On a pilgrimage to Cuba, Owen Scott and his ukulele bandmates meet new pals keen to strum and dance.

"Sing and hand over your declaration to Customs."

The typo on the Customs form at Havana Airport was apt — sing was exactly what the Flukes, six ukulele players from Auckland, intended to do. And with "normalisation" the word on political lips, we were eager to experience Cuba before the hordes descended and Cuba got Starbucked.

On our first morning in Vieja Habana (Old Havana), we woke to the sounds of noisy, busy streets. We had opted to stay in casa particulars, family-run guest houses, the best way to experience the shy, warm Cuban hospitality.

Our first casa had been in the family for 200 years and its operation was very much a family affair; meals were served by the aunts on the roof terrace. We weren't expecting great food in Cuba, but breakfasts could usually be relied upon — guava, pineapple, watermelon and mango, accompanied by fruit juice and strong coffee. Tortilla would follow, with a spam-like ham we learned to avoid.


Then that moment when we stepped out the door into sensory overload — cars, cigars and music in greedy abundance. Our progress through the streets would have embarrassed a snail. From the repetition of "OMG!" and iPhone clicking you would have thought something had been slipped into the tortillas.

The joy of Old Havana is to wander and get lost; you have to succumb to being just a tourist. There are plenty of elevated cultural things to do and to see, but walking the streets is the most rewarding way to see the city and engage with the people.

There's a friendly, polite curiosity to Cubans, almost a wariness - evidence that for more than 50 years (post-Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis) Cuba has been relatively sequestered. But change is in the air. A fresh whiff of capitalism and opportunity has flared the nostrils of every Cuban.

The rules of this game are known only to the boys playing. Photo / Owen Scott
The rules of this game are known only to the boys playing. Photo / Owen Scott

It wasn't long before a local man asked us where we were from and we succumbed to his charm. He told us Cuba's famous Buena Vista Social Club was playing a special concert that very night and led us to an old building nearby where we readily bought tickets and paid him a tip. Nothing is free in Cuba. That's hardly a surprise. Most people are dirt poor.

As we left the building, our friendly "guide" said it was a "workers' holiday" and we could buy cigars on the quiet. We'd read the guide books: do not buy cigars on the street.

Like lambs we allowed ourselves to be ushered into the broken-down innards of a building nearby where a range of Monte Cristos and Cohibas was quickly laid out for us. The "workers' holiday" is the stock fable used on credulous gringos and we fell for it. Luckily, the quality of the cigars was reasonable. It's wise to stick to the government-run outlets, but illicit cigar-buying is certainly a novel way to see something of the real Havana behind those classical facades.

And the real Havana is a magnificent ruin. Parts of Prado look like Beirut. But heading towards Centro Habana, we found evidence of restoration. With its concentration of luxury hotels, the Parque Central area is the celebrated circuit of American automotive history. Like birds of paradise, these gaudy relics circle continuously, swallowing tourists and taking them for the ride of their lives. It's like being on a film set, but only two films are ever being made: American Graffiti and Bugsy Malone.

The idea of touring Havana in a 50s Dodge or Fairlane at first seemed cringe-worthy, but what better way to see the city than in a "jellybean" with the top down.

Away from the hot spots we were treated to a surprise: in Parque Almendares, by the river, we chanced upon a small voodoo ritual being conducted by a mother and her children. There were no live chicken beheadings, but a few feathers on the wind quickened the imagination.

For the Flukes, music and dance was high on the list, and in the Old Town there was always something happening. The narrow streets of Obispo and O'Reilly have bars on every corner, serving the ubiquitous mojito, and bands playing a mixture of salsa, rumba and son. The Buena Vista Social Club experience, luckily, was a good one. As we watched the venerable singer, Juana Bacayao, perform, we knew we were experiencing a little bit of musical history and greatness. The salsa dancer in our midst was in for a treat that night — whisked up to the front by the orchestra's young dancer and given a memorable spin in front of 200 people. After that, in every casa particular we stayed in he seemed to find an endless supply of young women with whom to hone his skills.

The pinnacle of our trip had to be when the Flukes introduced incredulous Cubans to the ukulele's charms. Striking up Four Seasons in One Day in a cafe a crowd quickly formed.

Bongos mysteriously appeared and suddenly we had an extra member of the band. But the star appearance was the elderly, besuited, cigar-clenching Cuban, dancing in his fedora before us. You don't see that on Ponsonby Rd. We left our mark.

Havana is so seductive it's almost a cliche. With Airbnb now operating it's going to open up like a flower. Get there before the petals start turning.

Further information: Locally Sourced Cuba offers two-week tours of Cuba, including accommodation, transfers and guide.