Havana Lost?

I know that memories fade in time and lead to uncertain images, glimpses of the past separated from their experience – which is why I will return to Havana to top up from time to time. I also know I have a writers heart if not sensibility, and without a doubt my biggest regret is not bringing the electronic means to reflect on the experience daily – describing more often the contradictions in feelings and thoughts that is Havana as an outsider; a Havana lost in juxtaposition in the end, indifferent to my presence through time and needing to find itself once more in history. This is where I will start: slowly fading memories displaced and disordered.

First Impressions…

A dog lies lazily on the broken sidewalk and we step around its dreams. Here and there the path falls away completely and we are unable to tell if it is from poor construction, having built upon itself over time, or the mass of unruly tree roots near the side of Avenda (Avenue) de los Presidentes. From our hotel with that name we’re just walking – Lynda wants to see the Colon cemetery, and we are heading South through Vedado, or Central Havana . It’s our first full day and the temperature has risen to the low 80’s.

During the night we arrived via the Malecon and witnessed first hand what we had only seen in guides of the decomposing buildings left from an earlier time in the 20th century when mob intentions were to create a gambling centre of sin and at the same time iconic benevolence – moving on to Las Vegas and Atlantic City when La Revolucion took charge. The tired fronts beheld crumbling interiors in places and scaffolding held up disused porticoes, their facades peering lonely out to sea.

By the time our first morning walk took us past the Placio De La Revolucion and brought us to the Colon cemetery, we had begun the physical acclimation of the different worlds. Diesel-spewing half-century-old trucks rumbled past even more decrepit 1950’s American motor cars, many passing off as taxis, and these in turn overtook the myriad of pedal-powered carts or small cc motorbikes and mopeds: frequently a modern Asian tour bus streamed past and the honking of horns came from all sides. Now and then a horse-drawn tourist carriage fought its way through traffic and the more we came upon sights the ever present pedal taxi slowed down to sell us a ride as though we were labouring in the blue haze, had sore feet, or more likely only the obvious: tourists!


I am used to people asking for a handout on the streets back home – normally you see them coming though. You can look the other way, or say no quietly and directly and it’s over. Even Europe with the gangs of panhandlers and petty criminals you begin to distinguish them with subtle and not so subtle cues. The Colon cemetery reflected hot sun the off the the white marble clad graves standing two to three feet above ground. Elaborate and ornate tombs as much as 15 or 20 feet high dotted the grounds along the way to the church, elbowing for position among less impressive neighbours further away from the road. Here and there we stopped to take in an architectural oddity, or attempted to unravel the symbolism of a monument to the dead. Workers seemed to cast off the heat and labour on restoration projects – moving marble panels back into place around worn graves or buffing the surfaces of tombs along the path.

This is where Juan stepped out from behind a tomb we had stopped at. With his blue overalls half tied around his waist, his t-shirt exposed and carrying a broom, he blocked our narrow path and we had to confront him. Hola, the usual greetings exchanged, he invited us in very broken English to follow him into a large tomb open to the sky in which he showed us some of the facing panels to graves that had fallen off and you could see dusty yellow bones inside. From there he beckoned us across the road to the tomb of “La Milagrosa” where he showed us the ritual performed to give blessings to babies – from what I could tell. Then, it was on to the church itself and he encouraged us to take pictures. Time had already passed where I new what was happening but it was a train running away. Lynda and I were giving each other glances and shrugs, communicating secretly for a way out and I was hurriedly searching in my pockets for the shape and feel of small change, trying out of sight to separate cash into smaller amounts. I understood not through words but through a combination of gestures and body language that as we stepped through the other side of the church money was needed. Lynda moved away as I `negotiated`a price. When I heard the “tres ninos” after I displayed a meager two dollars, I felt like a dupe and handed over what I imagined was as much money as he made in a day – a five dollar (Cuban) bill.

