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havana from the inside out copyright A. Richter

A Week in Havana: Captured by Cuba's Crumbling Capital

By Alexandria Richter

Sunset-or-Sunrise-Over-Havana © A. Richter

Sunset Over Havana © A. Richter

Where the intended “b,” as in Habana, became a “v,” is a mystery to me – like so much of Cuba. How a communist, 99% government-owned country has a burgeoning capitalist tourist industry, for example. And how the Castro dynasty retains its power after fifty-three years of embargo, failed promises and a dying revolution. The economy is in tatters and the Cubans poor, but the salsa beats still ring out in the city squares, the mint in mojitos is still mushed with emphasis, the sun still sets spectacularly over the Caribbean, and Havana is still glorious in her slow, steady decay.

Havana crumbles into herself like a dying monarch. Her palaces, once queenly, are eroding brick by brick, cornice by cornice, and are imploding in on themselves, leaving gaping holes along the city streets. Floor-to- ceiling windows, without glass, peer into the streets like gouged eyes. Cubans stare; they have no shame in soliciting your money or whistling at your genetic assets, calling “linda, linda” from across the street. They are also incredibly friendly, with or without an agenda. They are spirited and notorious survivors.

This is the port town of Havana: mystery, monster, monarch, madwoman. Hundreds of different colours, the ease of a colonial, light-tongued Spanish, and Cubans congregating in the streets, moving to their own Caribbean rhythm rather than to the squeal of the North American rat race. Is it the communism? Ambition seems to have withered like the buildings around it. Why work when there is nothing to work towards? What is left besides playing in the street, creating music and children dancing alongside mangy mutts, or falling in lust and love? Life is spectacular here. So is the art.

Sunset-or-Sunrise-Over-Havana © A. Richter

Side Street Havana © A. Richter

Impressions: Sunset on the Malecón, a concrete bay where high-rise towers are neither blights nor monuments. “Modern” is a word to use sparsely here. The city is caught in time, as if its builders deserted her and left her to crumble, their ghosts haunting our footsteps. I do not know what to make of the locals, who approach not looking for sex but for money, mostly. They stare at each other. I stare, too, but into the windows. TV sets crackle. There are no advertisements or commercial breaks. On the streets, billboards are dedicated to propaganda, not advertising. Old ladies gossip. Havana is pastel buildings, peeling paint, and pimped out Pontiacs.

Monday is the Cuban Cigar Festival dinner in Havana. Sticky-skinned old men in suits stand outside the Gran Teatro, smoking their Havanas in the heat. I ask one of them about the event; he informs me of the festival, amused by my ignorance. His friend tells me Castro is coming. Castro the invalid, dying for years, his power entrusted to his younger brother, Raul. Where did Marxism become dictatorship? Did communism die with Ché?

Plaza del Catedral. Street fare for 1.50 CUC. A piazza that could be Italian. Of course, it centres around a church. The buildings are part of the landscape; windows are thrown open, the world let in, everything visible. I feel as if I am trespassing. I am never quite sure where I am allowed in Cuba. It is technically illegal for Cubans to speak to me. Am I allowed in the supermarket? A clothing store? This bar? Does my whiteness, currency and language permit me to enter these places?

A young boy plays with a rusted frying pan, smacking a ball back and forth against a wall, or a friend. Ingenious. Safety concerns aside, his creativity makes me smile. Of course a frying pan can be as entertaining as any Fisher Price contraption.

In the casa particolare, we chase a cockroach around the perimeter of the room until finally smashing it with a shoe. I render the blow after two attempts to move bags that sent the insect scuttling from the darkness under the bureau, the nightstand, the bed. Crafty little creatures. No wonder they can survive nuclear winter. They seem to live off feces and rotten air.

The bed's mattress is memory foam. I sink, silently, into a cavern of soft. My travel companion curls up in sheets she has dubbed Pepto-Bismol coloured. Aside from the darkness of the wood furniture, the room is pink and coral themed. I am reminded of Disney, or excess. The entire night has felt like a Paramount Picture. We think in brand names.

My fingers are by now covered in ink. My pen had exploded earlier in the plane that brought me here. I abandoned it in the front seat pocket. My other one is lost. I came with three, and there is one left. I wonder if pens are hard to come by in Cuba? Internet certainly is. I haven't seen a single computer. I am so relieved to escape, at least for a week, the half-life I live online…

 

Alexandria is a chronic victim of the travel itch. She currently lives in Montreal, but she has lived and travelled to quite a few places before deciding on this postal code. Born in California, her addiction to travel has taken her a-wandering across the fifty United States, into Canada to rediscover her Canadian heritage, overseas to Italy to discover her Italian one, and down to the Cuba that was forbidden to her in childhood and adolescence.