May 2015- The Habana Vieja (Old Havana) of the known to tour group is studded with scenic plazas, cathedrals, museums, gorgeous government and arts buildings and graceful hotels from the 50’s.
The regular tourist, bubble-wrapped in tour buses and government-run hotels, restaurants and bars. This rose-tinted-glasses version of Habana Vieja exists along the main Prado drag, from Obispo Street to Plaza de Catedral, includes Plaza Vieja, the Art Museum, Francisco de Asis Square and the charming Plaza de Armas with open-air stalls selling old books and records. Touristy to-dos include wildly popular Hemingway tours to the author’s favorite bars Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio and perhaps a venture to the cigar and rum “factories” downtown. But the tours are pretty transparent and cynical traps.
Those who experience only the touristy Havana totally miss out on the real pulse of the city. It’s just 20 minutes’ walk away! This is the Habana Vieja where Habaneros (the slang for locals) live and work, love and argue, joke and gossip, and queue for food rations and 5 cent rolls and coffee.
Tired of heaving tourist crowds? Head Muralla Street, just five streets south of Obispo, and later ventured farther southwest to Luz and Acosta and northwest along San Lazaro. And was rewarded with glimpses of daily life.
Brace yourself for overflowing garbage bins, litter, a few fetid puddles, broken sidewalks and potholed streets that add to the sense of poverty and decay. To be fair the government seems to be slowly gazetting and sealing off the most dangerous of the derelict houses in Habana Vieja for renovation while replacing the ancient sewage system along some main streets. The two-story semi-detached homes run the gamut from shabby to hazardous.
But what great photos you’ll get of a fading era! See locals, live, work, eat, socialize and shop against a colorful backdrop. If this district was a woman, it would be Bette Davis in her later years. Time-ravaged yet glamorous, feisty and loud. Dipalidated baroque houses sporting peeling paint and rotting wooden shutters – some have fallen-in roofs – stand as testaments to a romantic, turbulent and tragic past.
Streamers of laundry are strung above every balcony, like the banners of a defeated army. One deserted building inexplicably had a lonely piece of paper with “SHALOM” scrawled by a shaky hand, taped onto its Spanish doors.
The lovely but worn and deserted Central Train Station is located here, another reminder of the failed state, as only three people boarded the waiting train.
Ironies abound as I wander inside the empty building – the soaring structure has upper floors but peering at the doors running along its corridors, it’s obvious they are fake. A part of the building is downright hazardous, with timber cross-braces holding up a disintegrating ceiling.
Captivated, I returned to the streets at different times of the day over the week. At 7:30 am, dreamy women in white Santería gowns drift past chattering teenagers headed to school in snowy white shirts and khaki colored bottoms.
The Calle Egido Market (at the junction of clue Egido and Acosta y Luz) buzzies with shoppers and vendors selling fruit, vegetables and pork. It was Mother’s Day – flower stalls were besieged. Three wheeled bici-taxis being fixed on the street corners amid a flurry of hammering and jury-rigging. At every street corner, Habaneros are chatting, laughing or bickering.
Some gathered at the dusty pavement while shouting up to friends in balconies in vertically-oriented conversations. A girlfriend, madly clicking away on her iPhone exclaimed, “It’s impossible to take a bad photo!”
The buzz of morning activity fills the streets – people waiting for buses and bicitaxis, lined up at bodegas (ration stores for locals, stocked with only beans, rice and infant milk) or hole-in-the-wall cafes (that charge the local CUP currency equivalent of 20 US cents for a great espresso and a bun).
Buying breakfast rolls early in the morning before they run out
Children run errands for their busy mothers, picking up bags of rolls at Panaderías (bakeries) which quickly run out of fresh buns as sandwiches are the most popular and convenient street food here.
Everywhere, groups of men and women stand around chatting, so unlike the flow of humanity rushing to get somewhere in other big cities of the world.
By noontime I see Habaneros lined up at – literally – hole in wall cafes to get their lunch of beans and rice with a side of watery ropa vieja beef set for 40 CUPs, about 2 USD. The Panaderías (bakeries) that were buzzing in the morning as people rushed to get their favorite buns and sandwich breads – were closed and shuttered.A stand-at-the-counter cafetería with local specialities beefsteak and rice, ropa vieja, pork chops and fried snacks
The carnicería (meat store) was almost out of supply of pale, fatty minced pork and anemic looking sausages while the bodega (convenience store distributing government rations) with its limp sacks of beans, rice and salt looks deserted until I spot the shopkeeper snoozing behind a pillar.
Meanwhile the several Santería witchcraft stores are doing brisk trade. They seem to be one of the few thriving commercial ventures in Cuba, selling paintings of an eye and tongue stabbed through with a dagger, bead necklaces, cotton clothing, odd-shaped drums and puzzling collections of three-feet tall plaster icons including brightly tinted Red Indian chieftains (as in the un-politically correct pre-American Indian depictions), dark and light-skinned saints and Thai elephants.
You’d hope to find Hollywood style voodoo priestesses lurking here. Instead two overweight women in denim shorts and a few young men in buzz cuts bought incense, beads and fragrant wood bark, after a long and earnest consultation with the owner.
A friendly family attempted to explain the religion. I caught only a gist of “Mother Saint of the Mountains?” thanks to my nonexistent Spanish, but Santería seems for the most part benign and holistic despite tour guide Yuneisi’s scary tales of blood sacrifice.
Long may she watch over the lovely people of Havana – May 2015