Havana is a city with a storied past. Built by rich, slave-owning Spaniards, marauded by French pirates, sacked by the British navy, and infested by the American mafia, Havana was once an opulent city, and its name still conjures up images of gambling, cabaret shows, convertibles on the Malecon, and Hemingway. Intense, huge, and sprawling, it is an iconic city, and one that defines the nation. Like all major cities, it is almost like a country unto itself, and at the same time it is also a microcosm of the country of which it is a part. If something can be found in Cuba, it can be found in Havana, and if something is happening in Cuba, it is happening in Havana.
To see Havana as a beautiful place, however, it is necessary to have quite a bit of imagination. The city itself is in an incredible state of decay, excluding the handful of areas where the government has invested in renovation, largely for the benefit of tourists and the money that they bring. Walk a parallel street even one block away from these select areas, and the effects of time, government mismanagement, and the blockade are immediately apparent. Throughout the city, you see weathered paint, crumbling facades, and buildings whose only tenants appear to be feral trees, the roof above them, an open sky. More than a few times while walking or standing somewhere, plaster suddenly fell on me from above, as if the building were saying “Watch out, I could collapse at any minute”.
Havana is a hot city, and shade is not easy to come by. Like many big cities, Havana was not designed with the idea of nature and civilization elegantly intertwined. It is a monument to human beings and the things that they can build. Consequently, it is a city of stone and concrete, and a city that heats up to an exhausting temperature as the sun beats down upon it. I have spent time in Mexico, Nicaragua, and now Cuba, and it always mystifies me as to why the Spaniards, coming from one hot country to another, would not think to incorporate shade trees into their urban planning. There was a time when awnings were strung between buildings to provide shade for the streets below, but that time seems to have passed. We saw this in only one or two places in Habana Vieja, and those only over the outdoor seating of restaurants catering to tourist and wealthy Cubans.
Another side effect of having so much concrete crammed so close together is that it reflects and amplifies, rather than absorbs sound. Noise is everywhere in Havana. Old diesel engines rattle and roar; horns are used liberally, often without perceivable reason; music, whether from a bar or a portable speaker, is always audible from at least a block away (there almost seems to be a city-wide regulation requiring this); and vendors of all manner of things shout their wares up and down the streets all day. It is hard to have a conversation with someone on the street, and at times it is even hard to hear yourself think. And while the concrete walls reflect the sound outside back onto itself, they also trap and amplify sounds originating inside, such that the downstairs neighbor’s stereo could just as well be your own.
The Cubans, however, manage to use the sound carrying properties of their city to their advantage. They seem to know just how to yell to get their voices to carry over everything, and they also seem to have the ability to selectively filter out sounds, and to hear things that, at least for me were impossibly lost in the noise. Two people yelling to each other from opposite sides of a busy street seem to hear each other perfectly well, while I struggled to make out even a few words of a person I was standing right next to. While we were staying at our second casa in Havana, our host’s young son, who was playing in the street half way down the block, started yelling up to her. She was on the second floor, sitting inside, talking on the phone, while music from downstairs reverberated throughout the whole building. Despite all that, they yelled back and fourth, seeming to understand each other just fine. I absolutely marveled at their ability to carry on the whole conversation, him without coming closer to the house, and her never leaving her chair.
Havana is also crowded. Like any major city, it provides a wider range of employment opportunities than other places, and people from all over the country move there hoping to make a better life for themselves. Queueing, or standing in line, whether for bread, for the bank, or for any number of goods or services, is a part of life in Cuba. But no where are the lines as long as they are in Havana. After the revolution, the government instituted a policy requiring anyone who wanted to move to Havana to submit an application and a comprehensive plan showing that they could support themselves if they were allowed to live there. The measure surely helped, and Havana doesn’t have nearly the population density of Mexico City or New York, but there are still a lot of people there.
Things are changing in Cuba, and no city showcases that as well as Havana. Kasia was there three years ago, and she explained many of the differences between what she saw then and now to me. The number of cars has increased dramatically, the pollution is worse, and the tourism apparatus is much more developed and much more invasive to ones enjoyment than it was in the past. Tourism has also begun to expand to neighborhoods that used to be dominated by local life. Consequently it has become considerably more expensive to stay in the city, and it has become more difficult to enjoy walks without being constantly approached with offers of places to stay, taxis, and cheap cigars or rum, as more Cubans take advantage of the potential revenue stream that increased tourism presents.
From all this it might sound like I didn’t enjoy my time in Havana, and to be honest, at first I didn’t like it much. Between the heat, the noise, the hassle, and the lack of shady places to sit outside, it was a tiring place to be. I had already seen in Santa Clara that this was not how all of Cuba is, and I was anxious to get to another place that wasn’t so crowded and busy. But the city did begin to grow on me, and while I was happy to get a break when it was time to move to our next location, I was also looking forward to coming back, refreshed and ready to explore new parts of it. I think to really enjoy Havana, you have to stay for a minimum of seven days. It’s just such a big, sprawling place, and it takes a while to get your bearings and really settle in. But once you do, there is a certain allure to Havana that really captures your imagination.
