Every time I visit Cuba, how light the island is, and the good humor of the locals never fails to surprise and please me. As I speak Spanish, I have the advantage of being able to catch the little turns of phrase and jokes.
From the time I started to get interested in photography, years ago, imagines of Cuba in the ‘20’s have always fascinated me: the American cars, the elegant people, the palaces, the dance halls, and the musicians. Especially the musicians.
Havana, like many other sites in Cuba, offers the privilege of feeling as if you were in a time tunnel, whisked backward 80 years with hardly any effort at all. Cubans, if you can find them smiling, which isn’t hard, are easy to photograph. They let you work, and in fact, collaborate.
Their body language is a part of their genetic imprint: from childhood music and body movement is second nature to them. And this is not cliché! There is something musical and constant in every Cuban person.
From the pink and powder blue Chevy Impala, top down, music reaches me, full volume, among the café terraces in the Central Square where I like to sit early in the morning to have a coffee and watch the tourists.
It is a nice realization that I can get around Old town Havana comfortably, from the cathedral to Tejadillo y Cuba Avenue, the ground is familiar. And if for nothing else, these old streets make it worth the while to visit the neighborhood. San Lázaro, that destroyed avenue, if full of extraordinary ambiance. I walk along, greeting a nice, smiling high school teacher that always tells me a joke, then a barber, and a butcher.
Old Town Havana
I like Oldtown Havana because it represents what my imagination dreams Cuba to be: like a déjà vu though I have never lived it, a jump back in time that I never had the occasion to know, and have only seen through old movies.
I see the scales butchers use to weigh meat, exactly as they were in those movies from the 20’s, and the butcheries to go along with them, the type that no longer exist in modern cities. The offices I pass by have posters with 30’s art.
The residents of south part of the neighborhood are always available for conversation. There are few things that they love better than a pleasant chat. A few laughs, maybe, and then if it’s possible, a glass of rum. Oh, and the music.
Chatting To The People Of Havana
Whenever I can I go talk to some friends who are cobblers on O’Relly street. I am struck by the name and I will have to ask about the origin, someday. But these cobblers all work together in the same shop which looks like something from an Italian city in a Godfather movie. Everywhere there are shouts, music, and laughter.
Sometimes, in order to get ready for a visit, I head to a nearby market to buy a bottle of rum and a few bottles of Coke. If it’s lunchtime I’ll get a few sandwiches too and invite them to share, trying to be on the same wavelength of open friendship. On one occasion they gifted me with a poster of Ché Guevara that they had hung on the wall. I thanked them profusely; they had given me a gift from what little they had on hand just to show friendship.
When I go to the cobbler, we drink rum, we talk about trips. They like to hear me tell stories about far off countries they’ve never been to, and to tell me in kind about trips around Havana. They take me around other territories, and every day suggest new things about Cuban society I could see: the illegal lottery, the famous “pincho USB” which has all of the illegal tv recordings stored on it (illegal only in the sense that they are not official and are thus unsanctioned).
This electronic drive is an authentic collection of television programs and is distributed under the table in a quasi legal manner. The police know about it, but it’s all a bit of a gray zone. There are a lot of those in Cuba.
I ask them about the new political regime, and what they think of what is happening. They have no idea, they tell me, and end up asking me what I think of the situation.
Other times, I go to San Ignacio Street, where one can find the most impressive spiral staircase I have ever seen in my life. It maintains an apparent equilibrium, though unstable, and weathering stoically each step of the many passing feet. A few planks support the enormous curve that reaches all of the way to the entrance. The structure is as dilapidated as its inhabitants. But I love to visit them, chat a while, take some photos of anything that peaks my interest. They, patiently, let me work. They do it for my sake, and I am grateful.
Close, maybe two blocks away, is my barber. There isn’t much to cut, since I’m bald, and the little hair I have I always do the same with. But I like to go just to chat. He pretends to cut my hair, and I play along and believe it. It’s my way of collaborating and taking part in the industry of Havana. Certainly, I need to remember to take a few razors the next time I go there!
This barber collects photos of his clients and any tourists that he services. Already, it’s a pretty interesting and wide collection.
It is curious because while San Ignacio street is practically in ruins, just like a much of the zone, the lower parallel street is a completely restored, new zone. It’s a genuine wonder; the shops are elegant, they have smart design. On the right are plazas much too elegant for the area, and to the left, the Plaza de Armas: beautiful and right on the port.
I keep going until I reach Rafael Trejo gym, where the best boxers train, and I once again meet up with the coach who was, in his hey day an international star himself. Fight to survive! – he tells me, highlighting his tagline.
When there is time, between training sessions, he tells me about stories about traveling to Yemen and other places that were in his day close to the Cuban regime.
And then in Neptune Street, I reach a taxi stop. There is an ice cream shop, the Copelia, and, well. I could keep on telling you the story. There are plenty of things I love about Cuba, and so many more stories I could tell about Havana. Every time I go back, I find a few more.