HAVANA — It is a June night in Old Havana, with a waning moon and temperatures a steamy 29 °C. A few meters from Obispo, a shopping street, two Japanese tourists are crouching at the entrance of a palatial building turned five-star hotel, staring at their smartphones.
Next comes a man from Buenos Aires, desperate to check his e-mail, add a couple of 'likes' to his Facebook page and send someone a WhatsApp to say how much he is enjoying his holidays in Havana. He arrives all sweaty from another luxury hotel. The Argentine wasn't a guest there either, so wasn't allowed into the lobby to check his mail. But in this hotel, anyone can bring a laptop or phone to surf the web, albeit only until 10 p.m., when the lobby closes to non-guests. It's after 10, so like the Japanese tourist, he does his surfing on the sidewalk.
Back in Argentina he uses a desktop computer for his Internet needs and criticizes people who are married to their smartphones. Now, though, he's sitting in front of this Havana hotel and staring at a screen without taking note of the two Cubans playing chess on the tree-lined Paseo del Prado. He doesn't hear the sound of that classic song "Dos Gardenias," with its finely tuned voices, playing somewhere nearby. Nor has he noticed the driver of a Fiat 125 taxi and his USB packed full of reggaeton music.
The man won't go into the bar across the way that offers salsa classes. He won't sip a guarapo — a kind of cane sugar squash — on San Francisco de Asís square. And he won't find out that the antiques and used books market on the Plaza de Armas has now moved closer to the port, where the cruise ships arrive.
Waiting to buy an ETECSA card in La Havana — Photo: Billy Reed
The Argentine does know, however, that in Havana — like in Spain — they call WiFi "güifi." He has figured out too that tourists can connect in some of the expensive hotels of the colonial district after buying an ETECSA (the state telecommunications firm) card. It shows a user ID consisting of 12 numbers and another, difficult-to-remember number code, revealed when you scratch the card. The connection lasts an hour, is slow and sometimes breaks down.
By Sunday he might even wean himself off WhatsApp.
Some of the hotels sell the WiFi cards. Otherwise, getting one involves waiting in long lines at the state telephone company. But maybe there's a benefit to all that asking around for WiFi. It slows things down a bit. For the Argentine man, it offers a taste of life at an entirely different pace.
Maybe by Monday those oh-so-important tweets stop mattering as much. By Wednesday he might care bit less about what his friends think on Facebook. Perhaps on Friday he'll even be able to eat a meal without loading a picture of it onto Instagram. By Sunday he might even wean himself off WhatsApp.
With a little luck, his two-week holiday might — by the second week — actually become a vacation. Forget about WiFi for a while, and he just might make a meaningful connection with Havana.