fonts.

With Pepe in his tattoo corner.

Fortunately, the one I was interested in was among them. Pepe then took a transparent paper, put it on the screen, and with his other hand traced the lettering. So if you've ever seen my wrists and wondered why the tattoo is so crooked, here's your answer.

As soon as we finished, I went to La Farmacia to celebrate. Yunior ripped the protective film off my wrist, which I was going to leave on the wound for a few days just in case because of the dust and dirt all around. "Let it breathe!" Yunior shouted. And he insisted that I go with him to Pepe's the next day because he was going to get something new too. "And you're going to tattoo something on me too. As a souvenir to our friendship," he said.

For I shared with him that I had made a couple of tattoos on myself. So now he's come up with the idea that I'll fill the one vacant spot on his elbow with a simple triangle on a stem - a martini glass. I didn't want to do it anyway, but Yunior didn't want to hear any talking back.

Rum and a circle of trust

The next day we met at La Farmacia. It was my penultimate day in Cuba. Yunior whizzed in on his skates and together we went to Pepe's. A whole bunch of people I knew from the birthday party 14 days before were waiting there. This time they didn't look grim at me anymore, but greeted me and complimented the new picture on my skin. They also handed me a glass of rum to welcome me, like everyone else was holding, and sipped while Pepe tattooed one of them. We sat in a circle, drank rum, and talked about tattoos and all sorts of things.

The whole gang at the party. (Photo: Václav Lang)

Yunior kept insisting that when Pepe was done with the boy, I would take up the needle. He even bragged about it to the others. I, on the other hand, wanted to do it less and less with each glass of rum. And then there was the "Circle of Trust".

"Come with us to the Circle of Trust," Yunior invited me to follow him and the rest of the boys up the stairs toward the attic. I was too drunk to care what was going to happen there. In fact, there was a dark and semi-decayed attic of Pepe's family home. His father followed us there, a skinny guy with sharply cut lines and a hard, yet kind, look. I fumbled around in the darkness wondering what was going to happen. Then Pepe's father walked around us all and put a thin joint between everyone's fingers. Almost as thin as a match, which then circulated and we all lit up. "Welcome to the Circle of Trust," Yunior grinned at me. The circle meant that everyone always took a pull from the joint and passed it on to its neighbor. And round and round like that until we'd all finished smoking and thrown the butts on the floor.

We went back into the room and finished another bottle of rum. After the weed, though, fatigue began to overwhelm me and my head began to spin. I suspected that I was coming to a swift end and that if I didn't get out now, I would have a hard time waking up in the morning, let alone packing my things and crossing from Havana to Varadero, where my flight to Europe was leaving that afternoon.

I told Yunior I had to go pack, but I'd be right back. And I really meant it. I just closed my eyes for a moment back in my place. And I passed out at that moment. When I woke up, it was after midnight. I ran out into the quiet street and headed back to Pepe. But the front door of the house was boarded up, and there was no sign of my fellows from the Circle of Trust. I headed toward downtown Old Havana to see if I could find them there. After all, they had mentioned dancing earlier and the night was still young for Cuba. But Yunior and co. were nowhere to be found. I went back to my room and after a few hours of poor sleep, I took a cab the next morning, hungover, past the locked Farmacia to the north of the island.

Yunior and I had managed to exchange contacts beforehand, so when I got home we occasionally texted. I was particularly interested in how things were going on the island now because the day after I left they announced the death of Fidel Castro. My journalistic soul mourned, and still on the plane right after landing and learning the news, I was looking for a way to get back as quickly as possible. But it was too late.

So, at least at home, I opened the bottle of rum I'd brought, lit one of the many cigars from the Cuban countryside, and reminisced about how the island, after all, had grown on me and had provided a great experience after all. Along with the booze and smokes, I also brought back a great friendship and memories that not everyone who visits the island has. And a tattoo from Pepe sealed the deal. Every time I look at it, I think of the party at his house, the Circle of Trust, and the dreadlocked boy bursting with energy who welcomed me into his people and was the only one who didn't turn his back on me.

A random reunion

Six years have passed. By then I was living in Ciudad de México and returning to the Czech Republic once or twice a year for a visit. I lost contact with the Cuban guys. All I knew, thanks to social media, was that Yunior had moved to America, cut off his dreadlocks, and become a smooth, handsome man with a haircut and mountains of muscle.

On that March day two years ago, I was just returning from the Czech Republic to Mexico, and on the way I took a one-day break in Miami. I got to the bus terminal from the airport to get to my hostel as cheaply as possible. But I was a little lost there. It was a deserted place with lots of platforms and no system that made sense to me. I had no idea where my connection was coming from or when, so I walked from station to station trying to get my bearings on the timetables.

On one bench sat a hunched-over skinny guy with dark glasses and a chain earring. I was intrigued because he was all tattooed in the exact style I like.
"Oh shit!" I paused and started to look him over. Until he looked up at me suspiciously.

"Yunior?" I asked. "Is that you?" He straightened up a little and looked at me grumpily. He nodded in astonishment and quietly muttered that he was. Aside from the fact that he didn't look very cheerful, he now seemed quite confused and even a little annoyed that I was bothering him.

"We met in Havana," I blurted out, pointing to my wrist. "Remember?"

By then he remembered, smiled, high-fived, and hugged me.

I couldn't believe it and was blown away that we were meeting. I was about to suggest we go out for a beer that night, but I didn't feel the same enthusiasm from the other side. The vibrant energy was gone. Conversation was as stalled as on a bad date, we just said in a few sentences who was doing what where, and then there was silence.

"Do you still remember the guy who tattooed you?" Yunior broke the silence after all.

"Of course I do. Pepe," I replied. How could I forget him!

"He's dead," Yunior said.

"What? That's impossible. What happened?"

"It's been a long time. He came here before me. He took too many drugs. Then he went back to Cuba and hung himself."


cuban woman walking by the street in old havana
Havana. (Photo: Václav Lang)

This initially happy encounter got a bitter aftertaste too quickly. It wasn't the laughing boy with the dreadlocks who roller-skated through the rutted streets of Havana to get some new nonsensical tattoo almost every day and then went on to salsa dancing. I don't know, maybe he just didn't have a day, maybe I didn't have a day. But it wasn't the same encounter as the other day at La Farmacia in Old Havana.

So when I sensed that our conversation was really winding down and Yunior was playing more and more with his headphones in his hands, I asked him one last time if he had any idea where this bus was coming from, and that was it. He had no idea. We shook hands and went our separate ways.