Leaving My Heart in Havana
The song accompanying this post is Besos Discretos performed by Fusión Caribe, a fantastic band on the streets of Havana. Video follows below.
We arrive in darkness around midnight, packed in a taxi, creeping along a narrow street in La Habana Vieja. Our driver speaks very little English, but stopping and turning off the engine is a pretty clear indication that we’ve arrived at our casa particular. Our host meets us on the street and shows us into the building. We climb five flights of stairs and enter the tall wooden door to our apartment.
Even though I’ve seen the photos online, our casa particular unexpectedly sweeps me up in its aura, with its decorative floor tiles and unreachable high ceilings. The photos on the wall offer a few hints about the history of the neighborhood over the past decades. The gold chandelier looks cherished but forgotten. The refrigerator is a relic. The parlor doors swing open to the warm night air and the balcony looks out on a street where thousands of days and nights and people have come and gone in Havana. This place has so many stories to tell.
We sleep and wake up the next morning to music. It’s a fusion of sounds coming from all over — below us, out front, out back. The combined rhythms eventually pull me out of bed. No one seems to mind the noise. This is just how Cuba wakes up in the morning. I follow the strongest beat to the back of the apartment and look out from the open air dining area where I’m greeted by a bright yellow wall against a blue sky. How curious that someone has felt strongly enough to paint half a wall in such a magnetic color in such an unusual location. Like the morning music, it’s another clue about the spirit of Cuba.
As the morning goes on I become a dance partner with the balcony overlooking the street, where the neighborhood has come to life. Outside, inside, outside, inside… I unpack in the bedroom while taking quick little breaks to see who and what is passing by below. I see I’m not the only dancer. Everyone with a balcony has mastered this same choreography. Outside, inside. Inquire, retreat.
Our casa particular is located across the street from a wonderful little Italian café where we enjoy coffee, breakfast and a warm welcome to the neighborhood. An old Ford Model T pulls up with a delivery of firewood for the café’s pizza oven. The scene in front of me probably doesn’t look all that different now than it would have in the 1930s.
We walk to the malecón where the road and the seawall extend for several miles in a graceful curve on the north side of the city. The heat and sun are as intense as the blue of the sky and the colors of the cars driving by. These classic cars are everywhere, inspiring our constant speculation about make, model and year. It seems almost miraculous that so many are still running and in pretty great shape (the exteriors, at least) some fifty+ years since manufacture.
A tiny vintage cab shuttles us over to the cerveceria near the ferry terminal and art market. It’s our first of many experiences with live music, beer and cigars. In this heat, a cold beer tastes really good. We hang out for a couple hours and continue our walk around the city.
Most of the architecture of Havana is in dire need of restorative attention, but the remaining beauty offers tantalizing hints at how incredible this city must have been in its heyday in the early to mid-1900s. During that time, Cuba was enjoying freedom from former rule by Spain and relations between Cuba and the U.S. were functional. Havana flourished from a boom in tourism and foreign investment, but the growth of casinos and nightclubs brought gambling, prostitution and organized crime. This, along with repeated upheavals within the government, meant that the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s were prosperous but challenging.
Shortly after the Revolution and introduction of communism, foreign-owned assets were expropriated and the U.S. embargo began. Cuba set off on a new path, independent of the sources of its previous economic success. The country stagnated and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union further degraded the economy. Cuba found itself trapped in time, with no way to move forward.
Havana’s streets tell the whole story — with plazas and churches from the 1700s alongside formerly beautiful buildings left unprotected from the clutch of age. With pastel colors and Spanish Colonial features, some streets resemble an unlikely mash-up between Prague and Cuzco. Other streets are rough and decaying but there’s always at least one friendly face peeking out from a window or a doorway. In some cases, the face we see belongs to Che Guevara. His visage is everywhere and it seems he’s the most endeared figure of the Revolution.
We come to the Plaza de San Francisco and the rain begins to pour down. We rush into Restaurante Café del Oriente and feel like we’ve suddenly stepped 75 years back in time. The grit is gone and we’ve found Havana’s old opulence in this cafe’s enormous columns, Baroque crown moulding, and marble and brass bar. A young man plays a grand piano in the corner. He reads the crowd and spices things up with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in among the usual piano classics.
The rain passes in an hour, leaving the city with a dull and dirty glow. We walk back toward our casa particular as life returns to the streets after the storm. J stops for a haircut at the local barbershop — a tradition he follows in every country we visit. He never knows how it’s going to turn out, but this shop owner in Havana does a better job than anyone in any other country. For 10 bucks.
