What first captivated me when I arrived in Havana were the balconies that cover the old colonial residential buildings. In Central Havana many of the buildings are very close to the sidewalk, so the ubiquitous wrought iron balconies were near enough for me to see the twisting details of the metal work. Used as extended living space, most of the balconies had potted plants, laundry hung to dry, and chairs for smoking and socializing. A little spot for fresh air.
Many of the balconies were separated only by the fan-shaped iron “Guardavecinos” used to divide the space between apartments. They separate the personal space, but are unobstructed enough to allow conversation and camaraderie between neighbors. I loved the way these railings looked, and the glimpse of real local life they provided. They kept me glancing up above the tourist filled sidewalks of Centro Habana. Now whenever I see this Spanish detail repeated in other cities I always think of Havana and the people I saw enjoying their home’s small outdoor space.
Everyone talks about the retro culture in Cuba – that “going back in time” feeling – and it really does have the atmosphere of being physically frozen in late 50’s at the time of the Revolution. The gorgeous vintage cars, the architectural mix of Spanish Colonialism and Art Nouveau, the throwback technology with its lack of WiFi and flat screens…and most startling, almost no advertisements. The only large billboards and murals I saw were government propaganda ads. No commercial brands advertising to consumers, just enthusiastic tributes to the heroes of the revolution and encouragements to be loyal to the communist cause.
The faded pastels and crumbling ornate buildings are lovely to photograph, but many are in need of urgent repair – not only for the preservation of the structures themselves but for the safety of the Cubans who live in and use these buildings daily. Even in their distressed state the streets are beautiful with a million interesting details to notice. The arched doorways leading to garden courtyards, paper holiday decorations in the cigar shop, a horse and cart waiting outside a church. Pretty scenes everywhere.
I love the fascinating cultural mix of Cuba – a country so notably communist, but still with beloved historic cathedrals and hints of magic and Santeria. And the amazing music everywhere -often played live. Music in the restaurants, in the stairwell, in the streets, at the book sale, blasting from the cars driving by. Guajira, Son, Rumba, Afro-beat. It was all around. Lately I’ve been listening to Omara Portuondo and Faustino Oramas to be transported back to those warm afternoons.
To say that Cuba is a complex country is an understatement. In my two visits to Havana I’ve spent time in not only Habana Vieja, but also in the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods. There is obvious hardship in daily life in Cuba, which naturally can result in some bitterness and wariness of “rich” tourists flaunting foreign currencies. But there is also abundant joy and the ability to appreciate the pleasures of life. So much laughing and dancing! Most of the Cubans I met seemed tremendously proud of their country, and at the same time were filled with enthusiasm and impatience for the inevitable modern changes on their way to Cuba. Its true that nothing beats the thrill of traveling to new places, but some locales linger with you and pull you back. Havana is one of those cities that I think of often and truly want to return to someday.