The thunderclouds hung low for hours over Havana, Cuba before Louise and I decided enough was enough—if the rain was playing a game of chicken with us then we planned to spend the afternoon exploring the city instead of hiding indoors in anticipation of the thick sheets of rain that had, for six long and cold days, followed us around the island like a lost puppy.
We bundled ourselves tight into our rain jackets, twisted our cameras safely into zip-lock baggies, and set out on foot to walk Old Downtown Havana (la Habana Vieja) and Cuba’s famous Malecón. The Malecón being a place that has always elicited evocative images seared into my memory from Hollywood films—a woman decked out in heels and a full, knee-length, low-cut dress, sexy and full red lips, bright colors, and a man standing at her side as she gracefully perches on the waist-high guardrail. Those images were so tangible in my mind there was little hope anything could live up to Hollywood’s spin, so I left our casa particulare with freeing those assumptions and open minded about what the city would allow us to uncover in a single day of exploration.
You see, I have a mixed relationship with Cuba; I went last year with little besides clichéd film images, decent Spanish, and a spotty understanding of political history and I left Cuba under-whelmed by the big picture, less than enthusiastic about this Caribbean “playground” for the non-Americans, but, on the other hand, alternately intrigued by the Cubans and fascinated by the culture I could view from afar.
Armed with nothing more than a general walking direction, my friend and I meandered our way toward Old Havana, a beautifully restored UNESCO World Heritage site. Our 20 minute walk took us through the Cuban neighborhoods and street shops, we walked to see and observe, without any clear knowledge of when we would arrive. How naive; I knew the instant I entered “Old Havana.” The streets shifted from graffitied walls, piles of trash, and crumbling buildings to hand-sculpted 1950s architecture artfully holding together the restored downtown. Old Havana’s shabbiness was an aesthetic choice built by-design, rather than an accurate reflection of the poor maintenance infrastructure seen throughout the rest of the city (and the rest of Cuba for that matter).
The streets Old Havana echo with history; the tall buildings shade out the weak sunlight as we enter small stores, peruse the afro-cubano artwork wedged into tiny nooks, discover tiny shops so small your peripheral vision and a sixth sense are all that alert you to these nearly-hidden nuggets of locally-made tourist paraphernalia.
Sunshine peeped out from the clouds and I wasn’t the only tourist catching site of a beautifully restored car from the 1950s and sizing up the best photo angle and opportunity.
The streets of Old Havana are a maze of history and I found myself lost in musings as we walked; Havana pulsed with a different energy than any city I had ever visited before. There was a flavor to the city, a spice just under the surface I could sense but not fully identify.
And then I stepped out from the shadow of the buildings and onto Havana’s El Malecón, a long esplanade curving alongside the water, artfully shaping Havana’s skyline into a curvy, smooth ribbon of colors and shapes.
There were distinctly Cuban elements to the Malecón, but sitting alongside that I thought: I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this exact moment–experienced the askew smiles from school children running home before the rains. I’ve already once before chosen to overlook the complete and purposeful slights from the giggling gaggle of teenage girls daring the weather and parading around in their scanty swimsuits, their sunbathing pursuit far more important than acknowledging a camera-laden tourist .
I observed the elderly couple holding hands while looking wistfully toward the coast of Key West, Florida a mere 90 miles north, a coastline currently obscured by the stormy weather but often visible on a clear day from the Malecón. The USA, my home, and a country so close in proximity but miles away in terms of nearly every other aspect of life: politics, culture, language, food—all of these differences were painted in clear delineations with every footstep I took along the sidewalk.
Internal musings took a break when I was confronted with the distinctly odd sense of humor of the Cuban man sedately collecting bits of garbage from the sidewalks; why do you reckon the garbage collector chose to deck out his wheeled garbage cans with plastic dolls smoking cigarettes and holding machine-gun lollipops? This is one of those questions I wished I had asked, a story I wish I knew. Instead I have an odd photo, a moment captured in time but no explanation.
The Malecón was subdued; perhaps the storms contained the masses. Cuba is the most populated island in the Caribbean, with just over 11 million people calling the country home, and yet, on a cold and rainy February day we found pure tranquility and solitude on Havana’s Malecón.
Over and over again I find myself murmuring “well, gee, this looks a lot like insert city name here .” And that’s how I felt about El Malecón in Cuba; the similarities echo to esplanades and wide waterside-walking-paths the world over. Cuba’s Malecón was one of those moments; globally connected in it’s very nature: people the world over are called to a waterfront, called to the calming presence of a cool breeze, a far-reaching ocean ending in a new place, and the tranquil beauty of a wide open space. But yet there was a glimmer of newness, Cuba’s Old City and the Malecón were inherently different because of the people populating the pathways, the unique smiles and stories on each face I passed.
Heading to Cuba?
Check out A Little Adrift’s guide to responsible travel in Cuba.