One of the most important aspects of enjoying your time in Havana is having a good place to stay. Our first casa was in the Los Sitios barrio, south of Chinatown. It’s a working class neighborhood, and home to a major cigar factory, the one and only reason most tourists ever find themselves there. Our hosts, Yanet and her husband, were incredibly hospitable, and we had several wonderful conversations with them during our few days there. They were both studying English at the university, and one evening their instructor stopped by for a visit. We spent nearly an hour sitting and talking with him, getting to know him and hearing stories about Cuba, the province of Pinar del Rio where he is from, and his travels in Ecuador. Another night, Yanet showed us pictures from the Isle de Juventude, a part of Cuba that we wouldn’t get a chance to visit.
Yanet also told us all about her experiences renting rooms to foreigners. She gave us some valuable information on how the casa system works, and also a clue as to how AirB&B, a US company, is able to operate in Cuba without running into problems with the Treasury Department and the rules around the blockade. Someone else had set up her AirB&B profile and was even managing it for her at one point, a story we would here many more times during our stay. She took it over when she discovered that he was routing guests away from her place to his casa to make more money. They also don’t receive payment directly from AirB&B. She didn’t know the details of how it worked, but she said once or twice a month, someone knocks on her door and hands her a envelope of cash from “The Agency” as AirB&B is known here.
During her last visit, Kasia stayed in Habana Centro. The neighborhood has a lot of old colonial era homes, and she wanted me to have the experience, at least for a few days, of staying in one of these places. The buildings are almost all two stories, with one family owning the ground floor and another owning the second floor. Most of the second floor flats have balconies where you can sit and leisurely watch the life of the street. It’s a great place to spend time in the morning while you enjoy your coffee, or in the evening while sipping rum, sinking into the pace of life here and observing how the Cubans interact and conduct business.
But finding a place in Centro turned out not to be so easy. Tourism in Havana had increased, and Habana Vieja had become too crowded, too expensive, and too polished for many visitors. Centro still maintains its gritty, unrepaired look, and the feel of a local neighborhood inhabited by normal Cubans. Being just outside of Habana Vieja, it was one of the first neighborhoods to experience increased interest from foreigners looking for a more affordable or more authentic experience. We spent almost four hours split between two days knocking on every door with a “For Rent” sign, and following touts to different flats. Hosts all said the same thing: $25 was the going rate, and we weren’t going to find anything cheaper. As the number of foreigners in Centro had increased, so had the prices. The search itself, however, was an adventure, allowing us to meet lots of people, and to get a glimpse into a number of Habanero homes.
One in particular was really interesting. It was an amazing example of Cuban ingenuity, and of all the things that happen behind the walls and doors in Cuba. A woman led us up the main stairs of her building into what should have been a flat, but was just an empty floor with a small apartment tucked away at the far end. On the other side of the room was a very narrow staircase leading up to a half-floor. The old houses in Havana were built with incredibly high ceilings, and after the revolution, it became common to split them in half horizontally, creating two rooms and effectively doubling the amount of floor space in a given flat.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing with two doors opposite each other. The woman opened the door on the left and ushered us inside. The apartment was small, and felt smaller still because of the dark paint and lack of windows. Instead of a terrace it had access to a shared roof space via a rickety ladder going straight up from the tiny kitchen to a flip-top door in the ceiling. As we stood talking to the woman inside the apartment, the door on the other side of the landing opened, revealing yet another small apartment. Inside a woman was cooking and listening to music. We began to wonder just how many people actually lived in this building. We passed on the apartment, but it was fascinating to see this side of Havana.
Back on the street, we continued to look. We finally found a woman willing to rent to us for $20 a night. It was more expensive than we had hoped to find, but we were only going to be there for two days before my parents arrived and we would be leaving Havana. It was exactly what we had hoped to find, with the classic high ceilings, columns, and a balcony overlooking an interesting and lively street. It was also just a few blocks away from the Malecon, and from a public Wi-Fi point, something that is not always easy to find in Cuba. Our host was also kind enough to organize a taxi to pick us up before going to the airport to get my parents, and then drive us to Viñales.
Saturday morning we were packed and having coffee on the terrace, prepared to leave for the airport. Cubans are know for their lack of punctuality, and many Cubans are quick to remind you of that fact lest you take it personally. Because of this, we had expected the cab driver to be there at least ten minutes late. We were quite surprised when he showed up twenty minutes early. We were even more surprised by the car. Our host had assured us it was a good car, but had told us nothing else about it. It turned out to be an early 50’s Chevy, aquamarine and white, and very well taken care of. We were relieved to say the least. There had been a series of mishaps and misunderstandings that led to us arranging transportation so late, which had left us a little concerned. But our host, with a three minute phone call was able to arrange a ride, with a classic car, for less than we would be able to negotiate for ourselves.
Cuba. You just never know.