It was the sort of moment that could only seem normal on the Malecόn. There we were: people watching on Havana’s famous esplanade. It was a miserable day. The threat of rain hung in the air and the angry surge of the ocean cascaded over the sea wall, almost pushing Cuba’s jaunty egg taxis off the road.

The Malecόn was all but deserted, as the usual parade of swooning lovers and cheeky teenagers sought refuge from the weather.

It was our last few hours in Havana and after days of torrential rain, we were willing to brave a few clouds.

The Malecόn stretches for more than 8km along the coast of Havana, from the Bay of Havana to Vedado. The renowned walkway, one of the most famous locations in Cuba’s capital city, is a sight of romance and recreation, a place where both locals and tourists come to while away the hours gazing out to sea.

My boyfriend and I sought a dry spot as we watched the sea deal a punishing blow to passersby, drenching them with barely a moment’s notice.

It was then that the two women emerged. Dressed in what we had begun to recognise as the Havana uniform — vividly coloured spandex, at least two sizes too small — the women stood overlooking the water, just out of range of the waves. They were both middle aged, one blonde, one brunette, and laden with shopping bags. Let’s call them Maria and Sophia.

As we watched, Maria pulled an assortment of herbs and branches, and a live bird from a bag. I couldn’t quite work out what type of bird it was, but it looked like a dove. Clutching the limp bird by the feet, Maria began to chant. Within moments, Sophia joined in. I couldn’t understand what they were saying over the whistle of the wind, but had they begun to attract a crowd. We were curious now but they were undeterred. Maria began to rub a branch covered in leaves up and down the body of her friend, as Sophia stood with her arms open and face to the sky. It was as if she was being brushed clean. After the frenzy of the branch came the bird. Still clutching the dove by the feet, Maria rubbed the body of the bird all over Sophia’s body, following the same pattern as she had the branch. The bird barely moved as its tiny, feathered body stroked Sophia’s legs, arms, stomach and back.

After the routine was complete, Maria and Sophia swapped places. It was now Maria’s turn to be rubbed with the branch and bird. The bird hung lifelessly in Sophia’s grasp.

We sat mesmerised by this ritual. Despite the language and cultural barrier, we knew we were privy to some sort of religious ceremony. For a moment, I wondered if we were witnessing a strange Cuban voodoo, involving a bird and tree branches. But when a crowd began to gather, I knew this was not an everyday event.

From the throngs of people watching in astonishment, a policeman materialised. At his hip was a somewhat sinister-looking gun. “Here we go,” I thought. “He’s going to break this up and save the poor bird.”

But the policeman simply joined the crowd, watching curiously as Maria and Sophia continued as if no-one was around. A street musician, guitar in hand, decided to add to the entertainment. The melodic sounds filled the air as the audience looked on with wonder.

Suddenly, the chanting stopped. It seemed the ceremony had reached its climax. Maria turned to the churning ocean, and with a final shout, threw the branch into the water, followed by the bird.

A shock went through the crowd as the bird suddenly came to life mid-air, flapping its wings against the strength of the wind. It fell swiftly, disappearing into the froth of the water. A shout went through the surrounding spectators, a mixture of astonishment and alarm. The bird surfaced a few seconds later; the crowd moved to the seawall, watching as the bird’s white feathers were engulfed by the waves. Even the policeman was captivated by the bird’s futile struggle. Within minutes, it was carried out to sea, the branch floating nearby.

Promptly, Maria and Sophia packed up their belongings, as if they had been having a simple chat by the seaside. They walked through the throng without a word, and continued on down the Malecόn. Slowly, the audience began to disperse. Some watched the as bird slowly floated out to sea. The musician threw his hat to the ground, hoping to cash in on the spectacle.

My boyfriend and I looked at each other in astonishment. “Did we just imagine that?” I asked. We had just seen a side of Cuba that most could never imagine. We could not have asked for better end to our Havana trip.

India Lloyd is an Australian journalist living in the Cayman Islands.