We get to the casa particular and I’m sucked back into the allure of the balcony, and Havana in general. The afternoon turns to evening, I watch the world go by and I wonder why we waited so long to bypass the border and come to Cuba. As Americans, the story we often hear is that Cuba is barely getting by without us … unable to really prosper without the support of its biggest neighbor. Certainly, the Cuban people do face economic challenges but in the one day I’ve been in Havana I’ve seen happiness, warmth, gratitude, ingenuity and prosperity. It is far from destitute and the people here have pride, energy and determination.
The next two days take us even deeper into the heart of Havana. We hire a driver with a classic car to take us to the sights outside of La Habana Vieja. The Hotel Nacional sits along the malecón, overlooking the ocean. Our guide tells us it’s the first time in decades that the Cuban and American flags are able to hang side-by-side at the entrance, thanks to the diplomacy of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. Everyone we talk to about the recent political developments is happy the two nations are reconciling.
We stop at the Plaza de la Revolución — an enormous and featureless plot of pavement for important gatherings in Havana. Fidel Castro and Pope Francis have both spoken here. To the north, Che is memorialized in a steel line drawing on the side of the Ministry of Interior. The tower on the south side of the plaza is a memorial for José Martí, an intellectual who inspired Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s fascinating to me that this island nation of just 12 million people has been the source of such dramatic history over the past 150 years — colonial rule, independence, revolts, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. embargo, and the saga of Guantanamo Bay. Maybe it’s that the principle characters of Cuba’s biography have been such dramatic figures themselves and geography has unavoidably provided the stage.
Except for the book market, where these history lessons are lined up on the shelves, Havana has a peaceful demeanor that belies its tumultuous past. Business on the streets seems to be doing okay. People are selling what they can to make a living — fruit, coconuts, cleaning supplies, vintage books and magazines (National Geographic from 1923), and even vinegar and cooking oils in recycled bottles that have been sealed up with packing tape. Stores, on the other hand, lack any proof that basic household needs can be reliably purchased. Shelves are empty except for canned tomatoes, cooking oil, baby formula and rum. Lots of rum. Necessity has forced the invention of the thriving economy we see on the street.
We come across a group of guys playing a fierce game of dominoes around a nicely crafted table outside an apartment building. We watch and learn, welcomed with our curiosity. I turn to look down the street and a classic car is coming toward us. But the driver sees some friends on the sidewalk, so he just parks the car and everyone enjoys a quick catch-up on the side of the street. It is Sunday afternoon in Havana.
I can’t keep writing about Cuba if I don’t start writing about the music. The two go hand-in-hand. Never before have I been to a country where sound is such an integral part of the identity of a nation. In the handful of days we spend in Havana, we have the pleasure of hearing no less than nine groups performing on the streets and in the restaurants. Music is everywhere. It seems like everyone sings or plays an instrument, and we see a couple of the best musicians around town accompanying different bands at different times of the day.
When the maracas get shaking and the bongos start banging, the rhythm of Cuba comes alive and street corners come to a standstill as everyone gathers to enjoy the music. The musicians themselves can’t resist the call to move. Their feet, their hips, their wrists … everything moves with a little bit of flare and swirl that is uniquely Cuban. Happiness radiates. Music might be the one thing — the most enduring thing — that has carried the country through history and escaped the turmoil and economic hardship. No wonder it’s such a big part of life.
On our last night in Havana, J chooses one more classic car for a final spin around the city — a big, beautiful, burgundy, convertible Coronet. The only one in the entire country. As we take a look at the car, we get to know the family who owns it. The father is the driver and the son-in-law, who speaks perfect English, is the tour guide. Ingenuity meets opportunity.
We cast aside the tour map and tell the guys we just want to cruise around for an hour. The son-in-law replies, “Ooooh, you want to cruuuuuuuuze! I get it!”
We all pile into the car and dad starts the engine with a big smile. I think he’s just as excited as we are to go drive around. He pulls away from the rainbow of classic cars parked near the capitol building. We go slow. We cruuuuze. We drive 20 miles an hour as the sun sets beyond the malecón, and we couldn’t be happier seeing Havana one more time from The Coronet. It’s an experience we’ll never forget — an experience found only in Cuba.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely enraptured by a city but Havana has all the elements that make it happen — history, art, architecture, beauty, kind people, heart, heat, spirit and music … so much music. And the food? It’s okay. There is a lot of lobster so it could be worse. But let’s just say … the food is poised for its own revolution.
I’ll raise a mojito and toast to that, as I run out to the balcony one last time and say goodbye to Havana. I already can’t wait to come back.
Above: Fusión Caribe performing in Havana, Cuba
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