Half an hour later we were seated at a cafeteria – a kind of fast food sandwich shop that doubled as a bar with tables out front where both Cubans and the occasional tourists mingled. Glad for the shade and a cool dink of national orange soda `Noranga’ we were approached by a retired couple who had lots of questions in reasonable English about where we were from, and we started a conversation about our trip and traded information about our lives willingly. Finally, here were normal Cubans going about their daily routines with enough openness and desire to engage foreigners. That was until they told us about their `job.`To make an extra living they sold bootleg cd`s of authentic Cuban folk music – and some DVD movie copies as well – and quickly moved to close the sale: five dollars for the movie which they highly recommended, or two music cd`s for five.

Day one and we had already been fleeced out of 10 dollars within an hour! It is a matter of international shame and outrage: From the bathroom minders who hold the toilet paper out for you, to the resort cooks who have a small basket in front of their taco grill – always displaying a dollar or two in case you didn’t know that all-inclusive does not mean without a tip. My favourite was a later trip through Old Havana, Habana Viejo. Lynda and I were seated at a patio table enjoying cafe con leches and out of the corner of my eye I saw a young woman intently drawing with a pen. Minutes later she put a small letter-sized caricature down on the table in front of me and asked for 10 Cuban dollars. I told her I would give her 5 dollars if she answered one question…Why is it every where I go in Cuba someone is trying to get money out of me? And she answered, “ Because it is all we can do,” in a tone that was both an answer and a plea.

Maxims on tourism…

Any thinking person can imagine negative impacts of tourism and a quick scan of the literature exposes three main themes, geographic, cultural and social, and economic, which are measured by what amounts to the extent of change in the environment. Demography and origins of populations in Cuba are varied with only a small percentage claiming to be indigenous. Most are colonialists. As one population established itself historically, another would take it’s place in dominance within a century or so with politics and economics closely related in what appears from the outside as a free for all. Even the national dance of danzon was brought to the island from Europe by professional musicians from the port city of Matanzas which directly lead to the cha-cha and salsa alike. And more adept tour guides will extol the economic influences of exporting health care professionals and technology as well as natural resources ahead of tourism in the economy.

I have been uncomfortable with the thought that there is apparently so much deprivation and poverty in Havana and that in some way tourism is taking advantage of the people of the country.. For one, socially – as I have witnessed – many are forced to extort money from tourists within the illegal underground economies whether it be bootleg cd’s or unauthorized cigars of suspicious origin. The fact that there are very well practiced mechanisms of fleecing besides merely asking for a handout – although that is also present – shows the extent of the problem. It has grown to be structural within the economy. While I didn’t experience it directly, once or twice I had the feeling prostitution was present. Even though authorized channels tell you that crime against tourists is rare, the buyer beware credo is set at a high standard in the city.

I cant help but leave Havana with the knowledge that it is far from a bucolic setting as it is seemingly in constant movement, or perhaps in flux between disintegration and progress…always on the go like the traffic – under whatever means is available, be it horse drawn cart, moped, or tour bus.

Last thoughts, Viejo under a blue sky…

The hot sun bounces off stucco of walls painted yellow to birds-egg blue. Cats and dogs meander across cobble stone streets in the old city – knowing their way instinctively. From open doors at street level vendors sell the same t-shirts, hats, and novelties to tourists. Colourful peddlers and hawkers – as colourful as their homes with irregular angles and failing facades – elicit responses from passing tourists. Everywhere, smells of cooking: from restaurants to doors leading to courtyards and dark, hidden living rooms out of the way of the afternoon heat.

There’ is music as well around every corner on the narrow roadways. Lots of music. We come across a plaza again and sit for a while. The service isn’t quick anyway. As the light begins to fade a young adult carrying an instrument walks towards a seemingly closed bank across the square. One more carries what I recognize is a trumpet case, then another after another until at last a small truck tries to negotiate street construction and has to stop so the occupants can carry a harp across the way. I feel something is happening and we get up to follow minutes behind. At the bank building under the shade of a the colonnade, there sits atop a stage a small orchestra tuning up. They strike out with something that explores contemporary rhythms and keyboard lead with traditional orchestration. There is no cha-cha here. It’s a tight group – well rehearsed – with an average age of 20 I guess. At the end of their first number a resounding applause goes up from the crowd that has gathered beneath the deep blue sky in the last breaths of sunlight. I’m overwhelmed with emotion and tears well up. It’s one more perfect moment I will experience over the course of several days.

Thank you Havana. See you soon.