Sarah Stewart gets to know the heart of Cuba’s capital… Some cities seduce you from the outset. Havana wasn’t one of them. Which was unfortunate for my boyfriend and I, as it was to be our home for two weeks while we studied Spanish at a language school. In our new neighbourhood, Habana Centro, there was no sign of the beautiful colonial mansions, the lively salsa bands, or the waiters serving mojitos in bars once frequented by Hemingway that is the stuff of tourist brochures. Instead we found ourselves dodging dog crap in dimly lit streets where formerly grand homes were now badly decaying.
But soon I began to see a different side. Centro pulses with life 24 hours a day; locals cluster around domino tables on street corners as players slap tiles down triumphantly, vendors loudly hawk their wares, neighbours yell the latest gossip across balconies, people dance in their living rooms. This is the real, unsanitised Havana: noisy, chaotic, and constantly entertaining. There was no better place to watch it all unfold than with a Cuba Libre on the balcony of our casa particular.
I watched two girls in tiny denim shorts and tight singlet tops strut past on their way out to dance salsa. A weary vegetable seller pushed a low wooden cart, crying “Ajillos, naranjas, malanga”, as if he never wanted to see another orange in his life. An elderly woman in a revealing white nightie, her hair in rollers, stood on the balcony next door and called her grandson (who was nowhere to be seen) for dinner.
The noise was constant. It seemed doorbells were only there for decoration; locals just stand on the street and yell for people until they get a response. Usually no-one emerges but a rope with a door key on the end, or a bucket of food attached is lowered down from above. It seemed to us there was a real sense of community.
Our viewpoint gave a good insight into how hard daily life is for many Cubans. Below us, people queued for bread at the bakery, ration books in hand as if in wartime. It’s been that way since the early ‘90’s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union meant Cuba lost its trading partners, and a “Special Period” of near starvation for many people began. Today, rice, sugar, oil, beans, bread and salt are still sold on government rations. The monthly allowance lasts most families 8-10 days. Havana’s housing crisis was also obvious. The apartment opposite had been split in four, vertically and horizontally. An old man appeared to be floating through the glass window at the top of the high front door, but was merely standing on the extra floor which had been added. People came and went constantly: a young couple with a baby, a teenager on roller blades, an old man and a dog, all often headed for the Malecon, the nearby seaside boulevard, to escape the cramped conditions.
Their infrastructure may be in decay, but Cubans are house proud, and inside most homes were spotless. Every morning across Centro women brusquely brushed the marble floors of their crumbling homes with gallons of water that poured into the street.
There are many kinds of transport, none of them modern. Three-wheeled bici-taxis cruise up and down the street, some fitted with stereos blaring Eurotrash techno. Opposite us, a grease-covered man, his stomach escaping from brown overalls, had given up trying to repair his brown Ford set on blocks. And in a Flintstones-esque moment, half a dozen whooping kids peddled a small jeep made from the frame of a bici-taxi.
The tourist brochure Havana does exist, in restored Habana Vieja, but to us it didn’t feel real. There, Caribbean women in bright headgear turn themselves into caricatures with enormous cigars drooping from their lips, charging for photos. Persistent touts try to persuade you into their restaurant. Tour groups throng the cobbled plazas, snapping photos like their lives depend on them.
Centro came without the infrastructure or amenities, but it also came without the hassle – and in time we were treated like part of the neighbourhood, greeted by vegetable sellers reclining on our doorstep or bici-taxi drivers who knew we walked everywhere. We were staying in a casa particular run by Julio, a paediatrician, and his wife Elsa. It must be the only country in the world where a Professor of Paediatrics has to open his home to tourists to stay afloat. (As a doctor Julio earns roughly the same wage as anyone else in Cuba – about US$25 a month.) They have two casas, and we stayed at the home of Elsa’s parents: an oasis of high ceilings and garden patios, its walls covered in Cuban art. Gruff old granddad often joined us on the balcony, and we’d watch the world go by in comfortable silence.
Julio says he wouldn’t live anywhere else. “It’s a poor area, it’s not very well conserved, it’s messy… but I like it,” he told me. “Some days I feel like I’m living in a reality show. Neighbours are always stopping to gossip. Just today someone told me how a husband of someone they know has run off with another woman. It’s full of life. You never get bored.” We didn’t either. Sarah Stewart