La Habana, Cuba
La Habana of our nostalgic imagination was a coastal vibrant city of music and love, with ancient colonial architecture, great cathedrals and plazas, museums and galleries, colorful facades with balconies looking over narrow streets where old Soviet cars and even older American ones roar like lions in the perpetual heat of the summer. Where grey-haired men sit in the coolness of parks under dark ever-green trees in small groups improving the art of chess or dominoes, children run around barefoot, and beautiful Cubanas in dresses of all colors like muñeca, illuminate the entire town.
For a few days we roam the streets, somnambulists enveloped by sounds and smells we could not have predicted, comparing our imaginary Havana with the one before us, trying to look all around us and remember.
La Habana is schizophrenical, a city of multiple personalities; getting to know her can be heartbreaking.
La Catedral de San Cristobal, radiant in the heat of the summer, la Plaza de Armas, occupied by book vendors under shady trees, el Capitolio, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hugging Hugo Chavez in the front, el Museo de la Revolucion, rooms filled with black and white photographs and pages of the history of the Cuban Revolution, el Malecón, couples sitting with their backs to the city, kissing, el Museo de Bellas Artes, an interminable maze of rooms and corridors filled with Cuban paintings of all periods, la Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, a surprisingly good exhibit of contemporary art, la Casa del Che, an empty ghostly mausoleum opposite the statue of Cristo, el Morro, heavy on the other side of the Havana harbor, indifferent to the rest of the city, forever facing the unpredictable seas. All points of interest are exactly as we expected: impressive in size and reputation. We visit them one by one like the tour guide suggests, blending in the steady flow of pink tourists with photo cameras, backpacks, sunglasses, and hats.
But the atmosphere of this city, like a storm cloud, is heavy and charged with anxiety. What impresses us most are not the many points of interest turned touristic attractions but the aftermath-like ruins of the residential buildings. Everywhere, behind colorful facades hide dark humid interiors; the old apartment buildings are in a sad state of neglect and decay.
The care-free Habaneros of our imagination have been forever left to linger in the 1970s and the 1980s, succeeded by hungry sad people who have lost everything: hope, faith, and dignity.
We keep going. We only stop for beers, some ice cream, a small pizza and mango juice, and we are ready for the next place, dodging the inevitable taxi drivers offering rides and guided tours. We also start noticing strange things, some don’t make sense at all.
A beautiful woman with a bright dress comes out of a dark suspicious apartment entrance where electrical cables form a dense tangled maize on the wall. Used baby diapers have been washed and are now hanging to dry on a balcony. A 15-year-old boy is sitting on the sidewalk flattening beer cans with a hummer, his friends pass by holding wooden planks and invite him to play baseball; he can’t, has to work. The little bakery is almost empty, so is the fruit and vegetables bodegas. The big news they announce on TV is that eggs will be distributed in the entire country tomorrow. An old woman explains that the upper floor of the building she lives in crumbled and fell over her up-stairs neighbors last year killing the father. A teenage girl is kissing a very old foreigner in the park. All refrigerators you see through open doors of dark apartments are the same made-in-China model. Things don’t make sense to us but we hope that at least they make sense to the locals. But the locals tell us they don’t really. „Hay que inventar.“, we hear them sigh often. It means, they have to resort to their imagination, they have to „invent“ ways to survive. On the positive side of it, this makes them very resourceful and versatile people.
Thus, we discover La Habana full of past glory and sad misery, getting to know her bit by bit. She reminds us of the Cubana posing all day on the corner of the Plaza de la Catedral in her traditional cotton dress and a huge unlit cigar in the mouth, like Mickey Mouse or Spider Man in Disney World, waiting for tourists to take her picture for a peso. La Habana charms us, invites us, surprises us, shocks us. We are left with a wrong feeling inside. Having a relaxed authentic experience here today is almost impossible. We wish we could have visited La Habana in the 1980s.
More Pictures from Havana