Havana is a unique city, it defies logic, sensibility and all traditional customs. Its turbulent history has seen it occupied by many different countries. The Spanish were the first to import African slaves to work the plantations. Sugar soon became the new white gold and a few individuals grew very rich from its trade. Many years of instability, unrest and brutal corrupt political dictators followed, finally giving rise to a long bloody socialist revolution.
Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, the Cuba Revolution in the late 1950’s saw the Communist Party seize power and transform the country into an independent socialist state. Since then it has been both politically and economically isolated by most of the world. This resulted in harsh measures being introduced such as the rationing of basic goods and services such as food, electricity and fuel.
With a history like this you could easily forgive the Cubans for being somewhat downtrodden and austere. In stark contrast however, it has produced a wonderful eclectic riot of different races, ideas, cultures, architecture and music which will envelop all of your senses each day and cannot help but make you smile.
Walking down one of many small streets in the crumbling labyrinth that is Havana, I feel like an extra in a revolutionary war movie set sixty years ago. Any moment now Ché Guevara will come around the corner riding in the back of a big old American convertible, Cuban flag held high, complete with legendary defiant stare and raised clenched fist.
Instead however, I see his face printed on a t-shirt that a local vendor is now thrusting at me, asking, “You buy Mister?” ahh capitalism can certainly kill revolutionary romanticism.
Back in reality, I continue down the street trying to avoid disturbing the sleeping dogs, while dodging partially excavated trenches. Fruit vendors pass by shouting out to the three wheel bicycle taxis who are in turn loudly whistling at everyone to get out of their way. Through an open window with solid iron bars I hear school children calling out their times tables in sing song unison. Down the alley next door is a senior citizens hostel here an elderly Cuban man sits in the sun reading his newspaper. He is smoking the largest cigar I think I have ever seen and is partially hidden from the rest of world in a cloud of bluish smoke.
Across the street various parts and equipment spill out of a car repair shop, onto the footpath. A mechanic in his greasy overalls is arguing heatedly and passionately with his co-workers over today’s topic. It be could be sport, politics, religion or most likely all three. They pause briefly to ogle and wolf whistle a pretty young Cuban girl that has walked by. She looks back at them, slaps her own butt and then in an exaggeratedly gesture waves a finger back and forth with a cheeky grin. No words or translation are required. The mechanics roar with laughter and go back to their work and argument.
Further along is an immaculately dressed waiter in a burgundy suit complete with waistcoat and bow tie. Patiently he sets out the alfresco tables under shady umbrellas with freshly starched white linen tablecloths and shining silver cutlery. He is getting ready for the anticipated lunchtime rush of the hungry tourists and local patrons. It is already over 30 degrees with high humidity and no breeze and I am already sweating profusely with only shorts and a T-shirt on. He however hasn’t raised a sweat and is smiling, white teeth gleaming, humming a salsa tune as he works.
“Havana has the world largest vintage
car show every single day”
Down a side street comes an impossibly large 1950’s lipstick red and white two tone American Belair convertible. Its gleaming chrome trim, exaggerated large rear fins, and small circular red tail lights almost scream look at ME! In the back sit two overweight, well-dressed foreign tourists clutching their hats and laughing. They are attempting to take photos of the various sites as they pass by without success. Instead they are bouncing around like two excited toddlers on grandma’s 1950’s steel sprung lounge settee.
The convertible rumbles past me running roughly with only six of its eight cylinders working. It belches a cloud of blue smoke and is most likely consuming more oil per kilometre than gasoline. In stark contrast a Collective Taxi follows in the smoky wake of the Belair. This dull, banana yellow, Soviet made Lada is a squat and ugly looking car. With music blaring and gears crunching it’s crammed to overflowing with locals, shopping, children and live chickens in cages.
Another block on and in a disused space between two graffiti covered buildings, four local teenagers are playing stick ball. They are dressed in an odd assortment of mismatching western style knock off label clothes, caps and shoes. The equipment consists of a straight wooden stick about 4 foot long and a small white ball about the size of a golf ball. The batter’s position is marked by a solitary brick in the dirt behind him. He swings wildly and misses much to the delight of the other players who are now laughing and pointing at him. Dejected he hands the stick to the pitchers next victim and dutifully takes his position in the field, hoping it won’t be long until he can bat again.
I look up and across the street and a mature aged, dark skinned Cuban lady with slightly greying hair pulled back from her face is leaning on her second storey window sill. She is watching the game along with everything else that is happening on her street below. I smile and wave and call out “Hola” (Hello) and then point at my camera and back to her, asking and hoping it is okay for me to take her photograph, she gives me a big smile and the thumbs up.
At the end of the street is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. This imposing baroque style Basilica and Monastery has stood for centuries as a beacon of the church. You can only imagine what history these walls have seen and the stories they could tell. The two enormous wooden doors studded with iron rivets are open wide and in their shadow stand two bronze statues. A young petite Asian tourist has wandered up to the doorway and is peering into the darken interior of the Basilica trying to decide whether to go in or keep walking.
One of the statues turns slowly reaches out and touches her on the elbow. She jumps, squeals in fright and runs off down the street clutching her hat while looking back and trying to work out what has just happened. The living statue meanwhile has resumed his pose and is waiting patiently, like a spider in a web, for his next victim. I drop a couple of coins into his collection box, he does not move a muscle, forever the consummate performer. However, looking closer I see his eyes are smiling in silent thanks.
As we pass the Basilica entrance we unexpectedly hear a female voice, “Uno dos tres cheque” she states into a microphone checking the levels. There is a pause and then an orchestra begins to play and she starts to sing. In stark contrast to the salsa beats, rhythms and infectious lyrics of songs like Guantanamera which make up the daily Cuban soundtrack, she is a soprano, her voice is soaring and heavenly.
Intrigued we entered the Basilica and were informed by an older lady at a counter that they are doing a dress rehearsal for a concert later that night. We also discover for the outrageous price of $2 Cuban Pesos we can watch if we are interested. After paying we enter the Basilica, its massive stone columns and arches seem to draw your eyes upward to its beautifully restored brick vaulted ceiling high above. The former altar now has a simple statue of the crucifixion with a single large painting behind, this very different from the usual gaudy glittering grandeur of most churches. It is simple and yet somehow more profound and thought provoking.
We take a seat on plain wooden chairs which have now replaced the original church pews, they offer us little extra comfort unfortunately. The orchestra is on a simple raised stage at the altar and are being addressed by very passionate and somewhat stern female conductor. Spanish is already a very emotive language, but when combined with her exaggerated hand and arm gestures it adds drama and theatre to each song. For the next hour we had the pleasure of listening to three talented female sopranos as they ran through their songs for the concert that evening. We enjoyed it so much that we purchased tickets for the concert the same evening, something I strongly recommend you do whilst in Havana.